It is fair to say that few things unite Chelsea and West Ham fans, let alone fans from across the globe, but one man does. The “clever little so-in-so” as Sir Alex Ferguson called him, Italian legend Gianfranco Zola.
Zola began life in Sardinia Italy, playing for two local teams,Nuorese and Torres before being snapped up by Napoli in 1989. At the time, the Neapolitan side could boast a footballing God in their ranks, Diego Maradona. Zola’s remit was simple at Napoli. He just had to take over where Diego had left off at the club. So no pressure on him then…
Zola admitted his time as Maradona’s back up at Napoli was key in moulding himself as a player. Like Maradona, Zola was small but would spend hours with the Argentinian honing his skills following training. It would be practice time well spent as the Sardinian would go on to fill the boots of the departed Maradona admirably for four years at Napoli, before the emerging Parma snapped him up. Three successful years at Parma ended when a certain Senor Carlo Ancelotti became manager and Zola found it hard to claim a regular place in Ancelotti’s vision of a more rigidly structured Parma side. Played out of position at the start of the 1996-97 season, Zola wasn’t happy at Parma and in November Ruud Gullit called and asked if he’d like to join up with him at Chelsea.
The £4.5m spent to acquire the Italian now seems a drop in the ocean and is arguably the best transfer Chelsea have ever made. Zola would prove to be the bright spark in a season tained by tragedy for Chelsea by the Matthew Harding helicopter crash as his mesmerising performances for the team saw him elected Football Writers Player of the Year in his first season at the club. An astonishing achievement.
His performances inspired Chelsea to the FA Cup in his first season and in his first full season at the club, the blues would lift the League Cup, Super Cup and most memorably for Zola, the Cup Winners Cup when injury forced him to start the game from the bench, however he came on and made an impact within 21 seconds, scoring the winning goal with a sublime first time shot from just inside the penalty box.
In seven wonderful years with Chelsea, Zola made 229 league appearances for the club, scoring 59 goals but his contribution to the team was far greater than the mere stats suggest as a quick glance through this video collection of his best moments will show.
And special mention should be made of this goal that he scored against Norwich City… special indeed.
Such was Zola’s influence at Chelsea that he was voted recently as the clubs greatest player ever. He received an OBE for his services to the game in England whilst at the club and in seven years he played a large part in laying the foundations for the Chelsea team that we see today.
He left Chelsea in 2003 to finish his playing career back in Italy with Cagliari in Serie B. He led the team to promotion in his first season and capped his career in style by returning to Serie A and scoring 10 goals in 23 games, including a double in his final ever professional appearance against old foes Juventus. It is worth remembering that for all his time in England, Zola was equally impressive in Serie A.
Currently Zola is manager of West Ham United, where despite financial constraints, he has the team playing an exciting brand of attacking football that is in keeping with his own personal belief about how football should be played. He has brought on several youngsters at West Ham such as James Tomkins, Junior Stanislas and Zavon Hines and it seems to be no coincidence that Carlton Cole’s emergence as an England striker coincided with the little Italian becoming his manager.
Gianfranco Zola the man, the footballer, the legend.
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