Who is the finest overseas footballer to have played in the Premier League? It is a question often posed by presenters of radio phone-in programmes, and it always elicits heartfelt replies: Gianfranco Zola, Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Jürgen Klinsmann, Juninho, Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres all have their proponents.
But to a slightly different question there can be only one answer: which overseas player not only illuminated the Premiership with his undoubted genius, but showed that big-bucks football can still be played in the right spirit, with an infectious joy that commanded the respect and even affection of supporters of rival clubs? That can only be Zola, one of whose biggest fans was a man not known for heaping praise on opposing strikers. "A clever little so-and-so," is what Sir Alex Ferguson said publicly of the diddy Sardinian. Privately, I am assured, Fergie positively gushed.
Looking scarcely a day older than when he scored the most celebrated of his 80 goals for Chelsea – the instinctive running back-heel against Norwich in a 2002 FA Cup third-round replay – the 41-year-old object of so much enduring affection from the English footballing public wears his popularity with ease. Before we meet, in a lounge at the Copthorne Hotel, part of the Chelsea Village, I watch through a window as he strides purposefully across the tarmac outside. He is talking animatedly into a mobile phone, but that cuts no ice with a gaggle of youths, who surround him, wanting to know what he is doing back at Stamford Bridge? After all, it is not even a match day. He gives them his trademark dazzling smile, chats for a moment or two, then resumes his phone conversation. The sentence "Sorry lads, but can't you see I'm busy?" is simply not in his lexicon, either English or Italian.
Actually, he tells me, starting our interview with an apology, his English is getting a bit rusty these days. "I'm so sorry," he says. I cut straight to the quick. Can he see himself having to brush up on it some day soon? There was talk that Fabio Capello might involve him in the England set-up, while Chelsea fans would sing hosannas if he were to arrive back at the Bridge in some kind of official capacity.
I get the same dazzling smile as the boys outside. "At the moment I am coaching the Italian Under-21s with [Pierluigi] Casiraghi, and enjoying it very much. Will I come back to Chelsea? We'll see. I think so. I think sooner or later I'll have a go. But at the moment it is important to get the knowledge. Playing football is one thing, but coaching is another."
And what of his involvement in the Capello regime? Was it just newspaper talk? "Well, I read that in the newspapers myself several times, but I didn't speak to Capello or anyone else. I was very pleased they were considering me, but I have a commitment with the national team in Italy, a two-year contract."
He was not surprised, he adds, when the Football Association hired his compatriot. "England needed something different, and not many managers have Capello's pedigree. The other choice could have been [Jose] Mourinho, but I think Capello will do well. I never played for him, only against his teams, but it was always tough. He is a clever guy. He will be sure to use the best qualities of English football, but maybe sharpen it using the Italian style. Tactically he is very smart, but his best quality is that he finds a way to get the best out of his players. He is not a manager who likes very much to flirt. He goes to the point straight away."
As for Chelsea, it is an open secret that Roman Abramovich tried hard to tempt him back as a coach, but Zola had verbally pledged his immediate future to Cagliari, then in Serie B, and not even Russian billions could buy his principles. I ask whether it is true that Abramovich, to get his man, even attempted to buy Cagliari?
"I don't know if that's true. You should ask Mr Abramovich. He did meet me in Sardinia and made a couple of offers to me to come back and work for Chelsea. I was very flattered. I said to him that I care about this club very much, and when I do come back, I want to do something very valuable. I am getting the [coaching] knowledge so one day I can do something important for the club. Of course, I don't know if that will happen. Maybe Chelsea won't need my services. But I want to get to the point where I can talk to a player and be helpful."
It is probably no coincidence, I venture, that the current coaches of the top four teams in the Premier League are men whose own playing careers were not a fraction as illustrious as Zola's. In other words, ordinary players often make good coaches and extraordinary players often cannot coach to save their lives.
"It is true," Zola says. "It is exactly how you said. I take a shot and I don't need to think. Maybe some players need to know step by step what to do. That is why I am taking my time, and the only way is to start with young players. Casiraghi and me work in the same way. Many times we look at each other and say the same thing at the same time. And of course, four eyes are better than two."
So, to recap, is it fair to say that his work with the Italy Under-21s is a means to an end, and that the end is Stamford Bridge? "Well, Chelsea is where I have been most, where I had the best satisfactions of all, where I was treated the best. This is a special place." A mischievous glint enters his dark brown eyes. "But when I go to Cagliari I say the same things." I laugh on cue, but he assures me that he is only joshing. "No, no, this is a special place."
It is also a place that has undergone a revolution since he left in the summer of 2003, just a week before the Abramovich takeover. Does he approve of that transformation, or does he have reservations about Chelsea's ability to buy any player for any sum?
"I try not to judge. I compare it to the years when I was playing for Chelsea, but that's not correct, because it was a different situation. The core of the team then was English, and there was a fantastic atmosphere, but Mr Abramovich came in with huge resources and did it another way. What I can say is that having a lot of money doesn't make a winning team. It's not easy to make big players bond together. That's why Mourinho did a great job.
"People say they bought the Premiership title, but a few years ago in Italy Internazionale were every year spending double, treble, what other teams spent. They couldn't win anything. That tells you that money is not everything. A winning team must have quality, but it means nothing if the players are not connected to each other."
As for the English core to which he refers, it seems worth mentioning that Chelsea's next Premier League game is against Arsenal, a fixture which recently has hardly featured any English players at all.
"Yes, and I don't think it's right. The majority of players should be from this country, and on top of that you add good foreign players, giving a perfect balance. I look back to the 1980s and 1990s, when Italian teams dominated Europe. They had maybe three players from abroad, but they were the best players in the world. That was perfect, because there was always the possibility for young Italian players to get in the team. At Napoli [where Zola played from 1989 to 1993] we had [Diego] Maradona, Careca and Alemao. For me as a young player I learnt from them, but I also saw a possibility to put into practice what I learnt. If there are eight or nine foreign players in the team, where am I going to practice what I learn?"
This, we agree, is no longer just a Premier League phenomenon. In the Liverpool v Internazionale Champions' League match, I remind him, Inter were left without a single Italian after Marco Materazzi was sent off.
"Yes, and I see with the Under-21s that this policy is no good. We have good players but when we played Portugal in the European Championship last year, they had Nani, [Joao] Moutinho, [Miguel] Veloso, [Manuel] Fernandes, all playing with their clubs in the Champions League. In Italy some of our players were still in youth teams. So it is necessary to have a limit on foreign players."
Returning to Maradona, Zola has always acknowledged the Argentine's influence in his own development, not least as a dead-ball specialist. At Napoli they would practise free-kicks together long after everyone else had gone home. Less predictably, Zola also cites Maradona's humility as an inspiration; for a game against Pisa in the Italian Cup, the world's greatest player insisted that Zola wear his own No 10 shirt, while Maradona took the No 9.
"I was very, very lucky to play and practise with him," Zola tells me. "If you want to learn how to paint, go to Caravaggio. It was the same. And what people saw him doing in matches was only the top of the iceberg. In training sessions he was unbelievable. He had three gears more than me. Sometimes he would be at the side of the pitch, with three players around him, and suddenly he was in front of the goal. Unbelievable."
The same word was attached to Zola himself often enough, not least in the case of the Norwich goal, but for him the most memorable strike came in the 1998 European Cup Winners' Cup final, against Stuttgart.
"The goal against Norwich was more spectacular, but I didn't plan to do that." Another impish glint. "No, the goal against Stuttgart is more special to me. I was injured 22 days before the match but I didn't give up. After 60 minutes I was still on the bench, thinking 'Maybe [Gianluca] Vialli won't play me, I might have to kill him after'. But then I went on and scored straight away. All my frustration came out. There was a lot of emotion. I have to apologise for my exultation."
He smiles, a little sheepishly, while I wonder how many footballers would apologise 10 years after the event for an over-enthusiastic goal celebration? Only one springs to mind.
Gianfranco Zola is working with Sure Sport, the anti-perspirant engineered for sports fanatics and the kitbag
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