A collective sigh echoed up and down the country. Yet another story of what could’ve been. Gareth Southgate’s sudden death spot-kick had condemned England to the same familiar fate they had suffered just six years earlier – football was not coming home. But a tournament so wrapped up in the enterprising patriotism of Terry Venables 3-5-2 was not content with hanging its legacy on one ill-fated swoop of a football. Change was on the horizon, and the arrival of a fleet-footed Italian just a few hours train ride from the scene of Southgate’s purgatory would thrust a long-suffering West London club to the forefront of a cultural and footballing revolution. Gianfranco Zola and Chelsea – a love affair that transcends the ages.
A scapegoat personified by their lack of silverware, Chelsea and Zola shared much in common as we approached the turn of the Millenium. It was once remarked that “Few would venture to Chelsea, unarmed and unattended,” and for all its Bohemian charms the feeling among reporters was that the widely publicised exploits of the Chelsea Headhunters and chairman Ken Bates’s equally hostile attempts to stem the flow of hooliganism, had permanently plagued the club. This is, of course, not to say that the actions of these minority groups were not wholly abhorrent, but as Liverpool fans will rightly reason with, these swooping generalisations only served to vilify the majority of well-meaning and passionate fans. As for silverware, it had been at the time of Zola’s arrival 26 years since Ron “chopper” Harris had cemented his fearsome reputation against Don Revie’s Leeds United.
So how, you may be asking, does this softly spoken Italian forward draw similarities with a club who derive both decadence and decay from the proliferation of brutal tribalism? The answer once again brings us back to Euro 96 as Zola is held accountable for his role in Italy’s group-stage exit at the hands of Germany and the Czech Republic. For a then 30-year-old Zola. failure with the Azzurri just felt like yet another footnote in a career becoming increasingly synonymous with agony over ecstasy. He had enjoyed fruitful spells with both Parma and Napoli, winning the UEFA Cup and the Scudetto respectively, but having spent his formative years at semi-professional outfits Nuorese and Torres, prolonged success had undoubtedly alluded a player hand-picked by Maradonna himself to inherit Napoli’s number 10 jersey.
A far cry from the sun-kissed mountains of Sardinia where Zola grew up, we now return to England and the aforementioned cultural and footballing revolution that’s taking hold. Ruud Gullit, under the guise of a player-manager, has spearheaded a three-pronged attack on the Serie A bringing in Roberto Di Matteo, Gianluca Vialli and Zola for a combined £9.3 million. Whilst In North London, plans are being made to infiltrate the increasingly lucrative French market, with the arrivals of Patrick Vieira and Remi Garde at Arsenal. The ratification of the Bosman ruling had brought with it an influx of foreign players that would change the face of English football forever.
“It wasn’t until he arrived and you saw him on the training pitch that you suddenly realised you were in the presence of something special. His first touch, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Scott Minto said of Zola in an interview with Sky Sports.
Despite being brought into the club mid-season, Zola took little time to adjust to Chelsea’s style of play. Having failed to score or assist in his opening three appearances, he went on to contribute five goals in as many games to lift the Blues out of an alarming slump in form. This surge in performance levels remarkably showed no signs of slowing up, and the Italian finished just a goal shy of Chelsea’s top scorer that season Mark Hughes (14). With a sixth-place finish in the league (a marked improvement on their 11th placed finish the previous season), and the cultivation of a new more enterprising style of football, it seemed only fitting that the 1996/97 season should end with nearly 40,000 fans converging on Wembley Way to witness Dennis Wise lift the FA Cup.
Zola’s influence on the team did not go unnoticed and he was subsequently awarded the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year. He is to this day the only player to have won the award having joined a club mid-season, and with good reason too, the Italian’s eight league goals generated an incredible nine points in a stellar first campaign.
Chelsea continued to flourish with Zola the fulcrum of their attack, his slaloming solo runs and trademark free kicks the staple of a side slowly winning over the hearts and minds of neutrals across the football league. Competitive, stylish and ruthless. The Blues took managerial turmoil in their stride to add a League Cup, Community Shield and another FA Cup to their now bulging collection of trophies over the next few years. But it was in Stockholm where Zola would cement his place in Chelsea folklore.
The deceptively eloquent spin and finish against Wimbledon in the FA Cup semi-final drew gasps and applause whilst his now-infamous chop past Dennis Irwin has graced almost every highlight reel in Premier League history. But with just his second touch of the ball, Zola fired Chelsea to their first triumph on European soil in nearly 30 years, a Cup Winners Cup victory over Stuttgart that propelled one long-forgotten club towards the elusive riches of the Champions League. Much like Jasper Gronkjaer after him, this goal represented more than one seemingly innocuous finish – it was a testament to the direction of the club.
There will always be more to Zola than the goals he scored and the assists he crafted; there was a manner and style to his play that bypasses stats and analytics. He was able to strip the game back to its purest form, and for eight trophy-laden years fans basked in the wonder of a genius strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage.
Edited by: Dan