“Gianfranco Zola, one of the smallest professional soccer players in Europe, won the Cup Winners’ Cup for Chelsea…”
The very first words in the New York Times’ report of the crowning moment in the career of the player regarded as the finest in Chelsea’s history are spectacularly arid.
They do, however, reflect something of a preoccupation with Zola’s physical stature. A quick Google of “Gianfranco Zola” and “impish” yields more than 500 hits. Substitute in football’s favourite piece of elegant variation – “diminutive” – and it’s more than 5,000. The overwhelming majority of those are unlikely to be negative – or even patronising – but have nevertheless served to define, erm, the little Sardinian.
On his arrival at Chelsea in November 1996 – after belatedly emerging from under the wing of Diego Maradona at Napoli and then being edged out of Carlo Ancelotti’s plans at Parma – the chances of Zola still scampering around Stamford Bridge almost seven years later would have been remote. The wrong side of 30 (albeit hardly jaded, having not risen above Serie C until he was 23) and given a £4.5m ticket on the accelerating Chelsea gravy train, Zola could easily have been pigeon-holed there and then as “not fancying it”.
The awe-struck stereotypes didn’t stop there. Tesco roped in a sheepish-looking Zola to lend his name to some pizzas, and we had reached peak foreign influx.
Gianfranco Zola promoting his own pizza range! pic.twitter.com/vEGVo3QhNk
— 90s Footballers (@90sPlayers) April 23, 2015
Cultural adjustments aside, Zola also had a new style of football to get his head around, in a Premier League still largely living on a diet of grit, determination and stick from the lads. In the winter of 1996 commenced the long-running game of Gianfranco Zola vs The Proper Football Men.
Zola’s first five games could comfortably be filed under “Inauspicious Start”, with only a soon-to-be-trademark free-kick against Everton to show for a winless run. Then, four days before Christmas, West Ham came to Stamford Bridge – led by their zero-nonsense captain Julian Dicks.
Zola’s impudent (813 Google results, by the way) flick set up Mark Hughes to give Chelsea an early lead and, just four minutes later, he had produced his first defining moment in a blue shirt. In the process, he chose to effortlessly circumnavigate the one man who most embodied everything about English football that the doubters felt sure Zola couldn’t handle.
Dicks, a man who demonstrated that it was indeed possible to both be called Julian and be nicknamed “The Terminator”. Dicks, a man whose own testimonial descended into a 17-man brawl. Dicks, who had endeared himself to Chelsea a year earlier by stamping on John Spencer’s head. Dicks, who struck every one of his speciality penalties as if he suspected the ball itself of recently murdering the entire Dicks family.
Julian Dicks: mugged right off.
“He’s a clever little bugger, much better than I thought” – Sir Alex Ferguson.
Zola was now in a turn-of-the-year groove. His smooth evisceration of Dicks sparked a run of seven goals in 12 games before the champions and league leaders Manchester United visited SW6. Once again, Zola wasted little time in making an opposition defender – or two – look a bit silly.
In the grand scheme of Proper Football Men, Denis Irwin and Gary Pallister perhaps only qualify as Good Honest Professionals but they were no more immune to the technical wizardry of the high-grade mid-90s imports. Within two minutes, they were left bewildered by a goal characterised more by the statuesque defending than the efforts of the scorer.
Zola’s path from the byline to the six-yard box wasn’t a well-trodden one – he could barely believe his luck that United had left that particular gate open – but it needed some stealth to get there at all. Zola latched on to a Dan Petrescu pass and “left Irwin skidding hysterically along the turf on both cheeks”, as the Guardian’s Scott Murray rather nicely put it, to find the near post guarded by the not insignificant frames of Pallister and Peter Schmeichel. The former was negotiated with such ease that it’s almost painful to watch, leaving the latter with more than enough excuse to give his back four his customary constructive feedback. United’s manager wouldn’t forget what he saw, either.
“He annoyed me,” said Alex Ferguson a decade later. “He was one of those players who was unperturbed about who he was playing against. You always saw a smile on his face, and that annoyed me. I said ‘how can he be enjoying himself playing against United?’ Nobody else does.”
By April of 1997, Chelsea had a first piece of major silverware in 26 years firmly in their sights. In the FA Cup, Zola had scored in the third round against West Brom, helped spark a stunning comeback against Liverpool in round four and then helped bury Portsmouth in the quarter-finals.
Standing in the way of Wembley were Joe Kinnear’s Wimbledon. Six months previously – fortunately too early for Zola to witness first hand – they had steamrollered Ruud Gullit’s men at Stamford Bridge, leaving with a 4-2 win and Frank Leboeuf with golf ball-sized lump (football’s standard measurement) on his head as a parting gift.
Nine years since “the Crazy Gang had beaten the Culture Club” of Liverpool in the Cup final, their infamous brand of camaraderie was looking a bit dated in the Premier League era, especially once the club had literally used it as branding on their shirts. Nevertheless, its spiritual leader Vinnie Jones remained and another rigorous physical examination was on the cards at Highbury – Neil Ardley was duly booked for managing to squeeze a late tackle into the opening ten seconds.
Zola had a couple of journeyed minders in Mark Hughes and Dennis Wise to keep him safe, though, and it was Hughes who bundled Chelsea into the lead to settle any jitters.
Just after the hour mark, Zola finally popped up to hammer another nail into the Crazy Gang’s coffin.
Wimbledon centre-half Dean Blackwell – briefly tipped for the England squad but soon to be reduced to rubble on the pristine Highbury pitch – had already been given a first-half warning as he slid, Billy-Wright-to-the-wrong-
Zola’s next trick was several degrees of difficulty up from that. Quite simply, he hit the brakes and Blackwell flew right by.
Chelsea were in the Cup Final, which would be decided after just 42 seconds, and Zola’s similarly prompt impact on English football was rubber-stamped by the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award in a debut season that had begun in November.
Zola went into the 2000s (rather inconveniently for a 90s-focused blog) as a Premier League heavyweight. With great power comes great responsibility and, equally, with great footballing fame…comes a cameo appearance in Renford Rejects.
For those unfamiliar with the Nickelodeon “classic”, it centred around a rag-tag five-a-side team who suffer from awful football choreography and even worse acting. Having scraped its way to a third series, it secured the guest-star double swoop of Zola and “the hardest man in the history of British football” Martin Keown.
In a stunning narrative twist, it’s Keown who brings the nutmegs and Cruyff turns to the increasingly surreal party, while Zola smirks his way through shoulder-barge after shoulder-barge. Keown, to his credit, gamely emerges as the most capable actor in the whole episode but Zola takes the footballing spoils. That wraps up his second weirdest flirtation with popular culture behind the urban legend that he starred in the video for Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in 1983, a claim eventually debunked when (Wikipedia matter-of-factly confirms) “in a 2012 interview, Zola confirmed that he did not appear in the video.”
Back on the real pitch, however, the first three seasons of the new decade did not go swimmingly for Zola. Just as at Parma, he began to find himself drifting to the periphery as Claudio Ranieri’s rotation policy favoured the dovetailing strike partnership of Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in a younger-looking Chelsea squad.
A modest return of 25 goals in three seasons was still punctuated by high-profile moments of magic: a belting half-volley against Feyenoord, a free-kick over the Barcelona wall in a memorable Champions League night at the Bridge and that stunning – and genuinely impudent – near-post flick against Norwich.
At 36, and with Sardinia’s homeward pull getting ever stronger, it seemed Zola’s Premier League time was up.
“I will treasure this experience, it made me better as a player and as a man. Thank you for letting me come here and do a few tricks” – Gianfranco Zola, 2003.
As the ultimate late bloomer, however, Zola’s time was only for him to decide. His final season of 2002/03 would, remarkably, be his most prolific for Chelsea. Those free-kicks, after all, were unaffected by any surplus miles on the clock.
Zola’s final goal for Chelsea, then, needed to be something special. Replacing Hasselbaink in the 81st minute of a home cruise against Everton, Zola latched on to a long ball forward and gave Richard Wright the same mildly humiliating treatment as had once been dished out to Julian Dicks, Denis Irwin, Dean Blackwell and children’s television.
A nice, round figure of 80 Chelsea goals achieved – 14 of them from a dead ball – Zola still had some final business to attend to. With the club-hunting Roman Abramovich’s helicopter circling, Chelsea went into their final-day clash with Liverpool at Stamford Bridge needing a point to secure a Champions League berth at the expense of their visitors.
Liverpool took the lead, only for Marcel Desailly and Jesper Gronkjaer to restore and then reinforce Chelsea’s safety net. Zola was once again summoned from the bench, with the remit to keep the ball as far away from Carlo Cudicini’s goal as possible. What soon followed was perhaps the most wonderful keeping of a ball by the corner flag in football history.
Zola’s final – and most utterly dismantled – victim was to be one-club, 700-games-five-goals, honest-as-the-day-is-long, white-boots-are-for-twats, student of the game and proper football man Jamie Carragher.
Nine touches, nine changes of direction and absolutely zero chance of Carragher touching that football. Or Bruno Cheyrou. Or Danny Murphy.
Game over, then – for Zola’s Chelsea love affair, at least – but there can be few better ways to sign off. His Premier League legacy, meanwhile, remains intact.
“In the beginning, I was severely undervalued because I wasn’t very tall and I wasn’t very big,” he told the Guardian in 2003. “Many people certainly didn’t foresee a rosy future for me. But, as it turns out, they were wrong.”
Diminutive foreign forwards and playmakers continue to thrive in England. What of the Proper Football Man? Zola was unswervingly dedicated to his art, a gracious and selfless player, with a goalscoring repertoire far wider than his 5ft 5in frame implied.
In Stockholm, the New York Times continued: “He did it with a goal that transcended a dire game, demonstrating that it is what is in a man’s mind rather than the shape or size of his body that counts.”
Perhaps Gianfranco Zola was the proper football man after all.
For the next instalment of ’90s Heroes, check out the Bet Bright football blog on Friday.