Zola: Age no barrier to success
"It was not an easy decision but I felt a growing desire to dedicate myself to those things that I have neglected over these many years."
With those words, professional football lost one of its great entertainers as Gianfranco Zola hung up his boots in 2005, just a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday. Described as a "magician", a "wizard" and a "genius" at various stages of his glittering career, Zola wowed Serie A and Premier League fans alike with his mesmerising skills and penchant for panache.
For six years, Stamford Bridge provided the stage for him to deliver some of his most memorable performances and the flamboyant Italian was unreservedly idolised by Chelsea's supporters. Last June, those adoring fans had a chance to reminisce as 'Franco' donned the blue kit again, alongside other illustrious names from the late 90s vintage, including Roberto Di Matteo, Gus Poyet and Frank Leboeuf, at the 2011 Barbados British Airways Football Legends Invitational Tournament.
Unsurprisingly, Zola starred among a host of former Premier League legends, and was named Player of the Tournament for his efforts. This year, he is back for the second edition for the competition, and is hoping he can dazzle the crowds once again in the Caribbean sunshine.
"It's a great feeling to wear the Chelsea shirt again and it is great to still be representing the club somehow as it's a club I care about," Zola tells ESPNsoccernet. "We all had such a wonderful time playing together during our careers and it was great to recreate that in Barbados last year. I can't wait to do it again. It was a really nice surprise to see that the people over there are so well informed about the Premier League and they were really excited for us to play there."
Zola's football ability has certainly shown no signs of diminishing since he called time on his playing career, and during his reign as West Ham manager the Italian was described by defender Jack Collinson as "probably the best player that we've got". But while Zola admits he did contemplate a return shortly after he retired, he insists he has never really been tempted to 'do a Paul Scholes' and go back on that decision.
"Paul Scholes has shown that his return to playing was a good idea, but there are four or five years between me and Paul Scholes! There was a moment a couple months after I retired when I questioned whether I had made the right choice and whether I should go back into it. It's a difficult decision to make as a footballer but I think that once you make the choice you have to stick to it and I think it was the right one in the end."
Zola has watched on uncomfortably this season as his former Chelsea stomping ground has become a quagmire of uncertainty, with poor displays on the pitch and reports of dressing-room unrest off it resulting in the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas last Sunday. The Portuguese was admired for his attempt to shake up the established order, with Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard playing a lesser role than in previous seasons, but was ultimately undone by a win percentage that ranks among the worst of any manager in the Blues' recent history.
Ironically for a club dogged by rumours of player power, it is former Chelsea midfielder Roberto Di Matteo who has stepped into the breach as caretaker manager until the end of the season, but whether he will emerge as Villas-Boas' permanent successor remains to be seen. Whoever does take the job on in the long-term will no doubt have to deal with the same questions about the backstage influence of the likes of Drogba, Lampard and John Terry. For now, though, Zola - who played with the two Englishmen during his time at Chelsea - believes that the veterans are worthy of places in the first-team and has been surprised that their on-pitch impact has been doubted this season.
"I was fortunate because I retired at 39, not because I was forced to but because I wanted to. I think even when you are at their age, you still have plenty to give - age is not important it is about whether you can still make a positive contribution. You need to work harder and be willing to adapt.
"They are important players, they have always been important players, they are still so. It is not correct that they have been blamed for things not going well, they are players who have given so much to the club and should be respected."
Terry, Lampard and Drogba were all given the nod by Di Matteo in his first Premier League game in charge - last Saturday's 1-0 win against Stoke - and Zola feels his compatriot, a former team-mate at both club and international level, is capable of leading the Blues beyond the end of his short-term deal which expires at the end of the season.
"I keep in touch with Roberto and I believe it is a big challenge for him but it is an opportunity that could give him a lot of success. I'm sure he knows that and he will give it his best shot because not only is he a good manager but he is a Chelsea man and will want to do well with the club. Roberto is a quiet person but at the same time is very stubborn and determined and I'm sure his determination will be a good thing.
"It is always very difficult to see a club you love go through a difficult time. When you are in charge you want to at least finish the season and judge from there, but the club has got its own ideas and its own targets that you have to respect and expect. The important thing now is that Roberto has this opportunity and that he does it well, for him and for the club."
As a Stamford Bridge icon, who netted 80 goals in 302 games for Chelsea, Zola has been among those tipped as an outside bet for the manager's job. When asked whether he would ever be tempted, though, the diminutive Italian simply shakes his head and insists that he is not a proponent of self-promotion. With his friend Di Matteo currently in the hotseat, Zola certainly shows no signs of embracing the cut-throat nature of football management and abandoning the gentlemanly reputation that made him one of the most widely-respected players of the Premier League era.
Gianfranco Zola will be one of a host of former Premier League stars turning out at the 2012 Barbados British Airways Football Legends Invitational from May 26-27.