“If you score 90 goals then it shouldn’t really worry you how many are conceded.”
Born in Prague in 1947, a former student-athlete in ice hockey, volleyball, baseball and handball, Zdenek Zeman went to Sicily in the summer of 1968 to meet his uncle Čestmír Vycpálek, a former Juventus player. In the same time, Soviet soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia.
So, Zeman elected Italy as his new home country At 27 he started coaching at the Palermo academy and, in 1983, he became manager of Licata, a small club in Sicily, transforming his hobby into a job.
This was where Zemanlandia was born; not in Foggia, as people usually think, but in Serie C2, the fourth Italian football tier, very far from the glamour of Serie A.
“Here a manager must [be] the storeroom, the masseur and, if necessary, the doctor."
At the time, Zeman was an unknown within calcio, but this would end soon as he helped to redefine Italian football. In the sun-drenched Licata, the Czech rookie manager made his baptism of fire in pro football circles by starting to prophesy 4-3-3, his trademark system.
At the start of 1983/84 season, team’s roster was filled with academy products or honest journeymen. With the Czech the new blood was instilled in the form of: Ignazio Gnoffo, Castrense Campanella, Giorgio Taormina. These three would build Licata’s backbone alongside captain Vittorio Schifilliti and Massimo Lo Verde.
As with every squad worthy of Zeman’s name, Licata were perfectly fit. The Boehm soon made a name for himself with his fitness methods involving high doses of sprints, aerobic work and gradoni (infinite series’ of jumps on pyramid-shaped stadium stands).
The city of Licata, a small town situated in the south coast of Sicily, have a smell of internationality thanks to its football team. In fact, they wear a yellow and blue shirt. The legend tells that the colours are a homage to the Sweden flag as Swedish sailors, when their ships docked at city’s harbor, were used to organize football matches against local guys.
Another version, more realistic, hold to be true that Licata wear yellow and blue in honor of Hellas Verona.
The Gialloblù showed troubles in the needed learning curve to assimilate Zeman’s tactical principles which are in part borrowed from 1970s Dutch national teams. The home defeat to Afragolese on 20 November 1983 meant the first defeat for a team which had not lost a home league game in two years.
The first few months raised questions about Zeman’s tenure and some members of the board pressed President Giuseppe Alabiso to sack the Boehm. But a slow start followed by a springy rebirth would become a feature of Zeman’s brand of football and his first experience at Licata was no exception.
So, a strong second part of the season lifted Gialloblù until a respectable 11th place with a record of 11 wins, 12 draws and 11 defeats. Michele Pecoraro was the main offensive threat, scoring as many as 15 goals.
In his second season, Zeman welcomed goalkeeper Emilio Zangara and another bunch of unknowns such as Maurizio Antonio Schillaci, cousin of Totò Schillaci (Notti magiche’s hero in 1990).
Licata quickly became a classic Zemanian scoring machine. Opponents couldn’t cope with the Gialloblù’s forwards as they went on to become a spectacular side. Maurizio Schillaci was one of the pivotal players in the upswing.
Sadly the No.10, who ended his Licata trip having scored 22 goals out from 66 appearances, failed to make the next step. Successively signed by Lazio in Serie B, the less-known Schillaci dealt with a lot of injuries bouncing back into the lower tiers before drugs ruined his career and personal life.
At the end of the campaign, Licata got promoted to Serie C1 by winning the league. Stats tell us the truth about Zeman’s squad as they hit 58 goals in 34 games, with Schillaci being the main forward with ten. For further context, runners-up Sorrento struck just 28.
So, in C1, for the first time the whole team, with Zeman standing in the middle, appeared in the Panini album of figurines.
Rivals are tougher as C1 Girone B (the southern grouping of Calcio third tier) were filled with good teams of bigger cities such as Messina, Ternana, Cosenza, Brindisi or Foggia.
Licata strengthened their roster adding Compagno from Palermo, Modica from Turris, Napoli from Amat Palermo, Laneri from Leonfortese, Miranda from Alcamo and the start of the season was sparkling. The Gialloblù defeated archrivals Akragas 10-0 in their Coppa Italia debut.
Preaching his never-ending offensive brand of football, Zeman is still able to lead the Gialloblù to an honorable 11th place, although they were far behind champions Messina (coached by Franco Scoglio) and Taranto (lead by another great manager: Mimmo Renna).
However, such a finish was not so bad for a newcomer, a minnow between sharks. Schillaci remained the main scorer with nine goals.
"I won nothing, but I don’t remember others who have won titles by training Foggia, Licata or Pescara." Zdenek Zeman
In Zeman’s Licata the players were “able to play ninety minutes into the opponent half,” as the coach once stated. His success there led Zeman to Foggia in Serie C1 in 1986. There he would make a name for himself, receiving nationwide attention from media and fans.
Words by Michele Tossani @MicheleTossani
Michele Tossani is a tactical analyst for Spielverlagerung, Rivista Undici, Futbol Tactico and many others.