Wilfried opens up | 

Memories of homelessness help Zaha 'appreciate everything even more'

Giving back: Wilfried Zaha has given a percentage of his earnings to charity since signing his first professional contract aged 16. Photo: Getty

Giving back: Wilfried Zaha has given a percentage of his earnings to charity since signing his first professional contract aged 16. Photo: Getty

Jason Burt

Wilfried Zaha has never spoken about the day he and his family became homeless - until now.

Zaha was just six when one of his older brothers, Herve, collected him from Whitehorse Manor Junior School, a short walk from Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park stadium. Straight away, he knew something was wrong.

The Zaha family lived in Rothesay Road, from where you can see the Selhurst floodlights, but Herve led his brother the other way.

"I knew my parents were struggling to make ends meet but we just didn't go home," Zaha explains. "I was thinking: 'Where are we going?' but he (Herve) was finding it hard to explain. We ended up going to this place and I thought: 'This is not our home.' But my whole family was there and I could tell from the mood that things were not good."

The Zahas had decamped to a shelter, where they stayed for a few days before being dispersed among various relatives.

Eventually a new house was found, in nearby South Norwood, but young Wilfried never returned to the old place.

"No one ever explained to me what happened and I didn't ask," he admits. "When you are in that kind of situation it just is what it is. Even now I don't know what that other house was.


"My parents must have been scrabbling around, thinking, 'What do we do next?' so I didn't ask too many questions. I could just tell things were not right. At the time it was difficult, what was going on. But I have learnt not to overthink things or let them drag me down."

Zaha has become one of English football's superstars at Palace, regularly namechecked as being among the best players outside the established elite and currently enjoying the best season of his career.

And while he never returned to live at Rothesay Road, its memories have never left him: indeed, before every Crystal Palace home game he makes a point of driving past.

"Just to have a look and think this is where it all started," he says.

There were 11 of them crammed in that three-bedroom terraced house. Zaha was the youngest of six boys, who shared one bedroom, while his three sisters slept in another (Wilf is the second youngest of all).

"There was a bunk bed - one of us on top, two below, which was slightly bigger - and three sleeping on the floor," he recalls. "Looking back it's like: 'How did we do that?' but then, well, it's hard to explain. You look back at it and think it must have been a struggle but that's all we knew. We enjoyed the warmth of having family around us constantly."

Family means much to Zaha, who has just become a father again with the birth of his second son, Saint. He already has a four-year-old boy, Leo.

"I really welcome that responsibility," he says. "I wake up every day and it gives me more of a purpose. Growing up I wanted to become a footballer and that was all nice but when you really have a purpose sometimes you have a rough day and then you come back home and it's like: 'This is what I do it for'. And I would go through it a million times because these boys of mine are the reason why I work so hard."

Zaha is sometimes criticised for how he reacts to adversity on a football field, and his abilities have taken time to be properly recognised outside of his adoring fanbase in south London.

But in truth, Zaha has always had purpose, always had drive - and empathy, too.

"I have been there," he says. "I have been that kid who had nothing and now I have the opportunity to help people, so why not?" he asks as Roy Hodgson's side prepare for tonight's FA Cup third-round tie at Wolves.

The 28-year-old has his own foundation, funds an orphanage run by his sister Carine in Daloa, Ivory Coast - the country of his birth which the family left when he was four - and offered free accommodation to NHS staff during the first lockdown through a property company he co-owns, something he is willing to do again.

But charity was important to Zaha long before he began earning a high-end Premier League salary.

When he signed his first professional contract, aged 16, Zaha vowed to donate 10 per cent of his earnings and has done so ever since.

"It was about £500-a-week," Zaha recalls of that initial deal. "At the time I was thinking, 'Oh my days, this is a lot'. But it was an agreement I made. Me and my mum (Delphine) would pray and say to God, 'You have done this for me, I am going to give back.' I have done that and it has taken me to these heights and I am happy how far I have come in my career.

"My mum's exactly the same as me. She started the charity for me from that first wage packet, with my first contract. I guess I could have spent it on, I don't know what, but my family, especially my mum, are heavily Christian so it felt like a duty to help. I feel like my life is a testament to God helping me. So as soon as I was able to help, I helped. That's why with everything that's going on now if I have the opportunity to help out then it's a no-brainer."

Maybe so, but a lot of people still choose not to. "I know," Zaha says. "People are just built differently. It's why I haven't spoken about it much because it's a duty for me. I have been there and I just want to help. That's it. I am 100 per cent motivated. I do this every day for my kids, for my family and I also see how many lives I help. Every time I step on that pitch I am hungry, I am passionate about what I do."

Delphine returned to the Ivory Coast, with Zaha helping to fund her work helping widows and providing school clothes and bags of rice and other essentials for families in need.

"Nothing amazing but stuff that gets you through," says Zaha, who also delights in the videos his sister sends him from the Tomorrow's Hope orphanage which cares for 30 children at a time.

Football was not so much an escape as an opportunity that Zaha, who was scouted by Palace aged eight.

"You know, some people think 'I want to become a footballer for everything that comes with it'," he says. "They see a glamorous life but they don't see the sacrifice. From when I was young I just loved football. That's it. I didn't think about the whole football lifestyle. I didn't even know anything about it.

"I looked at football, purely. Cars and stuff were not important. It was just the love of football and I was willing to do anything. Nothing could steer me away from football and any sacrifices I had to make I would make.

"That tunnel vision really kicked in. I remember going to a party and there were fights so I had near misses. It could have gone either way. But it was like, 'This is your path, stay here.'

"It's not like I went to many parties - and my parents were very strict with me - but I would sneak out and when I did it would be the one time when something happened!

"The hundreds of times when I didn't go my friends would say: 'You missed out on the best party ever. But I thought to myself: 'You know what? Stay in your lane and do what you are good at.'"

His eldest son, Leo, is already showing promise but Zaha is keen for him to also appreciate how fortunate he is. "I have to make sure my kids understand that the things I give them now I did not have when I was younger and that those things come from hard work. Leo got so much stuff at Christmas and when I was his age I had one toy.

Four is a bit young to be telling him - and I am willing to give him the world - but he eventually needs to understand where these things come from. I will drum it into his head."

Zaha's father, Tiende, has fully recovered from a stroke he suffered in 2019. The pair are close, and Zaha uses their relationship as a template for his own bond with his children.

"I don't want to be in their face but I want to be someone they can approach," he says.

So how does Zaha look back now on the experience of losing the home in Rothesay Road? "It's just something that happened in my life. It makes me appreciate everything even more," he states. "I thank God for what I have been through."

There is just time for one more story, which shines yet more light on how Zaha has fuelled his remarkable rise.

"When I was younger, one of my brothers, who I used to live with, said: 'Come, I will show you this road.' And we would drive around here and say: 'Look at this house and this house.' They were dream houses - and now I have managed to buy one. So how can I not give back?" (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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