Zola aiming for the perfect 10

Clive White meets the Italy striker with much to prove in England
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When it comes to inheriting hand-me-downs, the No 10 shirt can sometimes be more trouble than it is worth, particularly if it once belonged to Roberto Baggio. There can be no question that it will hang heavily with expectation upon the diminutive figure of Gianfranco Zola during Euro 96 , but when you have been personally handed Diego Maradona's the responsibility perhaps does not seem quite so intimidating. Today, against Russia at Anfield, he will need to justify the faith shown in him.

It has taken Zola a long time to step out of the shadow of Serie A's great. At Napoli he also had to contend with the Brazilian Careca as well as the formidable Argentinian, and it was not until he moved to Parma three seasons ago and was switched from midfield to attack that he really came into his own.

Now, aged 29, he has been handed the ultimate accolade: selection ahead of Baggio in the national team as partner to Fabrizio Ravanelli. It has not been one of Arrigo Sacchi's more popular decisions but then few have been. To Sacchi's detractors, Zola epitomises the work ethic which the coach holds so dear at the expense, they believe, of flair.

But that is to do Zola, a player of sharp skills and flawless technique, a disservice, even if to hear him talking it could be the coach himself. Zola, who was included in Sacchi's first selection in November 1991, denies that the accent on "team players" within the squad has been to the detriment of the skill factor, and as a consequence the absence of individualists such as Gianluca Vialli and Beppe Signori. "The Italian squad has many good players," he said. "We work a lot and when a group works a lot they get results. We are prepared to work for that success and if we do not win this tournament I promise you we will play well."

Such conviction is all the more impressive coming from one as modest as Zola, a humorous, affable little man too. Asked if he might follow some of his fellow Serie A performers to England when his contract with Parma expires in 1998, he replied: "Yes, I believe I can play here. As you can see I am well built for your high-ball game. I remember in Copenhagen two years ago in the Cup-Winners' Cup final I always seemed to be winning the aerial battles with Tony Adams."

His insistence on doing the interview in English, albeit shaky, without recourse to the attendant translator spoke volumes too for his single- mindedness. It may explain why he may eventually have developed such a fine, if not exactly intuitive, understanding with Faustino Asprilla at Parma. Good enough, anyway, to reduce him to tears when the Colombian decided to pack his bags and head for Newcastle last season.

"Initially, we had a bit of a problem because `Tino' kept changing wings but it did not stop us scoring 29 goals together in our first season, and we were among the leading pairs the next season too. Early on neither of us seemed to know what the other one was doing but the good thing was that neither did the opposition. Newcastle should he patient. I think next season you will see a different player."

Zola's powers of compatibility, however, were tested to the limit last season when he was paired with Hristo Stoichkov, presumably his reward for getting on so well with Asprilla. "At Barcelona Stoichkov played in a certain mode and at Parma he has found it difficult to change," Zola said. "In Italy the football is hard work for the forwards." Enough said.

Despite the financial success of the Premiership, England will continue to struggle, he believes, to lure Europe's youngest and finest to these shores while Italy still offer the chance to "learn as well as earn".

He himself welcomed the opportunity of a fresh experience abroad ("perhaps England") but only when his contract ends at the age of 31.

For the time being his thoughts are solely on Euro 96, which he regards as pay-back time. His appearance "after four years hard work" at the last World Cup lasted just 12 minutes when he became victim of one of that tournament's more absurd refereeing decisions, sent off in the second round match against Nigeria for an innocuous challenge.

Roberto Baggio came to the rescue of the 10 men that day with a memorable match-winning brace. Now it is up to Zola to aim for the perfect 10.