Foreigners, eh? I mean, they’re everywhere these days. Can’t walk down the street without some nervously smiling chap approaching me and asking, with scrupulous politeness, if I can point them in the direction of Leysestershire Square. Bloody cheek. Personally, I always recommend that they jump on the number 38 bus and get off when the driver shouts “Dalston!”. After all, they’re not going to experience the authentic London in W1 are they? Likewise these so-called foreign “stars” who populate much of the Premiership. They swan around in their (German or Italian) cars, kick the odd ball around, moan at the ref, fall over a lot, and at the end of the week they strut back to their penthouses with a fat cheque in their back pockets and a smug continental grin on their faces.
OK, a bit of licence there, but there has been plenty written over the last few years about the proliferation of non-English players in our Leagues (indeed, the growth of foreign imports into the lower Leagues strikes me as having a far more dangerous and insidious effect on the national game than the imports into the Premiership). Now and again, however, a player appears on the scene that reminds us all of what is meant by the term “star”. Gianfranco Zola is such a man. Let’s not dwell on the fact that he looks like an extra from amongst the monks in “The Name of the Rose”: the man is a footballing genius who has provided Chelsea fans with moments of unalloyed ecstasy in the 7 years he has been in the country, and who has infuriated and awed opposing teams and fans in equal measure.
Gianfranco was born in Oliena in Sardinia in July 1966, only a matter of weeks before Geoff Hurst scored the first ever hat-trick in a World Cup final. His career has taken him to Nourese, then Torres, but as far as the casual fan is concerned it began in earnest in 1989 when he joined Napoli to understudy a certain Diego Armando Maradona. After taking the number 10 jersey from the legendary Argentinian he became more of a star in his own right, and began to be known for his fearless running at defences and, of course, his lethal dead ball kicks.
Chelsea bought Gianfranco from Parma midway through the 1996-7 season, and I was privileged to see him for the first time in a 6-2 demolition of Sunderland at the Bridge, in which he scored the opening goal and created one for Frank Sinclair (of all people!). And that was just in the first half. In those days, Chelsea played the “sexy”, intricate, and arguably ineffective football of Ruud Gullit, all dinked passes and flicks. Whilst it may have done the team little good, it allowed a maestro like Zola to manipulate and conduct the game. I might be alone in this, but I was reminded of the evil Salieri in Shaffer’s “Amadeus”, quietly smiling as he destroys the will and self-belief of the hapless Mozart with his machinations. At his best, Zola is like this. One can only stand, and stare, and perhaps spare a thought for the opposing back line as their good sense deserts them and the advice of the defensive coach goes out of the window. It brings to mind another early Zola aopearance, this time against Manchester United, in which Dennis Irwin and at least one other United defender was left sprawling in his wake as he slipped casually into the area and beat Schmeichel at his near post. I don’t recall myself, but a well-respected newspaper’s website reliably informs me that Alex Ferguson was moved to describe him as a “clever little bugger” at full-time. High praise indeed.
So yes, an undisputed master of close ball control, and an equally fine striker of the free kick (as Barcelona fans will testify following their 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge in the Champions’ League in 2000). But there are plenty of talented players in the Premiership, and very few of them have achieved the iconic status of the diminutive Sardinian. The love that the Chelsea faithful have for our greatest-ever player (as voted for on the club site this season) has as much to do with his attitude as it does with his silky touch. The phrase “ambassador for the game” is a creaking, overloaded old cliché, groaning under the weight of years of portentous overstatement, but in this case it’s well-deserved. It’s hard to pin down specifics (after all, sportsmanship is an overarching gift, not something that should be typified by certain moments) but I can recall a game against Bolton in the 2002 season in which he was substituted. Before leaving the pitch, he jogged over to the defender who had been marking him all game and shook his hand. With Zola, the idea that the sentiment isn’t genuine never crosses your mind.
But what is Zola’s real importance to Chelsea Football Club? After all, CFC have been seen, in recent years, as perennial underachievers in the Premiership. Perhaps the same commentators and pundits forget about the wilderness years, prior to 1997, when our squad consisted of rather less glamorous signings? Zola arrived at a time when we were undergoing a renaissance: the arrival of Gullit as a player under Hoddle’s management was the beginning of this process. On paper, Gianluca Vialli was a more prestigious buy with his European and World Player of the Year credentials and brimming medals drawer. But for all of Vialli’s sublime skill and authority in the box, he never quite seduced the fans in quite the same way as his compatriot (which isn’t to say that the former Juventus man was unloved: his legacy to Ranieri as manager consisted of several thousand fans chanting their disapproval of the new man on a weekly basis). Luca is a charming fellow and still much loved at Stamford Bridge, but the odd managerial blunder and indifferent performance has tainted his stock. I can honestly say that I have never seen Franco give less than one hundred percent for his team: his hunger for the ball and desire to play to the best of his ability is an incredibly powerful quality, and one that we see on display every week of the season. And he’s made a difference when it counts.
A year or so ago, Scott Murray of Guardian Unlimited wrote a small homage piece to the great man, in honour of his law-of-physics-defying heel kick goal in a cup tie against Norwich. For those that may have forgotten, Graeme Le Saux played a shortish corner from the right which was met at the near post in a sort of mid-air flick-cum-backheel. The ball went in. Eyes rolled. Jaws dropped. After a second, even the Norwich players applauded the enormity of what had just happened. Many pundits went on to say that only Zola would have tried, let alone succeeded with, a shot like that. As important games go, it was a long way down the list, but for sheer impudent brilliance it left precious little to be desired (I’ve thought long and hard about it, and decided that he could possibly have bettered it by doing it with his eyes shut).
In the autumn of his footballing career he still seems determined to keep pushing himself, both as a player on the pitch and as an example off it. Chelsea’s centre-back John Terry cites Zola as one of his primary influences off the pitch, particularly in the wake of the well-publicised Terry court case last year. It’s not just about tricks and flicks, but about demonstrating professionalism and setting an example. Not being welcome at Zola Towers, I don’t get to witness this side of his personality, but as a fan it gives me a nice warm feeling inside to know that we have such a consummate gentleman and role model at the club. And for young strikers hoping to follow Owen and Rooney into the England camp, they could do a lot worse than keep an eye on the way Franco plays the game.
I think most Chelsea fans would agree that we’ve been privileged to have such a man play for our team for so long. We’re all aware that he wants his children to grow up as Italians, and we respect that. But if we have seen the last of Franco in the Premiership, you’ll forgive me for harbouring a rather romantic image of him coming back in a few years to coach us to the title. For a man who’s never been in the news for the wrong reasons, that would be a hell of a story. Thanks for the memories, Gianfranco.