“Gianfranco tries everything because he’s a wizard, and the wizard must try”
Claudio Ranieri (2002)
The Premier League is home to hundreds of overseas players, but go back twenty years or so and there were much fewer in the English top-flight than there is today. Foreign players were seen as exotic, flamboyant and simply different from what English football fans were used to. One player who was certainly different, but for all the right reasons, was Gianfranco Zola.
He was the spearhead of an Italian wave that swept through the country through the mid-1990s. Zola has long been regarded as the best Italian footballer to have ever graced the Premier League, and why? Because he encapsulated everything that was so popular, so attractive about Italian football of that era.
Serie A was alongside the Premier League as Europe’s most popular and watched league for a time. Footballers from England were even flocking over to Italy at one point. Their football was pure, simplified to the point of attack and defend and they did both well. An Italian defense has long been seen as the “gold standard” of Europe, whilst their attacking players are the mavericks, the likes of Zola and Paolo Di Canio in England – two men who could do everything imaginable with a ball, and the unimaginable too.
Zola was the marquee signing of Chelsea’s 1996/97 season. Glenn Hoddle had reached an end-pass with Chelsea who’d spent the past six seasons in the bottom half of the Premier League. Ruud Gullit took the job, initially as a player/manager, and brought about a lot of change at Stamford Bridge. Zola arrived fresh from Italy’s disappointing Euro 96 showing, where they finished 3rd in their group behind eventual finalists Germany and the Czech Republic, along with Azzurri teammate Roberto Di Matteo, and fellow countryman Gianluca Vialli.
Chelsea’s new lease of Italian life granted them their best finish in the league since the turn of the decade, finishing 6th and lifting their first FA Cup in 25 years – this kick-started the most successful spell in Chelsea’s history pre-Roman Abramovich, winning six titles in the next five seasons.
Zola joined midway through the 1996-97 season and despite doing so, he still managed to score 12 goals for Chelsea that year and was voted the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year becoming the first player to do so without playing a full season in England, and the first-ever Chelsea player to win it. His debut season in England was a joy to watch. It marked the start of a long-lasting love affair between Zola and the Chelsea fans. The image of Zola wheeling off in celebration, both hands in the air, short sleeve shirt tucked well-in, hair flailing as he boasted the broadest of smiles – that trademark image would beset the English game for the next six-and-a-half seasons.
Zola’s first defining moment as a Chelsea player came against Manchester United in February 1997 – he weaved through three Manchester United defenders inside the penalty box before finishing past Peter Schmeichel – that memorable goal had everything good about the “magician,” and warranted a response from Sir Alex Ferguson who called him a “clever little so-and-so.”
Such an impressive debut season in England had set up Zola for an even better second, but expectations were so high for him that when he notched another 12 in all competitions – the same number as in his first – the hype dampened slightly. The highlight of his second semester with Chelsea came towards the end, in the Cup Winners’ Cup final against Stuttgart when he came off the bench to score the winner with his first kick off the game.
A ropy, but nevertheless good second season came to an end and come the time of his second full season in England, his third at Chelsea, Zola finished as the club’s top-scorer scoring 15 across all competitions, and helping Chelsea to an unprecedented 3rd-place finish. The 1999-2000 season would bring about Chelsea’s first appearance in the Champions League. But Zola, now managed by Italian compatriot Vialli following Gullit’s controversial exit the season before, became more of an impact player.
He made over 50 appearances in the 1999-2000 campaign, picking up a second FA Cup with Chelsea and scoring eight goals. Despite scoring just four Premier League goals that season, Zola once again proved a fan favorite, mostly for his performances that helped Chelsea reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League. His other four goals that season came in Europe, and the pick of the bunch was his free-kick against a Barcelona side boasting the likes of Carles Puyol, Xavi, Frank De Boer, Luis Figo and one Pep Guardiola on the bench – still one of Chelsea’s best-ever goals in the Champions League.
Attackers are often judged solely on their goals tally but with Zola, that wasn’t the case. The sheer lift that he gave his teammates, and the whole stadium at times, was enough to see him remain a vital part of that Chelsea side. But his involvement with the first-team would again be slashed for the 2000-01 season, following the arrivals of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen who’d become Chelsea’s favored striker partnership for the next two seasons.
The Dutchman became the new man about Stamford Bridge. He scored 23 goals in both his first two seasons with Chelsea, claiming the Premier League Golden Boot in his first – the 2000-01 campaign. Zola though remained a big part of the side, scoring 17 goals across the two seasons. But he, nor Hasselbaink or Gudjohnsen could steer Chelsea towards any silverware. Entering his sixth full season at the club, it looked to be Zola’s last.
It was a final hurrah for the man who went on to be crowned Chelsea’s “best ever player” after netting 16 times in the 2002-03 season, which would be Chelsea’s last before the Abramovich era began – the Russian’s arrival all but confirming Zola’s exit. That final season encapsulated everything great about Zola – he only got better with age and despite having to share the starting responsibilities over the past few campaigns, and seeing his game-time change between managers, he always gave his utmost for the team, and always played with a smile.
To date, there are few players that do that – play football with a smile. The game is so serious and so capitalized that it’s taken the joy out of simply playing football somewhat. Zola inspired a generation of wingers and forwards who wanted to lift a crowd the way that he could, through his mesmerizing runs and unfathomable skills and goals – he played the game how it should be played.