Chelsea's Gianfranco Zola working to develop players -- and himself
LONDON -- It has become a familiar pre-match sight at Stamford Bridge this season: Maurizio Sarri standing on the touchline with legs apart, arms crossed and eyes trained on his Chelsea players as they are led through a series of one- and two-touch ball exercises by a smiling Gianfranco Zola.
Watch until the end and you will see Chelsea's assistant coach every bit as in demand for autographs and selfies from supporters lining the tunnel entrance as Eden Hazard or David Luiz. True to his reputation Zola always obliges, humbled by the esteem in which he is still held some 15 years after his departure.
Zola's return to Chelsea was a long time in the making. He left Stamford Bridge just as Roman Abramovich arrived in that pivotal summer of 2003, but the two men kept in contact, their mutual respect forged by the Russian's flattering -- and ultimately failed -- attempt to change his mind about joining Cagliari on a free transfer.
During the time he was gone Zola politely turned down further offers from Abramovich to come back in a non-playing capacity, instead watching from afar as the Russian's wealth bankrolled Chelsea's golden era. The No.25 he wore was never re-assigned or retired, but simply set aside as if awaiting his return.
Now he is reminded of the club's transformation every morning when he arrives at Cobham, the sprawling Surrey training campus with 38 pitches that remains as impressive now as when it opened in 2007.
"Nothing remains the same, and that's luckily so," Zola said. "I think the club from 2003 [when I left] has evolved a lot and won a lot. I am pleased for that. Hopefully, I am here with Maurizio to help the club develop even more. I think there are big margins [for improvement] and we are looking forward to make it develop even more."
It should not be a surprise that Zola waited so long to come back. He had his own coaching aspirations, and as recently as 2008 was vocal about his desire to one day manage Chelsea under Abramovich, though he admitted that he first needed to prove himself worthy of the post.
Mixed spells in charge of West Ham and Watford fell short of establishing such elite credentials, and in the three jobs that followed -- Cagliari, Al-Arabi and Birmingham City -- Zola failed so unequivocally that he did not dare to envision a scenario in which Abramovich might come calling again.
"When this opportunity came to me, I was very surprised," he admitted. "Considering my previous job with Birmingham, it was very painful for me. I could not believe it. This is a blessing. This is why I am throwing everything I have got to make the best of this experience for Maurizio and the club."
Many have suggested that Zola is too nice to succeed in management. Regardless of whether or not that is true, his irrepressible likeability makes him a natural fit to be an assistant, cultivating closer relationships with players.
He is already a popular figure in the dressing room; TV cameras captured Antonio Rudiger lifting him off the ground in a friendly embrace as Chelsea celebrated their 2-0 home win over Bournemouth earlier this month.
It also feels significant that after the rise and fall at Chelsea of Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, two intense authoritarians, Zola decided to return now and align himself with Sarri, an ideologue he spoke to no more than a few times in Italy but whom he knew shared his desire for football to be fun.
"I knew he was good but I didn't expect him to be this good," Zola said, adding that he has been overwhelmed by the meticulous nature of Sarri's preparation. "What you see on the pitch is the result of the huge work he does behind the scenes, which he does and the whole team around him does.
"It is about paying attention to everything you do and presenting it to the players. The players most of the time when they go onto the pitch, they know everything they have to do. It becomes easier for them to play."
Zola played under a series of big names and big personalities in Italy and England -- Carlo Ancelotti, Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli, Claudio Ranieri -- but his career on the pitch gave him limited chances to work with tacticians as cerebral as Sarri. He is relishing the chance to make up for lost time.
"If you go back to the start of my story, I started like crazy to go in my first experience in the Premier League with West Ham," he said. "It went well but I think I missed a lot of things in my experience in management. I am catching up with this experience."
Sarri's adjustment to England, to the Premier League and to Chelsea has also been eased drastically by being able to call upon Zola's rich local knowledge of all three. The success of their partnership has been underlined by six wins from eight matches in all competitions, raising hopes that this season could yet yield greater rewards.
"I hope I am giving him good support," Zola said. "That's the meaning of me being here. He could do his job without me. I think I know the league, I know the players in the Premier League, I know the club. I can give him support.
"I can give my knowledge to him and that's what I am trying to do. I think it is working very well. I think he likes working with me as much as I like working with him. We are in a good way, and although the road is still long, we are going in the right direction."