The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tale of a Sardinian in Chelsea

“Eye expectations” were the bane of a sportsman’s life, Gianfranco Zola was explaining. “Look, it’s terrible,” he lamented, leaning forward on the small round table he had fetched for us both and placed artistically in the window like an attentive waiter. Chelsea’s training ground was quietening down.

A small queue waited for his autograph, a photo, a word, a smile. None would be disappointed; he had just been proclaimed a contender for the PFA Player of the Year. Everyone was proffering congratulations.

“Thank you very much,” he said with a small bow, twinkling grin and the Italio-cockney accent bestowed entirely by proximity to the former Chelsea captain, Dennis Wise. “Ah, 95 per cent of my language problems are the fault of that stupid little midget,” he sighed with affection; But he was troubled by these “eye expectations”. Chelsea had been second in the League, three points behind Arsenal, at Christmas.

Then look what happened. “Something start to go wrong. In one month we lost all we had. Eye expectations are one of the worst things in football. It is very easy to get beaten up by them. If you take it slow, take what comes, you have much more joy. The best players have an extra gear in the mind that allows them to relax and let it come. I can do it sometimes. It depends. If I could do it all the time, I’d be the best player in the world.”

What an abominable fibber. If any player in the Premiership expects Everest-like height from his every performance, it is this small, spectacular, beloved Sardinian with the dancing feet and welterweight’s muscle. You don’t survive as a top-class striker to the age of 36 (37 in July) without the deepest conviction and dedication. No one has higher expectations of him than himself. He voted for Alan Shearer in the PFA poll, the other senior citizen on the list.

Zola, capped 35 times for Italy (nine goals), did not quite enjoy the same experience. “I wish I could say that,” he admitted. “But I was called off without my own authorisation.” He grinned delightedly, the angst of rejection long since spent. And why not' His six and-a-half years at Chelsea have been a revelation and a rejuvenation both. His elastic talents a continual source of admiration. Is he the most successful sporting immigrant to these shores' You could argue the superseding case for Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud van Nistlerooy or Thierry Henry, but they are not necessarily arguments you would win.

Plus the world loves Zola. Irrepressibly optimistic, he even has a kind word to say for English footballers (which is not universally echoed across the land). “But if you see the talent coming out nowadays,” he raved. “Is this how you say' Is something coming out, like spring. It’s alive.” He listed his blossoming examples: Rooney, Dyer, Jenas, Defoe, Terry.

He does, however, sound a warning. “They are talented, promising, but they have to settle themselves down. There are more than one problem. Everything is not perfect. To make their promise work they have to learn attitude, how to improve themselves, how to make them established.”

They could not learn from a finer example. At age 18 he was playing in the Sardinian fourth division with Nuorese (crowds minimal, wages: “not much!”). Then they got relegated. He spent a year at amateur level. “I loved it. You played for the purity and the joy.”

He was told his height (5ft 6in) and weight (then a flyweight) were problems, whereupon he gained wiles, muscle and discipline to add to his prodigious gifts. It helped that his father, a former lorry driver, had imbued his son with such a passionate love of the sport, even their remoteness from the centre of Italian football’s gravity proved no hindrance. He moved to Naples and then Parma before arriving in Chelsea — falsely suspected of being an elderly tourist —in 1996 for £ 4.5 million. His mum and dad opened a bar in Oliena, his hometown. He opened a new chapter of his life with a professional gusto unrivalled in Premiership football. He traditionally comes back from the summer’s break fitter than he left. “I just try to do salute” he hazards. Salutary' “Yes!” he pounced with pleasure. “Those things.”

Surely, the son of bar proprietors likes a drink. “Yes,” he said. “I drink water. I don’t like to taste wine and it is worse than you think. Because my parents also own a vineyard.”

The quaint old English tradition of footballers getting legless on lager must have proved an interesting phenomenon. He tries typically hard to be polite. “Certainly, the English culture has many positive things. On the other hand, drinking booze is one of the wrong sides.”

You wonder what he makes of his fellow footballers falling out of bars and into magistrates courts with alarming regularity, but he doesn’t apply his own rules to anyone else. “It would be selfish, it would be presumptuous of me to say that people have to behave like me. What is right for me may not be right for them. No, no, I don’t get cross with them.”

Well, only sometimes. Dennis Wise – “I wanted to kill him!” he admitted. Wise was a terrible one for practical jokes and Mr Happy Feet, as Dennis called him, was the perfect and hapless foil. “I was reading my first English book, ‘The spy who came in from the cold’, to help me learn the language. It took me so long because I had to keep stopping to look up the words. When I came to the end I was so happy although I had to say that this book ended in a strange way.

“A couple of months later I realised that this little midget had just ripped out the last chapter of the book. He handed it to me. I was so upset.” Zola did not look too upset. He appeared transparently fond and indulgent. “Dennis,” he sighed. “He is not all bad.” That is, more or less, what he feels about England.

There are things he hates about his adopted home. Our relentless need for organisation, for one. “I say to Graeme Le Saux, ‘Come on, let’s have lunch’ and he says, ‘Yes we can go on May 23…’ and we are only in February. What is going on' Life should be a little bit more relaxed.”

What, like the Italians have relaxed into 59 governments since the Second World War' (possibly 60 by the time you read this.) Zola beamed happily. “Are you fighting me'” he said. But who would presume such a thing. Even Ken ‘Il Presidente’ Bates, the Chelsea chairman who has not always painted a picture to the world of benign sociability, is known to adore his little striker. There is talk of a new contract that would take Zola up to his 38th birthday. The Italian isn’t saying yes or no.

The feeling is that he will stay. The crucial turning point was three years ago, when his two elder children, Andrea and Martina, were nine and eight, respectively. “We wanted them to grow up Italian,” he said regretfully. He was persuaded to stay. “And now we have two English children. Can you imagine anything worse' They wake up in the morning and they want heggs and bacon. heggs! It makes me very annoyed.”

At the time of that decision to remain with Chelsea, Zola made much of his wife Franca’s agreement. Fans serenaded her with “There’s only one Mrs Zola” in the ensuing game. It was a proper acknowledgement of her place in his life. They met as schoolchildren. “She was 16. I was 18. I brought her up. Ha, ha, ha. We got married five years later.” So had he, this world renowned footballer, only had one girlfriend all his life'

“Nooo,” he said, mindful of his locker-room reputation, followed by “Yes” at the thought of his dear wife. “Nah, well, er, yeah, er… no, no. Yes and no. Well, we had bad times but she’s been my only woman. Eighty per cent of the time we think about something the same way. But the most noisy twenty per cent we-show you say — have a divergence of opinion.”

Does she throw things' “No,” he replied seriously. “She kicks.” We have marvelled at Zola’s avoidance of serious injury. Now it transpires he learnt to dodge at home. It explains much. But the divergences of marital opinion are not fatal and a clue to the fondness of the rapprochement is in the fact they have recently had their third child, Samuel.

“He is a very good boy,” said his dad, who wouldn’t know because it is his poor wife who gets up in the night.

But please, Mrs Zola, be gentle with him. His energy and example remain such an inspiration.

But he is still in love with his sport. He talks about passion, purity, the sheer joy of playing while English footballers give you the impression that their list would be dominated by: Ferrari, Krug, babes and a sunglasses contract. Zola is different and precious because of it. Might we not persuade him to stay forever' What about as a manager' “No,” he said wistfully. “I shall go home one day. Sardinia is waiting for me.”

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