Years before Roman Abramovich’s millions and superstars came to Chelsea’s rescue when “administration” loomed, the Blues already had a little magician giving their fans memories that, to this day, they still cherish. From November 1996 until May 2003, Gianfranco Zola donned the blue shirt with the number 25 on his back. This little, unassuming, character remains one of the greatest footballers to ever grace the Premier league. Supporters of other clubs, like myself, admired and respected him for his football skills as well as his gentleman-like conduct on and off the pitch.
A native from Sardinia, in Italy, his playing career allowed him to play for 5 clubs in Italy and one club in England, his beloved Chelsea. When playing in Italy, he played for Nuorese, Torres and then became the understudy to Diego Maradona at Napoli, who at the time had become Italian Champions in 1990. When Maradona departed from the scene for testing positive for drugs, Zola became the main man for a couple of seasons in Naples, until he moved to Parma. Over there he formed a brilliant striking partnership with Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla. Despite helping the club to win the UEFA Cup during his time there, his time was cut short once Carlo Ancelotti was appointed manager in the summer of 1996. Zola’s days in Parma's colors were numbered as he didn’t fit into Ancelotti’s plans and was made available for a transfer. London came calling and Chelsea, under the guidance of then player-manager Ruud Gullit, signed Zola.
This was the start of a love story that still exists between Zola and Chelsea. Despite joining the club the club at the age of 30, he ended up playing for them for 7 seasons. His genuine skill, loveable persona and character turned him into a legend at Chelsea. While most people believe Chelsea’s rise to the top of English football began with Roman Abramovich’s arrival, I believe it started years before that...when Zola arrived. Obviously Abramovich's influence is unquestionable and his money proved to be the catalyst of their successes, but the arrival of Chelsea's Italian hero was the inspiration behind their ability to compete at the top of the Premier League (key word here, compete).
By glancing at Chelsea’s final league position during every season of the Premier League era, it’s noticeable that prior to Zola’s arrival, they finished below the top 10 every season. As the little genius began leaving his mark on the club, Chelsea finished no less than 6th between his arrival and his departure in 2003. It was Zola (alongside numerous foreign players that joined the club during the mid-90s who also made the move to Chelsea) that made the club fashionable again. Ruud Gullit may have been credited for bringing along a continental style to Chelsea in 1995, but Zola embodied and perfected it, by turning Chelsea into an entertaining side to watch.
Memorable goals, skills and passes defined his style of play. His vision was examplary and he made what seemed difficult looked surprisingly easy. He was naturally gifted and played with a smile on his face. He also seemed like a genuinely nice guy whenever he'd be heard during interviews. Zola’s final season at Chelsea saw a bit of a resurgence to his career as he finished the season with 16 goals. However, as his Stamford Bridge days were coming to an end in 2003, a new era was beginning at the club as that was when Abramovich purchased the club. Zola was offered a new, improved, contract to stay at Chelsea, but he wouldn’t change his mind about fulfilling the promise of ending his career with his hometown club, Cagliari - a club that was lingering in Serie B, which Zola helped promote back up to Serie A.
Zola was named as Chelsea’s greatest ever player in 2003. He left the Premier League as a respected figure by his peers and opposing fans as well. I actually used to enjoy watching him play as he was always buzzing around and trying different things. He was an absolute joy to watch for supporters all over the world. Unfortunately for him, he never got the chance to win a League medal, but his undeniable talent is remembered and recognized by all. Standing as a striker at 5ft6 in the Premier League is no easy feat, but this little Italian magician made it, and everything else, look like a piece of cake.