After two friendlies wins, optimism is building about England’s chances at the World Cup, but when the squad travels to Russia next week the inescapable truth is they will still be without their best player and greatest potential match winner: Wilfried Zaha.
The Crystal Palace winger should be part of the England camp, but instead he is currently on holiday in Spain, posting pictures of himself sitting on the edge of a swimming pool.
— Wilfried Zaha (@wilfriedzaha) June 1, 2018
Germany might be good enough to omit Leroy Sane; France might be so overladen with talent they can afford to leave out Anthony Martial, but this is England, and Wilfried Zaha could have been the most potent attacking threat in Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad.
Zaha’s absence is an act of utter madness and completely inexplicable for a nation with such a paucity of available talent to choose from.
Of course, the decision not to take Zaha to this World Cup was taken eighteen months ago in January 2017, when the England manager Gareth Southgate stood by and watched him accept an offer to play for the country of his birth, the Ivory Coast.
By the start of last year Zaha had grown tired of being overlooked by England for the previous three years, and so understandably opted for a country who showed him the love he craved.
“It was just like I was rejected from England, I didn’t get picked or even a look in for 4 years…No one even thought about me at all,” Zaha said as recently as last week.
At the time England’s inaction defied reason, and as Zaha has since developed in to one of the Premier League’s most exciting players, it looks even worse now.
In the England squad travelling to Russia, only Raheem Sterling could rival Zaha’s potential impact or his ability to beat players and create chances.
Having enjoyed the best season of his career, Zaha would have flourished at the World Cup. Last season he secured his biggest haul of nine Premier League goals, single-handedly keeping Crystal Palace in the top flight with a succession of thrilling displays.
Palace are now bracing themselves for a bid from Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City or Chelsea this summer, but hope to ward them off with a valuation of around £70 million.
The frustration for England is Zaha was already theirs and was allowed to slip away.
He had made his England debut in a friendly against Sweden in Stockholm as long ago as September 2012, when he was still playing in the Championship.
England players from outside the Premier League need to be special, and Zaha certainly was. Aged only 20, he was a raw mixture of pace and trickery destined for a long and rich career.
He came on for six minutes as a substitute against Sweden, and then against Scotland at Wembley in August 2013 for 15 minutes, but because both games were friendlies, he still retained the ability to play for another country. The deal had not been sealed.
It now seems negligent of the Football Association not to throw him on for two minutes at the end of a competitive game to claim him for England. If they had, he would now be headed to Russia.
By January 2013 Sir Alex Ferguson had become alerted to Zaha’s talent, and signed him for £12 million before loaning him back to Palace for the rest of the season, where he helped them win promotion to the Premier League with victory in the Play-Off final.
The Manchester United manager had met Zaha, and with his pace, balance and skill, told him he saw something of a young Cristiano Ronaldo in him, and could help him develop him in to a world-class talent just as he had with the Portuguese legend.
But Zaha would be Ferguson’s final ever signing in his 26-year reign at United, and when the player reported for duty at Old Trafford in the summer of 2013 he was under the charge of David Moyes.
For all Moyes’ many mistakes at Old Trafford, possibly none was greater than completely ignoring this immense talent he had inherited from his successor.
It is often held against Zaha that he failed to make it at Manchester United, but that is a patently hollow claim.
He was never given anything resembling a chance by Moyes. Zaha never started a game in the Premier League for United, and only played a grand total of 29 minutes in the league.
Overall, he played just 167 minutes for United, mainly in the League Cup, as Moyes made it clear he wasn’t interested.
Since re-joining Crystal Palace Zaha has developed in to the player Ferguson always thought he could be – a muscular attacking threat, who can beat players with ease.
It’s ironic that Roy Hodgson, the England manager who ignored him for all those years, is now benefitting from his burgeoning talent at Crystal Palace.
“I did give him his debut, but of course we didn’t follow it up, so I must take some responsibility,” the former England manager said last month. “By the time he got back to Palace and was playing [well] again that ship had passed.”
It has been said that Southgate never forgave Zaha for being two hours late meeting up for a camp when he was manager of the England Under 21s in 2013, and he never played for England again, but only last week the same manager quickly forgave Sterling for also reporting late for duty.
Southgate might have benefitted from being more forgiving, for, whatever England do this summer, they would have been a comfortably better team for the presence of Zaha in Russia.