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Sep 25, 2009

Gianfranco Zola: Sardinian superstar

One of the most popular figures ever to have graced the Premier League, Gianfranco Zola was a magician with the ball at his feet, able to conjure moments of artistry that captured the imagination of English football fans during his seven years at Chelsea.

Adored by the Stamford Bridge faithful, the diminutive Italian also commanded admiration from opposition supporters, who were often left agog by his ability to tiptoe through their defences and charmed by his insistence on playing the game with a smile upon his face.

Born in Sardinia in 1966, Zola began his professional football career playing in Serie C2 with local clubs U.S.D. Nuorese and Sassari Torres and was relatively old, at 23, when he got his big break at Napoli, who had just finished second in Serie A.

Ironically for one of the most loved players in Premier League history, Zola honed his skills at Napoli as understudy to Diego Maradona, a villainous figure in England since his "Hand of God" at the 1986 World Cup. But Maradona had a profound impact on Zola, as the Italian later revealed when he told how the pair would stay late after training trying free-kicks and playing small games.

The practice paid off for Zola, who would become renowned as one of the finest set-piece specialists of his generation, boasting a catalogue of dead-ball brilliance and holding the Serie A record for free-kick goals until Sinisa Milhailjovic took the title off him in 2006.

At Napoli, Zola won the Scudetto in his first season and the Supercoppa in his second, as well as making his debut for the national side under Arrigo Sacchi. The striker has often admitted the biggest disappointment of his career was a failure to re-create his sparkling club form at international level, though he still managed ten goals in 35 appearances for the Azzurri.

After moving to Parma where he achieved UEFA Cup success, he took the brave decision to move to England where, at the time, few Italian players (bar Nottingham Forest's ill-fated Andrea Silenzi) had dared venture.

Zola arrived at a Chelsea at a revolutionary time for the club. Ruud Gullit had been brought in as manager and attracted big name players of the pedigree of Zola and compatriot Gianluca Vialli to join his new project. With an FA Cup win in 1997 and a then-highest Premier League finish of sixth, Chelsea were growing in stature and Zola was turning heads across the country as a series of scintillating displays helped earn him the Football Writers' Player of the Year Award.

The following season would prove one of Chelsea's most successful, despite Gullit being replaced by Vialli as manager halfway through the season. Zola continued to shine with his guile and ability to unlock defences helping the Blues to a fourth place league finish and a League Cup triumph. But his finest hour would come in the penultimate Cup Winners' Cup final in 1998.

Zola was on the subs' bench for the game against VfB Stuttgart in Stockholm, left out by boss Vialli because of a groin strain. But after 71 minutes, he was introduced and took just 20 seconds to make an emphatic contribution, racing onto Dennis Wise's through-ball before unleashing a fierce right foot effort into the roof of the net. The goal proved to be the winner and Chelsea celebrated a first European triumph in 27 years.

The Cup Winners' Cup goal was undoubtedly Zola's most important strike but trawling through footage of the Italian's greatest finishes produces so many regular cries of "wow" and "how did he do that?" that picking out his best is an unenviable task when there are so many contenders.

Perhaps the delicious lob against Everton, lifting the ball effortlessly over keeper Richard Wright with the outside of his right foot? Maybe the jinking run and slotted finish against Manchester United which left the United defence and Peter Schmeichel rooted to the spot? What about the powerful 30-yard half volley against Sunderland? Or the perfectly executed left foot curler against Liverpool?

All can boast the stamp of Zola's genius. But the goal that perfectly defined the imagination and mastery of the Italian was his audacious finish against Norwich City in the 2002 FA Cup - a goal described by then-manager Claudio Ranieri as "magic, fantasy". Meeting Graeme Le Saux's corner with a diagonal run towards the front post, Zola produced a majestic mid-air back-heel past stunned Canaries keeper Robert Green.

An emotional Zola later dedicated the goal to a boy he had visited in hospital a few weeks earlier. The Italian had promised him he would do something special for him but the boy died of a brain tumour before he managed to. "I was touched by the smile he gave me," the striker said. "He was in agony and I hope he will see the goal from wherever he is."

The Italian continued to dazzle spectators until he took the decision in 2003 to return to his native Sardinia and end his career with Cagliari. In what was a cruel twist of fate, Chelsea enjoyed the most successful spell in their history after Zola departed and Roman Abramovich arrived, but the striker was voted the Blues' greatest ever player in a 2003 supporters' poll.

Playing in Serie B, he scored 13 goals to help lift the Rossoblu back into the top flight before announcing his retirement after one final season in Serie A. Zola resisted overtures from a host of teams offering lucrative deals to play in the Middle East and also a rumoured bumper pay-packet from Abramovich, who saw a potential return for the Italian as the perfect way to win the hearts and minds of Chelsea fans sceptical about his takeover.

Zola always believed he would remain in football and after a successful spell as assistant to former team-mate Pierluigi Casiraghi with Italy's Under-21s, he was given his break in management by West Ham in September 2008. Just over a year into the job and Zola appears to have stabilised the club, guiding them to a ninth place finish last season. But with a slow start to the new campaign, the jury is still out as to just how successful the Italian will be as a manager.

A true gentleman of the Premier League era, Gianfranco Zola was a glittering performer and a special talent, who can certainly stake a claim to being one of the most universally respected and loved players ever to appear in the English game.

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