Gianfranco Zola is synonymous with Chelsea Football Club. The Sardinian magician was a scorer of truly great goals and was voted Chelsea’s greatest ever player in 2005 after a magnificent career at Stamford Bridge from 1996 to 2003.
The little Italian broke through way back in 1989 at Italian club Napoli. There, he was in the same team as the legendary Diego Maradona and the two would spent hours together after training practicing free kicks, a trait which shone through as Zola made greater strides in his professional career.
The great Arrigo Sacchi gave Zola his Italian national team debut in 1991, but his international career would be sadly underwhelming for one of the most talented footballers of his generation. 35 caps and 10 goals was scant reward for a man whose 21 year club career saw him revered around the globe as one of the most charismatic, humble football genii the game has seen.
In 1993, Zola moved from Napoli to Parma, where he won a UEFA Cup and also was a runner up in Serie A and the Coppa Italia. However, current Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti was in charge at Parma at the time and was a student of Sacchi, who believed that systems and tactics, not players, won football matches. As a result, Zola, despite being widely renowned as a player of truly special ability, was cast aside by Ancelotti.
He was made available for sale and in November of 1996, completed a £4.5 million transfer to Ruud Gullit’s Chelsea. Gullit was in the process of transforming Chelsea from an underperforming cup side to one worthy of the glitz and glamour of London’s West End and Zola was to be the centrepiece of his grand plan.
In February of 1997 he scored a wonderful solo goal against Manchester United, one that alerted the rest of the national to his prodigious talent. His first season in English football ended with the FA Cup Final win over Middlesbrough, a cup campaign that included a great goal in the 4-2 comeback win over Liverpool and the famous “twisted blood” goal against Wimbledon in the semi-final.
Zola was awarded the Football Writer’s Association Player of the Year Award at the season’s end, becoming the first Chelsea player to win the award and the first to do so without having played a full season in English football.
In the next season, Chelsea won the League Cup, the Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. Zola wrote himself further into Chelsea folklore by scoring the winning goal in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Stockholm, 21 seconds after coming on as a substitute. Injury had denied him a place in the starting line up, but not a place in Chelsea history.
In 1999-2000, Chelsea was involved in the UEFA Champions League for the first time. Zola was a key part of the campaign, but in the league was often a substitute as Gianluca Vialli employed a rotation policy. The Blues made the quarter finals at their first attempt as well as winning the FA Cup as the season’s conclusion.
The next season saw the arrival of Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohsen. In his first season, Hasselbaink won the Premier League golden boot with 23 goals, whilst in the season after, he and Gudjohnsen hit off their wonderfully prolific partnership, Hasselbaink scoring 27 times and Gudjohnsen 23 times.
Their form restricted Zola’s starting appearances, but he was still a valuable weapon as a substitute. In 2002, Zola provided a reminder of his mercurial talents with a mid air backheeled goal against Norwich City in the FA Cup.
2002-2003 turned out to be Zola’s final season at Stamford Bridge. He enjoyed a fairytale renaissance too, scoring 16 goals and helping the club qualify for the UEFA Champions League. It was his highest goal tally in a season for Chelsea and he was voted the club’s player of the year.
His final goal ever for Chelsea was a lasting reminder of his brilliance and creativity. With Richard Wright off his line, Zola delicately lobbed the ball over him from the left hand edge of the area. In his final ever competitive appearance in Chelsea blue, he came off the bench with twenty minutes remaining, earning the applause of both sets of supporters with a run that beat four players in the corner late on.
Roman Abramovich’s takeover couldn’t prevent Zola from keeping his word and moving back to his home club Cagliari, in Italy’s Serie B. He helped them to promotion, before playing one final season in Serie A, where he scored a double in his final professional match against Juventus.
Gianfranco Zola made 312 appearances in total for Chelsea scoring 80 goals. Nearly all of them had a touch of Zola’s special class and a few were some of the finest seen at Chelsea Football Club. He was voted Chelsea’s greatest ever player in the centenary celebrations of 2005 and will forever be remembered as one of the most humble, kind and immensely talented footballer’s ever to grace Stamford Bridge.
With his managerial career well underway, it’s entirely plausible that Gianfranco’s Chelsea story is not yet over – indeed, it may only be half told.