INTERVIEW: Steve Zakuani

Following a motorcycle accident at the age of 15, Steve Zakuani could easily have given up on a career in football. Instead; the speedy winger went on to live the American dream with Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, before the fallout from that leg-break forced early retirement

Despite growing up in England and spending a significant amount of time with Arsenal’s youth set up, you spent your entire professional career in America. How did that move to the States come about?
I was at Arsenal for five years at the very beginning of the Arsene Wenger era. Even though I was down in the youth team, his influence trickled down the whole club and it was a great place to be. After leaving Arsenal I kind of lost the drive and desire to put in the work required to become a pro and I got involved in other things off the field, negative things. Long story short, I got injured riding a motorcycle when I was 15 and I didn’t recover fully until I was 17. By that age in England, it’s very hard to get into a club and get a pro contract, if you’ve been out of football for a couple of years. I tried but it just didn’t work. Eventually I decided to come to university in America to study, but also get a second chance at playing pro, because the way it works here, universities feed the pro game, not youth academies. That’s slowly changing, but when I came here that’s how it was. I played well at my university and within two years I signed a contract with MLS and went to Seattle where I started playing in front of 30,000 people right away. By the time I left Seattle, I’d played in front of 60,000 at a time. So for me, playing in America was a wonderful experience and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Did you ever have a desire to play in England?
Yes and no. Yes because that’s my home and I had a contract offer from a Championship team that I had trained with at the same time I received my MLS offer in late 2008. The English style on the whole never really suited my playing style so I would have only gone back to play there for the right manager and right team. And no because I enjoyed my time in the States a lot and was successful with my team so I wasn’t really thinking about leaving for England. I did have offers from other European teams when I was playing but it never went beyond initial interest.

"It got to the point where for my own peace of mind and happiness I had to leave the game behind"

After suffering that horrific leg break in 2011, was there ever a point where you feared that you may not play again?
Yeah almost every day during my recovery. Even though I did eventually come back and play about two more seasons, that injury essentially ended my career because it led to a lot of other complications and injuries that never allowed me to fully return to my previous level. At the time of the injury I was coming off a season where I had been top scorer for my team as a left winger, trained with Everton for 10 days, and played for my national team. I was playing at a really high level. After the injury, I occasionally showed that same level in training and in games, but to do it every day and every week became too difficult because my body had changed a lot and I was pulling muscles every few months. It got to the point where for my own peace of mind and happiness I had to leave the game behind.

Obviously that must have been the lowest point of your career – but what were the highlights from your playing time?
Playing against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2009 was a high point. In Seattle we won the cup three times in a row and got to four finals, even though we never won the league championship we were always a top level team. Playing against players I grew up watching in David Beckham and Thierry Henry was great as well. Henry especially because I watched him at his prime when I was in the Arsenal academy and he was playing for the first team. During his time in MLS awe built a friendship and I was always grateful for his advice and encouragement as I went through my injuries and retirement. He’s a good guy.You went on to retire at the early age of 26 – what are your post-playing plans? Are you getting into coaching, or do you see your future away from football?
I considered the coaching avenue but it’s not for me. I do a little private coaching for individuals in the Seattle area but that’s as far as my coaching goes. I stayed involved in the game by working on the TV side of things for the Seattle Sounders. When I retired, I wrote a book detailing my injury and the comeback and then the retirement called 500 Days because that’s how long it took me to get back into the starting line-up after my injury. That book did well and I ended up being invited to speak in a bunch of places – corporate companies, schools, churches, sports teams, businesses – about my story because people found it inspirational. I would say 80% of my time is based around traveling to speak around the country and I’m also working on my follow up book.

With the MLS increasing in popularity year on year, can you one day see it being able to compete with the top leagues in the world?
Yes it definitely will one day. The very best MLS teams can already compete with bottom half of the table teams in some of the bigger European leagues but that’s just my opinion. As the grassroots development keeps on improving and big name players keep coming over – not the ones looking for one last pay day but the ones who have a desire to compete and help the league get better – the level of the game will only get better. MLS is only 20 years old so it’s still early days in the grand scheme of things but any league that has had Beckham, Henry, Lampard, Gerrard, David Villa, Pirlo, Kaka, Drogba, Giovinco, Robbie Keane, and Clint Dempsey is a good league.

What advice would you give to any young players in England looking to take on a scholarship over in the states?
Take it! If you haven’t got your pro contract at the age of 16 or 17 then go to America. You’ll get a good education, unique experience that many back home won’t get, and if you do well, you’ll end up in the MLS.

Your former club Portland Timbers were crowned MLS Champs in 2015 – do you think they’ll be able to retain their crown for 2016?
It’ll be hard for them to do it because the level between the teams in MLS is so close that sometimes it depends on who gets in form at the right time of the season, which is just before the playoffs. That’s what Portland did last year, before that, they were mid table and about to miss the playoffs completely. They are a good team, with a very good coach but it’ll be hard for them to retain it just because it doesn’t happen often in MLS. LA Galaxy have done it in recent years but no one else has. I would love to see Seattle win it because they have the best fans and those fans deserve to celebrate a league championship.

Who would you say was your biggest footballing-influences when growing up?
There were so many. The first games I remember really watching were in the 1994 World Cup so I fell in love with Roberto Baggio and Romario. After that, like everyone else, I liked the Brazilian Ronaldo. Rivaldo, Figo, Zidane, Henry and Robert Pires were players I liked watching as well. But then Ronaldinho went to Barcelona and everything changed. He became the only player I liked to watch. The things he did, at the level he did them, were things I’d never seen before. He reigned in football from 2003-2006 and until Messi came along, no one had ever reached the level Ronaldinho had, in my opinion.

Steve Zakuani’s highly rated book; ‘500 days: What I Learned From the Moment That Changed Everything’ is available now in paperback and as an ebook