Zola. The very name brings goosebumps to the generation of Chelsea's fans fortunate enough to see the little trickster perform his craft at Stamford Bridge. Zola. Two syllables which conjure the images of the dancing boots and flashing 25 kit that graced the club in the late nineties and early oughts. Twice Chelsea's Player of the Year and just a decade ago voted the greatest player in the club's history, Gianfranco Zola was undoubtedly one of the most majestic figures to ever wear the royal blue. Although there aren't enough positive adjectives in the English language to describe the little Italian playmaker, one in particular surely sticks best: magical.
In his seven years with the club, Zola made 312 appearances and scored 80 beautiful goals (from the club's website). He helped the club to two FA cups, a League Cup, and a UEFA Cup Winners Cup. Also an FA Community Shield and a UEFA Super Cup, but who really cares about those? Honestly, it was a time when Chelsea did. But more on that later. He was a part of the side that earned us our first Champions League qualification. And for that, we thank him. Yes, our journey for the big-eared trophy began with him, but where did his journey begin? (See what I did there? It's a segue!)
Early Years: The Making of a Legend
Gianfranco Zola was born the 5th of July, 1966 in Oliena, a small town on the Italian island of Sardinia that was probably originally settled by refugees after the fall of Troy. His arrival was heralded by the launching of the Saturn I rocket on the very same day. I like to think Zola's birth inspired the man to higher heights in the space race.
It seems Zola was a precocious talent, judging by the frequency with which he moved on to better and better teams. He signed with a Sardinian team in 1984, at the age of 17. I read that he always appeared at the end of Bonnie Tyler's "Turn Around Bright Eyes" music video, but I think that poor soul was sadly mistaken (sorry about the quality, but I wanted to do the literal version and that was the only one available). Eventually, young Zola made it to Napoli, where he came into contact with the legendary Diego Maradonna.
This was a monumental moment in 22 year-old Zola's career. He became something of an understudy to the great Argentine. The penalty shootouts the two would have after training that the two would have, each taking the spot kicks with his weaker foot, became the stuff of legends among the people of Naples.
"I learnt everything from Diego,' insists the diminutive Sardinian. "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. I saw him do things in training and in matches I had never even dreamed possible... I'm not saying I wouldn't have been a good player if I had not played with him at that stage in my career but I do know I wouldn't be the player I am now."
After Maradonna's departure, Zola stepped into a larger role in the side. After 105 appearances, 32 goals, a Serie A title and an Italian Supercoppa, Franco moved on to Parma. There he won a UEFA Cup and established his reputation as a talented attacking player. Little did the world know, the best was yet to come from the bright-eyed Italian.
Coming to Chelsea: An Italian in London
Two winning smiles - via www.fifa.com
Zola would arrive at Chelsea touted talent, pushed out of Parma by non-other than Carlo Ancellotti, who saw no room for the creative player in his organized side. He came to the club when player-manager Ruud Gullit was at the helm, a time of renaissance for Chelsea. Although the club wasn't in good standing financially, a situation which would only worsen, Gullit was allowed a brief spending spree which brought in several foreign players. This included Zola, who came for the price of 4.5 million pounds, adjusted for inflation of the pound, that's approximately 6.8m pounds in today's currency. Granted, spending has increased since then, but considering that Newcastle paid an EPL record 15m to Blackburn Rovers for Alan Shearer just a few months earlier, I feel it's safe to consider Zola a prudent purchase.
He was 30 years old, but he was able to give Chelsea seven seasons of solid play. So much so that when he was considering leaving the club in 2003, just three years short of 40, the hierarchy saw fit to offer him an extension. Despite his age, the star was described as one of the best players in the league. Dennis Wise and Frank Lampard among many, many more of those lucky enough to be able to play with him touted him as the best player with whom they'd ever taken to the pitch. I love this interview with Zola and Dennis Wise, and not just because Wisey is another personal favorite for me. It shows the respect the world had for Zola, his personality, and the spirit of that team.
His Play: "The Touch of Magic"
If you look close enough, you can see the sparks flying - via soccernet-assets.espn.go.com
The playing style of our famous little Italian bears some resemblance to a certain tiny Spaniard we know well. Rather, I should say the Spaniard's style bears some resemblance to his. There were times when the ball would come into Gianfranco's feet, and defenders, fearing the talent of the spectacular midfielder, would swarm to him. And yet, as the corners of darkness closed out the light and all hope was lost,
Frodo Zola would emerge, producing the unbelievable against impossible odds.
Exhibit A. WARNING: Once you click this link, you may find your self having watched 23 minutes of glory before you know it. The first 30 seconds or so are what I'm talking about here, and I'll be highlighting some of his best moments later in this paper, so unless you have 23 minutes to spare... Click with caution.
Zola was elegant. He had formidable balance, agility, touch, ball control, vision, and perhaps most of all, desire. Long after other players had given up on a play, there he would go, twisting and turning, dancing through defenders and finding a way to push the play forward. I wish I could touch upon each of his qualities, but honestly, words wouldn't do it justice. I encourage you to seek out and watch videos of his play, as this is the only way to really see his greatness as a player.
However, as part why you clicked on this post was so that you wouldn't have to go searching yourself, I've elected three of Gianfranco's most spectacular moments for you to view here.
First up is a beautiful little bit of play with fellow candidate for next manager, Gus Poyet, resulting in a deserved equalizer against Manchester United.
Class. And who could forget this gem of a goal? A brilliant turn and shot in the 1997 FA Cup semi-final win over Wimbledon, one of his most important goals in Chelsea colors.
One of Zola's final goals for Chelsea was one of his finest. I'll let the video do the talking.
Simply superb. For all his talent, there is one quality of his that makes him even more unique in the world of professional sports: his character.
The Personality: "Universally Loved"
"I'ma gonna fly!" - via www.chelseafc.com
If the Italian had the ego of Jose Mourinho, I am certain today we'd be calling Gianfranco "the Special One," and the Portuguese would be left to finding another clever nickname for himself (personally, I like the sound of "the Eminent One"). As it was however, Zola was cherished by fans and players, of the club and of its opponents, for his humility and pure, almost childlike enthusiasm for the game.
"My greatest satisfaction is off the pitch for the way people consider me and the respect they give me," Zola insists. "Many people excel in games but when you have achieved that level of respect it is something special. Money can give you many things but respect cannot be bought. What I have achieved in the way people regard me, in my mind, is remarkable."
Zola was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2004, after which the British embassy characterized him as "the most enduring and popular foreign player in the history of Chelsea." Two weeks prior to scoring that magnificent back heel goal against Norwich, he had been visiting with a young boy, a fan that was in the hospital with a terminal illness. It was not the first visit, and the boy was so heavily medicated he had trouble speaking. Zola promised him that he would score a goal for the boy and dedicate it to him. Two weeks later, what a goal it was. It was no wonder the British public loved him.
A month after his final game for Chelsea in 2003, he returned to his home island of Sardinia to sign for Cagliari. This was despite an offer of an improved contract from new owner Roman Abramovich. Gianfranco had given his word to the Italian side the day before the Russian billionaire's takeover, and as was typical of the midfielder, he kept his promise.
Of course the most telling sign of his massive popularity was his election by fan vote as the greatest player in Chelsea's history. He earned himself the nicknames of "the Chelsea Wizard" and "Chelsea's Magic Box," demonstrating his close association with the club. Because he helped the club to rise to a legitimate power for a time in our history even prior to Uncle Roman's riches arriving, Zola will always have a special place in the hearts of the Stamford Bridge faithful.
Where Zola is Today
What an apt picture. - via static.guim.co.uk
Franco played for two years in Sardinia before announcing his retirement. Since then, he has managed West Ham United, with mixed success, and more recently, Watford, who currently sit 3rd in the Championship table, just one point behind second-placed Hull City. Perhaps one day he will return to Chelsea as a manager, but right now, he's grooming the heck out of future star, Nathaniel Chalobah for us.
Hoping he'll be a part of our future, Chelsea fans can hold on to the sweet, sweet memories of the past. Like this one.
I've gotten quite a few comments on what people would like to see next, and while I think I'll probably return to writing about players eventually, I think I'd like to cover some other, more general topics first. So, I offer some options in the poll. Let me know what you think. I'll give some heads-ups on my Twitter (@iAMSword) as to what I'm doing next.