From cat-gate to captain: Kurt Zouma’s middle name is ‘Happy’, he visits West Ham’s prayer room five times a day and his team-mates love him… but can he ever escape the shame of kicking his cat?
- Kurt Zouma has been confirmed as West Ham’s new first-team captain
- The defender was previously punished over a cat-kicking incident last year
- Zouma is a devout Muslim and prays five times a day and before every match
- Listen to the latest episode of Mail Sport’s podcast It’s All Kicking Off!
Training has finished at West Ham’s base in Rush Green, Romford and Kurt Zouma, with a smile befitting a man whose middle name is Happy, is walking to the prayer room.
Nayef Aguerd and Said Benrahma, the club’s other two first-team players of Muslim faith, are with him. They are no longer in their filthy training gear. They have performed the purification ritual known as Wudu in preparation for their appointment with the Almighty.
They kneel towards the Qibla, the direction of Mecca, and begin to pray. Footballers spend their lives in the public domain, but this is Zouma’s private moment between him and his maker. Fifteen minutes later, he leaves that room feeling closer to God.
A man of faith, the 28-year-old Frenchman does this five times a day, and you will also find him praying before every appearance for West Ham. He prays for protection from injury. He prays for a good game. He prays for the safety and enjoyment of everybody inside the stadium — even those who refuse to let him escape his controversies of the past.
That, of course, refers to February 7, 2022 — the day footage emerged showing him kicking and slapping his pet cat, filmed by his younger brother, Yoan. I attended David Moyes’ first press conference in the aftermath. West Ham’s manager fielded no fewer than 20 questions about Zouma, including why he planned to continue playing him. ‘I know exactly where my moral compass is,’ Moyes said. ‘It’s not for you to be the judge. It’s for the law to be the judge.’
Kurt Zouma will continue to fulfil the role of West Ham’s first-team captain for the remainder of the season
Hammers boss David Moyes (pictured) has backed Zouma in his role as captain
Kurt Zouma was forced to apologise last year after a video of him kicking his cat went viral in February
The law, in this case Thames Magistrates’ Court, sentenced Zouma to 180 hours of community service while he was also banned from keeping cats for five years and ordered to cover the RSPCA’s £8,887.03 legal costs. Neither the Ministry of Justice nor those who know Zouma will say if his community service included the traditional punishment of scrubbing graffiti from the streets of London. They will only divulge that he has completed his 180 hours and it took a physical toll as he juggled training in the morning with ‘payback’ shifts in the evening.
West Ham fined Zouma two weeks’ wages worth £250,000, all of which has since been donated to nine different animal welfare charities, although the RSPCA were not one of the recipients. Adidas dropped him as an ambassador — he has since signed as a TRU athlete — and companies such as Experience Kissimmee stopped sponsoring the club.
Zouma said sorry to his team-mates. They accepted his apology and so did Moyes, sensing he was genuinely remorseful.
His team-mates were as shocked as anyone. Zouma, their gentle 6ft 3in giant, was the last person they expected to find in the eye of a storm.
Those who know Zouma say he is a man of faith, of fun, of family. He is a loving husband to Sandra and a devoted father to son Kais and daughters Sihame and Sanaa.
It is understood they have no pets at their London residence and have not had any since their cats were repossessed by the RSPCA, though they have welcomed a new addition to the household — a baby boy who arrived a month after West Ham’s Europa Conference League triumph and whose name they do not yet want to reveal.
Choosing the perfect name can be tricky for any parent. Zouma’s father, Guy, chose ‘Kurt’ because of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 1989 film Kickboxer in which the muscular protagonist ‘Kurt Sloane’ masters the ancient art of Muay Thai in order to avenge his brother Eric.
That link was somewhat soured last year when Van Damme was encouraging his tens of millions of followers on social media to sign a petition demanding Zouma face ‘strong and appropriate’ action from the French Football Federation. Nevertheless, much like ‘The Muscles from Brussels’ in that cult classic, the budding footballer was determined to succeed for his family’s sake.
Moyes (left) fielded no fewer than 20 questions about Zouma (right) at the time of the incident as he decided to continue playing the defender
Zouma (middle) remains a well-liked and respected member of the West Ham dressing room
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One of seven siblings, he wanted to help them move out of their congested flat in Lyon. He joined Vaulx-en-Velin at the age of nine before leaving for Saint-Etienne, playing with only No 33 on the back of his shirt. This is common in French football, as youngsters have to earn the addition of their name. Zouma soon did, signing professionally at 16.
He was the first in his family to win a contract in football, later followed by his older brother Lionel and Yoan. They had a disciplined upbringing under Guy, who immigrated from the Central African Republic and was once quoted as saying: ‘I gave them an African education. They went to school and then to training. When they returned, they were too tired to do anything stupid.’
Zouma had a disciplined upbringing under his father
Zouma cannot escape the stupidity of his exploits in later life, nor the idiocy of allowing his brother to film the footage and use it on social media. To this day, you will find cat emojis in the comments of every picture he posts online, and his last appearance at Luton’s Kenilworth Road saw him taunted by the home support before he scored and cupped his ears in celebration.
In preparation for this piece, I spoke with Moyes at Rush Green. The topic was Zouma and, as Guy hoped when landing on the name ‘Kurt’ in 1994, the first attribute mentioned by his manager was that he is a ‘strong leader’.
There is a saying from Abu Hurayra, a companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, which reads: ‘When God said, “I test only those I love” I took the pain like it was an honour.’
It is known by many in the Muslim community including the Zouma family, though it is entirely coincidental that in Arabic, the name Abu Hurayra means ‘Father of the Kittens’ with ancient legend telling how he always had a cat for company.
Zouma realises he brought his particular pain upon himself. Those close to the defender say he hopes people realise he made a mistake, learned his lesson and paid the price. Yet no matter how hard any of us may pray, public forgiveness takes time.
West Ham have forgiven him. More than 18 months on from that shameful saga, he has been wearing the captain’s armband. Moyes insisted he would decide on Declan Rice’s full-time successor during the international break and, yesterday, it was confirmed — Zouma is his man.
Zouma apologised for his actions at the time and was fined him two weeks’ wages worth £250,000 by West Ham along with being sentenced to 180 hours of community service and was also banned from keeping cats for five years and ordered to cover the RSPCA’s £8,887.03 legal costs
Zouma is still mocked by some opposition supporters over the cat-kicking incident
The RSPCA prosecuted Zouma (right) and his younger brother Yoan (left) over the video
‘Lots of people make mistakes in life and sometimes you need people to forgive you,’ Moyes said at his pre-Manchester City press conference. ‘If there were no forgiveness, then quite a lot of us wouldn’t be in the jobs or positions we’re in. What I saw was a complete blip in what I see in the man every day.’
The club’s owner David Sullivan has given Zouma his vote of confidence also, telling Mail Sport: ‘He loves West Ham United, our team and our players. He is a natural leader and a fantastic captain.’
Moyes consulted with colleagues about his idea to name Zouma as skipper ahead of James Ward-Prowse. In other words, would there be a backlash? There had not been one during Zouma’s unbeaten four-game stint which took West Ham to fourth in the Premier League. Now that it has been confirmed, the club have not made a song and dance of the appointment, just in case.
Jose Mourinho once said Zouma had the potential to succeed John Terry as Chelsea captain and he is a popular choice among the West Ham players. They may poke fun at his penchant for anime — team-mates have even incorporated Dragon Ball Z references into previous goal celebrations in a nod to his enthusiasm — but it is all in good fun.
Two weeks ago, West Ham’s squad played a game where they named who they would want to be stranded with on a desert island. Zouma was a regular nominee, with Benrahma and Jarrod Bowen among those naming him. Aguerd responded by shouting ‘ZOUUU’ — the favourite cry of West Ham fans whenever he does something impressive on the field.
Zouma and Aguerd are inseparable at Rush Green. Aguerd was one of the French speakers who was helped to feel at home in London by Zouma when he arrived from Rennes last year. The same went for Maxwel Cornet and Alphonse Areola, with whom Zouma won the Under 20 World Cup in 2013.
As Sullivan says, Zouma loves West Ham and they love him. Zouma signed from Chelsea for £29.8million in 2021 and his contract is up in 2025, though given his importance to the team, naturally they would like to tie him down to a longer deal.
He is already among their best-paid players, on £125,000 a week, so any pay-rise would not be significant. However, Zouma is understood to feel grateful for the club’s support over the last year-and-a-half and be open to negotiations.
Zouma joined West Ham from Chelsea two years ago and the club want to tie him down to a longer deal than his current one that expires in 2025
Zouma (back left) and his wife Sandra (right) pose for a picture with their children
Whether France has forgiven him is another matter. Zouma was left out of Didier Deschamps’ latest squad. His last appearance for Les Bleus was in November 2021, a World Cup-qualifying win over Finland which occurred before you-know-what. He never made it to Qatar 2022, with Deschamps describing his actions as ‘shocking and intolerable’, and is still absent.
‘We are not completely sure,’ says Vincent Duluc, one of France’s most respected football writers from the newspaper L’Equipe, when asked why. ‘But we think the main reason is still Catgate.
‘And the competition, of course — a guy like William Saliba, who is a better defender, wasn’t even a starter (against Ireland last week) even though Ibrahima Konate is injured. But he is no longer a popular figure as we are a cat nation. He did not make the headlines in France when West Ham won the Conference League.’
We cannot say rival fans have forgiven him, either. Luton’s Kenilworth Road is among English football’s tightest grounds and in the warm-up, one supporter leaned over the advertising hoardings. Filming the passing drill on his mobile phone, he shouted: ‘Zouma, you’ve got to kick it like it’s a cat.’ He did not get a reaction.
Zouma was booed on the ball during the game and subjected to chants of ‘that’s how your cat felt’ while receiving treatment for a head injury.
Yet the abuse aimed at Zouma had been slowly but surely disappearing otherwise. Jeers are now drowned out by West Ham’s supporters shouting ‘ZOUUU’, which some players also yelled when he returned to the dressing room after being named man of the match at Luton.
Zouma’s two Bengal cats were put into RSPCA care after the incident
Zouma was left out of France’s latest squad by Didier Deschamps with his last appearance for Les Bleus coming in November 2021
He and Sandra set aside time to answer the hundreds of handwritten fan mail they receive monthly, some of which are thank you letters.
Mail Sport has learned they are involved in charity work worldwide — such as the ALFATH centre for deaf and hard of hearing children in Meknes, Morocco, and an orphanage called La Cite De L’Enfance (The City of Childhood) in Setif, Algeria, and the renovation of a school in Bouar, Central African Republic, among others — though these projects are largely kept private.
There is the side to this footballer which we do not see and the side which, for many, cannot be unseen.
You can decide for yourself whether Zouma is worthy of forgiveness — a good guy or a bad bloke, a man who made a mistake or a convicted criminal, a fitting captain or, as has been thrown at him since February of last year, a ‘cat-kicker’. You can let him know the next time West Ham visit your club, where he will be leading the team out of the tunnel.
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