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Kurt Zouma’s determination to become a professional footballer was rooted in a burning desire to repay his parents for their unstinting support, allied to the friendly rivalry he shared with four brothers. He achieved his ambition very quickly which, as Zouma reveals below, is how he tends to do everything in life.
Kurt Zouma is a man in a hurry. Consider what he crammed into his teenage years: Zouma played 77 senior games, helped Saint-Etienne banish a prolonged trophy jinx, won a World Cup and was signed by Chelsea, all before he turned 20. He was married at 18 and a father at 19.
“I wanted to have a child very young, to be close to him,” starts Zouma.
“I wanted to achieve everything quick, quick,” he continues, appreciating how sport imitates real life when he engages top gear on the football pitch.
At full tilt, the muscular, barrel-chested Zouma propels his towering frame across the ground at around 22mph.
None of this necessarily came naturally, though, not the athleticism, nor the machine-gun speed.
Zouma’s readily visible attributes are the product of hard work. He owns an iron will, bred into him by strict parents and which fed his childhood belief he would play professional football.
“My parents shaped my attitude,” says Zouma.
“It is their character: everything you do, you must give 100 per cent.
“I was naturally quite fast and strong, but I had to work a lot in the gym.
“After training sessions, I would stay with my friends, we would work more.
“When I was injured, I did even more.
“Everything comes from hard work.”
Zouma was a fixture in the middle of defence for reigning champions Chelsea in February 2016, one of the bedrocks of a side in the midst of a 15-game unbeaten Premier League run and preparing for a Champions League knockout tie with Paris Saint-Germain.
It was indicative of his confidence that when a ball looped into Chelsea’s half during a match against Manchester United, Zouma soared through the air, past Marouane Fellaini, and cleared the danger.
As he landed, Zouma’s right leg buckled underneath him, severely damaging his anterior cruciate ligament.
“Yeah,” he says, “I knew it was serious.
“When I was on the floor, I wanted to stay on the pitch.
“But when I stood up, I felt like I couldn’t walk, I knew it was bad.
“But from that day, I said, ‘Listen, this is part of football’.
“When I was told I needed surgery, I was a bit disappointed. I was scared.
“But it was necessary for me to recover quicker.”
Chelsea’s manager at the time, Guus Hiddink, has recalled how he contacted the player in Spain to wish him luck prior to his operation, only for a conversation to unfold where Zouma was reassuring his distraught boss everything would be okay.
“My middle name is Happy, so I am always happy,” explains Zouma.
“I was unfortunate, but I knew I was going to come back and play again.
“I always keep the same smile.
“For me, without smiling, you cannot live your life properly, you cannot enjoy it.
“And football is all about enjoyment for me.
“I knew I would be out a long time but I thought, ‘Just enjoy yourself, recover, and when you come back, enjoy yourself again. Be happy your family is there to support you’.
“I was totally focussed on my rehabilitation… and I enjoyed my time with the kids.”
Zouma talks as briskly as he moves, going ten to the dozen on whichever subject is in hand.
On the issue of whether he ever doubted his ability to recover all that pace and strength during his period of downtime, Zouma restricts himself to six words, his features momentarily dimming.
“No,” he shoots back.
“Never. I was confident. Always.”
Zouma was confident of making it in football, he relates, “from when I was 11 or 12”.
His foresight was especially impressive for the fact Zouma was nine before he started playing the sport. He had grown up supporting Marseille, reared on dad’s stories of France’s multi-cultural 1998 World Cup winning team.
But it was not until brother Lionel went to play for Vaulx-en-Velin, a team from a suburb of Lyon, that it occurred to Kurt to have a go himself.
“He is one year older, I am close to all my brothers, but especially him, we were always together when we were kids, people would say we were like twins,” says Zouma.
Word has it that young Kurt was a very handy footballer from the outset.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he laughs. “I wasn’t bad at all, I would say.
“Lionel starting before me motivated me to play football. The dream to be a professional came after that.”
Zouma is one of five brothers, raised in a Lyon apartment and all driven by the idea of outdoing the other four. He has a six-year-old sister, too.
Of the Zouma boys, Kurt was third to move out of the congested family home, relocating roughly 40 miles south after accepting an invite to join the academy of Ligue 1 club Saint-Etienne.
“I was lucky growing up next to my brothers,” says Zouma. “The oldest signed for Auxerre’s academy and was first to leave.
“When I was first to sign a first professional contract, they were laughing at me.
“They said, ‘You did it, huh, you did it little bro, congratulations to you. Now we are coming’.
“The competition always existed.
“At weekends, it would be, ‘Did you win your game, what about you, I scored, did you?
“I used my older brothers as examples – and it was my target to get ahead of them.”
Lionel is with Bourg-en-Bresse in France’s third tier today. Younger brother Yoan is at Bolton Wanderers. “He lives 20 minutes away and is always in my house,” says Zouma.
“He is close to me and I like him so much.”
Zouma’s resolution to make a go of his sport was fuelled by a desire to repay his parents for the discipline, responsibility and purpose they instilled in their children.
“I gave them an African education,” dad Guy once said. “They went to school and then to training. When they returned, they were too tired to do anything stupid.”
That’s how Kurt remembers it, too.
“My father was very, very strict,” he smiles.
“He always said, ‘There is time for everything, time to laugh and joke, time to be serious’.
“When it was time to be serious… I would say he was a bit scary!
“My parents raised us so hard.
“I cannot thank them enough, they were always behind us, our biggest fans, they would come to every game.
“We would talk after, ‘That was good, this could be better’.”
Zouma’s parents settled in France after leaving their home in Central African Republic and worked like fury – dad as a logistics supervisor at Ikea, mum a cleaner – to provide for their sons. Every spare hour was spent ferrying the brood to and from football.
Their wages paid for the apartment where Kurt would share his room – “It was quite tight,” he laughs – and which he found “hard” to leave as a 14-year-old awash with ambition, “because I am a family guy”.
Zouma was six months short of his 17th birthday when he signed a professional deal with Saint-Etienne.
“One of my big aims was to move my family away from the apartment, it was one of the most important things for me,” says Zouma.
“When I signed for Saint-Etienne, I did it, we moved from the flat to a house in Lyon.
“And it is the best thing.
“I could see how happy my family were and it was a proud moment for me.”
It was a moment, too, when Zouma fulfilled a promise to mum and dad that he would play football professionally, because “they deserved it”.
“When I signed the contract, they were next to me,” he recalls.
“My mother was crying, my father wasn’t, he never cried in front of me.
“After, I told them, ‘Mum, dad, you see, I did it’.
“They were so, so proud. I could see it in their eyes.
“I did not say much after that.
“Just, ‘I did it’.
“We had a dinner together to celebrate, all the family, my cousins, everybody.
“It was nice. But not a lot of talk, I would say.
“It was just emotional.”
Zouma was hot property when he received a persuasive telephone call from then Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in January 2014.
The defender had been part of the France team – also featuring current Everton teammate Lucas Digne – which cut a swathe through the field at the previous year’s Under-20 World Cup and had clubs across the continent clamouring for his services.
He had married Sandra during a very busy 2013, too. They studied at the same school but, says Zouma, it was after the pair met on one of his visits to Lyon from Saint-Etienne that “everything went quick”.
The couple were living in London by the time Sandra gave birth to son Kais, now four-and-a-half, Zouma undaunted by the scale of his move and undeterred by his non-existent grasp of English.
“I had a chat with Jose Mourinho and my mind was quickly made up to join Chelsea,” he says, his English immaculate and delivered in an accent tinged with a southern England influence.
“I went there and did my job, played my football, and everything went well.
“We won the league, another trophy, too.
“My English was bad, I had a few words, ‘hello’, ‘good morning’, nothing else.
“I had one lesson, I went the first time but after that I was too tired to go.
“But I was not scared of talking to people, and I used to watch television series and movies in English, with the subtitles, so I could understand and remember the words.
“I don’t even remember what I was watching.”
Chelsea were Premier League champions in Zouma’s debut campaign of 2014-15 but it was his flawless performance in that season’s League Cup final which alerted England’s football public to the Frenchman’s prowess.
Asked by Mourinho if he fancied playing in the showpiece fixture, Zouma’s response was pretty succinct.
“Obviously,” he said, prompting Mourinho to inform the centre-back he would be replacing suspended defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic.
To understand how Zouma was equipped mentally and tactically to smother Tottenham Hotspur sorcerer Christian Eriksen and contribute substantially to his team’s 2-0 win, we should revisit Saint-Etienne.
Two of the 74 matches Zouma played for the illustrious French team were especially significant in forming the man and the footballer who crossed the channel for Chelsea.
He remembers swelling with pride as he prepared for his first professional meeting with Lionel, who was at Sochaux.
“Playing against my brother: what more can you ask for? It was the best thing,” he says.
Zouma nevertheless concedes his competitive juices were overflowing when he committed the tackle on Sochaux midfielder Thomas Guerbert which led to a red card.
“Unfortunately… I went in too hard,” says Zouma. “Maybe it was because the competition with my brother was there.
“I learned from that situation. Because I was young, I wanted to show how powerful I was.
“I did not control myself.
“After that I was calmer on the pitch, I could control myself better.”
Little more than six months previously, Saint-Etienne ended a 32-year trophy drought with a 1-0 League Cup final victory over Stade Rennais in Stade de France.
“Saint-Etienne is a big club like Everton, the fans always behind the team,” says Zouma.
“Winning the trophy for those supporters was special, they deserved it.
“I had quality guys around me, good examples for me. We were a very good team and had to win something.
“Playing in the final, it was like, ‘The dream is coming true, winning a trophy, playing in a big stadium in front of 80,000 people’.
“It felt like something was starting.”
Zouma’s instinct was correct. Mourinho greeted the player’s Wembley midfield masterclass by touting him as “our new Marcel Desailly”.
The Portuguese was not the first to draw that comparison.
“It is very generous but we are different players,” says Zouma.
“I used to watch John Terry, he was one of the best.
“Also, Paolo Maldini.
“They are true defenders, they like defending, they give everything on the pitch.”
Zouma’s citing of the indomitable Terry and immaculate Italian Maldini as defensive exemplars would fairly indicate how the 24-year-old likes to play his football.
He shares that pair’s enthusiasm for playing the game, too. Zouma’s action at Chelsea following his 10-month layoff came in fits and starts. Which was why he spent 2017-18 on loan at Stoke City, where Zouma was one of few to emerge with his reputation enhanced following the team’s relegation.
“I wanted to prove to myself I could play game after game and return to my level,” says Zouma.
“I had a very good season personally but there are years when everything goes well and you win trophies, and others when it is difficult.
“I hope Stoke come back soon. I have a lot of respect for them.”
Zouma could have stayed at Chelsea this term for fear of being out of the eyeline of new manager Maurizio Sarri.
Everton and Marco Silva, though, represented a compelling proposition.
“The manager called at the end of the [summer] market, I said, ‘Of course, I want to come and play’. Straight away.
“The feeling with the manager was very, very, good. I had played at Goodison Park and knew I was coming to a big club, with big players.
“I knew the manager trusted me, so I wanted to show him I could help the team.”
Zouma reckons he has come on in five months at Everton, that Silva’s instruction is refining his game.
“I have improved, a lot,” says Zouma.
He asserts his point more emphatically and expansively.
“A lot. I am very confident with the ball now and tactically I feel I know what I need to do.
“The manager talks to me, is close to me, like with the other players.
“He is always giving me advice, analysing any mistakes. He talks about details – and details make the difference in games.”
Zouma was 16 when he debuted for Saint-Etienne.
“I was really lucky but also really determined,” he says.
“Every day I would call my mother and father and they would remind me, ‘Don’t forget why you are there, be focussed on your dream’.
“I had that in my head every day.
“I could not believe it when I got in the first team… but I thought, ‘This is football, everybody can play, why would I not be allowed to play at that level?’
“I did my job and, for me, I deserved to be there because I worked so hard for it.”
Zouma’s workload around the time he bulldozed his way into Saint-Etienne’s team was supplemented by his studies.
“My dad said I still had to go to school and finish my A Levels,” he says.
“I did well and he was very proud.
“He said, ‘Now you can focus on football, you can do what you want – my job is done!’.”
Zouma laughs. His smile remains fixed as he considers his in-tray today.
Kais has two sisters, Sihame, who is three, and nine-month-old Sanaa.
“I come back from training, sleep a bit, then I play with the children,” says Zouma.
“They play, do homework, then everybody goes to bed.
“It is like a routine, every day.
“It is strange, I have not had time to think about being a dad because it went so quick.
“I had my first child young, then two more.”
Zouma laughs again.
“But I am done now.”
“For the moment, I’m done!
“I am proud of my wife and my kids and enjoying my life.
“I am lucky to be playing a lot of games and with a very good group of guys.”
There is, however no escaping dad’s watchful eye.
“He will call and tell me, ‘I did not like this, you could have done better in that situation’,” says Zouma.
“That is no problem, I like it. He has given me valuable advice since I was a kid.”
Even better for Kurt Zouma, when dad picks up the phone, he is in his house in Lyon, able to reflect on what a good job he did.