Ten years ago, somewhere in a Lyon suburb, a young Kurt Zouma was turning out for youth side Vaulx-en-Velin, primarily as a forward player. Around the same time, Stoke City FC were plying their trade in the second tier of English football with Jamaica’s Ricardo Fuller their star player.
Fast-forward to the present day and there’s been promotion to the big time, record transfer fees and European football. At this stage, Stoke City are an established Premier League force. For Kurt Zouma, that same period brought a meteoric rise through the ranks at Saint Etienne, an U20 World Cup title in 2013, followed by a move to Chelsea where he picked up two league titles with the Blues.
This season, Zouma and Stoke have crossed paths with the French defender accepting the chance to join Stoke's fight for survival in order to prove himself and bounce back from a horrific injury sustained over a year ago. I’m in Stoke-on-Trent for the day – to meet with Kurt Zouma – and my first conversation in a cab inevitably turned to the man in question. "He's class he is, and I tell you what, we're lucky we’ve got him. I hear other European clubs were in for him." David, my driver, was old enough to remember the mid-90s era of fiery derby matches with Port Vale. Today, the gulf between the two is an enormous three divisions and most importantly, millions in annual turnover – allowing Stoke the capacity to bring in a young French international and league champion.
An imposing and towering figure at 6 foot 4 inches, in person there’s a childlike warmth to Kurt Zouma, set off by a radiant smile and a positive outlook. Immediately firing off jokes in my direction, firstly on the NBA and later English food combinations, we spoke about life in the Potteries, growing up in France and the long road to Russia 2018.
VERSUS: It’s 2018 and everyone is already looking to the World Cup. What was the first World Cup you can remember watching?
Kurt Zouma: The first World Cup I remember was 2006. We won it in 98 but I was only four-years-old at the time. So that one in 06, that’s when I was a big supporter and we done really well.
Which player can you remember identifying with mostly growing up?
That would be Didier Drogba, he was a really big role model for me, when he started at Marseille and then of course he went to Chelsea. He was a really good man, too. I loved Ronaldo also, I used to watch him a lot.
The Brazilian one! Then later I started playing in defence, I used to watch John Terry a lot, a great defender.
You used to play in attack so in making the transition from a winger to the backline, what were the main things you needed to adjust?
Everything! Okay, firstly as a defender you don’t have the opportunities to score goals and then you have to think a lot more about timing. Making the right pass, the right time to tackle, or the right time to be aggressive, stay on your feet. So many different things.
Speaking with a fan on the way here, he showed me statistics that you have the highest win percentage in aerial challenges and tackles, of any French defender in England. How hopeful are you of making the squad for the World Cup this summer?
Yes that’s the target, for sure, and I hope I will. It’s why I came to Stoke, to play and get more game time, and hopefully make the World Cup team. It’s the manager’s choice but I’ve got to make sure I’m playing.
What was the conversation you had with Chelsea before you moved out?
I needed to play after my injury and the club understood this, so we discussed a loan for this season and everyone was happy with this. I had a bad injury, it took me time to get back.
You’ve experienced playing under both Mourinho and Conte, what would you say are the big differences between both, in how they approach the game and their training methods?
They’re both good managers but let me tell you about Conte – he loves tactics. Mourinho doesn’t do as much video, it’s more about playing football. Conte watches so much video, always looking at the system, the movement, everything has to be perfect to try and win the game. They’re both very different.
Do you all watch the videos back together?
Usually we all watch the videos together, as a team. Sometimes the manager will take the defenders apart and they’ll work separately. If you make a mistake, a bad slide, everyone will laugh. When you know you’ve messed up and you can see that time is coming on the video, you start thinking ooh la la (laughs), I hope he misses it but he never misses it, he’ll stop the video and give us advice – it’s good.
I can remember from Football Manager, maybe four or five years ago, you were rated as a ‘wonderkid’ when you were at Saint Etienne. That’s obviously a game but in reality, did you feel that pressure to live up to predictions that you’d become a world class player?
Back then I was young, I just wanted to be seen as a good defender and by then I heard some rumours, maybe Chelsea and some other European clubs. It feels good at the time because you know, more people will know you, that means you’re doing your job, it’s going well. The thing is, you have to remember it’s just rumours, to make it happen you have to keep on working for it.
I’ve heard a lot of great things about the fans at Saint Etienne, how would you compare them to fans in your experience at Chelsea and also here at Stoke?
To be fair, the fans at Saint Etienne…I’ve never seen anything like it my life. Honestly. They’re just so crazy, especially in the derby against Lyon. I’d say at Chelsea, it’s different, but they’re still always behind us. I remember the year when we were playing really bad, they were still always behind us. At Stoke, I’ve only just come here but when I play at home you can feel it, it’s unbelievable.
“I’ve heard about Giggs recently and I like him, also Stormzy I’ve been listening to him a lot.”
I’m only just getting into French music this summer, French rap in particular. What would you recommend?
MHD, definitely, also Graduur. Those two at the moment, they’ve got good beats, good lyrics and they’re really saying something, you know?
Who’s in control of the music on trips or in the changing room at Chelsea and at Stoke?
At Chelsea it changes, it could be anyone. At Stoke, at the moment, it’s maybe Peter Crouch but he puts on old stuff. It’s relaxing sometimes but other times, it just makes me put in my headphones. At Chelsea it was even the kit man sometimes but mainly, it’s Batshuayi or David Luiz.
How about music from the UK, have you picked up much since you’ve been here?
I’ve heard about Giggs recently and I like him, also Stormzy I’ve been listening to him. I like to listen to American artists though, I like Chris Brown’s stuff right now, that new one, “Pills and Automobiles.” My drive to training is mainly where I listen to my music, it takes me about 40 minutes to get in.
How would you describe your personal style?
I like Nike – mainly Air Max. I can’t wear everything, I just know that like to be comfortable especially, when I come to training. I prefer tracksuits.
So we’re not about to see you exploring different fashion looks like Russell Westbrook?
No way! He’s crazy, he makes me laugh but that’s just him. I feel like it’s different in football, you don’t really dress up like this. I’m a simple guy anyway, I just like to be simple.
I can see you follow Anthony Joshua on Instagram, are you a big boxing fan?
When he fights, I have to see. I just know he’s going to get a KO, so I have to see what’s going on. With Floyd Mayweather it’s also the same, I have to see it. I don’t really watch too much away from football, mainly the NBA.
What do you take away from watching boxing or basketball and how do you help transfer those things, to your game in football?
The desire to win, to just compete, always at 100%. It’s different within each sport but boxing, it’s the desire to beat the guy and to destroy him. In basketball, it’s all about making the right shot at the right time. With football, it’s to score the goals when you get the chances.
“Mbappe and Dembele…unbelievable. They’ve got that maturity. They carry themselves like they’re 25-years-old.”
Can you remember an opponent that really taught you a lesson when you were younger, someone that was tough to play against?
I remember when I was young I played against a player in France, he’s playing now at Strasbourg, Idris Saadi. He was a striker, in fact when we were younger, I used to call him Aguero. He was so strong and quick, he could turn so fast. After that first game against him, I knew you have to be a quicker, sharper and stronger than him. Then when I joined the first team, I knew the level was high. I knew I had to work, my friend.
Tell us a bit about your celebration last month with Choupo-Moting, did you discuss it or plan beforehand…
No, never! It’s just instinct, honestly. We did it first at Man United, when he scored, and then when I scored it was just natural and we’ll continue. We love each other, he’s a good friend of mine so when we score, we’re just happy for each other.
On the mental side of recovering from a bad injury, what advice would you give to anyone else trying to return in your situation?
The first thing you have to know, it’s going to be long. You have to be positive. My family and my friends are and we also saw are used to stay with them I’ll be joking playing PlayStation, playing cards…sometimes I go back to France when I was off. You have to work hard and take a rehabilitation seriously, don’t miss anything out, you need to give 100%. You have to understand, the doctor has his job and he knows what he’s doing, he’s not trying to kill you, he’s only there for advice and to help.
This is probably the best group of players France have had, since maybe the 98-02 era teams. Do the players feel the added pressure to deliver, especially after losing in the final of the Euros at home?
Erm…I don’t think so. I think with us, it’s all about confidence, we’re confident in our game and we’re confident we can win, if there’s a lot of pressure on the players, it can bring them down. We’re a very young team but with the team we have and the players we’ve got, I say we can win. Players like Varane, even though he’s young but still really vocal. We’ve got the players technically and the experienced players, Koscielny, Lloris, Giroud, and we all know, you need experience to win.
You’ve obviously played under huge expectations as a teenager, how do you feel Mbappe and Dembele are coping with this?
Unbelievable. Those two, they’ve got that maturity. The way they carry themselves, on the pitch and off the pitch, it’s like they’re 25-years-old.