The Greatest Exports of the Italian Game (Part 1): Gianfranco Zola

Gianfranco Zola, Italy and Chelsea Legend

Italy has given the world so much: Peroni lager, pizza, garlic bread, pasta… Yes, my knowledge on the matter is solely restricted to gastronomical contributions, but the list could be as long as you like. In football however, much like in the English and Spanish game, the talent tends to stay at home rather than take itself to new places. This is probably due to the strength of each respective league: why leave when you already speak the language and already play the top football in Europe? There are a few shining examples however who have taken their Serie A principles, packed them in a suitcase, and spread them across the globe. This is the first in my three-part installment of the best exports of the Italian game, in no particular order, I’ve decided to start with one of my favourite Italian footballers – Gianfranco Zola.

The Sardinian genius began his career with local side Nuorese, way back in 1984. After securing his first professional contract, Zola then moved to Sassari Torres before finally securing a move to Serie A when Napoli came calling in 1989. This was where the Zola we know and love today really began to develop under the stewardship of perhaps the World’s greatest ever player – Diego Armando Maradona.

As far as I’m aware Zola and Maradona were not great friends but the young Zola was used as a substitute for the Argentine maestro and as every good footballer does, Zola learned from those better than him.

Diego Armando Maradona, NapoliI learnt everything from Diego,” said Zola in an interview with British broadcaster Chanel 4 some years ago. “I used to spy on him every time he trained and learned how to curl a free-kick just like him. After one year I had completely changed. I saw him do things in training and in matches I had never even dreamed possible. He was simply the best I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been a good player if I had not played with him at that stage of my career but I do know I wouldn’t be the player I am now.”

In his first season at Napoli, Zola won a Scudetto before eventually moving to Parma after four moderately successful seasons in Campania. In his time in Northern Italy, he won the UEFA Super Cup in 1993 and a UEFA Cup in the 1994-95 season, before coach Carlo Ancelotti (now the AC Milan boss as we all know) decided Zola was surplus to requirements. At the time the Gialloblu had a formidable attacking line-up made up of Hristo Stoichkov, Enrico Chiesa and Hernan Crespo, so the player decided to join Ruud Gullit’s Chelsea in a £4.5m deal. A move which Blues fans would be relishing for many years to come.

Gianfranco Zola cartoonTaking his first steps in the English Premier League, Zola really began to shine especially through Chelsea’s exploits in Europe. The club commanded by Roman Abramovich may now be one of the major forces in European football but back then, before the Russian magnate and his gazillions of rubles arrived, the Blues were at best a Top 7/8 side in England. Zola’s magic ignited English football and sometimes, his skill would have even rival fans applauding the plucky Sardinian. During his time in England, the player earned his famous nickname Magic Box.

At Stamford Bridge, Zola scored many memorable goals for Chelsea. A free-kick against Barcelona in the 1999-2000 Champions League was particularly special, but perhaps the best was in an FA Cup tie against Norwich City where he somehow managed to back-heel the ball past the keeper in mid-air.

VIDEO: Gianfranco Zola goal vs. Norwich City, January 2002

I have still no idea how he did that.

In the 1997-98 season, Zola helped to defy the sports betting odds and was instrumental in Chelsea’s success in the now defunct UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, scoring a goal in his first few touches after coming off the bench as a substitute in the final vs. VfB Stuttgart. This was at a time when no one would have been betting on English success outside of home soil, as the English were fairly useless on the European stage. Zola also helped the Stamford Bridge side pick up two FA Cups (when they won it in 1997, it was the first time in nearly 30 years they had lifted the FA Cup) and a League Cup. Zola was also named Chelsea’s player of the year twice, in 1997 and 2003.

To cap a wonderful career and a great love-story with the Blues, Gianfranco Zola was also voted Greatest Ever Chelsea Player and received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) – something very few non-British nationals achieve.

Zola ended his career with Sardinian side Cagliari, helping them achieve promotion out of Serie B. He spurned the chances to move to bigger clubs and opted for his home island side, to help them get back into the Italian top division: it was at a time when Zola could have continued playing at the highest-level but opted for a choice of the heart.

Gianfranco Zola, West Ham United manager

Despite hanging up his boots Magic Box has not finished with football yet. After a two-year experience as assistant coach to Italy’s U21 side (under the guidance of former Azzurri teammate Pierluigi Casiraghi), Zola was named manager of Premier League side West Ham United in September 2008. The Italian has already got the Hammers playing some particularly attractive (Zola-esque) football, and transformed the team from mid-table obscurity into serious European contenders, all in less than a season. Indeed the Chelsea fans called for Zola to be appointed as Blues manager when Luis Felipe Scolari was sacked earlier in the year, though that was never likely to happen.

In his time at West Ham Zola has already brought David Di Michele (ex-Udinese) to the Premier League, and I’m hoping he sticks around for a bit longer and brings a bit more of his unique, yet very Italian, flair to the English Premier League. Gianfranco, you are truly one of the greatest exports of the Italian game.


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