There’ll be fearsome arguments about who is British football’s finest import. Some will argue for Cantona or Schmeichel at Manchester United, Henry or Bergkamp at Arsenal, while 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.
Is there much argument that such an accolade should fall to Gianfranco Zola? In the 90, the Sardinian was exceptional at three clubs; 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 Napoli signed him. 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 Luciano 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, 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 Napoli 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. 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 ₤13m 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, 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, 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.
In two seasons under Scala, Zola scored 22 goals in 51 games, and then followed it up with 28 in the same number of appearances, despite being shunted out to the flanks and even to the bench on occasions, inevitably blunting 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. 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 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 – against Zola, no less – the Dutchman had significant contacts in Italy, and used them to persuade Zola to come to England. A £4.5m cheque secured his services.
At the time, many thought it a foolhardy gamble to pay out for a player 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 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 not only his new club but the game in general.
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, and there was magic. Eighty strikes for a team that was never truly a threat to the major powers of the game is success enough but, for so many fans, it wasn’t the number of strikes that made 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-heel 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.
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.
Hardly anyone 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, Chelsea’s smiling icon of the 90s.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze