This article was originally published in December 2015. Happy birthday, Gianfranco…
In an age where supporters have never felt more disconnected from their heroes, everybody loves a smiling footballer. It persuades us that they realise quite how lucky they are, and just how many would love to take their place.
The opposite is also true. After England beat Estonia in October, The Sun’s Mark Irwin criticised Raheem Sterling for not looking happy: ‘If that [Sterling being happy] is true, he has a funny way of showing it. In fact, he generally looks about as happy as Aaron Lennon on transfer deadline day. Maybe he needs another shot of hippy crack.’ How dare you play football and not be delirious?
A player smiling as he works also demonstrates an ease of ability, incredibly endearing to the neutral. While some grimace and gasp in the heat of battle, others operate on a higher, more serene plane. Ronaldinho and Jay-Jay Okocha deserve honourable mentions, but there really is only one true smiler: Gianfranco Zola.
Zola didn’t just love scoring goals, he visibly adored every part of every day in football. In fact, scratch that, the little magician just loved life. “Do something, anything,” he once said. “You’re alive, and you’ll only be for a few decades, and then it’s done. You’ll be in the ground, worm food. Make something and don’t let fear consume you.” Eye-opening advice for a generation used to footballers speaking in glib platitudes.
Not everybody was in favour of Zola’s cheer. “He annoyed me,” said Alex Ferguson in September. “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.” There could be no greater compliment.
Zola can lay claim to be the most important player in Chelsea’s history. Having learned his trade under Diego Maradona at Napoli, he arrived from Parma in November 1996 for £4.5m after being frozen out by Carlo Ancelotti. “Maradona was one of those who took time after training sessions to practice his qualities and it was really inspirational for me,” Zola recalls. “It taught me to work and spend extra time working on certain things.”
In his first full season he won the FA Cup, the club’s first major trophy for 26 years. The following year he scored the winner in the Cup Winners’ Cup final, Chelsea’s first European honour since 1971. He was named the club’s greatest ever player in 2003, subsequently awarded an OBE for services to football.
Touting Zola as the principal reason for Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea takeover may be slightly apocryphal, but his influence certainly made them an increasingly attractive purchase and, more importantly, a Champions League club. Leaving for Cagliari a week before Abramovich’s deal was announced, the Russian reportedly tried to buy the Italian club to try and keep Zola at Stamford Bridge.
Yet Zola’s impact was far wider than SW6. He arrived when English football was undergoing its extensive and extended rebirth, the old guard rolled in Pritt Stick and glitter by Sky Sports. At a time when foreign players were still being stereotyped as ageing mercenaries tempted by a final financial hurrah, Zola’s combination of aptitude and attitude made him the perfect poster boy for change. He was a breath of fresh Sardinian air. English football had caught sight of a new frontier, and it loved what it saw.
Crucially, he also understood the mentality of football supporters, and was happy to play to the crowd. “All of us – teams, directors, managers – are passing through a football club,” Zola said. “Supporters are there always. And they never forget.” We’re all suckers for a quote like that.
Re-watching videos of Zola, it is his vision that is instantly obvious. He was like an expert chess player, reading the game two or three moves ahead. A heightened perception is what enables the best players to make the exceptional look easy.
Zola’s diminutive size helped form his reputation. Standing at just over 5ft 5in, he had an impish magic that made the ball stick to his boot. His twists and turns were his most famous attribute, but it was the time Zola created on the ball that was most notable. Out of nothing, space appeared – the ‘magician’ tag was apt.
Proficient defenders (including Jamie Carragher, famously) were made to look clumsy and flat-footed. Zola’s free-kick style became iconic, lazily stepping to the ball as if he were taking a five-a-side penalty. Fourteen of his 80 Chelsea goals were direct free-kicks.
Importantly, Zola was not a one-man show. His tricks were more effect than affectation. His most famous goal, the back-heeled volley against Norwich, is the perfect example. Immense skill is most compelling when channelled.
Most of all, Zola was a gentleman, adored by home supporters but respected by opposition players and supporters alike. He was the ultimate neutral’s favourite, a Chelsea legend warmly welcomed at Upton Park or White Hart Lane. In his later years, Zola became as valuable to Chelsea as a mentor as a striker. There are countless stories about him helping young players at the club, while his behaviour on and off the field made him an ambassador. Zola recalls how he would help Frank Lampard for hours after training.
“We used to spend a long time at the end of the training sessions and Frank used to take shots while I used to take free-kicks, and we spent quite a lot of time working on it,” he says. “Everything comes with practice. If you want to do something you have to spend time and energy and attention on it, and spend time thinking about it, all those things.” As one Chelsea legend’s time was ending, another began.
In the modern game, it feels like magic is something to be mistrusted, not cherished. Like Puskas’ dragback at Wembley in 1953, seeing Zola shimmy and jink in 1996 was like watching a new sport. His performance level did not stay consistently high throughout his Chelsea career, but that fails to detract from his legacy. The joy of Zola was to be found in the moments.
It’s also worth remembering that by the time his first full season in the Premier League had ended, Zola was close to turning 32. By the time he left, aged 37, English football had finally caught up. His departure still left a gaping hole.
“I will treasure this experience, it made me better as a player and as a man,” Zola said during his farewell speech following a tribute match in 2003, welling up on the Stamford Bridge turf. “Thank you for letting me come here and do a few tricks.” Emphatically humble to the end.
Having finished speaking, Zola then bowed down to each of the stands in turn, showing his worship for Chelsea’s support; it’s fair to say that the feeling was mutual. Plenty of clubs could try to lay claim to being ‘everybody’s second team’. Zola was football’s ‘second player’.