It is incumbent when writing about the career of any footballer to include details of his appearances and overall tally of goals, his C.V. in prose form including who he signed for and when and for how much money. It is also usually obligatory to name-check the trophies won, assuming of course that the player in question was successful and that’s almost a given if they have an article devoted to them.
But this is Gianfranco Zola we are celebrating here today, a maestro in the truest, most literal sense whose magical powers stripped away all the negative miscellanea that attaches itself to the game. The tribalism.
The old-school distrust of foreign talent, believing them to be mercenaries and incapable of performing mid-week at a rain-lashed Britannia Stadium – for this remember was the Nineties. Maybe too, some among us carry a heartfelt hatred of Chelsea FC.
None of this mattered when Zola played. Regardless of who we supported and regardless of anything else, when he backheeled in flight, direct from a corner a stupendous goal against Norwich each and every one of us regressed to childhood wonder, jaws on the floor, eyes emblazoned. He left us spellbound. He left us exclaiming, ‘Fucking hell, that was AMAZING’ and then just laughing because all other vocabulary was stolen. On many occasions he made our hearts swell with pure joy and for a precious moment or two, every shred of the cynicism of a cynical world disappeared.
What are mere dry statistics compared to all this? Recounting Zola’s career in numbers is like focusing on the measurements of the Sistine Chapel ceiling or highlighting the running time of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It spectacularly and fastidiously misses the point.
All the same, they are necessary so let’s whizz through them just like our retelling of the anecdotal twists and turns that colour his journey from Italy to the Premier League should be brisk because they are so familiar.
In November 1996 Chelsea snapped up this rare jewel from Parma for £4.5m, a sum that in hindsight can be viewed as a bargain bordering on daylight robbery, yet a national newspaper suggested at the time that the Serie A club would be happiest with the deal. Zola, they alluded, was an ‘agitator’ having forced through the move due to resentment at being edged out of the reckoning under Carlo Ancelotti.
It is all too easy to see where they were going with this. He was Italian therefore he was hot-headed, therefore he was a potential problem. Such was the xenophobia of the sporting media in an era that was not yet fully au fait with overseas players parading their wares on our pitches.
Arguably more than anyone else, Zola ended this prejudice. He enlightened us and though it would not be true to state that he was the first foreign star to shine on our shores his arrival certainly coincided with an influx of imports that gave the Premier League a long-overdue continental make-over. And by extension, it opened our minds.
Many of that influx headed to South West London and pivotally all within a couple of transfer windows. First up Ruud Gullit took the hot-seat, becoming only the third foreign Premier League manager and at the earliest opportunity he brought in Vialli, Di Matteo and Leboeuf with the ace up his sleeve Zola arriving soon after.
Just a couple of years prior the Blues had been a solid, stolid mid-table side with Paul Furlong and Gavin Peacock their leading lights and neatly, after seven seasons of delighting and bewitching the Bridge, Zola departed just a matter of days before Roman Abramovich took over, investing his vast wealth and transforming the club into a title-winning machine.
In between those two extremes there was sexy Chelsea; stylish, bags of fun and flawed Chelsea who were Bellissimo to watch with their cosmopolitan swagger. During Zola’s spell in the capital they averaged fifth spot in the league and won two FA Cups, a League Cup, the UEFA Cup Winners Cup, and the UEFA Super Cup.
They achieved all this largely inspired and spearheaded by a little genius who showcased free-kicks learnt first-hand from Diego Maradona at Napoli – when the great man left Naples he informed them they were in safe hands because ‘the team already has Zola’ – and bamboozled opponents and onlookers alike with his trickery.
In 312 games the silky Sardinian scored 80 goals and unsurprisingly made an impact right from the off, becoming only the second player to ever win the FWA Footballer of the Year award in his debut season. That alone is impressive. Then you recall that he didn’t even join until late November.
Now for the fun part. Remember his free-kick against Barcelona at the turn of the century? From barely twenty yards out it caressed the back of the net at knee height such was the whip and precision on the blighter.
Remember him putting Denis Irwin – unquestionably one of the finest full-backs of the modern age – on his arse at the Bridge, and then having the temerity to dance past Gary Pallister before wrong-footing Schmeichel by going for the near post? Even Sir Alex Ferguson begrudgingly had to cede that was top drawer, calling Zola a ‘clever little so-and-so’ in his post-match presser.
Remember his UEFA Cup Winners Cup final strike that downed Stuttgart? Put clean through it demanded a dink over the keeper or perhaps a touch to round him. Instead, the forward who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Fonz belted it Roy Race fashion with the outside of his boot right into the roof of the net. The angle simply wasn’t there. It made no logical sense to make that choice. Only Zola could, so he did.
Remember his impudent lob v Everton or when he wriggled his way through an entire Liverpool defence? Or when he nutmegged Julian Dicks twice-over just for kicks? More vitally can you remember how you felt on seeing these instances of otherworldly brilliance? How our jaws hit the floor and our eyes were emblazoned.
It can only be imagined how wonderful it must be for Chelsea fans to claim this special talent as their own. In 2003 they voted Zola their greatest ever player. He is utterly beloved there. Yet in many ways he belongs to us all, unifying us as fans in sheer admiration and no little gratitude too.
For Gianfranco Zola was our reward for Taylor’s England, and hooliganism; for enduring muddy battles that masqueraded as matches and fifty-yard clearances down the line. He was a glorious glimpse of the future when we needed it the most.
Fucking hell, he was amazing.