When Gianfranco Zola arrived in England he had the hopes of a nation resting on his shoulders. The previous – and only – Italian to play in the Premier League was Nottingham Forest’s unfortunate Andrea Silenzi, a lumbering injury-prone centre forward with a first touch like a harpoon and the acceleration of a slug in treacle.
It was up to Zola, a diminutive forward signed from Parma, to restore his nation’s reputation. Within 12 months he was named Football Writers’ Player of the Year and would later add an Order of the British Empire (OBE) to a stack of trophies he piled up during his time at Stamford Bridge.
The Italian was known as “Magic Box”. Here are three moments from his debut season in England when Zola was at his most mercurial.
West Ham 1996/97
This was a December clash between two London rivals who were both undergoing exotic evolutions.
West Ham’s Harry Redknapp had entered the European transfer market with the giddy excitement of a teenager on his first booze cruise to Calais – with calamitous results. Paulo Futre’s free transfer from AC Milan was ruined by injury after the medical equipment at Upton Park – presumably the latest in Fisher Price technology – failed to spot both of his knees were missing. Meanwhile, Florin Raducioiu’s love of retail meant he missed the midweek League Cup exit at Stockport in favour of an alleged trip to Harvey Nicholls. His days in East London were, unsurprisingly, numbered.
Across the city, Ruud Gullit’s arrival (following Glenn Hoddle’s appointment as England manager) had heralded a new dawn in West London. The summer business had been both brisk and expensive. Franck Lebouef – a cultured central defender whose passing was just as smooth as his scalp – signed from Strasbourg, whilst the intelligence and energy of Roberto Di Matteo bolstered the midfield. Up front, the unmistakeably bald bonce of Gianluca Vialli brought further sex appeal to a squad that was spending big on wages, whilst at least saving a few quid on shampoo.
The latest piece in the jigsaw was Zola, a £4.5m purchase from Parma where he’d fallen out of favour with Carlo Ancelotti. There were question marks about the fee given Zola’s poor form in his final year, and also the disastrous debut months of his fellow countryman Silenzi. In fairness to the latter, this was long before the days when Player Liaison Officers were at footballers’ beck and call. The big Italian had arrived from Turin, been given an A-Z and a VHS of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, before being left to fend for himself.
A London Derby against Julian Dicks felt like the litmus test for Zola’s compatibility with the English game. It’s a test the Chelsea forward passed with flying colours. He lurches from right to left, then right again – like an indecisive voter in a swing state – before nutmegging the West Ham left-back and burying a shot in the bottom corner.
Looking back, the goal felt like a seminal moment in English football, whose forwards had traditionally feasted on a healthy diet of crosses from the flanks. Zola wasn’t the sort of player who fitted naturally into that ecosystem. There had always been a suspicion that continental players of his ilk “don’t like it up ‘em, Mr Mainwaring”.
It took a matter of weeks for that to be proven hopelessly wrong.
Manchester United, 1997
By February 1997, three months into his tenure in English football, Zola was already a household name on these shores. He’d taken the Premier League by storm, winning the Player of the Month for December and a Super Sunday fixture against the reigning champions was another opportunity to showcase his spectacular skillset.
The start of the move was fairly innocuous. Dan Petrescu played a ball inside Denis Irwin that put the Irishman in a duel with Zola. Irwin was the top flight’s Mr Reliable. In a team full of superstars, he was still one of the first names on the teamsheet. He left the glitz and the glamour to the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole. He wasn’t interested in the photo shoots and the film premieres; he was the sort of man whose luxury item on Desert Island Discs would be a cordless drill.
But the Irish full-back was consistently good at his job. One of the absolute best in the business. Trying to beat Irwin one-on-one was like teaching a salmon to roller skate. Unless your name was Gianfranco Zola.
As the Chelsea man scampered down the outside, Irwin did what he’d done his whole career. He may not have been the fastest, but his positional sense was exemplary. As Zola prepared to cross the ball into the danger area, the Irishman stretched out that reliable right boot to deflect the ball for a corner as he’d done thousands of times before. Except Zola didn’t cross it. Instead, showing the same unpredictable change of direction as a wasp in a room full of jam jars, he jinked inside whilst Irwin slid halfway to Battersea Power Station.
Next up was Gary Pallister. Poor Gary Pallister. The closest he’d ever been to a little Italian was when he bumped into Frankie Dettori at Aintree. And he fared no better here. Perhaps it’s the shock of seeing Irwin shamed so publicly, but the United centre-half seemed to momentarily lose all motor function. A quick toe-step from Zola left him for dust and then Peter Schmeichel is leaden-footed as Zola slipped the ball into the near corner.
After the game United manager Alex Ferguson, normally about as elusive with praise of his opponents as BA Baracus was of air travel, described Zola as a “clever little so and so” – delivered through the same sort of gritted teeth as Skeletor praising He-Man for his bench press.
Two months later Ruud Gullit’s side were paired with Wimbledon in the FA Cup semi-final. It’s a match-up dubbed as “Beauty and the Beast”, with plenty of pre-match focus on how the Dons’ robust rearguard might look to shackle Chelsea’s chief creative force.
There were suspicions that Zola might spend the majority of the showpiece being shepherded to and from Row Z. Even for Wimbledon, a team that had made history of upsetting the odds, that seemed a little ambitious. To tackle Zola you had to get within touching distance first, a task that had proved too difficult for some of the game’s most destructive talents. After all, Zola had spent his early years at Napoli evading the likes of Franco Baresi and Billy Costacurta, so he probably had reason to fancy his chances against Alan Kimble and Dean Blackwell.
With Chelsea holding onto a one-goal lead, Zola took centre stage. Di Matteo played a clever ball that put his countryman on a collision course with Blackwell. A drag back took the Wimbledon man out of the equation and a precise finish past Neil Sullivan booked the Blues’ ticket for the Final.
It was another sublime moment of skill from the ever-smiling Italian, whose energy and extraordinary talent could not be denied.
Written by Sid Lambert