The importance of being Zola

IT was a privilege recently to be at Stamford Bridge and in the space of a few days to see Gianfranco Zola at the height of his powers. Demonstrating, in the process, all sorts of morals and lessons for a game and a club so badly in need of them.

In the case of the Chelsea team because the appalling behaviour of several of its players, even if it didn't go as brutally far as that of the assault by Leeds United footballers and their cronies on a helpless victim outside a night club, in all conscience were bad enough. It may be remembered that on September 11, the day of the fearful assault on the towers of Manhattan, several Chelsea and one ex-Chelsea player disgraced themselves with their drunken behaviour in a bar of a hotel near Heathrow Airport.

The boozy cavortings of the Icelander Eidur Gudjohnsen, now such a star of the Chelsea attack, Jody Morris, perpetually in trouble it seems, John Terry and Frank Lampard were exacerbated by the fact that they severely offended a number of American tourists, already distraught by what had happened that day in New York.

Terry and Morris, however, never seem to learn. Early in the New Year, they were taken to court and charged with assault at the expense of a bouncer in a London night club. They were supposedly celebrating the birth of little Jody Morris' child.

You would never in a millennium find Gianfranco Zola behaving in this barbaric way. The little Sardinian is essentially a family man and when he relaxes, it is often to play the piano with real skill.

The first thing to be said about him and the example he provides, in a purely footballing sense, is that, aged 35, he shows absolutely no sign of coming to the end of his career. True, he has inevitably lost some of his pace, though he can still move at a pretty good lick.

Secondly, as his current Italian manager Claudio Ranier emphasised after Zola had scored his amazing goal against Norwich, he never ceases to work on his skills, often practising his insidious free kicks on the training ground long after his companions have left. Though the goal against Norwich was, as he admitted afterwards, the product of pure instinct rather than of constant practice. The Chelsea left sider, Graeme Le Saux, took an inswinging corner from the right. Timing his run to perfection, Zola arrived at the near post where, crossing his feet, he scored with the heel of his right foot!

Afterwards he modestly announced that it had to be his right foot as he could do little with his left. But that was forgetting the goal one saw him score at that same near post at that same end against Manchester United, a few seasons ago. Advancing from the right flank, Zola easily eluded the opposing full back, Dennis Irwin, was equally adept in dodging past the big centre back Gary Pallister then as the Danish 'keeper blond giant Peter Schmeichel came to counter him he used his left foot to shoot between him and that same near post.

Another important lesson of Zola's career is that a footballer always has hope. His own could scarcely have started less promisingly. Until he was 23, he was splashing about in the backwaters of Sardinian football. Then Nello Barbanera, the sports director of the little Torres club, playing in Serie Cl; alias the upper section of the Italian third division, went to Naples and pleaded with their wily general manager, Luciano Moggi - now of course at Juventus - to give Zola a chance.

When Zola arrived, an Italian journalist had written, he was not just "a mysterious object," but "a very mysterious object." Luckily the incomparable Diego Maradona, whom Zola deeply admired, took the young Sardinian under his wing and in due course, after a match at Pisa, performed the symbolic gesture of handing Zola his own revered number 10 jersey.

Yet another, less benign, strand in Zola's career is that of setbacks; and his ability to surmount them. He was transferred to Parma where all went well until in 1996 the new manager, Carlo Ancelotti, arrived and insisted on sticking him out on the right flank. He says that he knew his hour had struck when, looking up at the stands, in the course of a game, from that same right flank, he saw, sitting in those stands, the Croatian international, Mario Stanic, bought to replace him. In no time Zola was in London, signing for Chelsea. The deep irony being that when he got that goal against Norwich, who was on the field with him, by now a Chelsea player, but... Stanic!

Further disappointment ensued in the 1994 World Cup finals. Scarcely had he got on the field as a sub against Nigeria than he was absurdly sent off by an inept Mexican referee, which meant he could play no further part in the competition. Bitterly he recalls that he had committed no foul, and salt was rubbed into the wound when the ineffable Sepp Blatter then the FIFA Secretary announced that the expulsion was correct.

At Wembley in 1996 Zola scored the winner for Italy versus England in a World Cup eliminator yet he wasn't picked to play in the Finals. And once at Chelsea he was incensed when presuming he'd play in a home game against Spurs, he arrived to be brusquely told by his compatriot, the manager, Gianluca Vialli, that he wouldn't even be on the bench. But he survives, an example to any young professional in so many ways, and always a charming, engaging person. He dedicated that goal to an eight-year-old boy he had been visiting in hospital to whom he'd promised something special. Alas the boy had just died of brain cancer and Zola's gift became posthumous, however generous. Typical of Zola, though, that he should make such a gesture.