Wilfried Zaha has rejected Gareth Southgate’s suggestion that he had imposed a timescale to be selected again by England, effectively holding the national team to ransom, and has defended his right to instead represent the country of his birth, Ivory Coast.
The Crystal Palace forward, who had been capped by England in friendlies against Sweden and Scotland during Roy Hodgson’s tenure as manager, was infuriated by Southgate’s comments in the aftermath of the World Cup qualifying victory against Lithuania on Sunday. Zaha issued a statement through his representative, Will Salthouse of Unique Sports Management, on Tuesday and implied disappointment that England’s recently appointed permanent manager had made public details of a meeting held with the winger in December.
“In light of recent comments and reports questioning Wilfried’s desire or passion to play for England I feel it’s important to set the record straight,” the statement read. “Wilfried did not impose a timescale or set a date by which he had to be selected by England, there was no ‘disappearing egg timer’. The ‘private’ meeting with Mr Southgate was very amicable.
“However the fact remains that Wilfried made his decision to play for the Ivory Coast prior to Mr Southgate being appointed interim and subsequently permanent England manager. It was Wilfried’s personal choice and it was his right as a senior player to accept the opportunity to represent his nation of birth and that of his family heritage. His ‘desire’ or ‘passion’ should never have been publicly questioned for making that decision. Wilfried is very proud of his family and very proud to represent the Ivory Coast, most recently demonstrated by his performance against Russia.”
Zaha scored his second international goal, a fine individual effort, in that fixture in Krasnodar last Friday with the Palace co-chairman, Steve Parish, subsequently taking to social media to express his own frustration that England had waived the opportunity to embrace such a fine attacking talent. Southgate suggested those comments were not “helpful”.
The England manager, appointed as Sam Allardyce’s successor towards the end of last year, had visited the 24‑year‑old at Palace’s team hotel before the 3-3 draw at Hull City in mid-December. “I didn’t really appreciate there was this disappearing egg timer on him [Zaha] going to the Ivory Coast,” Southgate said. “He was the first player I went to see when I got the job permanently but he’d already made his mind up.”
Southgate went on to insist that he would only select players “who are desperate to play for England”, and said: “If you don’t feel that internal 100% passion for playing for England, then I’m not sure it’s for me to sell that to you.”
Zaha was born in Abidjan to Ivorian parents and moved to Thornton Heath, south London, when he was four. On Monday he took part in a friendly game against Senegal in Paris that was eventually abandoned because of a pitch invasion.
The player had been called up by Hodgson for a 4-2 friendly defeat in Sweden in late 2012, when Palace were still in the Championship, and gained a second against Scotland at Wembley the following summer after his £15m move to Manchester United.
Yet, despite representing the England under-21s, he was overlooked thereafter with his progress back at Palace unrewarded. The Ivorian Football Association then began a process of exploring his willingness to represent the country of his birth and, having been granted the necessary clearance by Fifa, he was duly selected by the national coach, Michel Dussuyer, for the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon earlier this year.
“For the past four years, I have had ample time to analyse my situation and to take into account the solicitations of the Ivorian Football Association,” the player said in an interview published on the body’s website in January. “Now I have made my choice. I am proud to play for my country. I made the right choice and I do not regret it.”