The thing with being an instantly likeable footballer is that it’s oddly linked with being consigned to relative obscurity. As a mercurially gifted playmaker, Gianfranco Zola dazzled fans wherever he played. He was a magician. However, much like the girls at secondary school, tabloids and mainstream history often prefer the bad guys. Those who challenge authority are often remembered with added fervour, passionately recalled by fans of all clubs. The guys who go about their day, dazzling in the confines of dignity and unwavering professionalism, are still remembered fondly, yet only win 35 caps for their country.
As a player, Zola was plucked from Serie C to be Maradona’s apprentice at Napoli, won trophies galore in Parma’s outrageously talented team of the mid-90s, and had a rousing effect on Chelsea as they began to establish themselves as a stylish and successful Premier League team. As a manager, a somewhat meandering career path has seen Gianfranco Zola consigned to somewhere just under the radar.
If Gianfranco Zola was ever likely to be remembered as one of calcio’s more controversial heroes, his early career provided the perfect opportunity. Plucked from the relative anonymity of Sardinia by then-Napoli administrator Luciano Moggi, he signed for Napoli in 1989. In one fell swoop, Gianfranco Zola leapt from Serie C and landed firmly in the restless bosom of Diego Maradona. They formed quite the bond.
Having spent five seasons on his home island of Sardinia, initially for Nuoresse and later for Torres, 23-year-old Zola played the role of understudy during his Serie A debut season. Still, he managed three goals in 24 appearances, and therefore played a significant part in Napoli’s second ever Scudetto. Endless extra hours after training, spent with Maradona indulging in weaker-foot penalty competitions and free-kick practice, would stand Zola in good stead.
Zola’s creative mastery was evident from the off. Maradona and Careca, kingpins of the Napoli attack, gorged on Zola’s assists as they both enjoyed a fruitful campaign. However, pertinently to Zola’s career trajectory, influence running the opposing direction centred more around the theme of doing magical things with a football, and less around the theme of Neapolitan nightlife.
Napoli endured a terrible defence of their 1990 title. In the spring of 1991, with the club en route to an eighth-place finish, and having been dumped out of the European Cup by Spartak Moscow, Maradona failed a drugs test and left the country in shame. One of his parting sentiments spoke volumes of his appreciation of Gianfranco: “Napoli doesn’t need to look for anyone to replace me, the team already has Zola.”
It would take the Neapolitan club years to fully recover from the shockwaves of Maradona’s exit.
Read | Gianfranco Zola and Diego Maradona at Napoli: the student and the mentor
Christmas 1992 saw the club in the relegation zone, and it was largely the attacking flair and invention of Zola, Careca and Daniel Fonseca that rescued Napoli. However, with financial constraints tightening their grip, and a mid-table position secured, both Zola and Careca were sold in the summer of 1993. This set a worryingly inevitable trend. Club captain, Ciro Ferrara, and Daniel Fonseca were sold the following summer and, without funds to buy replacements, only the loan signing of Paolo Di Canio offered a glimmer of hope for Napoli to replicate any attacking flair.
They were eventually relegated in 1998, by which time Zola was a key player for Chelsea as they celebrated League Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup titles.
As would eventually be the case in west London, Zola was the catalyst for success at Parma, his next destination. As one of the club’s first big-name signings in July 1993, Zola went about quietly, skilfully and subtly ushering in a new dawn at the provincial club who were on the cusp of the big time.
With the soothing influence of Parmalat’s millions, head coach Nevio Scala had already enticed Faustino Asprilla, Tomas Brolin, and Dino Baggio to Stadio Ennio Tardini, and boldly claimed the 1992 Coppa Italia and the 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup. Not bad for a club who entered Serie A for the first time in 1990.
Zola’s debut season was a resounding success. Playing as a second striker, he was the club’s top-scorer with 18 goals, a feat he’d repeat in each of his three full seasons in Parma colours. Spurred on by the attacking exploits of Zola and Asprilla, the 1993/94 season saw Parma cement their place in Serie A, and announce themselves as regular party-goers in Europe. Finishing fifth in Serie A somewhat masked the achievement of being just nine points behind the champions, and while a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal was a bitter pill to swallow, a second successive Cup Winners’ Cup final went a long way in making Europe stand up and take note of Parma.
With the additions of Fernando Couto, Hristo Stoichkov, Fabio Cannavaro and youngsters Filippo Inzaghi and Gianluigi Buffon, Parma had emphatically made their point by 1996. With Zola leading the way in goals and assists, Parma claimed the 1995 UEFA Cup with victory over Juventus in the final. Domestically they finished third and were runners-up in the Coppa Italia.
Regrettably, success often spawns greed, and 1996’s trophyless campaign and sixth place finish heralded a summer of change. Just as a 17-year-old Buffon was establishing himself as the club’s new local hero, being a product of the youth system, Nevio Scala was on his way out.
Carlo Ancelotti was his replacement, an appointment that yielded a swath of marquee signings. Pertinently for Zola, Hernán Crespo was one of the new boys, and this meant a few significant tweaks to the structure and selection of Parma’s attack. Despite being a proven goalscorer, Serie A’s dead-ball specialist, a selfless team player, the subject of praise from Maradona, and a winner of several trophies, Zola left Parma in November 1996 with something of a point to prove.
Read | The insatiable rise of Parma in the 1990s
As Glenn Hoddle left Stamford Bridge to become England manager in the summer of 1996, Stamford Bridge submerged itself in a cultural and footballing revolution.
The late-80s and early-90s were testing times for Chelsea fans. Stamford Bridge was a sparse, hotchpotch football ground, and an unloved home. Having been wrestled away from the grasp of property developers, it consisted of four unattractive stands and cars parked in the chasms of space between the goal and the Shed End.
As for the fans, most mirrored the unfashionable ‘middle of the road’ existence of the club, and there was a distinct absence of younger supporters. Lingering around the Bridge was the disjointed atmosphere of an awkward balance between pride and hope. There was nostalgic yearning for Osgood and Greaves et al, and forced awkward excitement for record signings such as Paul Furlong.
Appointed on the back of success at Swindon Town, Hoddle had set Chelsea on the path of reinvention. His own stylish and visionary football philosophy advised the route, and attracting the likes of Mark Hughes and Ruud Gullit truly shook up a mid-table side. With Hoddle departing Chelsea sooner than expected, Ken Bates continued commitment to Hoddle’s creative, attractive football, and with an unerring sense of adventure, handed Gullit the role of player/manager.
Backed by Bates, Gullit made an immediate statement of intent in the transfer market. In doing so, Chelsea’s footballing DNA was changed forever. Sexy football was born. Gullit broke the club’s transfer record by bringing Roberto Di Matteo to Stamford Bridge from Lazio for £4.9m, Gianluca Vialli arrived on a free transfer from Juventus, and Frank Leboeuf joined from Strasbourg. Twelve games into a new era, Zola joined Chelsea for £4.5m and set about becoming a bonafide Stamford Bridge legend.
Ironically, as Zola became a household name in the Premier League, his international career juddered to an irreparable halt. Something of a late starter in international football, the 25-year-old was handed his debut by Arrigo Sacchi in 1991. His last came in October 1997, when a heroic England held Italy to a 0-0 draw to secure a place at the 1998 World Cup.
Sandwiched between those six years were just 35 caps, a controversial red card at the 1994 World Cup, a costly penalty miss at the 1996 European Championships, and a lingering affirmation of the time that an Italian player in the prime of their career should never turn their back on the bel paese.
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In winning the 1997 FA Cup, Zola continued his impressive trend of silverware in his first season at a new club. For Chelsea, it represented a first major trophy in 26 years. Still in its infancy, sexy football had an early heydey. Headlines lauded the Kings Road as swinging once again, tabloids merrily referenced Chelsea’s foreign legion, and Roman Abramovich was still an unknown name waiting in the wings.
Just as Eric Cantona came to personify the transformation of Manchester United from underachievers to champions, Zola did the same for Chelsea. Cantona did so with an air of self-serving arrogance, laced with moments of controversy and madness, while Zola went about his captivating work with an air of childlike joy, positivity, and that smile.
The Italian went on to play seven seasons in the Premier League with Chelsea and endeared himself to the fans in a way that very few players ever did. Despite success with Napoli and Parma, it’s a logical assumption to draw that Zola wasn’t at his most content, relaxed or expressive in Italy. At Chelsea, he was made a real hero, and given a spiritual home.
Chelsea fans had yearned for a cosmopolitan, stylish and accomplished player to pin their self-styled identity on to, and in Zola, they had one of their own. He not only became the poster boy for Chelsea’s transition, but for foreigners embracing the English game nationwide.
The tactical freedom afforded to him by Gullit, Vialli and Claudio Ranieri was the catalyst for his best performances. Zola’s own dedicated professionalism repaid the debt. The 2002/03 season saw Zola’s glorious swansong, a campaign in which he finished as Chelsea’s top-scorer once again and helped the team qualify for the Champions League.
Despite giving the appearance and impression of a player in the prime of his late-20s for the entirety of his playing career, Zola was 36-years-old when he played his last match for Chelsea. His last goal, an unforgettable lob against Everton on the Easter Monday 2003, showcased everything that made Zola great: invention, athleticism, flair, and sheer joy. His 20-minute cameo against Liverpool in the last match of the season featured a trademark mazy dribble, which beat four Liverpool defenders and earned ovations from home and away support. However, Zola wasn’t quite finished there.
Long before the attraction of Major League Soccer for ageing football stars, and amidst circulating rumours of an impending Chelsea takeover, Zola agreed a 12-month contract with Serie B side Cagliari. In a fitting finale to the career of one of football’s most honourable sons, Zola would return to Sardinia to play for the only major club on the island he hadn’t yet turned out for.
Read | Gianluca Vialli: the Chelsea diaries
Having acquired control of Chelsea in July 2003, Abramovich is rumoured to have offered to buy Cagliari as an entirety, just to secure Zola’s signature and immediate return. While these rumours have never been confirmed, Zola has stated Abramovich and Chelsea submitted at least an official approach. Zola, though, is not a man to renege on an agreement, and would see out his playing days in Sardinia.
In the summer of 2004, with Chelsea basking in the warm and assuring glow of José Mourinho’s appointment, Zola inspired Cagliari to promotion to Italy’s top-flight. Thirteen goals in an impressive 43 Serie B matches is testament indeed to Zola’s physical condition, but he wasn’t done yet.
With the prospect of a finale in the top flight of Italian football, Zola signed a 12-month contract extension. Months shy of his 39th birthday, he could be found mixing it with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Adriano, Andriy Shevchenko and Kaká. Inspired by their experienced talisman, Cagliari finished a highly respectable 12th in a newly expanded 20-team Serie A. The stocky attacker made 31 appearances and registered nine goals.
The ultimate game of the 2004/05 season, and of Zola’s glittering playing career, saw Cagliari defeated 4-2 by Juventus. The victory crowned Juve as champions, yet under the administration of Luciano Moggi, this was one of two stripped away as part of the Calciopoli scandal. Fittingly, the match is now remembered by many for Zola scoring both his side’s goals, and again, bowing out on a high.
Though impossible to quantify, football management is probably part art and part science. The ratio will vary from club to club and change almost constantly with the particular remits of the moment. As seasons, months, weeks and even days tick by, a plethora of events present themselves. The manager will respond with anything between an arm round the shoulder, draped in encouragement and care, or an iron fist raucously supported by a bellowing hair-dryer. Some moments will require ignorance, some undivided attention.
On the evidence of Zola’s playing career, it could be safe to conclude that he’s simply too much of an artist to make a real success of a coaching career. Lazy logic would aptly describe the assumption that Zola is ‘too nice’ to succeed in club management. Lazy because it’s an obvious and somewhat ignorant conclusion, yet oddly logical when Zola’s pick and mix managerial CV is examined.
Considering his Chelsea roots, Zola’s first foray into management was a brave one. West Ham United took a gamble in appointing Zola, yet to achieve his full UEFA licence, in September 2008. However initial success was underlined by a brand of attacking and expansive football, and a top ten finish. Zola was offered, and signed, a four-year contract extension. The following season would be Zola’s first and last full season at Upton Park.
Extenuating circumstances could be a valid excuse for a narrow relegation escape, despite signing Savio Nsereko. A mid-season takeover conducted by David Gold and David Sullivan saw previous cash-strapped, Icelandic owners ousted, and the on-field rhythm upset. Zola was relieved of his duties two days after avoiding relegation by five points, securing West Ham’s Premier League status.
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Zola spent the 2011/12 season coaching the Italian under-16 squad and supporting under-21 coach Pierluigi Casiraghi. The role seemed to suit Zola’s attributes well – and not just because from a distance he looked like one of the squad.
Following a successful takeover by the Pozzo family, Zola was installed as Watford manager in July 2012. Under a mild storm of affection for his predecessor Sean Dyche, Zola had a tough start. Many Watford fans saw Dyche as needlessly dismissed. Witnessing an Italian-flavoured Watford lose seven of their opening 13 games only stoked the flames of discontent.
However Zola showed some steel and, as always, a few healthy shovelfuls of dignity and professionalism, and soon had the Hornets buzzing a merry tune. Watford were playing some attractive football and steadily climbing the Championship table. Sixth by Christmas, Zola very nearly achieved automatic promotion. It took a final day defeat by Leeds to confine Watford to the roulette wheel of the playoffs.
The semi-finals saw a narrow 3-2 aggregate victory over Leicester City set up a Wembley final against Crystal Palace. Sadly for Watford and Zola, an extra-time penalty scored by 39-year-old Kevin Phillips saw Palace prevail.
If the intensity of the Premier League makes it a testing domain then the unadulterated marathon of a Championship season is equally demanding. Adding the nuance of playoff final defeat, and the fine margins of lining up at Manchester United or Yeovil Town come the new season’s opening day, the psychological effects can be devastating. As Watford wobbled to rediscover rhythm, Zola resigned in December 2013. Watford were in 13th place. Come the season’s end, Watford were still there.
Just in time for Christmas 2014, Zola received the gift of a poisoned chalice. Being appointed Cagliari boss on Christmas Eve represented a joyfully festive homecoming, yet less than three months later, he would be replaced by the man who he replaced, Zdeněk Zeman.
Since July 2015, he has held the head coach position at Qatari side Al-Arabi and suffered the ignominy of only two wins in 24 matches as Birmingham manager during the 2016/17 season. Whether you believe his managerial career at the top is over or not, two things are certain: Gianfranco Zola was a fine footballer, and he’s a bloody nice bloke.
By Glenn Billingham @glennbills