Category Archives: Player Profiles

Gianfranco Zola – The man, the magic.

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).

 

Eidur Gudjohnsen – Iceland’s greatest ever footballer.

 

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 →

Thomas Gravesen – A very differesnt brand of Danish Dynamite!

Featuring the likes of Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjær, the Danish team at the 1986 World Cup with jet-heeled strikers and elegant midfielders played such a dynamic and explosive game that they were lauded as the Danish Dynamite. Some years later, Thomas Gravesen would earn a similar appellation, but for an entirely different reason. Continue reading →

“Aeroplinino!” Vincenzo Montella.

Born in Pomigliano d’Arco in the Naples province of Italy in June 1974, Vincenzo Montella always dreamt of being a professional footballer, of playing in Serie A. Although during his childhood days, a natural shortness of stature often saw him relegated to the role of goalkeeper, he would mature into the rapacious predator type of forward esteemed by Italian football fans, and a legend for the tifosi of Roma’s Curva Sud in the Stadio Olimpico. In his time with I Giallorossi, Montella would score just short of a century of goals, and each would be marked with his trademark celebration, arms stretched wide, mimicking an aeroplane.  The fans celebrated once more as their joy took flight, thanks to their ‘little airplane.’ Continue reading →

Mark Viduka – Leeds United’s reliable Aussie goal machine in troubled times.

Mark Viduka arrived at Leeds United from Celtic in exchange for £6million as David O’Leary continued the spending spree that would eventually bring ruin to the club. In the summer of 2000 though, such things were just the whisperings of people labelled as naysayers doo-mongers, as is often the case when someone seeing a looming crisis on the horizon. At the time the Elland Road club looked like a club on the way to regaining a pre-eminent position in English football. Continue reading →

Giovane Elber – Bayern Munich’s ‘Samba Striker’

In November 2003, Olympique Lyonnais visited the Olympic Stadium in Bavaria to play Bayern Munich in a Champions League tie. The winning goal for the French club was netted by their Brazilian striker, Giovane Élber. Although it meant defeat for the home team, the goal was greeted with warm acclaim by the Bayern fans in the ground. To some, it may have seemed a strange reaction but to the fans of Bayern Munich, it was an opportunity to pay due respect to a former star player who had contributed so much to the club’s success. Continue reading →

‘When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers’ – Lionel Messi’s international debut.

Considered by many pundits not only to be the best player in the world, Lionel Messi is also widely touted as the greatest of all time, but as success seems to follow success in an unending flow of glory and acclaim, it’s worth remembering that things weren’t always like that. In fact, as an 18-year-old Messi entered the international playing arena for La Albiceleste on 17 August 2005, the game would be far from the triumph every young footballer dreamt of and prayed for, when pulling on the shirt of his country for the first time. In fact, it would be difficult to suggest how the fates could have conspired to be any more perverse. Continue reading →

Harry Kewell – Leeds United’s Aussie hero – and villan!

When Luis Figo infamously left Barcelona to join bitter rivals Real Madrid, he was forever cast into the pit of hatred by all Cules. Returning to the Camp Nou, wearing the Los Blancos shirt, he even had a pig’s head thrown at him that had somehow been smuggled into the stadium. A banner at the ground said, “We hate you so much, because we loved you so much!” There were never reports of any such parts of a pig’s anatomy being thrown at Harry Kewell when he left Leeds United, but for so many of the Elland Road faithful, after he left the club, the feelings they had for the Aussie they had once idolised were very similar to those expressed on that Catalan banner. Continue reading →

Patrick Vieira – From AC Milan’s Reserves to Premier League Invincible.

After being signed from Cannes, where he debuted for the club at 17, and was captain two years later, Patrick Vieira’s career seemed to be heading into the buffers at AC Milan. He joined the club in the close season of 1995, and twelve months later, he had made just two first team appearances with most of his time being spent with the reserves. Continue reading →

The Ill-fitting Shoe – Dennis Bergkamp at Inter.

Dennis Bergkamp became a legend playing under Arsène Wenger for Arsenal, and a statue of him outside the Emirates confirms such status had there been any doubts. Never the ravenous goal-hungry striker of Ian Wright’s ilk, instead here was a player of infinite grace; a Dutch Master who illuminated the pitch with the artistry of a painter bringing the green sward of a canvas to life with precise brushstrokes. Goals were not his prime currency, although 120 strikes in 423 games is decent fare, his foremost talent was an ability to link, to prompt and promote the strikes of others, whilst still plundering a welcome contribution of his own. Continue reading →