Kurt “Happy” Zouma, a name that instantly brings a smile on every Chelsea fan’s face not only because it has a nice ring to it but also for the fact that the owner of this name has been on some fine form lately. It will be an understatement to say he has been one of the standout players for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea this season for he truly has elevated his game to a new level. Such has been his performances this season that fans are beginning to feel if he is finally living up to the potential that he was once claimed to be.
Where it all started
Zouma broke into the footballing scene as a promising youngster with bags of potential, who although had to be fine-tuned, but had every ingredient in him to reach the very top. Be his early exploits at AS Saint-Étienne or his promising start to Chelsea career at Stamford Bridge, Zouma has always grabbed the limelight in the game. But did you know that football wasn’t his first choice of sport growing up?
In an exclusive interview with Goal a few years back he said, “I remember when I started [at a club] when I was nine years old.”
“Before that, I was playing down the street, with my brother and my friends. Before I didn’t want to be a footballer, I just wanted to play for fun. I wanted to be a basketballer.
“I loved basketball. I played basketball a lot but then, and I don’t know why, my brother said, ‘Let’s go to the club next to our house. Let’s try and we can be, or I can be a footballer.’
“Then I said, ‘Why not?’ I remember when I started I was in the second team, not the first one,” he added.
Zouma’s first club as a youngster was Vaulx-en-Velin where he progressed through the youth ranks of the club and donned several roles before finally settling as a defender. He was one of their brightest players and as a result, straight away made his way into the first team.
Regarding his experience of playing in different positions, Zouma said, “I was playing as a right-winger and as a striker as well. Then when the game was difficult because I was strong and quick, the manager used me as a defender, and then I stayed at the back. I used to score a lot of goals because I was quick and strong. So just run and shoot, that’s it.”
Grabbing headlines at AS Saint-Étienne
In his early days, Zouma actually had aspirations to play for Lyon one day. However, after his impressive display at Vaulx-en-Velin, his first trial was with AS Saint-Étienne. The Frenchman was pretty young back then and hence spent time with the U-17 and U-19 teams of the club before joining the reserves of the first team and at the age of 16, he signed his first contract, which he described as one of his proudest moments of life.
“For me also, it was like I was dreaming, I was so happy that I signed my contract, I was so proud of that. I was 16, I worked hard for that,” he said.
Zouma’s parents played a huge part in his footballing journey as well. His father who was a worker at Ikea used to drive him to the training grounds and matches. His mother, who was a cleaner also was supporting her son in every new challenge of his.
The player recalled that his parents were filled with tears when he first signed his first professional contract. He also mentioned a certain promise that he made to them when he was pretty young as well.
“My parents cried because I was so young. I told them when I was young, ‘I want to be a professional for you because you deserve it’.
“When they saw me with the contract, they were so happy for me. I made a promise when I was 12 or 13, ‘I will sign my first contract, don’t worry.’ That’s why I was so happy. I was always confident, I talked with my parents and it was just instinct.
“I said, ‘I will be a professional, don’t worry’ and I did it. That’s why they were so happy for me,” he said.
Zouma’s siblings had a huge part to play in his development as a footballer at such a young age as well. He mentioned that as youngsters they always used to have a healthy competition among themselves, be it football or basketball, and also that he always wanted to win.
When Chelsea came calling
Zouma was already making waves in Europe at the tender age of 16 due to his performances for St. Etienne in Ligue 1 and winning the U-20 World Cup added all the more pedigree to this player. All of a sudden clubs were in a race for his signature but his admiration of Mourinho meant that he landed at Chelsea.
He mentioned how talking with Mourinho had a positive impact on his decision making. He said,” Mourinho called me and I was a big fan of Jose Mourinho when I was younger.
“He called me and said it was done already, so I went to Chelsea straight away. He called me and he said, ‘Listen, I want you to come to Chelsea and you will play if you deserve to play. I know you are young but there’s no age [limit], if you come to my club then you play.”
Zouma signed for Chelsea during the winter transfer window of the 2013/14 season when he was only 19 and was loaned back immediately to St. Etienne itself. After a brief period of 6 months, he joined Chelsea in the summer of 2014/15 season, starting his journey at the London club under his favourite manager for the first time.
Zouma mentioned how he was awestruck over the fact that he was going to be playing for one of the best clubs in the world alongside players that he considered his role models whom he had only seen on TV. He said, “The players I used to see on TV, I used to pick them on the PlayStation, to play alongside them was crazy. It was quite funny. The feeling, my mother cried again. My father was almost crying and my brothers were so happy for me – so proud and I was proud as well. “
Chelsea legend Didier Drogba holds a special place in Zouma’s heart though. The Frenchman has maintained how he always looks up to him and how the striker made him feel at home. The Goal quoted him as saying, “When I arrived I was so happy to be with him as I was a big fan of him. I talked to him every day, he gave me a lot of advice so he was a really, really nice person.”
Zouma made his debut for Chelsea in a League Cup match at home against Blackburn Rovers. He partnered former Chelsea captain Gary Cahill at the back and had an incredible debut game against a very physical side. His goal at the very game helped Chelsea register a 2-1 win and proved to be the icing on the cake scenario back then as he received plaudits from all sides and the belief that he was the future of the club’s backline was already gaining pace back then.
Zouma was beginning to enjoy his spell at Chelsea, slowly yet steadily making progress and that’s when he faced the biggest setback of his career. Playing in a PL match against Manchester United, the player suffered a horrific knee injury in the very game when he landed awkwardly while going for a header. For those who watched this event unfold, it surely remains to be a bitter memory of watching Zouma cry in pain was absolutely miserable. It was later confirmed that he had picked up an ACL injury and was sidelined for close to a year.
What once looked like a promising career took a major hit as all his hard work and progress before that injury came to an absolute standstill. Back then, may even felt that we might well not be able to see the same old Zouma again.
It was one long journey for the player, probably his toughest of his career so far which he last year mentioned that he doesn’t even want to talk about it. Reuters quoted him as saying, “It has been a very, very long journey. I don’t want to talk about that now, because that is the past but I fought very hard.”
“People don’t know, people don’t see but I was in the shadow, working hard to get back because I had a very bad injury. I was off for one year (away from the first team) but people forget that.
“But I always believed in myself. My family was always there behind me and now I’m back here. I’m very happy to play here, I just want to keep going,” he added.
And as Zouma mentioned, a long journey it was indeed as the player was loaned out twice after his recovery to get him back to his usual level.
The start of progress at Stoke City
After recovering from his horrific injury, Zouma and the club felt that it was best to continue his progress and find form in a new environment where the pressure and the spotlight weren’t as high as at Chelsea. This led to the first of his two loan moves as the Frenchman decided to spend the 2017/18 season on loan at Stoke City.
Despite securing a move to a Premier League club where the expectations were low, the challenges were of similar intensity if not more at Stoke as the club for the most of the season was in a relegation battle. And Zouma quickly became an important part of the squad and played a huge part in their journey that season but unfortunately the Potters went down at the end of it. He played 37 games for them during his time there and was instantly a fan favourite at the club.
The motive of this loan spell was chiefly for it to be a productive one for Zouma after his comeback from the injury and at the end of his loan spell, it was safe to that the objective was achieved as he played close to 3000 minutes that season.
The rise at Everton
The change of managerial reigns at Chelsea meant Zouma was a victim of “lack of trust” from the new gaffer and this lead to his second loan spell, this time to Everton. The then Toffees manager Marco Silva was a huge admirer of Zouma and played a vital part in bringing him into the team. In an Everton team that was trying to build a new backline, Zouma quickly established himself as a starter. He hit the ground running right from the word go and was instrumental for Silva. He racked up 36 games in that season playing close to 3000 minutes for the second consecutive season in 2018/19.
His impact at the club was so impressive that the fans and the management at Everton pushed for signing Zouma on a permanent transfer in the summer of 2019/20 immediately after his loan had expired. A vast majority even swarmed the social media platform, Twitter, starting a “Free Zouma” hashtag to express their desire to have the Frenchman back at the club.
However, Frank Lampard was pretty clear with the fact that he saw the long term future of the player at Chelsea when he publicly expressed the same at the start of the 2019-20 season when he took over.
“In terms of Kurt Zouma, he’s a very good defender for us, very good player, a very good person and professional,” he said.
“I want him here, simple as that. We are competitive with the centre-backs we have in the team and he had a very good season at Everton and I can understand why they want him,” he added.
The second coming of Zouma
The appointment of Frank Lampard as the Chelsea manager came under difficult times surrounding this club as transfer ban had just kicked in along with Eden Hazard, who was our best player for years, leaving the club just then. But it was also an opportunity for players who had spent much of their time away from the club to get a fair shot at the team. And it seemed like it was the perfect stage for someone like Zouma to finally get his much-deserved chance for the hard work and desire he had put in for this exact moment for years. It was a decent start to his second chapter at this club as he got sufficient game time but was often in and out of the team.
Zouma’s exploits were too good to be ignored though as Lampard knew, he once was his teammate and shared the dressing room with him. Chelsea defensive woes meant the backline was often rotated in the hope of some combo working out.
Zouma was showing signs of his old self throughout the season but it wasn’t until “Project Restart” that the Frenchman really grew into confidence and came of age. He played a pivotal part in the final lap of Chelsea’s race to the top 4 finish last season and that’s when fans really took a serious look at this guy. There were hopes that he was slowly yet steadily fulfilling his potential as consistent game time meant a greater chance for him to show what he can do.
Stamping his authority
This season though, Zouma has had a strong start to the campaign just like the team itself. He’s already established himself as the mainstay in the new-look squad and the incoming of veteran Thiago Silva has been a blessing for him. The impact that Silva has had on Zouma and the team, in general, has been pretty evident right from day one and it’s safe to say that he has risen the standards instantly at this club.
The duo of Zouma and Silva already looks to be one of the best in the Premier League and it’s no wonder that consistent game time and the presence of a seasoned campaigner next to him has seen a more confident approach from Zouma so far. Lampard has been all praise for the 26-year-old and there were even reports that he sees him as a future leader of this group.
With the reports of the club trying to tie Zouma down with a new long-term contract, fans will be certainly hoping that the evolution of the player continues the way it has been so far. And to think the once-promising centre back is finally living up to all the expectations, one can only look back and say, “Wow, what a journey it has been.”
Written by Shyam @shyamtalks
Edited by Jai Mcintosh @jjmcintosh5