"I was fighting my demons by myself": Wilfried Zaha opens up about the flipside of fame
The Crystal Palace striker reveals all
Hi Wilfried. Do you have a ‘look’?
I don’t have a specific look. It’s whatever I feel comfortable in at the time. Sometimes I’ll get up and dress smart, and then sometimes I’ll get up and wear the baggiest tracksuit. On a day-to-day basis, I wear oversized T-shirts, fitted tracksuit bottoms and shoes such as Balenciaga Triple S trainers. I want it to be effortless; when you see my swag, it’s not, like, “He’s trying too hard.”
Football changing rooms can be merciless places. Do you have to be careful what you wear?
Not at Palace. When I was at Manchester United it was ruthless at times. People would come back from training and find their clothes hung from the ceiling or even cut up. Imagine buying your clothes and someone takes scissors to them!
Wow, that’s genuinely upsetting. Who’s the worst-dressed player you know?
Damien Delaney. He had T-shirts that looked like he’d ripped them himself. Like, this T-shirt would show the whole of his chest. I don’t know if you’re trying to show off a tattoo or show off your nip. And certain shoes he wore? Awful, man. But he got better with time.
You’ve got your own clothing label. How did that come about?
A couple of years ago I started taking what I wore a little bit more seriously. Some of the stuff I wanted to wear and I pictured in my head, I couldn’t find. I thought, “Why don’t I attempt to make my own stuff?”
As a footballer, is it important for you to have other interests?
Yeah, definitely. Football gets stressful, man. You need to unwind any way you can. [Designing clothes] is something that I really like, so I can get my head into it and switch off from football.
Speaking of football, you decided in 2016 to represent the Ivory Coast instead of England. How did you feel watching the World Cup? Any regrets?
None. I did want to play with England because I’ve been here since the age of four, but it reached a point where I thought, “What am I waiting for? I want an international career, am I really going to get an opportunity [with England]?” The Ivory Coast had been begging for ages. The country and the fans love me already, and I haven’t even done anything. I may not get the red carpet, it may not have the same Nike deals as when you play for England, but I’m going to be playing, I’m going to be loved, and that’s all I want. Nothing else. So when I watched the World Cup I was annoyed, yeah, because we could have been there.
How do experiences like that and your time at Man United affect your confidence?
It’s hard to take. Obviously, getting to United isn’t easy, so not being given a chance is hard to take. I don’t regret anything because it made me stronger. I feel as though I can deal with anything now. I went through so much with United, with England. There were rumours that the reason I wasn’t playing [many games] for United was because I slept with [then manager] David Moyes’s daughter, and no one [at the club] attempted to clear that up. So I was fighting my demons by myself, these rumours that I knew weren’t true. I was dealing with this at 19; living in Manchester by myself, nowhere near anyone else, because the club had a hold over where I lived. They hadn’t given me a car, like every other player [had]. Nothing. I’m living in this hell by myself, away from my family, and I thought, “If this doesn’t make me stronger, what will?”
Do you think that sometimes people forget that footballers are human beings?
Yeah, they really do. I explain this to my friends all the time. When I was at United I had [money], but I was still so down and depressed. People think your life’s different because you’ve got money, you’ve got fame, so they don’t treat you the same.
Do you think that makes it harder for players and fans to connect?
One thing that I try to do on my Instagram is to be relatable. I try to put normal stuff on there; things that a normal human being thinks, says and feels. I’m not really looking for answers on Instagram. I like to put how I feel, say it so it’s not just in my head. If I’m feeling happy or sad. But I hope you can look at my Instagram and think, “Oh wow, Wilf feels like that. I’ve felt like that before.”