Gianfranco Zola: The Ambassador
Gianfranco Zola has taken the sad decision to bring his career to an end. Football Italia takes a closer look at the Sardinian hero

It's hard to hear anything negative said about Gianfranco Zola. In fact it’s nigh on impossible to recall reading or hearing anything other than praise for the Sardinian star in the last 15 years or so. Zola has by now attained hero status, and after being presented with such prestigious awards as the OBE last November, and the annual Senatore Salvatore Mannironi prize just a month later for being the Sardinian citizen who's done the most to raise public opinion and esteem of the island, it's impossible to see how the little star can possibly be celebrated further.

His hero status is not just down to genius and skill on the pitch but rather for his combination of skill, professionalism, utmost humility and a determination to improve - even now at the ripe old age of 38. To trace the evolution of a hero, it's necessary to go back to the beginning.

Aged 18, Gianfranco took his first steps in professional football, for local team Nuorese. Previously he’d served his apprenticeship with Corrasi, the modest team of his small hometown Oliena. It wasn’t until 1989 and his move to Napoli, thanks to current Juventus and former Napoli director, Luciano Moggi, that the Italian public at large got to know Zola.

With Napoli he was lucky enough to play in a squad boasting South Americans such as Antonio Careca, Alemao and Daniel Fonseca, but more importantly, he was in the unique position to play substitute to the legendary Diego Armando Maradona. Whilst keeping himself a very respectable distance from all Maradona's personal intrigues, the young Zola made sure to glean as much as possible from the Argentine genius on the field. The training sessions where the two forwards stayed on to practise penalties, swapping feet so Maradona would have a go with his less favoured right foot, while Zola shot with his left, became legendary.

"I learnt everything from Diego," insists the diminutive Sardinian. "I used to spy on him every time he trained and learned how to curl a free-kick just like him. After one year I had completely changed. I saw him do things in training and in matches I had never even dreamed possible. He was simply the best I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been a good player if I had not played with him at that stage of my career but I do know I wouldn’t be the player I am now."

After winning the Scudetto in his first season in the top flight, Zola gained a personal career boost the following spring as Maradona left Naples, handing over the coveted No 10 shirt to his Sardinian successor. Zola did well in Naples, scoring 32 goals in his four seasons there, and was well respected by new Coach Claudio Ranieri and the local supporters.

Unfortunately, due to financial reasons, Napoli had to sell their mercurial attacker. His move to Parma started off well, but after a few seasons and with competition from Hristo Stoichkov, Enrico Chiesa and Hernan Crespo, Coach Carlo Ancelotti found little use for him in his natural position, and the Sardinian felt himself sinking into the shadows.

Zola made the decision to go to London and join Ruud Gullit’s revolution at Stamford Bridge, at a cost of £4.5m. There began seven happy seasons with the Blues, where Magic Box – as he became known - scored 80 goals, and was named Premier League Player of the Year in 1997 and Best Loved Chelsea Player Ever. Once again financial reasons, just before the intervention of Russian magnate Roman Abramovich, forced the champion to consider potential moves, but Zola knew exactly where he was going. At the age of 37 it was time to go home. Gianfranco became a man on a mission - to bring joy and enthusiasm to the whole of his home island. Something he had done at Chelsea for seven years.

"Zola was undoubtedly one of Chelsea’s greatest players ever," said former chairman Ken Bates. "He’s been a joy to watch and a great influence both on and off the field, particularly because of his great interest with young fans. We owe him a hell of a lot of thanks."

In many ways Zola epitomises the Sardinian character. Strong minded, bordering on the stubborn with a hardworking loyal streak, dignity, respect and an ingrained love of his island and fellow islanders, as well as a great belief in family values. These characteristics make him exemplary as the unofficial ambassador for Sardinia, particularly thanks to his position in the public eye giving him the ability to transmit such values through his words and, even more so, through his actions.

The move to Cagliari was a wise one. Apart from the desire to bring his career to an end at home, the decision to take a step down into Serie B, with the inevitable cut in wages, by a player still at the height of a tremendous career is uncommon. But it paid off. Thanks to their new captain, Cagliari streaked through Serie B, finishing second to Sicilian side Palermo and securing a return to the top flight after a four-year absence. The joy throughout the island was tangible, and lead man Zola had the satisfaction of helping make his and their dreams come true.

With more money in the bank, Chelsea did ask for a return of Magic Box to London. Zola, his wife Franca and their three children Andrea, Martina and Samuele, had all grown extremely fond of life in Britain and the British had certainly grown fond of Zola. When Zola left London, Ranieri said that the aspect he most missed about him was how rival fans would applaud when he stepped from the Blues’ coach at away matches. Napoli also made an offer to bring Zola back. The Rossoblu captain stuck to his guns, though, and after a few days of speculation, the announcement came that he was staying on to lead his team in the top flight.

Apart from his loyalty to Cagliari, Zola also wanted his children to experience growing up in Italy. The Blues’ fans, however, have proved just as loyal to their hero as he was to his island. Match after match a handful of Londoners would turn up at the Sant'Elia to follow Zola’s progress, and the Chelsea merchandising shops quickly saw the opening and copies of his No 10 Cagliari shirt were put on sale in London.

Now that he’s an OBE, Zola feels his ties to Britain are even firmer. His award was given for services to the British game, and he was described as an excellent ambassador for football and an ideal model for young fans, as well as the most enduring and popular foreign player in the history of Chelsea Football Club. The work he does for charity was also praised. Receiving the OBE left Zola almost speechless, but he did manage to say how honoured he was and how sorry he was to leave Britain.

At a time when it’s generally the bad boys who make the headlines, when stadium violence is once again a problem in Italy, and player behaviour leaves a lot to be desired, someone like Zola - with his wholesome, enthusiastic and sportsman’s attitude - is a breath of fresh air. Those Sardinian characteristics of his, particularly his integrity and belief in family values, have helped him along the way, and the knowledge that he has honesty on his side gives him the confidence to speak out when he thinks it right.

"My greatest satisfaction is off the pitch for the way people consider me and the respect they give me," insisted Zola. "Many people excel in games but when you have achieved that level of respect it is something special. Money can give you many things but respect cannot be bought. What I have achieved in the way people regard me, in my mind, is remarkable."

Zola will never be forgotten in Cagliari. In the hero stakes he's already up there alongside the Rombo di Tuono - Gigi Riva - who led the Rossoblu to their only championship title back in 1970. Riva has been declared an honorary Sardinian, and was celebrated with enormous banners displayed by the public at the friendly between Italy and Russia in February. Undoubtedly Zola – the Ambassador for Calcio – will be given a similar tribute now that his time has come.

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Pictures: Richiardi (Milan)
& Getty Images (UK)

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