Gianfranco Zola – Chelsea’s Greatest Player of All-Time

Amid the exciting and club record arrivals of Damien Duff, Juan Sebastián Verón, Adrian Mutu, Hernán Crespo and Claude Makélélé in the summer of 2003, the signing that Roman Abramovich craved the most was the thirty-five year old, shaggy haired and pint-sized ‘Magic Box’: Gianfranco Zola.

While Abramovich has often been accused of not understanding the culture and history of Chelsea, as seen in his attempt to directly replace Steve Clarke with Avram Grant in 2007 and the sacking of Ray Wilkins in 2010, the Russian was well aware of the popularity and genius of Chelsea’s greatest player of all-time. However, due to the fact that Zola had already agreed a deal to join his native club Cagliari before Abramovich’s takeover, he refused the Russian’s offer of a lucrative wage rise and instead went on to inspire Cagliari to promotion to Serie A.

Unlike other notable Italian strikes of his generation such as Roberto Baggio (Vicenza), Pierluigi Casiraghi (Monza) and Enrico Chiesa (Sampdoria), Zola began his career rooted firmly in Serie C1 and Serie C2. At 18 years of age, he signed his first professional contract with local Sardinian club Nuorese in 1984. Nuorese, up to that point, had been noted for producing, and launching the career of striker Pietro Paolo Virdis in 1973. Virdis went on to play for Cagliari, Juventus, Udinese and Milan and won three Serie A titles in his career: 1978 (Juventus), 1982 and 1988 (Milan) and a European Cup in 1989 (Milan). Zola spent two years at Nuorese, scoring 10 goals in 31 league appearances, before moving up a level with Sardinia’s oldest club: Sassari Torres.

Although now 20 years of age, Zola remained patient and helped Torres win promotion to Serie C1. He went on to score 21 goals in 88 games for Torres – helping them to maintain their Serie C1 status. Even though this was the third tier of Italian football, it was the highest level Zola had ever played at. However, as it was long before the launch of Sky Italia and other forms of televised lower league football, coupled with the distance of 361 km from Sardinia to the Italian capital of Rome, few scouts watched Zola in his three-year spell at Torres. Despite this, a breakthrough came in 1989 when Luciano Moggi, the then Napoli general manager, scouted Zola and described him as a “little Maradona.”

In joining Napoli in 1989, Zola became Diego Maradona’s understudy. There is no doubt that in 1989, Maradona was still one of the greatest footballers in the world and his tutelage proved invaluable for Zola. The Italian has cited Maradona’s humility, as much as his skill, as the biggest influence on his football career. This was evident in an Italian Cup match against Pisa in the 89/90 season, where Zola was handed a rare start alongside Maradona by manager Alberto Bigon. The Argentine was synonymous for wearing the number ten shirt wherever he went but minutes before the match, Maradona handed Zola the shirt and told him that one day he would wear it permanently. On the training ground, Maradona was important for Zola too, with the Italian once commenting that he “learned everything from Diego.” An obvious example of this was what would become Zola’s signature: curved free-kicks; the pair would spend hours after training working on free-kicks and it paid huge dividends for Zola in the years to come.

In 89/90, Zola found starting opportunities limited with Maradona, Andrea Carnevele, Alemão and Careca filling Napoli’s attacking slots. However, Zola still showed his promise and played a part in Partenopei’s  Scudetto victory with 2 goals in 18 league appearances. The 90/91 season was his breakthrough. With Maradona fleeing to Argentina in controversial circumstances, due to a worldwide fifteen-month ban for testing positive for cocaine in March 1991, Zola found starting opportunities more forthcoming and he was now Napoli’s undisputed second striker. Following on from Napoli’s Supercoppa Italiana victory over Juventus, Zola netted 6 times in 20 league matches in Napoli’s disappointing title defence in 90/91, where they finished 8th, and he was beginning to thrive in a playmaking role. Now 25, his incredible vision, neat flicks, curved free-kicks and lofted through balls were enhancing his reputation as one of Italy’s leading number tens. Arrigo Saachi, Italy’s manager at the time, rewarded Zola’s emergence with a debut in a Euro 92’ qualifier against Norway on 13 November, 1991.

With a huge vacuum left by Maradona’s absence, and Napoli entering financial difficulties, including a wrangling with Maradona over the terms of the termination of his two-year £9 million contract, Zola became Napoli’s central figure. While Careca (15 goals in 91/92) and Daniel Fonseca (16 goals in 92/93) netted more goals than Zola’s 11 and 12 in 91/92 and 92/93 respectively, Zola was the key link between Napoli’s midfield and attack. However, Napoli never managed to replicate the success of 1987-1990 and the club’s tainted image, from Maradona’s private problems and rumoured links with the Camorra, was matched by managerial instability. In Zola’s four-year spell at the club from 1989-1993, Napoli had three different managers (Bigon 1989-1991, Claudio Ranieri 1991-1993 and Ottavio Bianchi in 1993). Although Napoli achieved a respectable 4th position in 91/92, they were in the relegation zone for much of 92/93 and finished 12th. With Partenopei  needing to raise money, and with Parma’s increasing investment under chairman Calisto Tanzi and his Parmalat Company, Zola departed Napoli for i Ducali  in the summer of 1993.

Under Nevio Scala, Parma secured a historic promotion to Serie A in 1990. However, Tanzi was not content with just league survival and instead bankrolled ambitious strengthening of the squad each summer. In 93/94 for example, Parma boasted one of the league’s strongest attacks with Zola, Faustino Asprilla and Tomas Brolin. Zola clearly relished the free role and the illustrious company surrounding him, and he netted a personal career best of 18 league goals in 33 league appearances. In 93/94, Parma won the European Super Cup and finished 5th in Serie A, but it was obvious a title challenge and an assault on Europe would be the requirements in 94/95. Zola’s goalscoring exploits earned him a place in Sacchi’s 1994 World Cup squad but he made just one appearance as Italy reached the final. This came against Nigeria in the 2nd round as a substitute. Within minutes of coming on, Zola was controversially sent off for a shin-high ‘air’ challenge, without making contact, on defender Augustine Eguavoen. It resulted in a two-match ban and Zola did not play in the final against Brazil.

Having bought Fernando Couto, Dino Baggio, Stefano Fiore and Marco Branca in the summer of 1994, Scala delivered the success Tanzi craved. In 94/95, Parma finished 3rd in the league – their highest ever league position. They also won the UEFA Cup for the first time and reached the final of the Coppa Italia. Zola matched his prolific 93/94 season with 19 goals in 32 league matches. Following on from the success of the 94/95 season, Parma continued their ambitious title push in the summer of 1995 with the acquisitions of Fabio Cannavaro, Hristo Stoichkov and Flippio Inzaghi, as well as the promotion of the then 17 year old Gianluigi Buffon, but i Ducali  had a flat and uninspiring season – finishing 6th and going out of the UEFA Cup in the quarter-finals. Zola finished as their top scorer with 12 goals in 32 matches in all competitions but Parma’s dismal season led to Scala being replaced by the then up-and-coming manager Carlo Ancelotti. It would prove to be a turning point in Zola’s career.

Before returning to pre-season under Ancelotti, Zola was part of Sacchi’s Euro 96’ squad. Having recovered from the heartbreak of his sending off at the 1994 World Cup, where Zola collapsed to his knees upon being red carded, the Italian had become an undisputed starter alongside Casiraghi in Italy’s qualifying campaign: Zola netted his first two international goals in a 4-1 qualification win over Estonia on 25 March, 1996. Italy lost just one game in qualification and went into the tournament with a reasonable chance. However, they first had to negotiate a tough group with Germany, the Czech Republic and Russia. Italy struggled throughout – managing to score just 3 goals to earn 4 points. They went out on head-to-head against the Czech Republic and Zola endured a frustrating tournament – missing a penalty against Germany and failing to score in any of his 3 matches. It would prove to be his last tournament for Italy.

Zola returned to pre-season in uncertainty – knowing Ancelotti would have a much less accommodating system than Scala. Particularly at the beginning of his managerial career, Ancelotti was heavily influenced by the legendary Sacchi. Ancelotti enjoyed the best spell of his playing career under Sacchi’s management and tactics at Milan, and saw him as his tactical inspiration. Sacchi, despite signing stars like Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, set out his team in a rigid 4-4-2 – as a high tempo and pressing ensemble rather than one of multiple creative individuals. There was little room for ‘luxury’ players and Ancelotti adopted a similar approach with Parma. Coupled with this, was Ancelotti’s preference for mainly taller players – which was reflected in his summer acquisitions. Gone was the diminutive Asprilla (1.76m), who was replaced by the 1.84m Argentine prospect Hernán Crespo; Brolin (1.78m) was ousted by Mario Stanic (1.87m); Alberto Di Chara (1.77m) was replaced by Lillian Thruam (1.82m). Worryingly for Zola, Ancelotti bought a seemingly direct replacement, and a foil for Crespo, when he signed Chiesa from Sampdoria. Zola’s cherished number ten squad number was given to Chiesa and from this, it was clear Zola was a square peg in Ancelotti’s strict 4-4-2, with wingers, formation.

Chelsea, under their flamboyant player-manager Gullit, who advocated ‘sexy football’, saw Zola as a perfect link between midfielders Roberto Di Matteo and Dennis Wise, and strikers Gianluca Vialli and Mark Hughes. Gullit had used his foreign contacts to great effect with the signings of Frank Leboeuf, Di Matteo and Vialli, and Zola was no different. After pre-season, Zola initally decided to stay at Parma, and battle for his place with Chiesa, but he made just 8 league appearances, mainly from the bench, in October and November. It led to the Italian leaving for London. The move was huge for both Chelsea and English football as it was Chelsea’s record-equalling signing and Zola, at 29, was at his peak – unlike the veterans Gullit and Vialli.

It also reversed the trend of the 1980s and 1990s where some of the English league’s best players, like Liam Brady (Juventus, 1980), Joe Jordan (Milan, 1981), Trevor Francis (Sampdoria, 1982), Ray Wilkins (Milan, 1984), Graeme Souness (Sampdoria, 1984), Ian Rush (Juventus, 1987), David Platt (Bari, 1991), Paul Gascoigne (Lazio, 1991), Des Walker (Sampdoria, 1992) and Paul Ince (Internazionale, 1995), left for Italy. So, at the time, Zola was one of the few Italians playing outside of Serie A and in spite of his £25,000 wage at Chelsea, the move abroad was a risk. Zola departed for Chelsea for £4.5 million, in an era before the January window, in November 1996. Pioneering the number twenty-five shirt, Zola quickly established himself as a firm fans’ favourite at Chelsea with the fans ‘composing’ multiple chants: Andy Williams’ ‘I Love You Baby’ and The Kinks’ ‘Lola’. His impact was so immediate that Ancelotti went on to describe selling Zola as “a huge mistake.”

However, it was not long before the whole of the league began to appreciate the ‘Little Magician’s’ brilliance. In his first few games for Chelsea, his incredible free-kick ability, perfected all those years ago at Napoli, was unleashed with an assist for Vialli on Zola’s home debut against Newcastle and a 35 yard lofted free-kick against Everton a month later – his first goal for Chelsea. Initially, Zola started in midfield in Gullit’s 3-5-2. However, the Italian soon found himself in his natural second striker position when Vialli was injured in December. Zola immediately struck up a formidable partnership with Hughes, and in their first game together, Zola set up Hughes for one of his two goals while the Welshman set Zola up for a fantastic individual goal – which included Zola wrong-footing Julian Dicks three times! More brilliance followed, including a 25 yard equaliser against Liverpool in the FA Cup 4th round and a scissors volley against Sunderland. However, perhaps the most iconic moment of Chelsea’s 96/97 season was his goal against Manchester United on 22 February. Zola weaved past all four of United’s seemingly unflappable defence, before slotting the ball past Peter Schmeichel. It led to Sir Alex Ferguson calling the Italian a “clever little so-and-so” and Ryan Giggs has since revealed that Zola was one of the few players that Ferguson has ever asked to be man-marked.

Chelsea had gone twenty-seven years without appearing in the FA Cup final and Zola played a huge role in getting Chelsea to Wembley – finishing as their top scorer with 4 goals. He scored one of the goals of the competition in the 3-0 semi-final victory against Wimbledon at Highbury. On 64 minutes, when Chelsea were already 1-0 ahead, Zola ‘twisted blood’ as he moved past central defender Dean Blackwell, before a well placed finish into the corner of the net beyond Neil Sullivan. In the 2-0 final win against Middlesbrough, with a raucous and Chelsea-dominated crowd at Wembley, Zola set-up Eddie Newton with an unselfish backheel flick across the goal. Zola’s impressive seven months at Chelsea, where he scored 12 goals in 30 games, led to him becoming Chelsea’s first ever winner of a Player of the Year Award when he won the Football Writers’ Player of the Year – the first player ever to win the award without playing a full season.

Chelsea signed Ed de Goey, Graham Le Saux Gustavo Poyet and Tore Andre Flo in the summer of 1997. With Gullit in his second season as player-manager, his attacking football philosophy was now firmly embedded in Chelsea’s game. It saw Chelsea, while at times inconsistent, play the most attractive football in the league but when they failed to break teams down with intricate pass-and-move football, they lacked a Plan B. A sustained title challenge failed to materialise but Zola continued to impress. He netted his first professional hat-trick in the 4-0 win against Derby on 29 November, and set up four of Chelsea’s six goals in the 6-1 victory over Tottenham at White Hart Lane on 6 December. However, Chelsea’s form dipped in the New Year and Gullit fell out with owner Ken Bates over the terms of a new contract in February. From this,Vialli was appointed as player-manager. Vialli went on to lead Chelsea to a 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough in the League Cup final on 28 March.

Having just recovered from a three week groin tear, Zola was unable to start the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final against Stuttgart at the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm on 13 May. With the game at 0-0, Zola came on in the 70th  minute for Flo and within two minutes, scored a thumping volley to win Chelsea their first European trophy for 38 years. Finishing an impressive 4th, the next step for Chelsea was a serious title challenge and achieving Champions League qualification. However, Zola’s impressive season abroad did not lead to a call-up to Italy’s World Cup 98’ squad. With Chiesa, Inzaghi, Del Piero, Vieri and Baggio among their ranks, Cesare Maldini left Zola out – leading to Zola retiring from international football at the age of thirty-two.

The high-profile arrivals of Marcel Desailly, Albert Ferrer and Casiraghi signalled Chelsea’s intent. Before the Premier League season began, Chelsea faced Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup. Unfazed by the 1998 Champions League winners, who had the likes of Bodo Illgner, Fernando Hierro, Roberto Carlos, Clarence Seedorf and Raúl to call upon, Zola set up Poyet to fire home in the 81st minute. By sacrificing their traditionally strong performances in the domestic cup competitions, Chelsea stayed within touching distance of Manchester United in the Premier League – finishing just four points off the Red Devils. It was the closest Chelsea had come to the title in decades, and even though he scored just 1 goal in his first 14 games for Chelsea, the loss of club-record £5.4 million signing Casiraghi to a cruciate knee injury was a huge blow, as he provided a much different option to Flo and Zola. Nonetheless, Zola had one of the most influential seasons of his career with his 15 goals in 48 games helping Chelsea to a 3rd place finish, where they lost just three league games, and earning Zola a Chelsea Player of the Year award.

Chelsea’s historic qualification for the Champions League saw the Blues increase their spending once again with the acquisitions of Didier Deschamps, Gabriele Ambrosetti and Chris Sutton. In the Blues’ first league game of the season against Sunderland, Zola set-up Poyet with a trademark lofted through ball which was met by an incredible scisscors-kick finish by the Uruguayan; it remains, to this day, one of Chelsea’s greatest goals. Even though Vialli began a squad rotation policy, particularly with his strikers, as Chelsea prepared for an assault on four competitions, Zola still played a huge role – particularly in the Champions League. After dominating possession against Milan in their first ever Champions League match, a 0-0 draw, hopes were high that Chelsea could prove to be a dark horse in the competition.

Chelsea were unfazed by the ‘Stadium of Hell’ at Ali Sami Yen in Istanbul, when they played Galatasary, and Zola had an inspiring night – earning a standing ovation from the whole stadium. Having scored 2 goals as Chelsea negotiated their way past the two group phases, Zola’s greatest Champions League moment came against Barcelona in the quarter-final. Chelsea produced their best performances of the season, against a Barça team featuring Luís Figo and Rivaldo, with Zola scoring a magnificent 25 yard curled free-kick and setting up one of Flo’s 2 goals in a 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge. However, Barcelona went on to win 5-1 at the Nou Camp to end Chelsea’s incredible tournament. A 1-0 FA Cup final win over Aston Villa, where Zola set-up Di Matteo for the only goal, and a 5th place league finish were Chelsea’s consolations after a landmark year in their modern history.

The summer of 2000 saw the arrivals of Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and Zola has since admitted that he came close to leaving the club to return home to Italy. However, he stayed and under new manager Ranieri, who arrived after Vialli’s dismissal in September, Zola found the net 12 times in 42 appearances. Despite the fact that he appeared mainly as a substitute, Zola saw it as a motivation to impress and eventually oust his younger (Hasselbaink 29, Gudjohnsen 23) team-mates. Chelsea finished the season 6th, with automatic qualification for the UEFA Cup, and Ranieri began a mass overhaul of playing staff – aiming to bring the average age of the squad down. The likes of Poyet, Wise and Leboeuf all departed before the beginning of the 2001/2002 season. The 36 year old Zola, undergoing a strenuous personal pre-season before returning for Chelsea’s friendlies, remained at the club and continued his impact role, but the night of 16 January, 2002 proved Zola’s career was far from over.

It was a 4th round FA Cup tie against Norwich City at Stamford Bridge that staged Zola’s greatest moment of genius in a Chelsea shirt. Zola, usually a bystander during corner-kicks, took up a position three yards away from the near post as Le Saux whipped in a low inswinging corner. Zola sprinted towards the near post and after jumping a mere few inches in the air, he met the ball with a graceful and perfectly timed volleyed back heel. While some would bizarrely question the goal as a fluke occurrence, Zola has since revealed that he initially planned to head the ball but adapted to the situation by using his heel to score one of the best goals in Chelsea’s and the FA Cup’s history. It led to Ranieri calling the Italian a “wizard” but in typical Zola fashion, rather than serenading his own brilliance, he dedicated the goal to a young Chelsea fan with a terminal illness, who he had visited in a clinic only a few weeks before the goal. Zola had already captured the love of all football fans in England but the goal and dedication in the Norwich game sealed his place in football fans’ hearts. For the rest of the season and in parts of 2002/2003, wherever Zola went, whether it was Anfield or the Hawthorns, he was given a standing ovation upon being substituted. Fans knew they were in the presence of one of the greatest footballers and gentlemen to grace English soil.

Zola’s final season at Chelsea in 02/03 was a renaissance rather than a swansong for the 37 year old Italian. After a blistering pre-season, where he scored 10 goals in 5 games, it was obvious Zola would play a big part in Chelsea’s hunt for a Champions League place. He was pivotal: making 46 appearances in all competitions – which was more than Hasselbaink (44) and Gudjohnsen (44). Zola finished the season as Chelsea’s top scorer, with 16 goals, and as the Chelsea Player of the Year. Typically, magnificent goals were as common as tap-ins with a 20 yard curler against Blackburn, a 25 yard curved free-kick against Tottenham and a lob from the left-hand side of the penalty box against Everton examples of his undying brilliance. His final game against Liverpool, billed the Champions League playoff decider and a huge game in deciding Chelsea’s financial future, was a twenty minute cameo but highly memorable. With Chelsea clinging on to a 2-1 lead, Zola collected the ball at the corner flag and kept hold of the ball against four zealous Liverpool players. It was a fitting final image of Zola and despite having one of the finest seasons of his career, he kept his promise to depart for Serie B side Cagliari.

Gianfranco Zola was one of the greatest and most universally popular players to ever grace the Premier League and in a fitting tribute to his fantastic ability, despite the undoubted brilliance of club legends like Bobby Tambling, Peter Osgood and Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, ‘The Little Genius’ was voted as Chelsea’s greatest ever player in 2003.

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

4 thoughts on “Gianfranco Zola – Chelsea’s Greatest Player of All-Time

  1. Good piece Ciaran ….. and on his Birthday as well. Had the pleasure of seeing him in the flesh, and will only rest happy when he’s back at Chelsea in some capacity.

  2. Being italian I must say that this is very thorough piece, even covering Zola’s beginnings; my compliments to the author. A small correction: Napoli manager in 1993 was Ottavio Bianchi (not Oliver).

    Gianfranco’s sudden departure at the beginning of the ’96 season sealed the fate of my fantasy football team that year : I couldn’t replace him, being November. I never looked at Chelsea in the same way ever since. :-(

  3. Hi Ciaran,

    very good written.

    Zola was such a great player and still is a wonderful person.

    For some reason a lot of people seem to overlook him when talking about the greatest players, maybe because he is so small :)

    Thank you very much for publishing this.


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