Football: Zeman the man for controversy

reports on the trials of the disciplinarian at Roma's helm
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The Independent Online
IN ENGLAND (well, in Yorkshire at least) all the football talk has been of who the next manager of Leeds United might be. In Italy all the football talk has been of the man who manages the team Leeds United face in the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday. It is not so much talk as an inquisition that Zdenek Zeman has found himself embroiled in since 25 July. AS Roma's Czech coach, Bohemian by birth but renowned as a disciplinarian, provoked a national scandal when he told the magazine L'Espresso that drug-taking was rife in Italian football.

The Italian Olympic Committee, which governs sport in the country, launched an inquiry which got to the very heart of the game last week when the backroom staff of the national team were questioned about the administering of performance- enhancing substances. The Italian players' union has threatened to strike. Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro Del Piero, who were both implicated by Zeman, are taking legal action to clear their names. On the day Zeman was called to give evidence to the inquiry, Vialli called him "a football terrorist".

On Tuesday night it will be the managerless Leeds that Zeman will be seeking to ambush. Embattled as he has become, fighting to uphold his reputation, he will not see the first leg of the Uefa Cup second-round tie as a little light relief. The one battle Zeman cannot afford to lose this season is the fight for silverware at the Stadio Olimpico. The Coppa Italia has been on display there since May. The colours of the ribbons tied to it, however, are not the burgundy and yellow of Roma.

The cup belongs, for the time being at least, to Roma's fellow tenants in the Stadio Olimpico. The promise of future football silverware in the Eternal City belongs to Lazio too. Since assuming ownership of Roma's rivals in 1992, Sergio Cragnotti has spent pounds 190m - double the amount England's biggest spenders, Newcastle United, have lavished in the same period - in attempting to build a team to break the Juventus- Milan stranglehold on the scudetto. This summer alone, flush with the profits of the first football club flotation on the Italian stock market, Cragnotti invested a staggering pounds 70m on players. Marcelo Salas, Ivan De La Pena and Christian Vieri were among the new arrivals at the Stadio Olimpico - to play for Sven Goran Eriksson's Lazio team.

Roma's followers were not impressed. Some 200 of them staged a sit-down demonstration at the club's training ground. They accused Francesco Sensi, Roma's president, of lacking ambition. Zeman may have acquired talented summer recruits - the Russian midfielder Dimitri Alenitchev, the Argentine striker Gustavo Bartlet and the Cameroon defender Pierre Wome - but they were not the high-profile signings for which the fans had been calling.

Their chief frustration was that Roma made encouraging progress in Zeman's first full season last term. I Lupi, the wolves, finished fourth in Serie A, behind Juventus, Internazionale and Udinese. More importantly, for the first time in six years, they finished ahead of Lazio.

The rivalry between the two Roman clubs is as fierce as any on the European football map. Lazio were the club Mussolini supported. Their fans are traditionally right-wing supporters from the Roman suburbs. Roma's support has always been drawn from the left-wing following of the inner city. It is not uncommon at Il Derby Capitale for the losing fans to attempt to burn down their section of a ground that is home to both clubs. Paul Gascoigne considered the derbies of Glasgow and north London tame by comparison. "I was punched by a bunch of Roma fans after one derby match," he said during his Rangers days, "and they were all nuns."

No one appreciates the intensity of the Roman rivalry more than Zeman. It was he who decided there was no place in Rome for Gascoigne. He was Lazio's coach for two years, guiding them to second place and then third in the league before Cragnotti sacked him in January last year. He did not have to move for a new job. He became the first man to pass directly from one Roman club to another.

Zeman's signings may have been eclipsed by those of his Lazio successor in the summer but his team have made a better start in Serie A than Eriksson's. Like the Roma side that won the scudetto in 1983, and lost the European Cup final to Liverpool in the Stadio Olimpico the following year, it has a Brazilian touch. Aldair, Cafu, Paulo Sergio and Zago are all treading in the studmarks of Falcao. Zeman's team also includes Luigi Di Biagio, whose penalty miss cost Italy a place in the World Cup semi-finals. On Tuesday night in Rome it could be Leeds who are left to hit the bar - in search of consolation.