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Premier League Cult Icons: Gianfranco Zola

Carlo Ancelotti will be remembered fondly for two moments at Chelsea: winning the domestic double in his first season with the club in 2010 and his role in Gianfranco Zola’s decision to join the Stamford Bridge outfit in 1996.

Were it not for Ancelotti persistently playing Zola out of position in preference of a Hernan Crespo-Enrico Chiesa strike partnership, one of the most important transfers in Chelsea’s history may never have come to fruition.

Signed for £4.5million by Ruud Gullit, Zola helped to transform Chelsea from a club consigned to obscurity into a stylish, trophy-winning outfit.

In his first season he was instrumental in the Blues’ second-ever FA Cup success and in the following year he added the League Cup, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup to his impressive collection.

The Premier League captivated by the divine skill of this diminutive genius, Zola would collect another FA Cup winners’ medal before departing Chelsea as a legend in 2003.

Gianfranco Zola In Profile

Place of BirthOliena, Italy
Premier League club(s)Chelsea
Premier League appearances229
Premier League goals59
Premier League assists22
International caps35
Other notable clubsNapoli, Parma, Cagliari

Journey into football

Born in the charming village of Oliena in the heart of Sardinia, Zola began his footballing journey with Corrasi Oliena at the age of 14.

He would sign his first professional contract with Nuorese in 1984 before moving to Serie C side Sassari Torres two years later.

Sardinia is an anonymous region within Italy’s rich footballing landscape and yet Zola’s artistry in the third division caught the eye of Napoli’s notorious administrator Luciano Moggi.

Signed for a handsome ₤2m, Zola was inducted as Diego Maradona’s understudy. The Argentine immediately took Zola under his wing and the young forward benefited from his influence on the pitch, albeit slightly less from Maradona’s introduction to Neapolitan nightlife.

I learned everything from Diego. I used to spy on him every time he trained and learned how to curl a free-kick just like him.

Gianfranco Zola on Diego Maradona

In his first season he won the Scudetto and while Gli Azzurri’s title defence was an inferior one, Zola stepped up in the absence of Maradona to help the team lift the Italian Super Cup in 1990.

Napoli found themselves scrapping at the wrong end of the table in 1992/93. Zola, who finished as the top assister in Serie A that campaign, ensured Napoli finished mid-table but it was to be his final season in Naples blue. The club’s precarious financial situation left them with little choice but to sell and Parma swooped in, where he established himself as one of the league’s elite players and enjoyed success on the European front.

Style of play

As the saying goes, big things can come in small packages.

In this delicate parcel was a player boasting fleet-footed trickery, flair and ingenuity. Zola was an exotic magician, weaving his wand on Premier League defences and causing them to crumble.

Zola initiated the dawn of ‘sexy football’ at Stamford Bridge. He was Chelsea’s main man and he thrived from the responsibility, his selflessness and professionalism unquestioned.

One of the many esteemed No.10s to derive from Italy, Zola was a master at operating between the lines. With his low centre of gravity and phenomenal technique, he would feint one way and then the other to leave his opponents in a twist. Such attributes helped him to navigate congested spaces and his instinctiveness enabled him to fashion chances from the most unlikely scenarios.

And it didn’t matter whether it was with his left foot or his right, he could find the back of the net from a variety of distances and angles. Some of his best work was purely instinctive; the back-heeled flick against Norwich and the magnificent lob against Everton being prime examples.

A menace from open play, he was equally destructive from set-pieces. All those additional hours of practising free-kicks with Maradona at Napoli paid dividends; only David Beckham and James Ward-Prowse have scored more in Premier League history.

Chelsea legacy

Let’s not beat around the bush: Zola is a Chelsea legend.

20 years after his departure, Zola’s iconic No.25 had been left untouched until the arrival of Moises Caicedo and it says a lot when the Ecuadorian contacted Zola to seek his blessing for a shirt number that has great sentimental value at Stamford Bridge.

The days of Zola showcasing his talents in a Chelsea shirt will live long in the memory of every supporters that was alive to witness. Even after the millions invested, the significant influx of talent and the abundance of trophies that have followed, the Zola era is arguably the most cherished.

Without him, the Roman Abramovich era may never have happened and Chelsea – despite their current underperformance – would not be the global enterprise that they’re today.

Not only did he play a starring role in transforming Chelsea’s fortunes but he helped to revolutionise England’s top flight with his portrayal of the second striker role.

In his final outing against Liverpool, he received standing ovations from both home and away supporters; a fitting tribute to a player that exhibited the best that the Premier League has to offer.

Biggest career achievement

With a total of eight club honours and a catalogue of individual accolades, there’s plenty of achievements to pick from but Zola’s Scudetto success in his debut season with Napoli stands out above the rest.

The Italian also recorded triumphs in the European Super Cup and UEFA Cup with Parma before his switch to Chelsea.

The Blues hadn’t won a major trophy in 26 years prior to his arrival but Zola put an end to their barren run. Across his seven-year spell he would win five trophies with Chelsea, including the 1996/97 FA Cup success where he scored goals in the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the competition.

On a personal front, he was named Chelsea’s Player of the Year twice and has since been inducted into the English and Italian Football Hall of Fame.

Did you know?

The conclusion of the 2002/03 season marked the end of Zola’s spell in west London and the forward opted to return to Sardinia following an offer from Cagliari.

Zola had formally accepted an offer from the then-Serie B outfit when Abramovich completed his acquisition of the club.

Learning of the Italian’s pending departure, Abramovich reportedly offered Cagliari president Massimo Cellino £1.25m to buy out his contract. When his proposition was refused, Abramovich considered purchasing Cagliari in an attempt to lure Zola back to Stamford Bridge.

But Zola had already made up his mind, pledging his allegiance to the Isolani.

It was a fruitful return to his homeland, with Zola scoring 13 goals as he orchestrated Cagliari’s return to Serie A. The following campaign proved to be his last and yet Zola was still at his majestic best, providing 21 goal contributions in all competitions as the club finished 12th and reached the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia.

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