Gianfranco Zola and Diego Maradona at Napoli: the student and the mentor

Gianfranco Zola and Diego Maradona at Napoli: the student and the mentor

DIEGO MARADONA IS AN IMMORTAL ICON IN NAPLES, a figure with almost divine right within his adopted city and the Stadio San Paolo. In the Campania capital, there is no Pelé, Ronaldo or Messi. There is only Maradona.

A symbolic hero among the supporters, the Argentine is Napoli’s all-time leading scorer with 115 goals and led the Partenopei to their first ever Serie A championship in 1986/87. A mainland southern team had never won the title prior to Napoli’s monumental achievement, a seemingly impossible feat amidst a time of dominance from Milan, Juventus, Roma and Internazionale.

It was a time when north-south tensions were peaking due to the economic disparity between the two ends of the country, and after the championship victory, mock funerals were held for Milan and Juventus as the Neapolitans burned coffins of the Italian giants.

Maradona’s goal record is almost certain to be overtaken by current club captain Marek Hamšík but the poise, technical ability and passion of the cosmic kite will forever leave him as the fans’ favourite in Naples.

When Napoli agreed to pay Barcelona a then-world record transfer fee of £6.9 million, over 75,000 Neapolitans turned up to the unveiling of their new superstar in a gladiatorial celebration that exalted the star to a level never before witnessed beneath the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The volcanic region finally had a star, one also capable of fiery demonstrations, and one whose troubles bubbled but remained dormant until the very end, uniting a city where hearts generally ruled heads.

Gianfranco Zola was born in Oliena, Sardinia in 1966. The early stages of his career were full of education for the young forward, who played for Sardinian side Nuorese before three seasons at Serie C1 outfit Torres. It was here that Luciano Moggi spotted his talents.

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Moggi was a football administrator who had worked for Torino, Roma, Lazio and Napoli before becoming Chief Managing Director of Juventus in 1994. Moggi was the key figure in the Calciopoli scandal of 2006, which saw Juve stripped of consecutive Serie A titles and relegated to Serie B in the midst of the biggest indignity to cloud the footballing nation.

The Italian’s recommendation of Zola encouraged Napoli manager Alberto Bigon to sign the talented forward, an endorsement that brought further success and kick-started the career of the little maestro.

The young attacker signed for Bigon in 1989 at the age of 23 with Napoli becoming Zola’s first major club. It was here that he made a name for himself and enjoyed the most fruitful period of his career, thriving under the increased pressure and professionalism that Serie A demanded. It was also during his time at Napoli that clubs around Europe started taking note, and his reputation and stature grew with every game.

Zola was a young man in a new city and in need of a mentor to guide his development. He found that figure in the epochal form of Maradona, a man reborn in Italy after footballing exile from Catalonia. Both players were famously diminutive in stature, a characteristic that the Argentine quickly recognised soon after the announcement of the new signing. “Finally they have bought someone shorter than me,” he joked.

Such was the bond between the pair that Zola became known as the understudy to Maradona, a label that would have burdened most promising talents, but it was a branding that the young Italian flourished under and gave added stability and focus to the tempestuous career of Maradona. “I learnt everything from Diego. I used to spy on him every time he trained and learned how to curl a free-kick just like him. After one year I had completely changed.”

Maradona was a notoriously bad trainer but the prospect from Sardinia seemed to bring the best out of him. The duo would spend hours after training practicing set pieces, and Zola’s technique benefitted as traits shared by the two became very evident. The curl and dip that became synonymous with the Italian’s approach was perfected and honed on the training ground in Naples, closely resembling the skill of El Diego.

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The similarities in technique and execution led to both players becoming renowned as free-kick specialists throughout their careers. It was not just set-pieces, however, that the double act practiced; the two regularly had wrong-footed penalty shootout competitions that became very competitive.

Zola’s first season at the San Paolo saw him as a bit-part player, a squad player with immense quality who was able to impact the team when called upon. Maradona was the team’s top goalscorer once again with 16 as he guided the Partenopei to a second Scudetto title in four years. Zola managed two goals, his first coming at home to Atalanta. A sensational first touch was matched by a trademark curling effort that opened his account for Napoli, demonstrating the technique and quality that served as a glimpse into the future of the gifted youngster.

His second goal for the club came as a stoppage-time winner against Genoa, again in Naples. The late strike kept title rivals and eventual European Cup champions AC Milan at arm’s length as Napoli attempted to fend off the challenge in their bid for the league championship. Marco van Basten guided the Rossoneri to back-to-back European Cup titles to emphasise the level of competition in Italy. Napoli’s second title was Zola’s first and only league championship that he would win in his career.

Maradona was smitten with his new apprentice. He could see the ability and skill that the young player had in abundance but also saw glimpses of himself in Zola, with his prodigy sharing more than just physical similarities.

Both players had exceptionally quick feet which, married to a low centre of gravity, made them difficult to contain when running at defenders. Balance is an attribute that comes hand in hand with players of such skill, a natural coordination that allows for vision and timing; ideal qualities for a number 10. With skill and flair, two attributes that lend a player to the adulation of supporters, it was no coincidence that the duo were firm fan favourites.

The future of Napoli was secure. The young and upcoming playmaker was working closely with the experienced brilliance of the Argentine hero and club icon, but the rise was soon to plateau as controversy once again surrounded Maradona. The superstar tested positive for cocaine and a lengthy 15-month ban was imposed on the former Boca Juniors man. He would never play for his adopted city again. He left Napoli in disgrace, and once his ban was complete, he opted for Sevilla despite interest from Real Madrid and other leading European clubs.

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Zola temporarily inherited the famous number 10 shirt under new manager Claudio Ranieri, but it was not the first time that the Italian had worn the iconic jersey. Speaking to FourFourTwo in 2007, the Italian described a moment of great honour installed on him by his former captain, a man who knew how to inspire the fans and the players around him: “One day we played against Pisa in the Italian Cup, he made me play in the number 10 jersey and picked the number nine for himself. For me it was the most beautiful thing I could ever imagine; Maradona letting me play in the number 10. Imagine my confidence, but especially my shock.”

The departure of the Argentine led to turbulent times in Naples. Irreplaceable amongst the supporters and engraved in the very heart of the city, his loss to both the club and area could not be understated. A new hero was needed. It was imperative that the Maradona-sized hole was filled, but when the disgraced hero gave his opinion on his replacement, he cited Zola as the man to take the team forward: “Napoli doesn’t need to look for anyone to replace me, the team already has Zola.”

Such was the bond between the fans and their number 10, which was established instantly between the world record signing and the exaggerated and almost revolutionary nature of his general public, that his remarkable achievements in Naples led to many walls and ancient buildings in the city being adorned with visual celebrations of their adopted son. The stunning murals that can be seen across the city endeavour to retain Diego Maradona in the municipality. Indeed, Napoli later retired the number 10 made famous by the Argentine, a tribute to the impact that he had on the city and still has on the club.

In 1993 Zola joined Parma due to the financial strife at Napoli, with key players having to be sold to overturn huge debts that threatened to cripple the club. Sadly – as if often the case in calcio – the immediate reaction to Zola’s departure was anger and frustration from the fans who felt betrayed by the little magician.

Zola went on to later have a brilliant career at Chelsea, where he is arguably most fondly remembered, but his time in the game is indebted to his relationship with Napoli and Maradona. The pair spent just a couple of years together in Campania but their friendship and hard work on the training pitch helped perfect techniques that moulded the little Italian into the magic box of Stamford Bridge.

In a mark of respect to the Italian magician at the San Paolo, Zola’s famous number 25 shirt has never been reissued in a similar gesture to that enjoyed by his mentor and friend at Napoli.

By Harry Collins  

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