£4.5m. What would that get you in the upcoming January transfer window? A 34-year-old full-back who has made just one substitute appearance all season at West Ham? A goalkeeper you’ve never heard of from the Greek league? Well, obviously inflation is huge, but even in 1996, Gianfranco Zola was a bargain for Chelsea. In fact, in that year, the Stamford Bridge club could have bought, for example, one third of Alan Shearer, or three quarters of Nicky Barmby. He was a bargain of epic proportions and had a memorable career.
The first line of Zola’s Wikipedia page reads “Gianfranco Zola (Italian pronunciation: [dʒamˈfraŋko ˈdzɔːla]; born 5 July 1966) is an Italian former footballer who played predominantly as a forward” – predominantly being the key word. Zola was much more than a striker, he redefined forward play, popularising the theory of the position in between the striker and number 10, whatever fancy term you use to describe it – deep lying forward, second striker, whatever floats your boat. Zola, along with others at the time, such as Dennis Bergkamp, popularised the position.
Zola may not have gone on to score the goals of Alan Shearer, or win hundreds of caps for his country, but he was and still is, in a nutshell, a Premier League icon.
Therefore, it is fitting that to wrap up this tremendous series on 5WFootball to finish with the brilliance and wizardry of Gianfranco Zola. Apologies in advance for trying to sum up his iconic career in just 1000 words.
The move to Naples and his mentor, Diego Maradona
Having spent five seasons at the mediocrity of Serie C clubs, such as Nuoresse and Torres in his home island of Sardinia, Zola moved to Napoli as a 23-year-old, a late bloomer perhaps. After impressing, Zola was spotted by Napoli general manager Luciano Moggi, who later become infamously known for his role in the 2006 calciopoli scandal, which effectively brought the curtain down for good on Serie A’s rule as ‘best league in the world’, which it was at the time of Zola’s signing. He was brought across the Tyrrhenian Sea to play for the mighty Napoli.
He played the role of understudy during his debut season, but played a significant part of Napoli’s Scudetto winning season. That was just Napoli’s second Serie A title, and although Zola only featured 24 times, he learned more than he ever would in Serie C, having spent hours after training with the legendary Diego Maradona. When Zola signed, El Diego remarked: “Finally we’ve got someone who’s smaller than me.”
Zola was evidently a young man in a new city, in need of a mentor. Maradona became that man, perhaps without even trying. Zola said: “I learnt everything from Diego. 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.”
“One day we played against Pisa in the Italian Cup, he made me play in the number 10 jersey and picked the number nine for himself. For me it was the most beautiful thing I could ever imagine; Maradona letting me play in the number 10. Imagine my confidence, but especially my shock.”
The end of Zola’s time was turbulent, with the title defence ending in disaster. Eighth in the table, having been dumped out of the European Cup by Spartak, talismanic legend Maradona failed a drugs test. He left the country and left his club in tatters, despite his parting statement: “Napoli doesn’t need to look for anyone to replace me, the team already has Zola.”
Nevertheless, Zola became the star of Naples. He grew as a player, and subsequently he grew Napoli as a club, despite their downfall post-Maradona. After making over 100 appearances and scoring over 30 goals, Zola moved on to pastures new, due to financial uncertainties with the Neapolitan club.
Leading the Parma 1990’s revolution
Parma had somewhat a glory decade in the 1990’s, and Gianfranco Zola was central to that, after his move from Naples. Parma’s rise and fall resonates with that of Napoli’s, both victims of dubious business methods.
Over the decade, the club had the likes of Zola, Hernan Crespo, Lilian Thuram, Hristo Stoichkov, Dino Baggio, Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Juan Sebastian Veron… the list goes on.
In Zola’s first season, he helped the club with the UEFA Cup as well as finishing runners-up in Serie A.
Coach Nevio Scala became an eternal icon of the club. He used an audacious 5-3-2 formation, which got the Gialloblu promoted to Serie A for the first time in their 77-years of existence.
The 1994-95 season was the most notable, where Zola scored 19 goals in a season where the club pushed Marcelo Lippi’s Juventus all the way and nearly won the title.
In 1995-96, Zola struggled for a place, with boss Carlo Ancelotti seeing him as a ‘square peg’ unable to fit his rigid 4-4-2 system, so moved to Chelsea in November 1996.
He left as one of the icons of Parma’s memorable decade, scoring 49 goals in 102 league appearances.
New beginnings in West London
Chelsea were a club in need of change. In fact, they hadn’t won a major trophy for well over two decades. Traditional English coach Glenn Hoddle left the club to become national team manager just months before Zola’s signature, which was one of many moves to evolve the club into a more cultured setup.
Ruud Gullit made major signings from overseas such as Roberto Di Matteo, Gianluca Vialli, Frank Leboeuf, and more. It was a revolution at Chelsea, yearning for ‘sexy football’ instead of traditional English play. Gullit changed Chelsea’s DNA forever. In fact, that Chelsea side was one of the most important in changing English football forever.
While it would’ve been criticised at the time, Chelsea fielded the first ever all-foreign Premier League XI in December 1999, which was a sign of how they had changed English football by making it more continental – just one step in evolving the English game to a more culturally-fluid league.
As These Football Times put it: “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.”
Within months of his arrival, Zola led Chelsea to the 1997 FA Cup. Seven seasons later, he left as a club legend.
He evolved both Chelsea and the Premier League, creating new tactical ideas along the way. He finished as Chelsea’s top scorer multiple times, and led the club to multiple heights, perhaps which caught the eye of multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich.
Four magical playmakers – Cantona, Bergkamp, Zola and Juninho – virtually ran the Premier League, remarked Michael Cox in his wonderful book The Mixer. “If Cantona was the trailblazer, Bergkamp and Zola followed shortly behind in the stream”, wrote Cox. They were all diminutive in height, and relied more on technical ability rather than physique – it was their spatial awareness that allowed them to thrive.
Zola left at age 36 in 2003, which was a fitting swansong for a Chelsea legend – he finished top of Chelsea’s scoring charts that season.
Despite being handed the number 10 shirt at Naples, Zola had to settle for the number 25 at Chelsea, but he made it iconic in his own right, and although not officially retired, Chelsea have not handed anyone the #25 shirt since.
After Chelsea, Zola returned to Sardinia to play for Cagliari, where he scored 13 goals in 43 Serie B matches, leading them to a promotion to Serie A. He continued there until age 39, where his side finished mid-table in an eagerly contested Serie A.
He’s since dipped his delicate toes into management. You can now find him as Maurizio Sarri’s number 2 at Chelsea, offering a reassuring presence at the main man’s fag butt biting side.