Gianfranco Zola: The technician who married artistry and experimental genius

gianfranco zola

Scott Minto recalled Gianfranco Zola’s Chelsea introduction.

 “When you saw him on the training pitch you suddenly realised you were in the presence of something special. His first touch, I’ve never seen anything like it. Balls were brought down from the sky with expert control. Zola raised the standards of everyone around him.”

Zola was the footballer who married artistry and experimental genius. He possessed a stupidly brilliant technique and ability, whilst oozing a dazzling flair. 

Thanks to his inherent gift and his marvellous odyssey across Italy, English football became blessed with a new, exciting, and irresistibly talented profile of an attacker.

Nicknamed the ‘magic box’, Zola’s catalogue of goals is ridiculous and the happiness he’s bought is everlasting. The story of a player who endeared himself to the hearts of the Partenopei and Gialloblu fans, whilst becoming a blue-blooded god in west London. 

The pinnacle of football education

Zola emerged from humble beginnings as he signed his first professional contract with the local Sardinian outfit Nuorese in 1984. He then transferred to third-tier Italian side Torres before his long-awaited breakthrough into the spotlight in 1989. Luciano Moggi, Napoli’s club executive, earmarked Zola when he was causing havoc in Serie C and the forward was transferred to Campania. The 23-year-old received the pinnacle of football education from the most naturally gifted and enigmatic player in existence – Diego Armando Maradona, who was thrilled at the arrival of the 5 foot 6 Zola.

“Finally, they have bought someone shorter than me!”

The pair developed an unbreakable bond. Maradona was a constant source of advice for the young, eager, and impressionable Zola. In his debut season and under Maradona’s tutelage, Zola scored twice and Napoli clinched the Scudetto, the only league title of the Italian’s career.

“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.”

Maradona eventually departed and Zola inherited the number 10 shirt. When he left, El Pibe de Oro’ (the golden boy) was insistent that the boy from Sardinia was the Partenopei’s new spearhead. 

“Napoli doesn’t need to look for anyone to replace me, the team already has Zola!”

Embed from Getty Images

During the 1992/93 season, as the attacker’s parting gift to Naples, Zola registered 24 goal contributions in 33 league appearances and was the joint-highest assister. The playmaker followed in Maradona’s footsteps and exited the chaotic Neapolitan metropolis. He joined Parma and the more settled surroundings of Emilia-Romagna. 

Zola, now experienced and loaded with Maradona’s invaluable teachings, excelled beyond belief and established himself as one of the league’s most coveted talents. The Oliena-born man quickly endeared himself into the hearts of Param fans – reminiscent of his idol’s passage into Naples. During his illustrious stint with the Gialloblu, he won the European Super Cup, the UEFA Cup, the Italian Cup, and the Italian Super Cup. 

Embed from Getty Images

Zola had completed Italian football and was a neophyte – raring for a new league to tear to shreds. He spoke to Roberto Di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli about the hustle and bustle of England’s pulsating capital during Euro ‘96, before the deal was confirmed in November. Zola switched to the stylish and swanky Kings Road, which signalled the beginning of a seven-year love affair between a boy from Nuoro and the adoring Stamford Bridge faithful.

The perfect debut season in England 

Despite his impressive track record, Zola arrived at Chelsea as a relatively unknown quantity and English fans and media questioned whether the petite Italian would cut the mustard in our notoriously physical and uncompromising league. But it swiftly became apparent that this player was different. Blues defender Michael Duberry remarked on his entry into training. 

“We heard we were getting this Italian guy. All we knew was that he used to train with Maradona. Spenny (John Spencer) was so popular that we were like, ‘We don’t need him.’ Then we had the first training session. Wow.”

At first, it was just Zola’s teammates that got to witness his unrelenting quality, but in the Italian’s sixth game for Chelsea, in a fierce London derby against West Ham, he publicly announced to this parochial country exactly what he was about. 

To open the scoring, Zola’s impudent flick from Dan Petrescu’s cross found Mark Hughes, who directed a controlled finish into the bottom corner. Minutes later, it was the same combination at it again, but to a far more memorable effect. 

Hughes released the rampant Italian, who latched onto the inviting though-ball. Scampering towards the penalty area, Zola shrugged off the retreating Julian Dicks and chopped inside. The defender was isolated and Zola delivered the final humiliation. Within two touches, he popped the ball through the legs of Dicks, leaving him bewildered, entranced, and simply chasing the artist’s shadow. Zola then unsurprisingly flashed the ball into the net. 

All doubts instantly evaporated. This unprecedented moment of brilliance was the coronation of west London’s new King. Dicks probably still has PTSD to this day when he overhears any reference to Chelsea’s star man. From that day on the Premier League was aware of its new biggest danger. Unaccustomed to this level of skill and flair – defenders and goalkeepers were helpless against his unanswerable force. 

Embed from Getty Images

In that debut season, Zola went from strength to strength and thrived in this new setting. He became a pivotal figure in Chelsea’s FA Cup campaign. He masterminded the comeback against Liverpool including a hypnotic and swerving strike that mesmerically veered out of the despairing reach of David James, who is still unable to comprehend how it happened. 

“The goal he scored, I remember diving full stretch for it and while my arm was extended, it kind of twisted into the corner. He had that sort of kill, that awareness, that vision in abundance. When you have everything at such high a level as he did, it makes you one of the worst players to play against.”

In the semi-final against Wimbledon, Zola produced an even more special piece of wizardry. He received a pass from Di Matteo. With his back to goal, his first touch, through a fluid and unstoppable Cruyff-like motion, escaped the attention of the defender, before the net was rippling. His devastating centre of gravity was a nightmare for the opposition. In an instant, Zola was able to conjure up the most ridiculous goals, that fans still devotedly hold to the club’s heritage to this day.

Chelsea defeated Middlesbrough in the final to secure their first FA Cup triumph in 27 years. At the end of his first season, Zola was named the FWA Player of the Year – the only player to win the accolade without playing an entire season in the Premier League and the first Blues player to take home the award. The crowning moment of his debut campaign. 

Embed from Getty Images

Footballing royalty 

It is no coincidence, that the arrival of Zola prompted one of Chelsea’s most fruitful periods in its history. In the season that followed, Zola was instrumental as his side scooped three more trophies – the League Cup, the Super Cup, and the Cup Winners’ Cup. 

In the latter, an injury robbed Zola of a place in the final against Stuttgart, but he still emerged as the match-winning catalyst. “Here’s the man, Gianfranco Zola,” echoed the commentator as the forward stood feverishly on the touchline – subconsciously plotting his moment of inevitability. Within 30 seconds of entering the fray, he converted a wondrous Dennis Wise lob with a thunderous piledriver to clinch Chelsea its second-ever European trophy. 

Zola’s time at Chelsea also oversaw the club’s first-ever Champions League appearance and he assisted the FA Cup-winning goal versus Aston Villa in the final game at Old Wembley. 

Although in the 2001/02 season, Zola’s minutes became vastly more limited, he retained his unteachable ability to produce season-defining goals that are fondly remembered by all football fans. In an early FA cup game against Norwich, Zola’s back-heeled flick from a corner remains one of the most widely marvelled goals in the modern era.

His final time on the scoresheet for Chelsea – that audacious lob at the Bridge against Everton – capped off the most unforgettable journey and was the perfect way for a member of the footballing royalty to sign off. 

The pitch was his canvas, and every goal was yet another masterstroke in Zola’s spine-tingling museum of football greatness.

Embed from Getty Images

Chelsea’s diminutive genius 

During his last game for Chelsea, at the grand age of 36, Zola was still at his old tricks. Being steered towards the corner by the incessant and aggressive Jamie Carragher, the Italian was about to inflict his moment of magic. He twisted, turned, and weaved through the desperate challenges of Carragher, Bruno Cheyrou, and Danny Murphy for a spellbinding late dribble that left both sets of fans applauding. 

Although it didn’t end with a goal, this awe-inspiring five-second sequence encapsulated everything about this joyous technician. Zola finished his journey in time in England just as he began it – simply unplayable.

Goal-scoring, chance-creation, creativity, awareness – Zola had an untameable exuberance to which the Premier League had rarely been exposed.

Every time he stepped on the pitch it was an exhibition – the crowd of Stamford Bridge would flock to observe and admire the unadulterated mastery of their diminutive genius, who would repay their time and faith in the most outrageous ways. 

Thank you, Gianfranco Zola. 

Embed from Getty Images