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).