There’ll be fearsome arguments about who is the best ‘foreign’ import to British football. Some will argue for Cantona or Schmeichel at Manchester United, Henry or Bergkamp at Arsenal. Others will tout for their particular favourites. Chelsea fans would perhaps posit Drogba. What may be less contentious though is the most likeable of imports to the British game – or perhaps the least disliked anyway. Is there much argument that such accolade should fall to Gianfranco Zola? In the nineties, the little Sardinian was exceptional at three clubs, covering the decade; two in Italy, Napoli and Parma, and then when donned in Chelsea blue at Stamford Bridge, he charmed so many fans of all clubs with incandescent magic in his boots and an infectious smile on his face.
Stardom came late to Zola. At 23 years of age, he was still playing third tier football in his native Sardinia, when Lucciano Moggi took him to Napoli. If taking a gamble on an unknown player that had seemingly slipped through the net of so many other clubs seemed strange to many, the astute Moggi would reap huge dividends on the move. At the time, the Partenopei were enjoying a golden period at the San Paolo, with the incomparable Diego Maradona in his pomp and sweeping all before him, aided and abetted by the razor-sharp finishing of Brazilian striker Careca. For a player plunged into the torrid world of Serie A from the more sedate backwaters of Sardinian domestic football, it was a finishing school par excellence, and one that benefitted Zola immensely. He would go on to be the anointed successor to the Argentine magician and the club would win the Scudetto and Italian Super Cup in his time there. In his final season with the club, the impish Zola would accumulate more assists than any other player in the league.
In four seasons with Napoli, he would increase both the number of games played, and amount of goals scored in each succeeding term. Financial strife hit the club however, and Zola was one of the more marketable assets available to bring in much needed money. Parma paid some ₤13 million for him and, after scoring 32 goals in slightly more than a century of appearances, he moved to the Crociati.
At the time, Parma were riding the crest of a sponsorship wave that would, later, come crashing down around them. When Zola joined in 1993 however, success was still the order of the day, and under the charge of Nevio Scala, a UEFA Cup triumph was secured in 1995. The following year however saw the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti, and the end of Zola’s time in Parma would quickly follow. Wedded to a rigid team structure of 4-4-2, and convinced of the virtue of playing Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa at the spearhead of his team, Ancelotti’s decision pushed Zola out to a wide midfield position that hardly suited his abilities. After two seasons under Scala when he scored 22 goals in 51 games, and then followed it up with 28 in the same number of appearances, being shunted out to the flanks – and even the bench on occasions – inevitably blunted Zola’s striking sharpness. In the 1995-96 season he would net a dozen times in 36 games and in the following term, things deteriorated even more. He would score twice in 12 games. Zola had a choice. At 30 years of age, he could see out his time in Italy and watch his career dwindle into anonymity, or he could he could look for a new club. He chose the latter.
In West London, Glenn Hoddle had moved on to the England hot seat, and Ken Bates had installed Ruud Gullit in his place. Having played in Serie A, the Dutchman had significant contacts in Italy, and used them to persuade Zola to come to England. A £4.5million cheque secured his services. At the time, many thought it a foolhardy gamble to pay out for a player already arguably past his best and into the latter years of his career. They would be proved to be so very wrong. This was still the time when nobody at Stamford Bridge had heard of Roman Abramovich, and the club hadn’t secured a trophy for more than two decades. The arrival of the little Italian would change all that though. An FWA award of Footballer of the Year in his first term in England speaks of the impact he had on the club – and the game in general. Not only as an outstanding player, but apparently a thoroughly nice bloke as well.
Mention the name of Zola to any Chelsea fan and a misty-eyed glance into the middle distance will be accompanied by a gentle sigh of reflective appreciation. Not only did he bring success to the club, but he did so with a smiling countenance and a professionalism that would set new standards. A brace of FA Cup victories, a European triumph in the Cup Winners Cup when a half-fit Zola came off the bench to win the game with a sumptuous strike, and a UEFA Super Cup required space to be found in a Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet more accustomed to the acquisition of dust rather than silverware.
There were goals, of course, but there was magic too. Eighty strikes for a team that was never really threatening the major powers of the game is success enough, but for so many fans, it wasn’t the number of strikes that made Gianfranco Zola such an icon of the time, it was his ebullience and sheer entertainment value. Dancing feet, and the ability to beat the same player three times in a telephone kiosk were the entrancing memories that he brought, and when he scored goals, so many were gems that still warm the hearts of fans inclined to reminisce wearing blue-tinted spectacles.
Ask Chelsea fans to recount their favourite moment of Zola magic and you may get a variety of answers, such was the stardust sprinkled on his play in so many games. The thumping strike that won Chelsea’s first European trophy for more than 25 years. The back-heal flick from a corner that bamboozled Norwich. Any number of poetically converted free-kicks curled past befuddled goalkeepers. The time that he was hemmed in by the corner flag by Liverpool defenders, but danced away from them, putting Jamie Carragher on his backside twice in quick succession. All were moments were to savour.
A somewhat spiteful fate conspired that the arrival of Abramovich coincided with the departure of Zola. A club in financial trouble couldn’t afford the offer of a new contract, and Zola agreed to return to Sardinia and Cagliari. Legend has it that Abramovich offered a hatful of money for the 36-year-old to stay with the club, but Zola, ever the honourable man, had given his word to Cagliari and wouldn’t renege in his vow. Hardly anyone would have expected anything different from Zola. He would arrive there and see them to promotion in his first term – of course, he would. It was just one more piece of magic from the incomparable Gianfranco Zola. Icon of the nineties.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Names of the Nineties’ series on These Football Times website).
Whilst some may contend that it isn’t true of a particular team, it’s one of those enduring truisms that all teams, especially the more successful ones of recent times, that each had at least one player of this type. He’s the player that your own fans take to their hearts, but supporters of other clubs look upon with a disdain bordering on contempt. You love him for his commitment. Others loathe him for a perceived overstated ability and an indulgence in the dark arts of football’s muck and nettles. They’re the players you love to hate, but also the guys you’d want next to you in the mythical trenches so often referenced in such evaluations of worth. Manchester United had Roy Keane. Arsenal had Patrick Viera. Chelsea had Dennis Wise. Continue reading →
It’s 24 April 1996 and Iceland are playing Estonia in Tallinn. Starring for the visitors is 34-year-old Arnór Guðjohnsen, one of the country’s top strikers who would net 17 times for his country in his career. Sitting on the substitute’s bench is Arnór’s 17-year-old son, Eiður. Rumour had it that, assuming the score line allowed such courtesies, the youngster would be brought on towards the end of the game and play alongside his father. Fate took a cruel hand though and an injury to the father was in fact the gateway to the teenager entering play. The sentimental gesture was abandoned, postponed for another time. Continue reading →
When Olympique de Marseille defeated AC Milan in 1993 – regardless of how tainted that victory may, or may not, have been – it ended decades of enforced patience for French football. It had taken almost 40 years for a French club to win the European Cup. Had fortunes taken a slightly different course in 1956 however, the history of European football’s premier club competition could have been so very different. Instead of Los Blancos of Real Madrid becoming the dominant force of continental football, their place in history may well have been taken by Les Rouge et Blanc of Stade de Reims. A club finishing in a mid-table position in Ligue 1 at the end of the 2018-19 season, newly returned to the top tier of French domestic football after a period of relative inconsequence, drifting around the lower leagues, could have been the swaggering aristocrats of the nascent European competition, rather than one of the sans-culottes lamenting over what might have been. Continue reading →
Although hardly a formality, it seemed that the home team held all of the trump cards. Chelsea had travelled to Anfield two weeks earlier and returned with a 1-3 triumph. Despite falling to an early goal from Fernando Torres, Guus Hiddink’s team had played their way back into the game with cool assurance amongst the raucous Merseyside atmosphere and with a brace of headed goals from Branislav Ivanovic plus a strike from Dider Drogba, had ended the game as worthy winners. It gave the Blues an excellent chance to reach the last four of the Champions League for the second time in consecutive seasons.
Twelve months previously, they had met Liverpool in the semi-finals of the competition when, after a 1-1 draw at Anfield, Chelsea had triumphed 3-2 after extra-time in as closely contested home leg to take their place in the final, where they would ultimately lose out to Manchester United on penalties. This time however, with three away goals safely pocketed from the win on Merseyside, Chelsea would have been expecting progress along a much less rocky road. In a game that throbbed and pulsated with tension and a repeated switchback of advantage and emotions though, that would hardly be the case.
In the previous five years, Liverpool and Chelsea had faced each other two dozen times, with seldom much to choose between them, especially in the days when Continue reading →
In the years well before the whizz-bang super-duper transfer days that followed the arrival of Roman Abramovich to Stamford Bridge, the West London club was one of fairly modest ambition – staying in English football’s top flight was probably the main one. It was also one that was sometimes missed and an occasional cup run was the closest thing to glory. Such times did not require the services of celebrated foreign coaches who could weld an oft unruly bunch of superstars and supposed-stars into a team capable of bringing silverware to the club. In the 1980s, with the club languishing in Division Two again, the requirement was for a manager who knew the domestic game, could spot talent available at a reasonable price and knew how to develop and deliver a successful team. Continue reading →
Sometimes, it can be difficult to definitively measure the effect of a partnership. For example, not many would demur from the opinion that Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit were important to the success of the Arsenal team of that era, but just how important? Bergkamp, Henry, Seaman, Dixon and Adams were also major cogs in the machine that helped to make the team work efficiently. What about Roy Keane and Paul Scholes of Manchester United of broadly the same era? Did they contribute more to the success of the team than, say, Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs or Beckham?
Looking at partnerships in some areas of football and evaluating their importance can be a little tricky. At the sharp end of things, both in scoring goals and keeping them out though, there are a plethora of numbers to define things. This is certainly the case with the pair being celebrated here. The rock-hard centre of Jose Mourinho’s first double-title winning Chelsea team – John Terry & Ricardo Carvalho. Continue reading →
Of course, prices have gone through the roof in the intervening time and yes, he was 30 years-old when the deal went through but just 15 years ago, when Chelsea paid the princely sum of £4.5million to Serie A club Parma, and in return secured the services of Gianfranco Zola, it must count as one of the best pieces of business in the history of the West London club. Continue reading →
It’s questionable whether there are many transfers involving expensive foreign imports to the English game that have evoked so much varied opinion as when Juan Sebastian Verón joined Manchester United from Lazio in July 2001. The deal was reported as being worth a then British record transfer fee, of around £28million. Continue reading →
There are many reasons why certain goals are memorable. They can come in big matches, be part of an ongoing rivalry between the goalscorer and the team he nets against. Perhaps it’s the type of goal where the player runs the length of the pitch before rounding then goalkeeper and scoring, something especially difficult in an away game against a massive club in one of the biggest tournaments. Or, perhaps it’s the sort of goal that rewards a team for outstanding fortitude against the odds, when all seemed lost. Some goals have a few of these elements, but very few have them all, and this is the tale of one that does just that; a goal that Gary Neville described as “Un-bel-eive-able!” Continue reading →