Diminuitive Italian striker and living Chelsea legend, born 5th July, 1966, in Oliena, Sardinia.
Gianfranco began his footballing career in 1985 as a striker with Sardinian side Nuorese in the lower divisions of the Italian leagues, but after a year he had crossed the island to join rival team Torres, where he spent three years. His tiny stature (a miniscule 5 foot 6/168cm) proved to be no impediment, and from an early age his combination of a (very) low centre of gravity, excellent technique, and an ever-increasing bag of tricks caught the eye of Italy's top-flight teams. Eventually, it was Napoli who prised Zola away from his beloved Sardinia - after all, who could resist the lure of playing alongside Diego Armando Maradona?
Learning from the best
Maradona's reputation as the greatest player in the world was, at that point, not tarnished by anything more than the occassional bout of dastardly cheating. Zola appeared to have many of the same qualities (i.e. he was too small to be a striker, but he had phenomenal technique) as the volatile Argentine, and Maradona recognised Zola as his natural successor for the club. Unfortunately for Diego, Zola's chance to succeed him came sooner than anyone whould have thought. After winning the league for a second time in 1990, Napoli's efforts to retain their title the following season were dealt a hammer blow when Maradona tested positive for drugs. AC Milan won the title, and Maradona would never play for Napoli again.
The Napoli fans had a ready-made replacement for their departed idol in the shape of Gianfranco Zola. The little man had not wasted his time on the bench, and had clearly learnt a great deal from his mentor - including a few tips on how to take a great free kick. Zola settled down into the first-choice striker role, but his own superb performances could not help the ailing club, (which seemed to be permanently teetering on the edge of financial disaster), and after two more years at the club, he moved north to join the emergent force in Italian football at the time, Parma.
Franco and Tino
Parma's rise to the upper echelon's of Italian football had been meteoric, and Zola joined a team of international superstars who had just won the European Cup Winner's Cup and were considered serious challengers for the Italian title. Chief among those stars was another temperamental South American, Colombia's Faustino Asprilla. Although (obviously) not nearly as talented as Maradona, Tino soon struck up a very productive partnership with Zola, with the Italian's trickery proving the perfect foil for the Colombian's powerful, aggressive play. The pair powered Parma to a second successive Cup Winner's Cup final in 1994, only to be cancelled out by George Graham's notoriously defensive Arsenal side in a 1-0 defeat. Happier times were in store the following season, however, as Parma lifted the UEFA Cup with a 2-1 aggregate victory over Italian rivals Juventus.
There was no more silverware for Zola to lift during his time at Parma, but his accuracy from dead-ball situations propelled him into the record books as the most prolific free-kick scorer in Serie A history (until surpassed by Sinisa Mihailovic a few years later). He also became a regular fixture in the Italian national side, an position he chose to jeapordise when he joined the influx of foreign stars in the English Premiership by signing for Chelsea a few weeks into the 96-97 season.
The greatest Chelsea player... ever!
At the time, joining Chelsea seemed like a strange career move for Zola. The West London club were a major force in English football during the early 1970's, but had woefully underperformed in recent years, and were only just on the cusp of a rather fragile revival, led first by manager Glenn Hoddle, and then his replacement, Ruud Gullit. Presumably, the combination of Gullit's glittering reputation and the millions of pounds being pumped into the club by ill-fated benefactor Matthew Harding were enough to draw Zola to Stamford Bridge, but pundits were sceptical about his commitment to the club, and also his suitability to the rough and tumble of the notoriously physical English game. They were soon proved to be extremely wrong on both counts.
Zola's first season at Chelsea was nothing short of spectacular. His ability to cope with the physical aspects of the game were established when he nutmegged West Ham's Julian Dicks (nickname - "The Terminator") twice en route to one of several spectacular goals in the league, but he saved his best performances for the FA Cup. Zola's goals against Liverpool and Wimbledon (see below) will live long in the memories of Chelsea fans, and after playing a vital role in helping the club lift it's first trophy in 27 years, as well as an unusually consistent campaign in the Premiership, Zola was handed the coveted Football Writer's Player Of The Year award.
The following seasons saw Zola firmly established as a favourite of both Chelsea supporters and football lovers in general. His flawless technique and frequent flashes of brilliance won him many admirers, (and regular Goal Of The Month awards), but it was Zola's attitude to the game, and life in general, which saw him regulary referred to as one of the best foreign imports in the history of English football. At a time when the English game was flooded with "Carlos Kickaballs", foreign players who were tagged as mercenaries whose only concern was their next big payday, Zola's commitment to Chelsea and his genial, smiley personality set him apart from the crowd, and he was regularly held up as the example of the model professional, and a thoroughly nice chap to boot.
The '97-'98 season saw more success for Chelsea, with a League Cup victory being followed by a famous European Cup Winner's Cup campaign, which culminated in another moment of Zola brilliance in the final (see below). A second FA Cup win came in 2000, but the death of Matthew Harding in a helicopter crash, the sackings of managers Ruud Gullitand Gianluca Vialli, and a succession of niggling injuries prevented Zola from realising his full potential in a Chelsea team that could never quite shake it's tag as inconsistent nearly-men. Nonetheless, Zola's genius was never in doubt, and despite the team's failure to live up to the (huge) expectations of fans and pundits alike, the little Italian continued to delight all with his incredible skill and affable approach to the game.
Sadly, age was beginning to catch up with Zola, and by 2001 he was no longer an automatic first choice at Chelsea. Injury problems and the arrival of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen meant that he was increasingly relegated to the substitutes bench, although guaranteed to figure at some point in the match if the result was still in the balance. Moments of Zola genius were still abundant (most notably his goal against Norwich in the 2002 FA Cup (see below), and although his fitness was in question, he was still one of the most feared strikers in the land.
Zola started last season (02-03) in formidable form. An amazing pre-season saw him scoring well over a goal a game in friendly matches, and he carried this form into the start of the season. Zola's goals were coming thick and fast, and for most of 2002 the 36 year old was on on near the top of the Premiership top scorers table. Although the run could never last, Zola finished the season with 14 goals, his best ever haul at Chelsea, and helped propel the club back to the promised land of the Champions League. The season also saw Zola (deservedly) declared as the greatest Chelsea player of all time, in a poll of supporters.
Last week it became clear that Chelsea were not prepared to meet Gianfranco's wage demands for the following season - despite Champions League football and new, multi-billionaire owner Roman Abramovich. Sadly, the Russian oligarch's arrival came too late to preserve Zola's chelsea career, and only 12 hours after the takeover was announced, Zola declared that he's returning to Sardinia to play for Italian Serie B side Cagliari. He will be greatly missed by all in the Premiership (well, maybe not Spurs keepers), and as my personal tribute to the pocket battleship, I humbly present -
THE TOP FIVE GIANFRANCO ZOLA (CHELSEA) GOALS
1. Norwich, 2002
Possibly the best goal ever scored. Maybe I'm biased, but...
Graeme Le Saux whips in a corner from the right, delivered short and low towards the near post. It's met by Zola, who's made a run across the face of the six yard box, getting a couple of inches in front of his marker. Zola leaps forward, his left foot outstretched in front of him. It looks like he's going to flick the ball across the face of the six-yard box with his left foot - seeing this, Norwich keeper Richard Green can be seen moving slightly to his right, fatally leaving his near post unguarded. Zola then allows the ball to fall under his left leg, and instead flicks it with his trailing right foot. The ball flies into the space recently covered by the goalie, squeezing between his outstretched hand and the post.
In other words, he executed a Cruyff turn, in mid-air, whilst unleashing a pin-point accurate shot on goal. You try it.
2. Everton, 2003
Still fresh in the memory, this one, and evidence that age seems to have absolutely no effect on Zola's skills. The match was a crucial tussle against one of Chelsea's main rivals for a Champions League place, and Chelsea had already wrapped up all three points despite Zola starting on the bench. Coming on as a late substitute, Zola popped up in the dying seconds of injury time to volley a perfectly placed lob over Richard Wright from a seemingly impossible angle. Never mind Wayne Rooney (who was chasing shadows at the other end of the pitch) - this was a goal MC Escher would have been proud of.
3. 1997 FA Cup semi-final vs. Wimbledon.
Zola confirms Chelsea's first Cup final appearance for almost 30 years with a delightful peice of skill. Recieving the ball on the edge of the area, he dropped his shoulder, throwing two Wimbledon defenders the wrong way, then backheeled the ball into the space he'd just created, and rifling it into the bottom corner.
4. The 1998 European Cup Winners Cup winner
Mid-way through the second half of a dour, gritty European Cup Winners Cup final against VFB Stuttgart, Zola comes on as a substitute. Despite not having fully recivered from injury, Zola had scored the game's only goal after 20 seconds - within seconds of taking to the field, he raced beyond the defence onto a perfect Dennis Wise through-ball, and volleyed a rising shot into the roof of the net from 20 yards out.
5. The comeback special against Liverpool.
Another great goal from the 1997 FA Cup campaign - this time in the fourth round. Chelsea had got off to a catastrophic start, gifting two sloppy goals to Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore in the opening twenty minutes. The game was live on the BBC, and at half-time Chelsea fans had to suffer an impossibly smug Alan Hansen cheerfully slating Chelsea's "turrible defenduh", and predicting several more goals for his old team in the second half. Chelsea obviously hadn't read the script, and threw on Mark Hughes to join Gianluca Vialli up front, with Zola slotting in behind them. It was Hughes that started the comeback, with a trademark chest and volley in the 50th minute. 8 minutes later, Hughes was in the thick of things again, shielding the ball from the Liverpool defence on the edge of the box, and then rolling the ball back to Zola, who hammered a 25 yard shot with his left foot past a stunned David James. Vialli wrapped things up with two more goals, but the game will always be remembered for three things - Zola's sublime strike, Hughesie's battling performance, and the look on Alan Hansen's face at full time. Priceless.
Career league stats (to date)
- Appearances - Goals
- 27 - 10
- 30 - 8
- 24 - 2
- 34 - 11
- 18 - 2
- 20 - 6
- 34 - 12
- 33 - 12
- 33 - 18
- 32 - 19
- 29 - 10
- 8 - 2
- 23 - 8
- 27 - 8
- 37 - 13
- 33 - 4
- 36 - 9
- 35 - 3
- 36 - 14