In the latest of our legends series we take a look at Gianfranco Zola, the diminutive Italian forward who lit up Stamford Bridge between 1996 and 2003.
Gianfranco Zola is a rare breed. Mention his name and football fans of all persuasions will get a sort of wistful look on their face as though remembering a fond childhood memory. Rarer still, he can illicit that kind of response despite having been a Chelsea player. Not the most beloved team in the land but Zola’s skill and charm transcended the regular tribal loyalties. He was a joy to watch and an iconic figure in the early(ish) days of the Premier League.
Zola started his career in the lower leagues of Italian football playing first with Sardinian side Nuorese and later Torres in Serie C1. At 23 he was spotted by Luciano Moggi and was brought to Napoli. This is when the young forward’s career really started to take off.
Diego Maradona was at Napoli at the time which obviously made it difficult for Zola to get regular game time but he used the opportunity to learn from one of the greatest players to have ever played the game. The pair would regularly stay long after training practising free kicks and skills. Zola, an expert free kick taker, credits these sessions with his prowess with a dead ball.
In his first season at the club he managed to score two goals, including a stoppage time winner against Genoa which helped maintain Napoli’s two point lead at the top of the table. They went on to win the league that year – by two points.
Zola began to see more and more game time as Maradona’s career was derailed by drug bans in the early 90’s. As Maradona left Napoli he told the club not to worry about replacing him as they already had Zola. Zola in turn quickly became a fan favourite and his impressive return of goals and assists led to an international call up in 1991.
With Napoli struggling financially in 1993 they were forced to offload some of their best players including Zola who made the move to Parma. Already a respected player he really began to establish himself at Parma winning the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners Cup. Zola scored 49 goals in 102 games for the club but was saw his playing time cut down under Carlo Ancelotti and in November 1996 he made the defining move of his career when he signed for Chelsea.
Brought in by Ruud Gullit at the same time as his compatriot Gianluca Vialli, Zola was an instant hit at Stamford Bridge. He was a player worthy of the vine and .gif generation, playing at a time when the internet just screamed down your phone-line (ask your parents kids).
In his first season he helped the London club to an FA Cup final win and was voted FWA Player of the Year. He is the only player to have won the award having not played at an entire season in the league.
The following year he added to his tally of honours by leading Chelsea to a League Cup, Cup Winners Cup and Super Cup treble. The following season, he helped the club to the Champions League quarter final, scoring a memorable free kick against Barcelona.
Not long later it was another Zola free kick, late in the FA Cup final that set up the winner.
At the time, Chelsea were not the all conquering European mega club they are today. Before Zola arrived the Blues had not won a trophy since the 1970’s, but the little Italian, with his breathtaking control, skillful moves and keen eye for goal had established Chelsea as a force to be reckoned with.
The 2001/02 season was a difficult one for Zola and Chelsea. Manager Claudio Ranieri was attempting to bring in younger players and a lot of the clubs established stars were moving on.
Zola stayed however and while his playing time was reduced, he did score what would become the defining goal of his Chelsea career, a spinning, mid-air back heel that he met at the near post from a corner against Norwich in the FA Cup. It was sublime, outrageous and the kind of skill fans in England were just not used to seeing at the time.
The following season was to be Zola’s last at Stamford Bridge but it was a memorable one for the forward. Scoring 16 goals, including one brilliant lob against Everton, he helped Chelsea secure Champions League football.
Without Zola, there’s every chance that Roman Abramovic would not have been interested in buying Chelsea. Zola had left by the time the takeover occurred but he had played a big part in putting the club back on the footballing map. They were now both regular trophy winners and regulars in Europe.
Zola continued playing after Chelsea and has gone in to management since hanging up his boots but he is undoubtedly best remembered for time in London. In 2003 he voted by the fans as Chelsea’s greatest ever player.
His number 25 shirt , while not officially retired, has not been worn by another player since he left the club and in a poll by the Sun to establish the most artistic player ever to have played in England, he came second only to George Best.
Gianfranco Zola arrived at Chelsea relatively late in his career but made such a mark on the club that they might not be the club they are today without him. Beloved by Blue’s fans and anyone who enjoys the game, he is a true Chelsea legend.