The real Wilfried Zaha is standing up.
Crystal Palace may have lost 2 – 1 at Leicester City the night before we Zoom but, after scoring his 10th goal of the season, the Ivorian’s personal high is palpable.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made myself more effective,” the 28-year-old says from home, ahead of an evening with his two sons.
“My dribbling is not even that high this season, but I’ve got 10 goals, so it’s like I don’t need to. The main thing is for me to be scoring goals regularly.”
Zaha’s devastating dribbling skills once put him on par with Messi and Neymar. But he sacrificed that part of his game after having the word “inconsistent” levelled at his performances. The change is paying off: the forward scored his 11th goal against Aston Villa on Sunday.
Little wonder he’s currently caught in a never-ending cycle of transfer talk. Zaha has come full circle with the Eagles, after breaking into the first team from the academy, and returning following stints at Manchester United and Cardiff City in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Although he’s respectful to his boyhood club, his ambitions are bigger – especially after that United stint. He’s most recently been linked to Arsenal, as well as Everton and Tottenham.
“I feel like I can have another shot at the top teams, because my dream is to win things,” he says. “I’m good enough to go out there and compete with the best. If the opportunity came, I wouldn’t turn it down, because I feel like I deserve it. It’s so I can show my kids: ‘This is what daddy won.’”
Chilled in a 424 black and red tie-dye top, Zaha’s famous technicolor hair is, today, hidden by a backwards black cap (the Ivorian had brown tips on his shoot for THE FACE, but his dreads have recently been tinged light green). It’s an ongoing rebellion from his parents who wouldn’t let him experiment with his hair when he was younger.
“I’ve got hair now, so why not? I just like to be different. I’m really not like the average footballer. I don’t like to dress the same and I don’t think the same.”
By intentionally standing tall and not taking a Colin Kaepernick-style knee before matches, Zaha is proving he’s different in other ways, too. At the FT Business of Football summit in February, the adoptive South Londoner was very clear about why he stopped the “degrading” action. Labelling it as little more than a box-ticking exercise without any meaningful action, he felt that kneeling was also at odds with the sense of pride in his Blackness that was instilled in him growing up.
“When I say what I feel, I make sure it’s understood. I give my reasons why, so people can’t misconstrue anything I’m saying,” he says. He recognises that his unapologetic honesty and outspokenness has led to tabloid trouble in the past. Tellingly, he remains the only Premier League player who’s not taking the knee.
“People see me on a pitch and think: ‘Oh my God, he’s just an angry guy.’ So I try to do more interviews where they can see that I’m actually just normal.” His version of normal? A series of side hustles that include paused fashion label Long Live, a chauffeur business and London apartments that he manages with his friend.
A certified hypebeast with collections of Jordans, Balenciaga sneakers and the odd bedazzled watch, Zaha enjoyed dressing up in the mix of utilitarian tailoring, fun prints and bright knits for the shoot.
“Some of the bottoms were way too flared for me,” he says, laughing. “I like to be comfortably swaggy. I don’t like to overdress. I could be in tracksuit bottoms, a hoodie and certain trainers, but it still goes together.”
The most revealing shot is a bare-chested crop, which centres Zaha’s “Faith Only” tattoo. He’s been paying tithes (donating 10 per cent of his income to the church) since he was young. Unsurprisingly, his deposits are more “hefty” these days.
“I feel like my life is a testimony that God actually helps,” he explains. “I went through stages where only faith got me through. Times when I was just depressed and no one could get me out of the place that I was in. I speak to God every day. I wake up, I pray. Just before we start the games, I put my game in God’s hands. ”
In February, an enlightening episode of the On the Judy podcast filled gaps in the story of Zaha’s upbringing. He moved from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire to Croydon, London aged four with his nine siblings, experienced homelessness by six and figured out he was talented at football at a young age. Even though Zaha started his international career representing England, he’s very much in touch with his Ivory Coast roots and switched allegiances after Ivorian Chelsea legend Didier Drogba called him personally.
“I can [speak] French, but the funniest thing is most of the country thinks I can’t,” he says, adding that his mum lives in Côte d’Ivoire. His experiences growing up inspired his charity work there, primarily an orphanage that he funds and his sister runs. The Zaha Foundation aims to rebuild inner-city areas, so that young people can access social activities in a secure environment.
“My mindset was just to help whoever needed help. Because being in that predicament where you have no help is the worst. I’ve been there,” he says. Now trying to bring his foundation to England, the footballer is thinking about opening youth centres in Croydon to create opportunities for young people.
“I’m still in the process of thinking [about] exactly how I’m going to put it together,” he says. “[But] I want to combine that with making opportunities somehow, so when they go there, they can learn something.”
Given his life experiences and the world-shaking reckonings of the past year, Zaha is acutely aware of his power to set an example to others – a trait he shares with close friend, Stormzy.
The pair have known each for some time, he says, through mutual acquaintances and going out (the parties Zaha used to throw sound legendary). What’s more, they’ve stayed cool. So much so, in fact, that when Stormzy was curating a group of “Black up-and-coming excellence” for a 2019 Elle cover, he made sure that Zaha was part of it.
“It’s two Black boys making it, from an area that people think is the worst. We’ve got the same aspirations, ambitions and [we] gotta stay connected, man.”
With such a high-profile friend from the world of music, what would the soundtrack to a life as colourful and dramatic as Wilfried Zaha’s be?
“Young Thug, Hot,” he says, smiling, after a pause. “Because I’m 28, but my career’s still hot. People thought I was done: going to Man United and that not working out, me going to Cardiff.
“But I’ve gone back to Palace, restarted my career, and I’ve stayed relevant and hot throughout this time. My name is still in people’s mouths. You can say what you want but I’m still here and I’m still hot.”
Grooming by Nicola Harrowell at Premier Hair and Makeup, using Boy de CHANEL and CHANEL Le Lift Lotion