OBJECTIVE ANALYSIS OF FRANCO’S CONTRIBITION

By Tom Birkert
In Zola
Jul 4th, 2003

Franco Zola was a great player for Chelsea. An instrumental player. But I think a few people are going a bit over the top about things. I actually think we will now develop into a better side without him, as the other players will have to use their own initiative.

Firstly, I am not trying to “belittle” anyone. Those who find what I am saying is offensive are entitled to their opinion. Personally, I don’t like over the top eulogising where I don’t think it is fully deserved. And I feel a lot of the praising has not been based on actual productivity, but rather on emotional and sentimental attachment which – when mixed in with footballing ability – have made people believe that everything has been wonderful when the reality is different. Of course, that does not mean that there were not some great times, wonderful memories and important contributions – because there were.

Those who accuse me of using stats. Fine. Read the book Moneyball and tell that to the Oakland A’s who have revolutionised baseball by ignoring perception and looking at the actual facts. Then get back to me. Because perception means nothing to me, and reality is everything. I don’t care if a player is the nicest bloke on Earth, is adored by the fans and has a great media profile. I care about what happens on the pitch. What a player contributes. And when Franco himself has said that he is a forward and thus he has to be judged on scoring goals, then I think that’s fair enough for me. Of course assists are crucial too, but those weren’t recorded until relatively recently.

If I may reiterate, I do think that (and there is no doubting it) Franco is a very good footballer. An international class footballer. Those who want to take that as belittling are free to do so. For me it’s a compliment. World class is a different accolade and one that should be reserved for those who truly are the best in the World. Franco, great player though he is, is not that. And he never was. Sorry, but that’s the truth. Would he have got in a World Best XI when he couldn’t hold down a regular place in the Italy side? Would he have made the squad for a World team? No. But then only 11 (or 22 in the case of a squad) would have done. That does not mean he was not a very good footballer, because, as I have said, he was. But he was not at the World class level. Those of you who think he would have got into a World XI are entitled to your opinion. It’s just not one I share for the reasons I have outlined above. He has contributed greatly to Chelsea since being here. To suggest his performance has never slipped is laughable as every player has periods when things don’t go right. He has had, in my opinion, 3 very good seasons (96/97, 98/99, 02/03), 2 average seasons (97/98 and 00/01) and 2 poor seasons (99/00 and 01/02). But I’ll go into all of that in a bit. Those of you who want to see that as belittling are entitled to your opinion. I’m trying to be objective based on what he produced for us on the pitch.

Firstly, the International / World class debate. There is no debate as far as I’m concerned. 35 caps and 7 goals is not the return of a World class player. It indicates he could not elevate his game consistently to that level. Had he been able to, he would have got more caps and more goals. World class players perform consistently at the highest level. Franco could not hold down a regular place in the Italian side. And it wasn’t that good a side. Of course, you can argue about managers, playing in England etc, but the fact remains that his international record is not that of a World class player. Compare his record to, say Del Piero (who is not World class any more in my opinion). Del Piero has 57 caps and 21 goals at the age of 29. Vieri (29) has 17 goals in 31 games for Italy in an injury hit career and has a phenomenal record at club level (48 games, 46 goals since joining Inter!). He is definitely pushing World class.

Marcel Desailly is the only player who, in my opinion, has been worthy of a World class accolade in the Chelsea squad. Not any more of course, though he is still a fine footballer, as he is on the decline. But when he joined he was undoubtedly the best defender in the World. He has a record number of caps for France. He won the World Cup and European Championships. Between 1998 and 2000 he would definitely have been in a World XI. He might even have been captain.

Other players we have had have been international class. Dan Petrescu had a great record for Romania, but they are not as strong as Italy or France. Would he have got so many caps had he been French? I doubt it, fine player though he was. International class, not World class.

Frank Lebouef has 50 caps and 5 goals for France. He has, famously, a World cup medal and a Euro 2000 medal. And whilst he was my favourite player, I would not suggest he was World class. International class definitely, but not at the highest echelon. But when you compare his achievements with those of Franco, he has equally as strong a claim in my opinion. But neither of them would make it for me.

Ruud Gullit was not World class whilst at Chelsea, but would have been a shoe in 10 years earlier.

Onto the club career and my statement about a lack of consistency.

The 3 good seasons:
96/97 – immediate impact, Footballer of the year. 22(1) league games, 8 goals. 7 other games, 4 goals.

98/99 – finished 3rd, challenged for title. Outstanding before Xmas. 35(2) league games, 13 goals. 12 other games, 2 goals.

02/03 – brilliant start to the season, Indian summer. 30(8) league games, 14 goals. 8 other games, 2 goals.

The 2 average seasons:
97/98 – blistering start, then 6 months without a league goal. 23(4) league games, 8 goals. 13(1) other games, 4 goals.

00/01 – good first half, only 3 league goals after Xmas. 31(5) league games, 9 goals. 7 other games, 3 goals

The 2 poor seasons:
99/00 – struggled almost as much as Sutton. Scored on opening day and then not again in the league until the end of April. 25(8) league games, 4 goals. 19(1) other games, 4 goals. 01/02 – couldn’t get going. Didn’t score until November. 19(16) league games, 3 goals. 9(6) other games, 2 goals.

Leaving emotional and sentimental attachment aside, those are the facts about his career at Chelsea. It is worth saying a couple of things when looking at these stats. Firstly, that when he has played well, we have done better. This reflects his quality as a player. However, it is a double edged sword, for when he has not performed we have suffered. This lack of consistency has cost us, but that is not his fault, but more an inherent risk of relying on any individual. However, he has had bad spells and bad seasons, and those who seek to eulogise should remember this. I am not looking to belittle, simply get some perspective.

A nice bloke? When I have met him he seems charming enough. However, it is naive to think he has got where he has by being nice. He has a ruthless, selfish side too. All good sportsmen do – it’s not a criticism. Ask Parma and Ancelotti, who he fell out with when asked to play on the right wing, demanding to leave. Ask Vialli and Hutchison in the infamous summer of 2000. And he would do anything to win. He is a master of dragging his leg to induce contact, especially in the box. This is the type of behaviour for which Jeffers etc. are vilified. We’ll call it selective amnesia when it comes to this subject and Franco!

Do I think he’s Chelsea’s greatest ever player? No. I think he’s a very good one, but Desailly is head and shoulders above any player I have seen play at Stamford Bridge. So why did he win that vote by such a landslide? The answer, and by answering it I am going full circle back to the beginning, is due to a combination of things. Of course footballing ability is important. However, I think it has equally as much to do with the smiling face, manner of play (the exquisite touches – even if they don’t lead to anything) and good reputation in the media. I think that due to all these factors his perception amongst Chelsea fans is higher than the reality of his actual level of production.

How will I remember Franco?
I will have memories of great goals and great touches. An important player in our most successful period. I will, of course, remember him as a very good footballer. I’m happy to laud a very good footballer for his loyalty and contribution. It is well deserved. However a lot of the things I have read have been way over the top.

If you disagree with any or all of this then that is fine. I’m simply trying to explain why I feel how I do and cut through the perception to the reality. Which is why I disagree with statements demanding statues, shirt retiring etc.

I’d like to finish by saying that I hope we can move on and progress in the way Man U and Arsenal did when they lost Cantona and Wright respectively. Losing a player lauded by the fans does not have to be a hindrance. Indeed it can be a help, as the other players could step up when given their chance (Forssell springs to mind here).

The Club is more important than any individual. Whoever is here next season, give them 100% support. If we can be like we were against Liverpool then the players will respond (but that is a whole ‘nother subject!)

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