West Ham United are not in a position of their own making over the Zouma video, but whether that remains the case depends on their response.
Even in a country as fractured and divided as Britain, there is one subject that cuts across every political and social divide: animal cruelty. Since Victorian times, pet ownership has proved so popular in this country that it is often said that the British prefer their pets to other people. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the widespread response to the video of the West Ham United defender Kurt Zouma kicking and punching a cat has been widespread revulsion. But what happens next, how much of a bomb might this set under the remainder of their season and, considering the febrile times in which we live, can Zouma even continue to remain in the employ of his club?
The video itself is extremely disturbing, and should only be watched with extreme caution. Reportedly filmed by Zouma’s brother Yoan, it shows Zouma kicking and slapping his pet, and in further footage throwing shoes at said cat and chasing it around a room. More troubling still is the presence of a child in the video. Behaving in this way is a serious matter; to be doing this in front of a child only adds a whole new level of disgust.
Already, there have been statements. West Ham have said that ‘West Ham United unreservedly condemns the actions of our player, Kurt Zouma, in the video that has circulated. We have spoken to Kurt and will be dealing with the matter internally, but we would like to make it clear that we in no way condone cruelty towards animals’, while Zouma’s own statement said that, ‘I want to apologise for my actions. There are no excuses for my behaviour, which I sincerely regret. I also want to say how deeply sorry I am to anyone who was upset by the video. I would like to assure everyone that our two cats are perfectly fine and healthy. They are loved and cherished by our entire family, and this behaviour was an isolated incident that will not happen again.’
These apologies and a promise of an investigation don’t seem to have satisfied many people. To what extent is anybody supposed to take Zouma’s apology in good faith? An ‘isolated incident’ that just happened to be caught on camera? There probably wouldn’t be much that he could say that would satisfy the public, but that is very much a problem that he has brought upon himself, and something for which he deserves little sympathy. He is in a situation very much of his own making.
West Ham United, on the other hand, are not. But their response to this situation will determine whether that remains the case. This could not have happened at a worse time for the club. It’s tight at the top of the Premier League, with four points separating Manchester United in fourth place from Wolverhampton Wanderers in eighth, and West Ham are right in the middle of that chasing pack for a place in next year’s Champions League, while they’re also still in both the FA Cup and the Europa League. At this level of the game, with this much riding on the next three months, they can ill-afford the distraction.
And it is also worth remembering that the atmosphere surrounding The London Stadium could easily turn toxic again. Supporters were protesting against the owners when the Premier League paused in March 2020, but the success of the team in the intervening 17 months quelled much of that anger. But the detente has felt uneasy at times, and there was definite unhappiness at the club’s failure to act in the January transfer window. It seems entirely possible that those wounds could be reopened by the club getting its handling of something like this wrong. It is absolutely true and fair to say this was not West Ham’s fault. But is also just as true and fair to say that Zouma’s behaviour has created a problem from which they cannot simply back out.
The financial cost to the club could be enormous. Sack the player and they’ve had to offload a £30m asset free of charge and, and as per the case of Mason Greenwood, the threshold for sacking someone (or even suspending them without pay) is extremely high. And should the team’s performance on the pitch be affected, these financial costs are even higher. Qualification for the Champions League is worth a fortune, while winning the Europa League is worth almost £8m and a place in next year’s Champions League. And that’s before we take into consideration reputational damage in a highly commercialised game.
But the court of public opinion probably won’t care too much about that and, it may well be argued, why should they? Animal cruelty is not only repulsive in and of its own right, but can also be a red flag for other disturbing behaviours. Considering some of the stories that have been swilling around the game, this alone fits this particular story into a very unsettling narrative. The response of West Ham supporters seems to have been incandescent. This will surely be taken into account by the club when they carry out their promised ‘investigation’.
With their increasingly typical elan, the Metropolitan Police have already announced that they will not be investigating this incident, while the RSPCA issued a statement in which they said that, ‘This is a very upsetting video. It’s never acceptable to kick, hit or slap an animal, for punishment or otherwise,’ and that, ‘We are so grateful to people who report suspected animal suffering to us and we would like to reassure people we will always look into and, if necessary, investigate any complaints made to us about animal welfare.’ They do still prosecute cases of animal cruelty and neglect.
So, is this really the only time that Zouma has done anything like this, and is it just a coincidence that it happened to be caught on film? Has it been independently confirmed that the animal itself was uninjured by Zouma’s behaviour? How does the player win back the trust of a public whose response to what they’ve seen has been sheer revulsion? These are questions that both West Ham United and Kurt Zouma must answer; the answers will determine whether West Ham join their player in the defendants’ chair.