With Hamit Altintop, whose surname means “golden ball” in Turkish, Lionel Messi, the messiah of Barcelona, and George Best, one of the finest players of all time, the football world has seen many an apt name. At first sight, Kurt Zouma does not appear to be one of them.
Yet as the Bleuets and Saint-Etienne central defender revealed to FIFA.com, while his first name is common in neither France nor Central African Republic – the country his parents hail from – there is a story behind it.
“It’s a bit of a strange tale,” he said with a burst of laughter. “My name comes from a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. When the credits rolled my parents saw the name ‘Kurt’, which is Van Damme’s character, who is this strong, gentle type. My parents decided that if they called me that, I’d be strong and I’d always be smiling. And that’s how it seems to have worked out!”
As meaningful as Zouma’s first name may be, it comes from a film entitled Kickboxer, which focuses on a sport that is a good deal more violent than the one the young Frenchman has chosen.
Zouma could well soon have another thing in common with the Belgian actor, a regular martial arts champion in his films. With just a few hours to go before the final act at Turkey 2013, when France take on Uruguay, the powerful yet easy-going defender is hoping this particular plot has a happy ending for Les Bleuets.
Pitching his own script for Saturday’s final, he said: “0-0, tight game. In the 92nd minute I score with a header in the top corner. Then the final whistle sounds and everyone falls on the ground.”
As Zouma explained, the French have taken a few heavy blows in the course of what Van Damme fans might be tempted to call The Quest, to reference another of his movies.
“We weren’t ourselves in the first round,” said the gentle giant, who stands 6ft3in tall and whose love of life is evident in his beaming smile. “We had mixed feelings about it all because the atmosphere was really good and yet we weren’t playing well. We couldn’t get going, but our coach told us that’s often the way in a World Cup, with teams who start slowly often getting stronger.”
That atypical first round ended in a 2-1 defeat to a typically elegant Spain side, a defeat that also served as a wake-up call for the French and an early turning point in their campaign, a Double Impact if you will. “We were down in the dumps after that match,” Zouma continued. “They drove us crazy with the way they moved the ball, and we had to reassess where we were.”
The centre-half missed his side’s first two matches of the competition through injury, and since overcoming that Spanish defeat he has been a towering presence at the heart of the French defence ever since. His steel helped see them avoid Sudden Death against the host nation in the last 16, Uzbekistan in the quarter-finals and Ghana in the semi-finals. “It focused our minds: win and you go through, lose and you go home in disgrace,” he said.
Shy and retiring
While Zouma’s imposing build and combative style have caused plenty of problems for opposing attackers, and while he towers over most of his team-mates, the fact is he is the young pup of the France squad and still very much a teenager at heart.
Recalling his early days as a professional at the age of 16, he found it hard to suppress a smile: “I remember my first training session as clear as day. I was in the first-team dressing room and when I went to say hello to the players I called them all by their surnames: Mr Perrin, Mr Payet, Mr Sall, etc.
“I didn’t speak at all and I was a bit scared too. One minute I was watching them on TV and the next minute there I was beside them. Sometimes I lie in bed and think about it all and how far I’ve got. It’s unbelievable.”
He had the same feeling when he pulled on his country’s blue shirt for the first time. As fate would have it, that international debut came in the country where he is now readying himself for the biggest match of his fledgling career. “It was an U-16 match in Turkey, against Czech Republic. It was my first game for the national team and my first start,” he said of what was an unforgettable and slightly embarrassing experience.
“I heard the Marseillaise and I have to say I didn’t know it!” admitted the laughing centre-back. “I knew a few of the words and I pretended to sing along, moving my lips to the words. Everything went well though, and we won 3-1.”
Should Kurt and his co-stars secure a similar result against the Uruguayans, his name is sure to appear in the credits of one of French football most exciting adventure stories.