Zola ready for his English translation

Glenn Moore hears Chelsea's latest Italian import look forward to his new career at Stamford Bridge
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The Independent Online
Shadowy figures scurried through the chilly evening air, their ears deafened by the thud of the jackhammers, their eyes blinded by the glare of the floodlights. It was an Italian scene at Stamford Bridge all right, one straight out of Dante's Inferno with the heating turned down.

The building work on the former Shed End seemed far removed from Gianfranco Zola's official unveiling in the plush Drake's club, but the activities reflected the same aim - the reawakening of Chelsea.

The continued development of the Shed, like Zola's arrival, underlined that Matthew Harding's untimely death has not, so far, destroyed his Chelsea dreams. Indeed, the club seem to have become even bigger news. Zola was yesterday welcomed by another Italian scene: almost a hundred media men, including more than a dozen television crews. He responded by ignoring the interpreter and attempting to conduct interviews in fractured English - he has been learning for more than six months.

That suggests he has long been thinking of coming here but, when asked his intentions during Euro 96, he said: "Maybe I will, but not until my contract expires in two years' time." At that time Parma were not prepared to let him go. Chelsea had enquired in the spring - and were quoted a fee of pounds 10m. Yesterday Parma agreed to accept pounds 4.5m. The 30-year-old Italian international thus signed until June 2000, joining Roberto di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli in Chelsea's Italian collection.

The reduction is due to changed circumstances at Parma. They are out of the Uefa Cup and Zola is out of favour with Carlo Ancelotti, their coach. Zola had been moved from the front line to wide midfield and he was not happy about it.

"I have come to Chelsea because they believe in me," Zola said yesterday. "I have had a lot of problems at Parma this year. I want to play where I can do the most for the team."

This presumably means in a forward role. Ruud Gullit insisted neither Vialli nor Mark Hughes - "he has been playing magnificently" - would make way but he said: "Zola needs to play on his instincts. He needs to do a job for the team but, when he has the ball, he has the freedom to create how he likes.

"His qualities are obvious. He has technical ability, he has vision, he can decide a game. He can give us a little bit extra."

Zola consulted Vialli, Di Matteo and Middlesbrough's Fabrizio Ravanelli before signing. "They told me English football is good," he said. "They said I can live well and play well here. I like the atmosphere at English games and want to be a part of them."

Gullit said Zola would only make his debut at Blackburn on Saturday if he feels he has settled into his new environment. Otherwise his debut will be in a fortnight, at home to Newcastle. They could include a familiar face, Faustino Asprilla, who played with Zola at Parma.

His capacity to forge a dangerous partnership with Asprilla - they scored 29 Serie A goals between them in their first season - says a lot for his adaptability. So does the diminutive Sardinian's ability to step without awe into the shoes of Diego Maradona for Napoli and Roberto Baggio for Italy.

"It was a golden opportunity," Gullit said. "You would pay more for an English player -everything is out of proportion here." Including, one imagines, Zola's wages - he is reported to be receiving pounds 25,000 a week. As he spoke a picture of Ted Drake's 1955 champions - Chelsea's only title- winners - stared down from the wall. Those Brylcreemed heroes also played in blue and kicked a ball but, in many ways, they had as much in common with Emile Zola as Gianfranco.