Gianfranco Zola OBE

Full name: Gianfranco Zola
Date of birth: 05/07/1966

Gianfranco Zola was a popular figure in English football, liked and admired by Chelsea fans as well as fans of many other clubs. It was his inimitable style and flair but down to earth, publicity shy character which endeared him so much to English fans. Despite being only 5 foot 6, his brilliant technique combined with an astonishing repertoire of tricks paved the way to footballing stardom for him. He enjoyed several seasons at the top level in Italian football before a switch to join Ruud Gullit’s revolution at Chelsea in 1996.

Early Career

Zola was born in Oliena, Sardinia on July 5, 1966 and his first professional team was Nuorese. In his early career he also featured for Torres, later moving to Napoli in 1989 where he would become understudy to Diego Maradona. Later he became Napoli’s first-choice striker as Maradona tested positive for drugs, ruining his Napoli career.

In 1991 Zola helped Napoli to the European Super Cup and was also called up to the Italy squad under Arrigo Sacchi. Two years later it was time for Zola to move on again and he was signed by Parma where he would partner another South American, Columbia’s Faustino Asprilla. Joining Parma proved a fruitful experience for Zola, winning the UEFA cup and finishing runners-up in Serie A and the Italian Cup. Unfortunately (for Parma or Zola depending on how you look at it) he could never fit into the managers plans and was made available for transfer.

English Football

In 1996, Ruud Gullit was manager of Chelsea and was building a continental revolution at Stamford Bridge. He was informed of the news that Gianfranco Zola had been transfer listed and had no hesitation in snapping him up in a £4.5 million move. Zola had a very successful spell with Chelsea, winning several cups and aiding their resurgence as a force in English football. At the end of his first season in the Premier League, Zola was voted the Football Writers Player of the Year, making him not only the first Chelsea player to win the accolade, but also the only player to win it without playing a full season. In the 1997-98 season, Chelsea won a cup treble of the League Cup, Cup Winners Cup and the Super Cup, owing much of this success to the displays put in by Zola.

The 1999-00 season saw Zola become an instrumental figure in Chelsea’s Champion’s League campaign, scoring three goals. In this season Chelsea also won the F.A. Cup with Zola setting up fellow Italian Roberto Di Matteo for the winner in the final against Aston Villa. As time progressed, Zola found his first team chances limited by the arrival of new players, particularly Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen. He did, however, have a brief revival under Carlo Ranieri in the 2002-2003 season, scoring 16 goals and helping Chelsea qualify for the Champions League, he was also voted Player of the Year by Chelsea fans in this year. His services to English football also earned him an Honorary OBE in 2004.

In 2003 though, change was the word at Chelsea. Zola agreed a move back to Italy with Sardinian club Cagliari and Roman Abramovich completed a takeover of Chelsea. Zola subsequently led Cagliari to promotion from Serie B and stayed with them for his final year in football. He retired from playing in June 2005 and has since become a coach for the Italian Under-21 side alongside another former Chelsea player, Pierluigi Casiraghi.

The future still looks rosy for Zola, his side are performing well with some of Europe’s best youngsters in among the fray. Zola was nearly tempted back into English football by Roman Abramovich, who wanted the Chelsea hero to join Avram Grant’s coaching staff. According to The Observer, Zola turned this opportunity down after consultation with ex-team mates who warned him not to involve himself with the unpopular owner.

International Football

Zola represented Italy 35 times, scoring 9 goals. He made his debut in November 1991 against Norway. He played for the Azzurri at USA ’94, making one appearance and getting sent off. He also represented them at Euro ’96 in England, missing a penalty against Germany as Italy went out in the first round. Considering his long career in football, it is surprising that Zola made only 35 appearances for his country.

Footballing Honours

Zola has an impressive collection of silverware from his time as a footballer. These include Serie A with Napoli; a UEFA Cup with Parma and two F.A Cups, one charity shield, a League cup, a Cup-Winners Cup and a Super Cup with Chelsea.

His personal honours include being awarded an OBE in 2004 as well as being named Chelsea’s greatest ever player and being named in the Chelsea Centenary XI. He was also inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

Zola has an impressive tally of 627 games played for all teams, with 193 goals scored. No matter what Zola goes on to do in the future, he will always have the staunch support of Chelsea fans who were around to see him play and loved him for his passion and dedication to the Chelsea cause.

Individual Honours

  • Inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame: 2006
  • Awarded an OBE: 2004
  • Voted Chelsea’s Best Ever Player
  • Named in Chelsea’s centenary XI

They said

Gianfranco tries everything because he is a wizard and the wizard must try. – Claudio Ranieri after Zola’s back-heeled volley against Norwich.

Player Statistics

Senior Club and National Team Statistics
Period Team Appearances (Goals)
1984-1987 Nuorese 31 (10)
1987-1989 Torres 88 (21)
1989-1993 Napoli 105 (32)
1993-1996 Parma 102 (49)
1996-2003 Chelsea 249 (89)
2003-2005 Cagliari 44 (21)
1991-1997 Italy 35 (10)