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An Italian magician was brought to the Premier League by Chelsea in November 1996, giving fans across the world a wonderful appetite for sheer craft, skill, imagination and wizardry.
Gianfranco Zola was brought to Chelsea from Parma in a £4.5million deal in November 1996 by their Dutch manager, Ruud Gullit. Learning his trade at Napoli from the one and only Diego Maradona, Zola made an impression on the Napoli title winning side of 1990 -chipping in with two goals during the season. Youth and talent were in abundance for Zola as he began to learn from Maradona and copy the same vigour and style the Argentinian used in his free-kicks and dribbling. In 1991 he was part of the Super Cup winning side and gained his first International cap, against Norway, in November 1991. Zola was beginning to show the promise and creativity he had always been gifted with, scoring 32 goals in 105 appearances for Napoli.
Zola moved to Parma in 1993 – a move which saw him firmly adopt his creative and flowing style and bring him to the forefront of Italian football. During this time, Zola won the UEFA Cup and also was a runner up in the Serie A title race, weighing in with 49 goals in 102 appearances during his time at the club. However it was inevitable that Zola was going to move on as Carlo Ancelotti could not find a place in his side for Zola – as he would often play behind the strikers, without a defined position. This led to Zola being a luxury that Parma could not afford which resulted in Chelsea bringing the clever little Italian to the English Premier League.
In 1996, Chelsea made the move for the transfer-listed Zola, paying a fee of £4.5million. Ruud Gullit acted quickly in signing Zola to team him up with fellow Italians Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo. This move would see Chelsea play their football in a way which was not seen before in the Premier League. The influx of foreign greats such as Zola altered the way football was seen as much more flair was brought into the league.
Zola made his full debut at Ewood Park in a 1-1 draw against Blackburn and opened his account with the club at Stamford Bridge in a 2-2 draw against Everton. Chelsea fans could see Zola had the potential to become a legend with the club – and indeed the Premier League. His style and performances were easy on the eye and his deftness of touch was incredible to watch as he created and scored with ease in games which lit up matches, bringing a spark to them not previously seen.
Zola’s first of many memorable moments in his Premier League career involved sheer brilliance against Manchester United in a 1-1 draw on February 22, 1997. The Italian took on numerous Reds’ defenders, twisting and turning using trickery, talent and touch before slotting the ball beyond Peter Schmeichel. The game was a ferocious, fast paced affair – a typical Chelsea and Manchester United game – however Alex Ferguson recognised Zola during the match, claiming afterwards he was a “clever little so- and- so”.
The Premier League was becoming increasingly competitive and Zola was beginning to stamp his authority in one of the most exciting leagues in the world. Zola starred in Chelsea’s FA Cup winning team with a 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough, contributing with 4 goals during the entire cup run. Perhaps the most special goal and game came against Liverpool in the fourth round. With Chelsea 2-0 down, Mark Hughes hit back before Zola showcased his class to the Chelsea faithful with a beautiful 30 yard curling shot beyond the helpless David James – the equaliser in a game which Chelsea eventually won 4-2 (2:15 in the following clip) . The Premier League knew what had hit them – a craftsman able to shape the ball and score the perfect goal in any situation.
The 1997/98 season proved to be one of Chelsea’s – and Zola’s – most successful, with the club winning the League Cup, the Cup Winners Cup and finally the European Super Cup. Gianfranco Zola was an integral part in all of these wins, especially in the Cup Winners Cup – coming on as a substitute to fire the winner against VFB Stuttgart and ensure his name was well and truly written in the history books. The little wizard’s attacking prowess was once again at the forefront of Chelsea, as they smashed six goals three times during the Premier League campaign, with Zola providing the technical ability to start, create and finish off wonderful flowing moves.
Chelsea also benefited from Zola’s experience in the Champions League as his quality shone through with three goals during the campaign, including a trademark free-kick against Barcelona. As Zola continued to play, Chelsea brought in more strikers and in his later years at the club he was used more sparingly to accommodate for the likes of Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen. However his golden moment in a Chelsea shirt and an incident which typified Zola’s career was his fabulous, instinctive back heel against Norwich in 2003. Zola, on the run, back-heeled the ball beautifully into the back of the net.
The crafty forward dedicated the goal to a young Chelsea fan suffering from illness, showing his off-field class and dignity to people of the club and English football in general. During this season Zola scored his highest-ever goals tally – sixteen – an incredible achievement as he faced stiff competition from some of the world’s best strikers. This season turned out to be Zola’s last, fittingly winning the player of the year award at Chelsea – but not before this final piece of magic against Liverpool.
In 2003, Gianfranco Zola returned to his native Italy and his home of Sardinia and signed for Cagliari. New Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich attempted to incredibly persuade Zola to stay at Chelsea and continue his legacy – however Zola declined and continued his success by helping Cagliari win promotion to Serie A. The li