Wilfried Zaha is one of the Premier League’s biggest talents.
That has almost certainly contributed to the Crystal Palace winger becoming a marked man for rival defenders and opposing supporters.
But what frustrates Zaha is that he is misunderstood both on and off the pitch because, as a person, he is a world away from the public perception.
“All everyone ever sees is angry, passionate Wilf playing,” he smiles.
“When I play football I am very passionate, I like to win, so that’s the side that people see.
"There are more sides to me. Unless you want to see that side, you wouldn’t.
“It does frustrate me. You don’t even know me, but you have decided you don’t like me. How is that possible? I don’t understand it myself. It’s crazy, man! I’m actually a nice guy,”
“For some reason, I’m that pantomime villain that every club hates. Every team. We played against Colchester, I’ve never played against them before, I go on and I get booed. I’m thinking: ‘You don’t even know me, why are you booing me?’
So, maybe it is time for an introduction.
He was born in Ivory Coast, he is one of nine siblings and was brought up in South London and the vivid memories of a strict, tough upbringing pushing his dad’s car to training after it broke down for the umpteenth time makes him appreciate what he has now.
Zaha enjoys giving back, has his own charity – an orphanage Tomorrow’s Hope run by his sister in Ivory Coast – and is religious, his three-year-old son is his escape from football and the swirling, angry world that can surround it.
He grew up idolising Ronaldinho, still wants to be that entertainer and yet is humble enough to admit he was star struck when he met his boyhood hero. And being the most fouled player in the Premier League.
“The thing that gets on my nerves is when people say: ‘Take it as a compliment. Take the abuse as a compliment. Take the kicks as a compliment.’ If I’m walking off with crutches… that’s not a compliment. ‘Yeah, but you’re one of the best players so take him abusing you as a compliment.’”
But what makes Zaha tick now?
“I am family orientated as you can see. I just have the love for my craft really. It’s mainly family. It’s come from my family. They were strict. Very strict. I wasn’t allowed to go out a lot of the time, when I was younger but it’s worked out,” he said.
“But I was so annoyed at the time, I wasn’t allowed to go to so many parties with my friends when I was young but when you grow up you realise there’s always another party tomorrow. But it always felt like I’d just missed out on the party of the year.
“I’m glad I sacrificed that. My mum and dad were both like that. Now my life is just based around my son. He’s taught me so much patience, you have to have patience with kids.
“It’s crazy, man. I’ve finished football, if I’ve had a bad day, bad result, whatever and there’s maybe negative stuff on Twitter , and Instagram and I get home and he’s saying: ‘Daddy, let’s do this, let’s do that. Let’s ride a bike or whatever.’ He doesn’t care what I do, it’s just a breath of fresh air.”
Zaha comes across such a likeable guy, very laid back and yet driven. There is a frustration from within from signing for Sir Alex Ferguson but then never getting the chance to play under him because David Moyes took over and was never given a chance.
He does not hide from his ambition to improve as a player and was ready to move last summer but learnt valuable lessons from his all too brief time at United and his connection with the Palace fans will never be broken.
“The only frustration was I would have liked to had more of an opportunity to show I was good enough for Manchester United . But I feel like that period has pushed me to still be relevant now.
“I’m still buzzing about the day when I actually met Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton. Even to this day. One of the greatest managers in the Premier League, and he’s telling me: ‘I want you to come to my team.’ It was a no-brainer. I was a bit sad when I saw him leave, because he didn’t tell me he was going to retire.
“There are so many people who have been in those predicaments when they’ve gone to top teams, haven’t had chance to play and when they have left, you just don’t hear of them. Thats what has driven me more to be like the top players.
“They prove it every game, why they are top players. I just had to show constantly that wasn’t a fluke, I didn’t win a raffle ticket and went to Manchester United. I am a good player. I will make sure I continue proving that.
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