No current Premier League player is better than Gianfranco…

Date published: Saturday 25th April 2020 1:56

Gianfranco Zola arrived at a very different England as a 30-year-old, and won each of us over instantly.


Who’s this then?
Gianfranco Zola is now 53 years old, born in Oliena in beautiful Sardinia. At 5′ 6″ tall he was one of the finest forward players of his generation, who possessed magic in his feet and had one of the quickest minds. From 1984 to 1986 he played for Nuorese, moving to Torres until 1989. From there he got a big move to Napoli for whom he played 105 games in four years, before joining Parma for three years and 102 games.

By the time he was signed up by sexy football’s Ruud Gullit at Chelsea for £4.5million, he was already 30 years old but was about to become a club legend even in the autumn of his career. Across seven years he would go on to play 311 games, scoring 80 times. He was apparently offered a contract by the new super-rich owner, but having already promised his services to Cagliari in his native Sardinia, he declined it.

He played two final seasons in Italy, helping them to Serie A promotion and in his last game, scoring a brace against Juventus. He was 39 when he hung up his boots and had played 796 games and scored 238 times, as well as winning 35 caps and scoring 10 goals.

While his stats are fine, they really do not speak fully to the quality of the player. He was part of the first wave of superb overseas players to come into the English top flight, when there was still some suspicion of foreigners from the Brut33 brigade and other assorted reactionaries. Today we’re used to the United Nations of football plying its trade here, but from the mid ’90s to early 2000s, imports were far more exotic and Zola was at the forefront of that.

It was just before the really, really huge money arrived and ruined everything. This is a fascinating era which bridges the old world of beer, steak and potatoes British football to the barolo, linguini and sun-dried tomatoes of the modern era.

Though short, he always looked physically robust and capable of taking the knocks, as this was the era before tackling was all but outlawed. One of those players who had a low centre of gravity, he was hard to knock off the ball and had a very narrow turning circle.

Despite being thoroughly unglamourous in his somewhat gnomic (I love the description in the comments which said it was like Juninho and The Fonz had a baby) appearance, to put it in the Scottish vernacular, the boy was a dancer. One of those players who it is impossible to take against. He was just too damn good.

He’s gone on to manage five clubs: West Ham, Watford, Cagliari, Al-Arabi and Birmingham City. Safe to say, his skill as a player has not translated into being a gaffer, his 8% win ratio at St Andrew’s being an especially low low point. It seems to have put him off pulling on the sheepskin car coat again. He was a coach at Chelsea under Maurizio Sarri but left when Chelsea were prefixed with ‘Frank Lampard’s’.

He appeared in an episode of Renford Rejects, playing against a team featuring Martin Keown. That sounds like the sort of thing you’d watch in your student digs, just coming to consciousness after tying one down, blinking at the TV, still wasted and thinking, “I must be tripping; that looks like Zola and Keown.”

More bizarre still was the urban myth that he had appeared in Welsh shouter, Bonnie Tyler’s Jim ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ Steinman-penned ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ video. Obviously, but sadly, he hadn’t. I see him more suited to being in a Dio video, myself.

 

Why the love?
While Gianfranco scored many great goals and assisted even more, he will forever be known for his 2002 effort against Norwich. Few players go down in history for one single moment of brilliance but Zola is in that elite.

When a moment is so incredible there is a palpable gap of time between seeing it and understanding exactly what has happened, as though your brain cannot quite compute that something such as this is even possible.

He was restlessly creative, usually playing as a No. 10, though he took many different positions. But on top of that he was a dead-ball specialist. The curler into the top corner was something of a speciality. He had the cool head to take penalties, too.

To become a true legend you obviously you need to be a standout player with few or no equals. But you also need to be loved. Zola very much falls into that category.

From day one, although he admitted to being dropped into an English football culture which was so very different from the Italian one he’d grown up and had played 12 years in, he seemed to take it all in his stride. He’s talked about what a shock the drink-for-oblivion mentality among the English players was. It must’ve seemed bizarre. Here you are, brought up having a glass of red with your beef braciole and now having a pint of wine diluted with vodka thrust into your hand and told to down it in one.

But even so, with his floppy, mid-60s Beatles cut, he seemed very clubbable and laid back. There was never anything uptight about how he played or lived. Like many Italians who come into English football culture, he seemed innately classy, cultured and educated in the finer things of life. Meeting Dennis Wise must’ve been such a shock on so many levels.

 

What the people love
All footballers who get us off our seat stay long in the memory; ones which don’t need defending for any character flaws, even more so. Zola was so distinctive, so unmistakable and his name begins with the coolest of letters. So my post sack was full this week.

 

‘Maradona gave Zola the No10 shirt before a game to show his faith in his protege. Diego wore the No9 at Pisa in Feb 91 (they were both in the starting XI)’ – Sheridan Bird.

‘Wonderful player and a gentleman as well. Never heard anyone say a bad word about him.’

‘One of those players that everyone likes. Diminutive wizard with amazing technique. Probably best not mention his managerial career.’

‘I once stopped him for a selfie, minutes before the end of a Chelsea game. He’d obviously left early to avoid the crowd, and his two friends were keen to make that planned hasty exit. Zola, however, stopped and humoured me. Then the next person. And the next, then the next, then…’

‘When he came to Chelsea I couldn’t believe we got him to come to us because in my eyes Zola was just a class player and a level above, elite player. Once I’d seen him play and speak, a class person as well.’

‘True Chelsea icon, many didn’t expect a player of his age to have much impact, but he defined the short era before Abramovich took over and who could forget that beautiful back heel goal, poetic.’

‘Zola was the victim of one of the most ludicrous red cards in World Cup history, when he was sent off against Nigeria at USA94, just 7 minutes after coming on as a substitute in his first and only World Cup game.’

‘The greatest piece of commentary from Jonathan Pearce back in the day: ‘Zola the snowmobile’. That’s my everlasting memory – oh and the inside heel volley from a corner at the near post, sublime.’

‘I remember him doing terrible things to Liverpool as they went from 2-0 up at half time to losing 4-2 in an FA Cup tie, but it’s difficult to hate him because he was really was brilliant.’

‘Best player not to have won the Premier League. Wonderful player.’

‘Stood behind me queuing to pay in Waitrose Bromley once. His basket was a delight – some of the finest ingredients you’ll see. Had a lovely v-neck on and was embarrassed to be recognised.’

‘Turning down Abramovich’s offer of another contract at Chelsea after giving his word to go back to play in Serie B for Cagliari.’

‘The first foreign import I truly fell in love with. Loved his diminutive stature, trickiness, intelligence, energy, warm nature and how he always played with a smile. Shame he never translated it into managerial success, but you can’t have everything.’

‘What a pocket battleship of a player!’

‘Used to get his car towed on a weekly basis for not parking in the correct places in Knightsbridge.’

‘I walked the BMW pro am with GZ at Wentworth. Perhaps unsurprisingly his touch and feel around the green with a golf club was as impressive as with the football. Genius. And the most lovely, humble man with it. He’s a joy.’

‘A player to make a fan of a team outside the Premier League watch Sky Sports.’

‘When you combine a talent like that with a personality that brings no negative traits to the game, you end up with an absolute gem of a player. No malice, no snide, no dishonesty or needless aggression. Just a sublime player that just about everyone enjoys watching.

‘Also, all the positive football cliches apply here, as well. Diminutive, plays with a smile, cheeky, had an eye for goal etc.’

‘The only time in my life where a saw an important goal in a stadium and instead of jumping around like a loon I froze and said ‘what a privilege to be here’ (v Wimbledon FA Cup Semi). My mates rinsed me. But hey. I was right!’

‘Diminutive magician and seems like a genuinely nice chap to boot. Helped turn people’s scepticism about the influx of foreign players into something more positive.’

‘Forever in the hearts of Watford fans for giving us that season in 2012/13 that culminated with the famous Deeney goal in the play-off semi-final. He’s clearly not the best manager but it worked that season, and he did it all with his typical charm and that smile. A great man.’

‘Every neutral’s favourite player. Only David Silva comes close in that regard.’

‘When we were discovering the Premier League as a way to enhance our love for the beautiful game – I would say “We have Bergkamp”; the Chelsea fan would respond “We have Zola” and it would be a tie.’

‘Roman Abramovich wouldn’t have purchased Chelsea if he had known that Zola had joined Cagliari the day before. Didn’t he try to buy the Italian club, in order to have the contract ripped up?’

‘I was shooting an interview with Gianfranco Zola for Chelsea’s fledgling TV service. The interviewer questioned why I had the camera so far away. Before I had the chance to answer, Zola explained to him that I was far away in order to zoom in and put the background out of focus.’

‘Nicest man in football and a wonderful player, too.’

 

Three great moments
The legendary near-post back heel v Norwich City, a thing of almost impossible skill performed at speed. You can see the defenders wondering how the hell that even happened..

A perfect example of his lightly-worn brilliance: running away from the space, backheeling the ball into it and scoring. It looks so simple that for a moment it’s easy to wonder why we don’t see this done all the time.

The infamous and absolutely criminal red card in the 1994 World Cup. Rarely has any footballer looked so physically and emotionally heartbroken. Still quite moving all these years later.

 

What now?
While his tenure at Watford wasn’t too bad, other managerial gigs haven’t gone well enough to make it seem as though his future is as a Number One. That isn’t a surprise, really; the highest quality players, with a few exceptions, often don’t make the best managers. Coaching seems a more obvious path for him. Then again, maybe it is impossible to impart or pass on that which was innate to him. That quickness of thought matched with the speed of touch and control which took him away from defenders and allowed him to do things almost no-one else could isn’t something you can pick up out of a coaching manual.

Those football fans who think we are living – or were living – in some sort of golden era of high-skill football should be reminded of the Z Man. It’s almost incredibly 24 years since he arrived on these shores and he’s still better than anyone playing (or not playing) in the league today. That is a mark of his sheer genius, and it will live with us always.

John Nicholson

 

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