Monday, 6 February 2012

Knowing me, Knowing you: Zaha!

His name may have been new to those BBC pundits who are usually halfway back to their mansions by the time Crystal Palace make their weekly appearance on The Football League show but Wilfried Zaha has been earmarked for greatness ever since he signed a youth team contract at Selhurst Park in 2007.

That famous Carling Cup quarter-final victory over Manchester United back in December was the first time most  supporters outside the Championship had seen for themselves exactly what the 19-year-old from Abidjan in Ivory Coast was capable of. A series of bamboozling runs on a wet night at Old Trafford sparked a surge of interest from Premier League clubs in the January transfer window, with Palace's owners having to fend off a firm bid from Bolton on transfer deadline day to keep their talented forward.

Zaha's decision to sign a new five year deal just a week after his scintillating display in Manchester was a real coup for boss Dougie Freedman, although most Palace fans will tell you that he is still far from the finished article. A return of just two league goals this season is disappointing from a player with such an abundance of talent but another season of Championship football under his belt should see that potential transformed into reality.

Whether he can go on to emulate the exploits of some of the players produced by his real hometown club is another matter. Asec Mimosas is Ivory Coast's most successful side and was where Zaha spent the formative years of his career until moving with his family to south London.

Since the early 1990s, their academy has produced a number of top-class internationals, with many of them currently starring for 'Les Elephants' in the African Nations Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure is the jewel in the crown of the youth system that was first established by lawyer Roger Ouegnin.

After surprisingly beating Tunisian giants Esperance to win the African Champions League in 1999, Asec exported most of their team to Europe, with the likes of Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Didier Zokora all ending up in the UK eventually. Their success has since opened the floodgates for Ivorian footballers, although Zaha could end up being the one that got away.  

His appearance for English youth sides apparently illustrates a desire to turn his back on the land of his birth but time will tell. So far, though, Asec's loss has been to Palace's gain.

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