Zola makes timely return to Prem
TEAMtalk explains why new West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola could not have timed his return to the Premier League any better.
Just when the national game was once again being accused of selling out to an ever-growing army of foreign billionaires, who better to reclaim the back pages than the man who epitomised the true heart of his sport more than almost anybody else.
From November 1996, when the elusive Italian signed for Chelsea for what seems now to be a ridiculously small £4.5million fee, to his last game on the final day of the 2003 season, the Premier League feasted on his talent. Now West Ham have the opportunity to see whether he can transfer his flair to management.
Arguably no other foreign player since has made such an enormous impact. Not even Cristiano Ronaldo has been able to ally the astonishing skill with the sheer joy of playing which made watching Zola such a mighty thrill.
He headed home to Italy having been voted into Chelsea's Centenary team, the man almost unanimously credited with having kick-started his club's re-emergence under first Gullit, then Gianluca Vialli and Claudio Ranieri.
He was described by the British Embassy, no less, as "the most enduring and popular foreign player in the history of Chelsea Football Club", when he was awarded an honourary OBE in 2004.
Higher praise came from the notoriously grudging Sir Alex Ferguson, who described Zola as "a clever little so-and-so", and from Ranieri, who was hardly hyperbolic when he called him an "irreplaceable genius".
Even Zola's exit had an air of quiet dignity. Despite swirling rumours of the impending takeover by Roman Abramovich, Zola kept a long personal promise to return to his native Sardinia, to end his playing career with Cagliari.
Two years ago, Zola began his managerial career as Pierluigi Casiraghi's assistant with the Italy Under-21 side, but it was never going to take long for a big club steeped in the memories of his playing greatness to take a chance on it rubbing off in the dugout.
From the start of his career, Zola was always around the very best.
He joined Napoli in 1989 and spent a year as understudy to Diego Maradona, with whom he would practise free-kicks for hours after training.
"I learnt everything from Diego," Zola admitted later. "After one year I had completely changed. I saw him do things in training and matches I had never even dreamed possible.
"He was simply the best I've ever seen. I'm not saying I wouldn't have been a good player if I had not played with him at that stage of my career, but I do know I wouldn't be the player I am now."
In 1993, Zola moved on to Parma, then rapidly emerging as a new Serie A giant, but his creative flair did not go down well with boss Carlo Ancelotti, and he was ultimately made available for transfer three years later.
"You don't get an opportunity like this every day and when I heard he might be available I knew I wanted him," said a delighted Gullit. "If Parma didn't want his quality, I knew I wanted to have it."
A typically modest Zola added: "They say it (the Premier League) is hard and strong but the football is good. Perhaps there will be some problems adapting at the start but I think I can overcome them."
And how. Zola's seven years at Stamford Bridge proved an unremitting success.
Even opposition fans, conditioned to dislike everything about the emerging west London club, were effusive in their praise.
Zola would score 89 goals in his 249 appearances, but the simple statistics do not do justice to the outrageous skills which lit up so many venues, and the genuine smiles of joy that accompanied them.
He grabbed goals like the brilliant backheeling effort against Norwich which defied convention.
Zola helped sweep Chelsea to silverware both at home and on the continent. He came on as a substitute and immediately scored the winning goal in the 1998 European Cup Winners' Cup final against Stuttgart.
Even in a final season when he became increasingly sidelined by the emerging talent at Stamford Bridge, Zola scored 16 goals, ending his Chelsea career with another typically magnificent solo performance against Liverpool at Anfield.
Now Zola is back and relishing his newest challenge. By pitching up this time on the east side of the capital, he knows full well he has risked breaching the domestic game's traditional boundaries.
As a player, Zola won the hearts of so many supporters irrespective of the colour of their scarves. As a manager, he may find it a little harder. But every English football fan should simply give thanks that we have finally got him back.