Moving on from when Kurt did wrong

More than a week after the emergence of the Kurt Zouma video, the story continues to dominate headlines. His reputation is ruined, and he will forever be known as the ‘cat kicker’. In a sport and society with bigger problems, surely, it’s time to move on?

"‘I am so blissfully unaware of everything
Kids in Gaza are bombed and I’m just out of it"
Sam Fender – Hypersonic Missiles

It’s February 2022. A sportsman who has reached the pinnacle of his game has had a clip shared online of him abusing a defenceless animal while in his care. But the country isn’t up in arms. There isn’t in excess of 300,000 signatures on a petition for the removal of his animals to safety. There isn’t a call for him to be sacked from his job. There isn’t calls for sponsors to withdraw their support. There isn’t rolling 24-hour news. It isn’t being discussed by politicians. A handful of animal rights activists are rightfully unhappy, but the rest of the country haven’t really batted an eyelid.

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Sir Mark Todd is filmed hitting one of his horses extremely hard up to ten times with a branch. The double Olympic and World Champion Eventing horse rider repeatedly hits the horse for not going into a water obstacle as per its training routine. Cheers go up from those watching as under the punishment, the horse finally goes through the water. It’s not a nice watch. The British Horseracing Association are investigating. But we aren’t here to talk about this awful video of a knight of the realm hitting an animal, for which barely anyone outside of Chris Packham and a few Horse Riding fans, it has barely registered.

We are here to talk about Kurt Zouma. You may have heard of him, even if you don’t like football. Not because he is a Champions League winning defender who has also won the Premier League twice and played 11 times for reigning World Champions, France. It is because he has done exactly what Sir Mark Todd has done and abused a defenceless animal in his care. He is the ‘cat kicker’.

Let’s go back to the start. I flicked through my Twitter feed shortly before going to bed, just to have a quick check on any team news ahead of West Ham’s clash with Watford the following day. Just as I went to turn my phone off, I noticed a breaking story tweeted by the Sun about my club’s big summer signing.

Kurt Zouma has been incredibly popular with the fans since he joined in August 2021. When fit, he has performed brilliantly in a defence that has struggled with injuries and therefore for consistency. He has recently returned from a two-month layoff, which encouraged the club not to buy one more centre back in the January transfer window. However, just a week on from the window closing, Zouma has become worldwide news.

For those that have been living under a rock the past week, the French international defender was inexplicably filmed by his brother, Dagenham & Redbridge midfielder Yoan, kicking his pet cat. Not only that, he then gets his child to put the cat on the table so he can slap it forcefully. He then chases the cat and throws a shoe at it.

The once popular defender suddenly had little support across the fanbase. His actions were horrible and quite distressing to watch. Nobody can be sure on the date the incident was filmed and nobody can be sure if this was an isolated incident. Either way, it was a shameful act and one that certainly deserves investigating and potentially prosecuting by those in charge of doing such things, namely the relevant police authority and the RSPCA. I am certainly not here to defend him, as I found his actions cruel and disgraceful.

The following day, as word spread across not just the football world, but the general public, West Ham were preparing to face Watford. Two straight defeats had seen the Irons begin to fall away in their barely believable chase for Champions League football. Very much the underdogs in the race along with Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United for the much-desired fourth Champions League spot, the team that is built on hard work, flair and togetherness were starting to creak. A home game with a struggling Watford side should have been a relatively uneventful match that would ordinarily barely get a mention on Match of the Day, let alone national news.

I stood in the concourse of the London Stadium having a beer and waiting for the team news to come in. Much of the discussion as we got the bus and train to the ground had centred around Zouma, and the belief was that while the club hadn’t made any decision on a punishment, the likelihood was that surely the club would make him unavailable for selection while they investigated further. As my mate started to read the team out, he followed the names of Fabianski, Coufal and Dawson with the words ‘Kurt Zouma’ with a look of disbelief on his face. The rest of us laughed, assuming he was joking. He wasn’t. The Frenchman was starting. He was very much not being taken out of the firing line.

As Zouma’s every touch was booed by the travelling Watford support, the home fans were stuck in a difficult situation. I have never booed a player wearing the Claret & Blue. I felt incredibly uneasy about this man representing my club so soon after the video had been released. To put it simply, as the person responsible for the day to day running of West Ham United, Karren Brady should have made the defender unavailable until the club had punished him. This would, in my mind at least, saved the club from everything that has come since. By selecting him, the club had made a rod for their own back. It was a PR disaster.

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Now for those of us who follow this club, we know all about the lack of quality leadership at the top. Our part time Vice Chair, who earns in excess of £1.3m a year made her latest ham-fisted decision that has shown to be counterproductive to the club's interests. A strong, intelligent CEO would have suspended Zouma until a club punishment had been handed out. By not doing so, West Ham kept a clean sheet and took three vital points, but reputationally have been hit extremely hard. David Moyes chose to play Zouma under no instructions to his unavailability. I don’t agree with him playing and think Moyes got it wrong. But the club shouldn’t have allowed him to face the music alone.

The following day, Zouma was hit with the maximum amount the club could legally fine him within Football Association laws. The club announced that all of the circa £250k fine will be donated to animal charities. The RSPCA also confirmed that Zouma had handed his two cats to them and they would assume responsibility for their care whilst their investigation takes place. The club confirmed it would look into finding animal treatment related courses for Zouma. The club may have made a mistake in playing Zouma on Tuesday against Watford, but this punishment, which didn’t include any suspension, meant that effectively there was little else the club can do.

For a start, the defender cost the club £30m in the summer. He is one of, if not the highest earner at the club. To sack Zouma, who as an asset is worth as much as maybe all but three things connected to the club (the others being Declan Rice, Jarrod Bowen and land value of the training grounds in Rush Green and Chadwell Heath), is clearly not a sensible or viable option. Would the matter be handled differently if he was a youth player with little asset value? Maybe. But the fact is he is worth so much to the club that he was effectively un-sackable, however outraged people are by it. To sack Zouma would have meant that the club have written off a multi-million pound asset in an industry that would have been detrimental to the club on a variety of levels.

Firstly, say we sack him; do you not think that a rival club wouldn’t offer him a ‘second chance’? He is an elite defender, who would walk into all but maybe three or four other sides in the country. Another club getting that quality for free as a shot at redemption would be incredibly harmful to West Ham. If we did sack him, the club would have thrown away a £30m defender for nothing, improved a rival and then also have no money to buy a replacement with. In an industry like football, that is suicide.

Another option I have heard is that he should be suspended for the rest of the season. Again, West Ham United didn’t kick the cat. The club would be harming its chances in the three competitions it is still in. They already have lost Angelo Ogbonna, Zouma’s first choice centre half partner, for the season due to a knee injury, and in Zouma’s absence, the club have shipped goals. Craig Dawson gives everything, and there is clearly still a talented player in Issa Diop, but as a partnership it certainly would be fairly disastrous in terms of their ambitions of competing to win the FA Cup, the Europa League and especially in finishing in the Champions League places.

Perhaps most seriously for the club, not having Zouma also increases the likelihood of us slipping out of contention, and therefore meaning we would struggle to hold on to Declan Rice and Jarrod Bowen in the summer. You get the impression that anything other than a top four place, or winning one of the other two trophies, will keep them at the club. This again doesn’t mean a great deal to animal lovers and everyone in the media who are desperate for further action, but it does to the club and its fans.

On the subject of everyone having their say on the matter still, a full week after the news broke, you do have to ask yourself why the story continued to dominate even national news headlines. As I have said, Zouma’s actions were horrific and disgusting. But where does it really rank in the order of just how bad things really are elsewhere?

It was top billing on news bulletins, above the Russia/Ukraine crisis, above murder stories, above sexual assault stories, above the latest allegations of the Prime Minister and his partying while the rest of us stayed at home for Christmas to save lives. This is a bit mad isn’t it? I for one value those cats and their rights to not be booted by idiotic footballers, but in the grand scheme of things, should it be higher up in priority? I don’t have the answers, but from the outside looking in that seems bonkers.

Two of West Ham’s sponsor partnerships have come to the end as a result. One of the partners, Experience Kissimmee, quickly ended their links with the club. This is the same Experience Kissimmee who sell package holidays to Sea World in Florida, a place that has been criticised for its maltreatment of the animals within its care. Make of that what you will.

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Then you have the outrage. The 300,000 people signing the petitions to get Zouma’s cats taken into care. As a nation of pet lovers, many will have signed out of care for the animal in question. Of course, the same people don’t think twice about how the meat that goes into their dogs and cats pet food comes about. Birds that don’t see the light of day to feed our pets and us humans. Its all the same thing isn’t it? Or do we turn a blind eye to one animal so that a different animal can have a great life? It is certainly something to think about.

People have made comparisons to a teacher who recently lost her job for punching a horse. Sadly, and I know it sounds morally bankrupt, but she is replaceable in her role, unlike the £30m footballer we are talking about, so they are comparing apples and oranges.

How about the pundits, demanding the club sack Zouma? The pundits like Jamie O’Hara, who was ashamed of Zouma’s actions and of David Moyes for playing him. This is the very same Jamie O’Hara who was fined for punching a 14-year-old boy. A man afforded a second chance in the media. Former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland even made the frankly mad statement that what Zouma did was worse than racism. That was quickly retracted later that day, but still shows how the 24 hour news circus that has followed the story is making people say frankly stupid stuff.

Likewise, fans of other clubs have of course also got involved, criticising the club for not sacking Zouma. It is always useful to bring up reminders that at this current time, there are footballers at Manchester City, Manchester United, Brighton and Everton who are currently either awaiting trial or being investigated for a string of extremely serious offences. They are certainly too serious to mention in detail here, so much so that I won’t even dare name them so as to not prejudice the one case that is awaiting trial, or the two that are currently being investigated by police.

But again, while the country loses its minds over Zouma, there are far greater despicable things being investigated against individuals in the game. Scottish First Division side Raith Rovers recently completed the signing of David Goodwillie, who was judged in a civil court of being a rapist. Their fanbase and sponsors distanced themselves from the club before a u-turn was wisely done. Interestingly the petition to ensure Goodwillie never played for Raith Rovers only reached around 6,000 signatures. Now again, in comparison to kicking a cat, this has received barely any media airtime in comparison, and I know which one I find more serious.

Let’s also not forget that Newcastle United have recently been effectively taken over by the Saudi government in all but name. Some of the very pundits and presenters that are currently asking for Zouma to be sacked are also the ones that have happily reported on and waved through a takeover by a regime that has a shocking human rights record. Let this be a reminder that English football long left its morals outside the front door. I’m not even going to mention the forthcoming World Cup in Qatar.

So, what now? The RSPCA are still investigating, as they should. The Met police originally said they won’t look at it, but a couple of other forces will work with the RSPCA and could act. Again, as they should. If he has committed a criminal offence, then he should have action taken against him by the organisations required to do so.

It is time to move on. The media circus that turned into a witch hunt has gone on long enough. West Ham (or Karren Brady in the first instance) fuelled the fire by simply not taking Zouma out of the firing line on Tuesday. But beyond the record fine, the huge donation to animal charities and the rehabilitation courses they will put Zouma on, there is little further for this to go. Second chances have been given for a lot worse things, and hopefully a now remorseful Zouma can start trying to make up for the awful thing that he has done.

Kurt Zouma is, and will always be, the ‘cat kicker’. His reputation will never recover from that. That’s punishment enough even if the RSPCA and the police do not press charges. Aside from their immediate inaction, the club shouldn’t be held up as judge, jury, and executioner.

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