Gareth Southgate understands why Wilfried Zaha turned back on England career

The Crystal Palace winger will come up against the Three Lions at Wembley in the Ivory Coast team on Tuesday night.

Mark Mann-Bryans
Sunday 27 March 2022 22:45

Gareth Southgate “completely understands” Wilfried Zaha’s decision to snub England and represent Ivory Coast instead.

The Crystal Palace winger will come up against the Three Lions at Wembley on Tuesday night as the two nations meet for the first time.

Zaha, 29, was capped twice by England – making his debut in the same match as Raheem Sterling in 2012 – but as both appearances were in friendly fixtures he was still eligible to switch allegiance to the country of his birth.

Wilfried Zaha earned two England caps in friendlies (Nigel French/PA)

Having not been capped in a competitive game, Zaha made the call to play for Ivory Coast in 2016, with Southgate failing to persuade him otherwise, and he has gone on to collect 26 caps, playing at three Africa Cup of Nations.

Now he is set to face England, with Southgate setting the record straight about the situation surrounding Zaha’s decision.

“Wilf is a very good player and when we had him with the under-21s he was in the middle of a very difficult spell both with Manchester United and then on loan with Cardiff,” he said.

“I remember going to a hotel, Palace were playing away, and meeting with Wilf but at that point he had made his mind up. I can understand it because he had been four years without playing.

“I remember being asked at the time and we were asked about a few different cases and I said players have to have the desire to play for England.

“That was slightly tweaked a bit I would say so that created a little bit of an atmosphere with Wilf and (Palace chairman) Steve Parish for a while. That wasn’t an insinuation on Wilf – you couldn’t have a more passionate player as anyone who follows Crystal Palace knows. I am really pleased for him.”

Zaha has continued to enjoy a fine run of form at Palace in recent seasons and has developed into a key component of Patrick Vieira’s side.

Southgate, however, says it is impossible to consider how much of an impact Zaha could have had if he had decided to continue to play for England.

“It’s hard to say what his role might have been with us,” he added.

“Raheem has been a key part of our team for a long period, Jesse Lingard had done a fabulous job and at the start we had Adam Lallana, who was our player of the year for the first 18 months or so.

“He’s a talent, Wilf and a massive part of Palace’s ability to have stayed in the league and now the progress there making.

“He’s a good player playing at a high level every week. He’s a slightly different player to the ones we’ve got.

“He felt the Ivory Coast was the route to go and I totally understood that. He’s had the opportunity to play in the Africa Cup of Nations and everything else, so no one had a crystal ball in terms of knowing how that would have worked out.”

Zaha could yet come up against club-mate Tyrick Mitchell, who made his England debut off the bench in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Switzerland.

Zaha and Tyrick Mitchell are team-mates at Crystal Palace (Ian Walton/PA)

“He is one of our best players,” Mitchell said of his Palace colleague.

“He is the main man in a lot of situations in this season and previous seasons. Having him in front of me and guiding me was a massive thing in helping me develop.

“When he needs to encourage me he will, then when it is about fixing something he is there as well, it is always good to have a senior player like him helping me through my career.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum to Zaha is Declan Rice, the West Ham midfielder having played senior football for the Republic of Ireland before opting to represent England.

His fine displays in the run to the Euro 2020 final and his subsequent season with the Hammers mean he is a big part of Southgate’s plans – and the England boss has suggested Rice could one day captain his country.

Southgate is not short of leaders with Jordan Henderson, James Ward-Prowse, Conor Coady, Tyrone Mings and Harry Maguire all captaining their respective Premier League sides and Rice and Marc Guehi also wearing the armband for their clubs.

Declan Rice could be a future England captain (Steven Paston/PA)

“It is noticeable that we were looking at two possible teams for these games and we now have more and more club captains actually involved in the fray,” Southgate said.

“He (Rice) is right amongst that despite his age. What I have seen this season is the confidence that he has gained from his experience last summer.

“Without a doubt he has all the attributes to be a captain. There will be others, but we are gaining the rewards of the opportunities we had to blood him so young.”

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