From non-league striker to Saudi jiujitsu teacher, via a Syrian jail cell - the story of Stefan Zoll
Leeds born Zoll first made a name for himself in semi-professional football as a prolific striker, with the ability to score breathtaking goals.
But having completed a degree in Arabic at the University of Leeds, and a masters in Applied Linguistics at the University of Portsmouth, he dropped off the footballing map altogether.
And, after a brush with the secret police in Syria, Zoll ended up in Saudi Arabia where he has lived for the past nine years.
It was here that he took up sport again, but it was Brazilian Jiujitsu - a martial art that he had trained on and off since 2000 - not football, that took up the English teacher’s leisure time.
Zoll then made another dramatic departure from the norm, packing in his career as a classroom educator and starting his own business teaching jiujitsu in schools.
That in turn led to an opportunity to work for a company representing a group of Princes, and 2015 finds the Yorkshireman managing the youth section of Arena Mixed Martial Arts and Fitness Centre in Jeddah on the Red Sea coast.
Life had an international flavour from the outset, for the now 36-year-old.
“I was born and raised in Leeds, but my father is German,” he said.
“I visited Germany on a regular basis until the age of eight when my parents divorced.
“I stayed with my mother in Leeds and my father moved to France and has been living there ever since.
“It was tough for my mother, raising my two sisters and I alone, but she did everything to support my football career from an early age.
“My father started to visit more regularly in my early teens and he started to push my football career on from that point and acted as my agent.”
That football career began on a Youth Training Scheme at Barnsley and took him to Crystal Palace reserves, French Second Division side Dunkerque, and non league sides Farsley Celtic, Pickering Town, Harrogate, Whitby Town and Stocksbridge Park Steels.
For Steels, in Northern Premier Division One, he was every bit as enigmatic as talismanic.
He stood out a mile, with a shaved head and impressive red beard - in the mid noughties before facial hair became de rigueur for young men.
There was something of a Nicolas Anelka about him, both in appearance and in gesture, even down to the Gallic shrug. He would stand, hands on hips, looking above it all, or mortally wounded, if a pass to him went astray. Minutes would go by with little involvement from the star striker, until he’d take the ball, waltz past a few defenders and bend it into the top corner of the net.
Zoll once scored a goal many described as the best ever seen at Bracken Moor, running with the ball from his own box and beating almost every single opposition player before finding the net.
Pete Rinkcavage, who managed Zoll at Stocksbridge, calls him one of the very best he ever had in his charge, dubbing him a ‘ruthless’ goalscorer.
Zoll himself ranks his time at Stocksbridge as his finest on the football pitch.
“I think I actually had my best footballing days at Stocksbridge. I felt like I was finally realising my abilities.
“I was lucky to be part of a great team with a passionate manager in Pete Rinkavage.
“I have memories of some incredible goals I was lucky enough to score - the one where I ran the length of the pitch, I can’t remember who it was against but I remember my father was in the crowd and it gave me great pride to score such a goal in front of him.”
Many non league players take up a trade, or find a job in the leisure industry that will allow them to continue to live their dreams on the football pitch, on a part-time basis.
Zoll was a little different to most, jetting off to the Middle East when many of his team-mates were relaxing on Spanish party islands. Former Steels team-mate James Colliver believes he will never meet another Stefan Zoll.
Zoll said: “I studied Arabic at university whilst playing non league football.
“Every summer I traveled to different Arabic speaking countries. I also spent a year away in Morocco during that time.
“I did volunteer work in Sudan one summer.”
One of those summer trips would result in a terrifying encounter with the law.
“In 2005 I went to Syria to study Arabic for the summer and was subsequently kidnapped by the secret police and imprisoned for three days - a crazy story but sadly true.
“Syria has always been a dangerous place for foreign nationals, and tensions are always high there.
“Suffice to say the situation was and still is very complicated over there, but I think it would be better not to mention the details publicly - perhaps one day I’ll write a book.”
It was a year later that he vanished from the Yorkshire non league football scene, having helped Stocksbridge reach a play-off semi-final, one they lost to Kendal. Zoll scored a penalty in the second half to give Steels the lead, but missed one in the match deciding shoot-out.
It was his flair for the spectacular that remained in the memory for those who followed Steels home and away that season, however, not a failure from the spot.
Many shared a belief that, when he had the bit between his teeth, he was playing at least a few levels beneath himself.
Football was in the past, however, as a new life beckoned.
“After I graduated I found many job offers to teach English in the middle east, so decided to take up an opportunity in Saudia Arabia.”
And once settled in the desert country, he threw himself back into martial arts, taking up Brazilian Jiujitsu once again and achieving the kind of success that eluded him on the pitch.
“Jiujitsu effectively filled the void of not playing semi pro football anymore,” he said.
“I had actually been training on and off since 2000 with my first instructor in Leeds but dedicated myself to the art around 2006 when I moved to Saudi.
“I trained under a direct black belt student of Rickson Gracie for many years and now currently train under Ricardo Liborio, the founder of one of the world’s leading Mixed Martial Arts teams, American Top Team.”
Currently a fourth degree brown belt - with black the next grade in his sights - Zoll fights on the world stage.
“BJJ has replaced football for me in many ways and I can still compete at the highest level.
“In April this year I came second in my weight division and third in the open weight division of the World Championships in Abu Dhabi.
“I’m currently preparing to compete in the Summer World Championships in Las Vegas.”
His skill on the mat, teaching experience and a desire to see his son follow him into the sport, gave him the confidence and the idea that would eventually lead to his current job.
He explained: “After teaching English for six years in Saudi and gaining a masters degree in Linguistics Arabia I decided to abandon everything and try to start my own business teaching BJJ in schools.
“I initially had the idea because I wanted my son to train and there was no one else doing it.
“My classes became very successful and I was approached two years later by a company representing a group of Princes who wanted to open up an MMA and fitness gym with a kids section.
“I jumped at the opportunity to be part of the project and now manage the kids section of Arena MMA and Fitness in Saudi. We plan to have 30 branches operating in Saudi within five years.”
It’s as satisfying an ending as any, when a story’s protagonist finds their calling in life.
But with another Stocksbridge old boy, Jamie Vardy - who broke into the first team a year after Zoll departed - reaping the rewards, riches and fame that football brings, doesn’t the Leeds man wish he’d made it to the big time too?
He’s happy, settled with wife Zaynab and their two children, eight-year-old Jawwad and five-year-old Ayah, and doing what he believes he was born to do.
“I often look back and feel I could have played at a higher level but it just wasn’t my destiny.”