England will play against Ivory Coast in a friendly and face a familiar opponent in Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha with Three Lions coach Gareth Southgate opening up on why he switched.
Southgate has recalled organising a hotel meeting with the Crystal Palace talisman to try to persuade him to commit to his international future England rather than Ivory Coast, the country of his birth.
But, by then, it was too late as Zaha had made up his mind and will face England for the first time at Wembley on Tuesday night.
It is a story of near misses, an underlying frustration and a bit of acrimony along the way amid accusations that Zaha lacked the “desire” to play for England.
Zaha, 29, actually won two England caps, both in friendlies, made his debut against Sweden – in the “Zlatan goal” match – under Roy Hodgson in November 2012 when he came on for Raheem Sterling and their international careers quickly went in opposite directions.
While Sterling has gone on to become a huge player for England, Zaha struggled to fit in under different managers, did not get picked for four years and, by the time Southgate took over in 2016 and met the Palace star, the winger’s mind was elsewhere.
Southgate said: “Wilf is a very good player and when we had him with the U-21s he was in the middle of a very difficult spell both with Manchester United and then on loan with Cardiff.
“There was a period when we didn’t then take him. We had him after he had already made his senior debut, so it is always more difficult for the players.
“Roy had players who were ahead of him for a long period and then we had four games as caretaker where we were quite settled with experienced players and we didn’t want to bring too many new players in at that point.
“I remember going to a hotel, Palace were playing away, and meeting with Wilf but at that point he had made his mind up. I can understand it because he had been four years without playing.
“I remember being asked at the time and we were asked about a few different cases and I said players have to have the desire to play for England. That was slightly tweaked a bit I would say so that created a little bit of an atmosphere with Wilf and Steve Parish for a while.
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“That wasn’t an insinuation on Wilf – you couldn’t have a more passionate player as anyone who follows Crystal Palace knows. For those who play for the U21s, it’s always great to see them go on and have a great career.
“It’s hard to say what his role might have been with us. Raheem has been a key part of our team for a long period, Jesse Lingard had done a fabulous job and at the start we had Adam Lallana, who was our player of the year for the first 18 months or so. He’s a talent, Wilf and a massive part of Palace’s ability to have stayed in the league and now the progress they’re making.”
Zaha is a special player, full of talent and ability. He has come close to leaving Palace having admitted he does want to play Champions League football. His early move to Manchester United was probably wrong place, wrong time with Sir Alex Ferguson leaving that summer.
Then came Arsenal and Everton but Zaha stayed put and it is hard to imagine him enjoying his cult status anywhere like at Palace. But, similarly, it would be difficult to get into the England team now with so much wide and attacking talent. Southgate was asked whether he thinks Zaha would get into the England set-up and, as a former Palace hero himself, was diplomatic.
Southgate said: “I don’t know about that because he’s a good player playing at a high level every week. He’s a slightly different player to the one we’ve got. The difficulty for us was that we had such a short window and because the U21s/ourselves hadn’t been in touch for a while and Roy hadn’t picked him in that period either, he felt the Ivory Coast was the route to go and I totally understood that.
“He’s had the opportunity to play in the AFCON and everything else, so no one had a crystal ball in terms of knowing how that would have worked out.”