‘We are not in a good place’, admits Chelsea star

first_imgBut France boss Didier Deschamps, also ex-Chelsea, has recognised the signs of a hugely promising talent. He handed Zouma two caps from the bench in a pair of friendlies against Denmark over the past year. They are undoubtedly the first of many.Growing UpMaturity is Zouma’s most striking characteristic. The responsibility that comes with being a father might have something to do with that. He has two children, 18-month-old son Kais and three-month-old daughter Sihame, with wife Sandra.Early exposure has also honed his professionalism and sharpened his work ethic. At just 16, Zouma was thrust into Ligue 1 action with Saint-Étienne.“I was very young and when you are that age playing games, your recovery has to be strong,” he recalls. “You think about going out to clubs like every other young guy in life. But it is not the same for you because you are a footballer. You have to recover, you have to sleep, you have to train your game, you have to travel and stay with the team.”Still languishing in 14th, 12 points adrift of the top four, Chelsea have a long way to go to salvage something from this year. That said, the coming week could see them gather momentum. They host Bournemouth on Saturday evening before Porto head to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday for a group-deciding European tie. Two victories would put a spring in Chelsea’s step for their trip to Leicester on December 14.Backing BlueThe squad would do well to adopt Zouma’s viewpoint. He sees media criticism as an inevitable irrelevance, but remains convinced that his side is turning a corner.“We are not listening to what [outside voices] are saying because we are very close already,” he says. “We know they have to critique us because we are not playing very well, but since a few matches we are playing better and the confidence is coming back. 5 5 “When I signed here, I knew that I would be learning a lot. As a defender, you can take a lot from just looking. Whenever I was on the bench, I watched them play. They are competitive, but they are always there to help you and to speak with you.“When I started to play, they told me how different the English league is. They said that I had to be ready for the impact. In England, strikers are very strong and very clever. You have to be ready for that…“The English league is the most difficult physically, and even mentally. After a game, sometimes you need a whole week to recover. There are no easy games to win.”Mourinho has been forthcoming with praise, albeit laced with typical bluntness. He held up Zouma, winner of the champions’ Young Player of the Season award, as an example to academy graduate Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The manager also stressed marked improvements from an inauspicious 2014/15 pre-season.Zouma lets out an infectious chuckle on admitting that his positioning had to get better because “tactically, I was very bad” on arriving in southwest London.Another self-deprecating smile surfaces as he discusses a footballing hero. The phrasing is telling. Zouma says: “I know that people now compare me to Marcel Desailly,” almost incredulous that anyone could possibly liken him to the former Stamford Bridge favourite, who amassed 116 internationals for Les Bleus. “I am Muslim. Before every game, I pray. I ask God to protect me from injury, to help me have a good game, to protect everybody in the stadium and everybody in the world. Like everybody, I want peace. I want people to enjoy the game if they are playing or watching. That’s what I was thinking.”After a ghastly start to their Premier League title defence – prior to the Canaries’ visit, Chelsea’s record read seven losses from 12 outings with 23 goals conceded – that 1-0 win might have halted Chelsea’s slide. And Zouma has aided a subtle shift in fortunes.An imposing, unfussy central defender, he subdued Harry Kane in last Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Tottenham. In the week leading up to that clash, there was a towering header to seal a 4-0 Champions League win over Maccabi Tel Aviv.Zouma came on as a substitute for John Terry in Israel, the second of three consecutive clean sheets, when Chelsea’s captain was stretchered off with an ankle problem. Looking long-term, Jose Mourinho had surely intended to groom an heir to his skipper when acquiring Zouma from Saint-Etienne in January 2014.ApprenticeshipIn terms of appetite and attitude, the Portuguese manager found an ideal protege to his club captain.“I knew that Chelsea was one of the biggest clubs,” says Zouma, who has made 20 appearances so far this campaign across all competitions. “I knew they had great defensive leaders in John Terry and Gary Cahill. “In this kind of season, you cannot think about yourself. You have to think about the team. We are not in a good place – you have to tell the truth. With our players, Chelsea should be first or second every year.“There have been difficult moments, but our spirit has always been good. Everybody helps everybody and the dressing room is happy. There is no problem with the boss, no problem with anybody. I think we are going to grow in the table, for sure. If we continue to play the way we are doing, that will happen very quickly. If we think game by game, we can do something brilliant.”Zouma finishes on a note appropriate for a man with Happy for a middle name:“I’ve come here to play. I’ve come here to show that I want to be at Chelsea for a long time. It was a dream to come here. I’m very happy and very proud.” 5 5 Kurt Zouma This interview appears in the current edition of Sport magazine. Download the iPad app for free here, and follow on twitter @sportmagukWhen Chelsea welcomed Norwich to Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, the world was still trying to process the shock and grief caused by the sickening terrorist attacks that had ripped through Paris eight days previously.The cover of the matchday programme communicated a sense of solidarity with those mourning across the Channel: it featured Frenchman Kurt Zouma transposed over a blue, white and red Tricolore.Observing players during the few seconds prior to kick-off can be revealing. Lyon-born Zouma, whose parents emigrated from the Central African Republic, is a devout Muslim and spends this period in quiet reflection. Before facing Norwich, he stood on the edge of the Blues’ penalty area, held up his palms and whispered a few words skywards. Faith is a sturdy pillar supporting his measured outlook.Four days after France visited Wembley and England fans offered their voices to La Marseillaise – an occasion he calls a “really, really, really great moment” – the 21-year-old leant on his beliefs more than ever.“Norwich was an emotional day for me,” Zouma tells Sport. “What happened [in Paris] was very sad; we had to think of the victims. 5last_img read more