- Gianfranco Zola (Chelsea)
There are few Premier League imports who have had a greater impact than Gianfranco Zola. Zola joined Chelsea in November 1996 for the sum of £4.5million from Parma, and was one of several Italian players who were signed by the then Chelsea manager, Ruud Gullit. His departure from the Gialloblu owed much to Carlo Ancelotti’s insistence in playing Zola in a left-wing position, much preferring Enrico Chiesa and Hernan Crespo in the striking roles in his 4-4-2 system.
Despite joining several months into the season, Zola was a revelation at Chelsea and he rounded off his first season in English football by being voted Football Writers’ Player of the Year, having scored 12 goals in 30 appearances. At the current time, he remains the only Italian to have won the award. He helped Chelsea to win the FA Cup during his first season, as they beat Middlesbrough 2-0 at Wembley, with Roberto Di Matteo scoring Chelsea’s first goal after a mere 42 seconds.
The following season was to prove even more successful for Chelsea and Zola, as the Blues enjoyed a trophy-laden season; winning the English League Cup, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and the Community Shield. Zola made 41 appearances that season, scoring 12 goals, with the most crucial coming in the 72nd minute of Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Stuttgart in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final when, despite being injured, Zola scored one minute after coming on as a substitute for Tore Andre Flo.
In subsequent seasons, Zola was virtually an ever present for the Blues, as Zola helped them to further success in the FA Cup in 2000, with a 1-0 victory over Aston Villa, as his free-kick set up Di Matteo for the winning goal. As time progressed however, and under the rotational policy used by his former Napoli coach, Claudio Ranieri, Zola found himself limited to an increased number of substitute appearances. He was however, still a key contributor to the Chelsea team, although more in the creative sense than on the goal-scoring front. Zola’s most productive season was however, ironically, his last in the Premier League, as he scored 16 goals in 46 appearances for the Blues in 2002-2003.
During his time in England, Zola scored some memorable goals. None more so than his back-heeled mid-air flicked finish against Norwich in a replay in the third round of the FA Cup in January 2002. The technique and timing of the goal were typical of Zola. The little Sardinian’s free-kick taking was exemplary, and he is regarded by many as one of the best dead-ball specialists to grace the Premier League. These skills were honed during the early days of his career at Napoli, where he played pupil to Diego Maradona’s master, with the pair spending several hours a day after training practising free-kicks. In his autobiography, Maradona describes Zola as “… my successor at Napoli. He paid really close attention to the things I did during training sessions…”.
In total, Zola made 312 appearances in all competitions for Chelsea between November 1996 and July 2003, scoring 80 goals, before he returned to his native Sardinia to play for Cagliari. He is fondly remembered by Chelsea fans of all ages, and was voted the Club’s greatest ever player by their fans in 2003. His reach stretched far beyond Chelsea however, and his technical ability and outstanding skill level, coupled with his unassuming personality and seemingly ever-smiling face, earned him a popularity amongst all fans in the English game which is up there with many of the greats to have played in England.