Steve Zakuani interview: ‘Let’s take it back to the concrete streets…’ – Sounders favourite’s original beats for an emerald playground
Football and music gave Steve Zakuani his relatable role models growing up in Tottenham, with both providing the platform for his expression to roam free as he went from North London teenager to a young adult illuminating Major League Soccer. Through come-ups to comebacks, and an ultimately early farewell to playing, the ex-Seattle Sounders winger’s best-loved worlds have kept with him like his two sidekicks in a sparkling three-pronged attack.
Set largely across three different nations, shaped by blissful highs, painful jolts and crucial turning points, the Steve Zakuani story has already been told often. It is the true-to-life layers, the moments of stardust, and a cordial chief protagonist that makes it so worthy of retelling.
It is one for anybody to read into, whether a staunch supporter of MLS, a kid in a neighbourhood dreaming of emulating Steve, or just a human being open to taking inspiration from one of their own overcoming the knocks to move in a new direction with no loss of enthusiasm. Congolese-born, he was the undeniably talented but wayward Arsenal teenager who clambered back on the right path, landing in MLS via U.S. college soccer in 2009, and he was pretty damn good once he arrived.
What later followed for the Sounders standout included injury heartbreak, a long-awaited and emotional return, and his poignant retirement in 2014 at 26 years old. As Steve’s pursuit of a comeback this year with the team where he shone so brightly recently proved, there is a whole lot of this motion picture to run, even if the field won’t be the centre-stage for the remaining scenes.
There are key themes throughout: hope, adaptability, an ever-stirring passion, and the knowledge that there’s always that next chance. Also ticking along all the while are football and music; constant in his life to this day and responsible for presenting him and his peers with the embodiment of something to reach for back home in Tottenham, as Steve recalls.
“I can safely say that the first role model any of us from my neighbourhood or school had was Ian Wright, because he was a top footballer at Arsenal at the time, but he was just real, he was raw. We loved Ian Wright, and then for me, it became all the music guys.
“They weren’t even on TV, it was just the music you could relate to so much. Then Thierry Henry I would say probably became the biggest one because I was playing in the Arsenal youth team when he was on top of the world.
“I think football and music, those were the two that we constantly saw in front of us and could relate to.”
Seeing out his career with the New York Red Bulls, World Cup winner Henry is a character Steve would become familiar with as their MLS years intertwined. He had been in the Arsenal youth setup when the Frenchman was cruising in his own lane in the Premier League for the Gunners and he could only have dreamed then that Henry would be one to offer wisdom to him one day about a life after playing.
While Steve came from the UK scene to find his own international platform, the grime sound of his youth also excelled, far beyond what could ever have been projected when DJs and MCs around London first began showcasing the genre’s unfiltered energy. It all came back around to Steve recently when he heard that fellow Tottenham native Skepta, widely synonymous with grime, was playing a sold-out show in Seattle.
Grime was a passion for Steve as a teenager, but it was also a welcome escape and shelter of sorts at a time of heightened introspection some years on. For around two years, he visited a studio near Seattle Sounders’ CenturyLink Field home stadium with friends in the area who had a liking for grime, which let him revisit writing music, as he had done growing up.
They would produce music for fun and Steve put out a mixtape to raise money for a local charity. The studio sessions could last way into the early hours and it was a period that coincided with his rehabilitation from the broken tibia and fibula suffered in April 2011 that is understandably so frequently referenced when his career is discussed.
For some people, music merely takes a background role and a great deal of thought may never really be given to what they consume and why, yet for so many more of us, there are certain songs and artists that feel as if they are playing to a secret corner of who we are. Steve’s field of listening is relatively vast, although he explains why his memory bank is pre-set to frequencies of underground nostalgia.
“Number one is grime, just because when I was growing up, that was the music I listened to mostly. I can go on YouTube now and find some of the old pirate radio sessions that I listened to in 2001 and 2002 and I can remember where I was when I listened to that one or two-hour session.
“I still listen to mainstream grime but I prefer the stuff from ten, 15 years ago, when it was more raw and not produced quite as well. That was my pre-game music to get the blood flowing and try to pump myself up.
“I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t listen to not just grime but a lot of different music. I do like U.S. hip-hop, a lot of reggae, but I think just as I’m getting older I’m expanding my listening a bit more.”
Taking top billing as number one in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and Seattle’s very first pick in franchise history, Steve was a Rookie of the Year finalist and felt his form soaring in 2010 and early-2011. He would score 16 regular-season goals and assist on 12 in little over two seasons prior to his injury, helping fire Seattle to back-to-back Western Conference semi-final appearances and netting the Sounders’ consolation in a 3-1 aggregate loss to LA Galaxy in November 2010.
The stats make impressive reading to this day, although they don’t quite capture how his performances managed to resonate with the soccer community of ‘The Emerald City’ he still calls home. Sounders fans still never hesitate to remind him of his golden moments.
There are endless ways a person adapts to new surroundings; from interests they take on, to the sports teams they adopt, and maybe even acquiring the accent. While Seattle admittedly sits behind a few spots in the country music capitals of America, Steve’s time in the Pacific Northwest has seen that southern style become much more familiar, although he is in little doubt as to why!
“My wife loves country music, so I’ve probably listened to more country in the last two years than I ever have in my life. We went to a concert here in Seattle last year and it was Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean headlining.
“The concert was nice and there’s a country kind of bar not far from where we live that I’ve gone to a couple of times as well. I’m not buying the music, but five, six, seven years ago, I would never have even considered going to a concert or listening to it.”
Spotted by the University of Akron while at the Independent Football Academy development centre in North London, Steve rewinds the track to when he got his hands on his first album. Before a whole world of musical selection was just a keyboard type away, it was a classic studio debut out of Brooklyn that racked up some serious sound-system mileage.
“The first album I ever listened to from back to front was Notorious B.I.G. ‘Ready to Die’ and I listened to that probably about 1999, so it was after it came out and he was already dead by then. It was in my music rotation for about four years and so he’s my favourite artist, period.
“I like bars, I like lyrics, and he was the best at it, for me. One of my older friends in my neighbourhood gave me that CD and I just never stopped listening to it.
“As of today, Drake’s my favourite artist, just for the variety that he brings, but all-time it’s definitely Biggie.”
Twice a U.S. Open Cup winner with the Sounders, Steve lit up many a game in Seattle green and his link-up with the likes of Colombian forward Fredy Montero is fondly remembered. Returning to the field in July 2012 after 15 incredibly testing months out, he fought incessantly to recapture what everyone had seen he was so brilliantly capable of.
While he would play plenty more times over the following seasons, the injury niggles always blighted him and after a considerably interrupted 2014 season at the Portland Timbers, Steve officially announced his retirement in October that year. After adding the broadcast world to his foundation and charity efforts, an unexpected comeback chase surfaced a few months ago.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer was quoted as saying Steve was ‘somewhere between training and on trial,’ with the club’s popular former number 11 on the practice field with the 2016 champions from late last year. He had worked himself back into top condition but announced early in February that after much thought he would not be taking part in the 2017 season, feeling that while he believed he could reach a high level again within a few months, he was not willing to take up someone’s roster spot while he found his feet.
Steve also cited his desire to continue with his non-playing endeavours, which has included a broadcast analyst role with the club where he made his name. Nothing could quite replicate the buzz of playing, although that’s not to say there aren’t some surprise perks to his role now.
“Probably the best concert I went to was most recently, when I was working with the Sounders on the TV side. They had a game in Kansas on the Sunday and we landed there on the Saturday night, so we were just there for 24 hours.
“When I got to the hotel, it was just packed with people and I was like, ‘there’s no way they’re all there for the game, what’s going on here?’ We came to find out that Drake was in town with Future, so I got a ticket and went to the show.”
Touring MLS venues across the U.S. and Canada was thousands of miles off in more than one respect as Steve attended White Hart Secondary School as a teen. He actually came from even further away from North America than that, with the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo his birthplace.
Steve was only four when he moved with his family to England and he has a right-arm tattoo of a crown over the African continent as an additional display of pride for his heritage. His early life took him on a voyage but just like soccer charges down barriers, he quickly saw via an all-time icon how music can too.
Despite being on early-90s video, the artist’s superstar energy came through with more clarity than any present-day HD picture, and partly for that reason, he would headline any dream festival Steve would be in charge of.
“For me, it’s impossible to name anyone other than Michael Jackson. When I moved from Africa to London, we had a VCR and the first tape I ever watched was a Michael Jackson concert.
“We couldn’t understand any of the words, because we didn’t speak English, but you just knew something special was happening because people were fainting or collapsing every time he did the moonwalk or something like that.”
There had been much interest in Steve on his way up in soccer, although by his own admission, his life had greatly needed the help he was afforded by his school teacher, Mr. Goodison, who chose him for an after-school programme aimed at helping guide kids ‘in danger of not making it.’ Released by Arsenal and involved in a motorcycle accident with his friends, Steve credits Mr. Goodison for communicating life lessons to him and the other kids before challenging them to go out and apply them.
With the knee injury he’d suffered in the aforementioned accident affecting his chances at domestic clubs, he felt ready to go after his American opportunity when it arose. He would have two years at the University of Akron, playing under Caleb Porter during his time in Ohio, who would later be the last coach in his pro career, at Portland.
With six goals to his name as a freshman, Steve racked up 20 in 2008, along with seven assists as he led the nation in scoring with 47 points. Named Soccer America’s Men’s Collegiate Player of the Year, as well as finishing runner-up for the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy, he was recognised with a number of other accolades and subsequently left for MLS after that sophomore season.
Steve’s Zips teammates had included future U.S. internationals in Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe and New England Revolution forward Teal Bunbury, and he would later successfully recommend Akron to an up-and-coming DeAndre Yedlin, as the Sounders youth player and present-day Newcastle United and USA full-back sought his advice.
Steve’s older brother, Gabriel, currently plays for Northampton Town in League One back home but back in 2007, the one-time Fulham and Stoke City defender featured in the video for Dizzee Rascal’s song ‘Flex.’ Before he rose to mainstream acclaim, Dizzee got on the mic at the Stratford Rex raves Steve went to as a teenager, so when he started college, he paid homage to the ‘Boy in da Corner.’
“When you’re a freshman, you have to perform a song. I think we played the beat from 50 Cent ‘In Da Club’ and then I did a Dizzee Rascal verse from ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’.
“It went down well because everyone else sang – someone did Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls – but I was the only one to rap. When I got to Seattle, I was lucky because it was the first year in Major League Soccer so those traditions weren’t really established.”
Steve added his own style to the multi-national Sounders locker room, but with ex-Fulham forwards Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey there during his time, they were familiar with the grime sound he introduced. Steve says if he ever got on a track with former teammates, it’d be those two who’d get a call.
In goalkeeper Kasey Keller, he had a colleague he remembered watching on TV back in England, and he learned just recently that the former Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur man (and heavy metal enthusiast) once went to an N.W.A. concert. Through his Sounders association, Steve has also met legendary Seattle band Pearl Jam, but what made it big behind the scenes while he was playing for the club?
“When I first got to the team, I was a young guy, so I didn’t have much of a say, but we had one of the veteran defenders, Tyrone Marshall, and he would play a lot of Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley and hip-hop. Every now and again, Kasey would play some of his stuff; I think it was too raw for most of us, but it was pretty cool to see him play that.
“I would say the kitman was the main one who played it and it kind of stuck to popular top 40 hip-hop. As I got more established, I would slip in there and play some of the grime.”
Then there was the style Steve brought to the field, which undoubtedly had elements of ‘street football’ as he took it upon himself to work off instinct in trying to beat players. It is a way of playing seen in so many of the game’s great entertainers down the years and two more recent examples back in England have been Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha and Everton wideman Yannick Bolasie.
In Steve’s view, how much of the way he played was down to what he was coached growing up, and how much came from learning as he played for fun?
“I think the first place you learn it is the street. You go to the park after school and you’re playing with all the kids from the neighbourhood; I can remember being 11 and some of the other kids were 15 or so, so a lot stronger.
“Tackles would come in and no-one hardly ever called fouls, so you had to be quick and learn to shift the ball. That’s for me where it came from, and if you did a crazy skill or something you’d get a reaction, so people were always looking for that.
“I remember Jay-Jay Okocha doing street skills in the Premier League for Bolton and I couldn’t believe it. You’d go out for your Sunday league team after watching Match of the Day and you’d try to do some of those things.
“At school at break times, we’d have epic games; sometimes it would be 15 on 15 in a small space, so I kind of learned it like that and at Arsenal it was put into tactics, but never taken out of me.”
Steve says Ronaldinho would be the one he’d get on the training field if he could have some shooting practice with any player from all-time, although before the ex-Barcelona number 10’s reign at the top, it was his compatriot Ronaldo. ‘R9’ may have never played for an English club but his ability was such that in the late 90s especially, he was the one who’d always be mentioned by kids around the country as they tried to emulate the dazzling striker at the park, at school or wherever there was a ball.
That was also very much the case for Steve and his peers for a time, as he recalls with a flash of samba-infused sentimentality.
“Oh yeah, I can remember the ’98 World Cup; I was in school and the first game was Brazil versus Scotland. It started I think around 4, and school finished at 3:30, so me and my friends, we’d usually take a couple of buses but there was no time.
“We ran miles to get home to watch this game and Ronaldo had these boots; these silver boots made especially for him. I can never decide between him and Henry who was the best striker when I was growing up.”
Getting an all-star ensemble together is something Steve is by now pretty well-versed in, with his third annual charity match set to take place in July. The 2017 Zakuani & Friends Charity Game is in conjunction with Steve’s non-profit organisation, Kingdom Hope, with funds to go toward its new initiative #project50, which aims to give out 50 scholarships to student athletes in the next five years.
Taking place on July 2nd at Starfire Stadium in Seattle, the game is due to feature ex-MLS players as well as NFL names in Chad Johnson and the recently unretired Marshawn Lynch. Steve has previously done a signing at ex-Seattle Seahawks star Lynch’s clothing store and ‘Beast Mode’ is currently still set to appear despite recently signing with the Oakland Raiders.
One-time Cincinnati Bengals standout Johnson (formerly Chad Ochocinco) has much more of a soccer link, however, with a four-day tryout at Sporting Kansas City in 2011 to his name. Steve says the former Pro Bowl wide receiver is there for way more than just to wave to the crowd.
“Chad is self-proclaimed; he thinks if he lived in Europe for five years he could play for Real Madrid, which isn’t true but he actually believes it! He’s that kind of guy who’s determined and he loves the idea of coming here to Seattle and playing with former players with the U.S. National Team, guys who’ve been in MLS.
“He wants to compete and he’s gonna take it really seriously.”
It was Steve’s aforementioned former teacher Mr. Goodison who took him to hear the late Myles Munroe speak, which would prove pivotal in his path. The motivational speaker and evangelist became a key figure in his life and Steve credits his influence as ultimately helping him to be able to deal with retirement.
He came to understand that who you are doesn’t depend on what you do, while he was able to share much of his outlook on his story in his first book, ‘500 Days’ (in reference to the time between his 2011 injury and return), published in 2015. Steve believes that without the mentors he had between the ages of 16 and 18, he wouldn’t be where he is today, so what would he have to share with the version of himself who was just beginning in the game?
“Probably a couple of things I’d say to him and one of them is to enjoy it, because it goes by really, really quickly. I remember when I first signed with Seattle and we did a pre-season meeting where some ex-pros came and told us what to expect – they all said it’s going to go by really quickly.
“You don’t realise it at the time but it does. It’s hard because you don’t have that perspective, but my advice to me would be to enjoy it; I’d enjoy every away game more and those cities.
“Second thing would be to give it everything you have. Football’s a strange career where you’re done mid-30s, if you’re lucky, and then you have the rest of your life to live and figure out something to do with the same passion.”
Steve has learned to see retiring young as just getting a ten-year headstart on adapting to life after playing, while he feels that after nine surgeries, he was ultimately mature enough to know it was time to close the book. Even with that, the tale is a long way from done and there’s still more to tell from the playing days, including a ‘surreal’ David Beckham story that he’ll share one day.
Continuing to enjoy Seattle and the positive energy he always gets from people there, Steve will always be associated with how he twisted up opponents at his terrific best. Of course that athletic part of him could never be fully shut off, and even when he knew this pre-season that he wouldn’t be continuing, he still wanted to ensure his last session was the hardest he’d ever trained.
If there is a game he wishes he could play again, it would be LA Galaxy in the 2010 playoffs so he could rectify the loss, but if we were talking strictly 5-a-side, who would he recruit to step out there with him?
This is the regular closing question of the last few years on here and the player can choose any four teammates from their career, whether for reasons of friendship, great memories or maybe just ability alone. Steve introduces the fellow members of his starting ‘fab five’ and defensive certainly isn’t the way of it here!
“So many good players, honestly, but probably the best I’ve played with is Obafemi Martins. He had a two-and-a-half-year spell here in Seattle and he was unplayable.
“Just a special player and we became good friends off the pitch as well. Oba’s a good guy but he’s a guy who doesn’t have any ties to anywhere, so I know when he left here people were very upset with him because they’d grown to love him.
“He was the kind of guy you went to the stadium to see make something happen. I wasn’t surprised when he left because he’s played in Italy, England, Germany, Russia, Spain; he’s hardly spent more than three years at any team.
“That’s the kind of person he is; a guy who wants to see the world and different leagues. Off the field, one of the coolest, chilled guys; keeps himself to himself but we used to go out all the time.
“He’s very generous, always has his family around him. (Would he ever get angry?) Oh, if he made the run and he didn’t get the ball, you’d get the stare!
“Then it’d be forgotten about in the next play. He’d be in the team, and there’s a guy I played with in college, he’s at Portland Timbers now – Darlington Nagbe.
“He’s just one of the most special players I’ve played with, in terms of his control, his first touch, his acceleration, the way he sees the game. Just a brilliant player, he has to be in there because he’ll never lose the ball.
“Osvaldo Alonso – probably the best all-round player I’ve played with. Defending and attacking he just reminds me a lot of what Patrick Vieira used to do for Arsenal, with what he’s done here for Seattle.
“The fourth one could be anyone from Clint (Dempsey), Eddie (Johnson), Fredy Montero; so many good players. You know, I’ll put Tyrone Marshall – he’s my favourite centre-back to play with because he was so good on the ball.
“We need a defender so I’d put him back there. The best keeper was Kasey Keller but we wouldn’t lose the ball here so we wouldn’t need one!”
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