Few incidents in football trigger emotions quite like a player returning home. Sentimentality serves to do strange things, clouding judgement and providing justification for transfers of players some may deem no more than over-the-hill heroes.
Gianfranco Zola is a man who can be added to that list, albeit through slightly differing circumstances. Born and raised in Sardinia, prior to moving there in 2003 the Italian had never played for the island’s biggest side, Cagliari. Zola’s only exploits to this point had been with minnows Nuorese and Torres.
Despite this, he was very much a local hero. Hailing from the town of Oliena, Zola has always been a keen advocate of his roots. He allowed Sardinian companies to use his image rights for free and kept a home in the north-east of the island during his time with Chelsea. He twice appeared in friendlies for the Sardinia national team in a line-up featuring vastly inferior teammates.
Indeed, the pantheon of great Sardinian footballers is relatively sparse. The likes of Antonello Cuccureddu and Gianfranco Matteoli had distinguished careers with Juventus and Inter respectively, but no one compares to Zola. Winning his sole league title at Napoli as understudy to Diego Maradona, he would go on to score over 50 goals for Parma before becoming one of the most important players in Chelsea’s history.
Such legacy can clearly be seen by the way Zola departed Stamford Bridge. Despite being taken over by Roman Abramovich the month before, the Russian still saw a role for the ageing Italian in west London. Unaware he was moving to Cagliari, Abramovich tried to persuade the club to sell Zola back before asking owner Massimo Cellino how much he wanted to buy the entire club.
“We tried hard to find a solution, and when Abramovich came in it was the very first issue on the agenda,” commented CEO Trevor Birch on the situation. Ultimately it boiled down to Zola having a verbal agreement with Cagliari and refusing to go back on his word. Such loyalty can be further seen in the way Zola took a 90 percent pay cut to push the deal over the line, all in the name of loyalty to his people.
“Leaving Chelsea hasn’t been the easiest thing, I could only have left for Cagliari,” he told The Guardian in 2003. “After so many years abroad, I want to exhibit myself in front of my land and my people. To be able to bring pleasure to people here, as I did in London.”
The first club south of Rome to win the Scudetto in 1970 – the only time the title has left the mainland – by the time of Zola’s transfer in 2003, things had deteriorated considerably. Fresh from a mid-table finish in Serie B the season before, his homecoming facilitated a simple aim: promotion.
Whether the 37-year-old would be able to fulfil the hopes of an island were evidenced from the beginning. Zola scored four on his debut in an 11-0 rout of Valgusana in pre-season, adding another on his competitive bow against Pro Patria in the Coppa Italia. An off-field legal battle delayed the start of the Serie B season, after which Cagliari put three goals past Catania. Netting the third with a curling free-kick, Zola would follow this up four days later with another in a 3-0 win over Pescara.
The form would, however, tail off quickly and following a 2-0 loss to Piacenza in late November, Gian Pietro Ventura was fired with the club in eighth. It was only in late-February when things picked up, with Zola’s brace inspiring a 5-1 thrashing of league leaders Atalanta. A run of ten wins in the final 11 matches, in which Zola started all but one game, would see Cagliari promoted as runners-up to Palermo.
I Rosanero were led by the 30 goals of top scorer Luca Toni; by comparison, the 13 managed by Zola pales into insignificance. However, the impact was the same. By achieving promotion, Palermo and Cagliari signalled a return of Italy’s two largest islands to Serie A. They were joined by Messina, with the Sicilians going up after the top flight was expanded from 18 to 20 teams.
The cultural importance of this extends way beyond the football pitch. Focusing on Sardinia, as an island some 350km west of the Italian peninsula it has always been something of an outlier in Italian society. As Zola himself commented, “Sardinians on the mainland are perceived as being insular and hard-headed.” Having a Serie A side is, therefore, enormous for local identity.
This was helped all the more by Cagliari’s blue and red shirt being occupied by a face as widely recognisable as Zola’s. Prior to the beginning of the season, he made it clear this was to be his final year in football. In his carefree mind, it was simply a case of enjoying the ride and trying to keep Cagliari away from the drop. Although with such talent as the poster boy, even at the age of 38, things were to go slightly better than this.
Zola would score his first Serie A goal for 3,072 days in early October with a penalty to open the scoring in a 2-1 win over struggling Brescia. By mid-December, Cagliari were in the remarkable position of fourth – above Inter, Lazio and Roma and with one foot into the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia.
It is worth noting such an impressive season was not solely Zola. Cagliari were blessed with other talented players, including David Suazo, Mauro Esposito and Massimo Gobbi. Zola was used in a variety of positions, often as a number 10 behind Esposito and Antonio Langella. On occasions, Daniele Arrigoni would use Zola as his sole striker, with the younger legs of the aforementioned duo flanking in a 4-3-3.
It was in such a system where Zola would inspire Cagliari to one of their best performances of the season: a 4-2 win over Chievo. He would deliver a wonderfully executed 25-yard free-kick to open the scoring, doubling the lead shortly after from the spot following a foul on Langella. The third goal, a wonderful volley from the same player, would originate from a Zola corner.
Into the new year and he would score the winner at Lazio in extra-time to finish the job in the Coppa round of 16 second leg. Zola would also score a last-minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Juventus, with the five-foot-six striker impressively outjumping both Jonathan Zebina and Lilian Thuram to plant his header beyond Gianluigi Buffon.
In a direct reversal of the previous year, Cagliari would lose momentum in the second half of the campaign. In the final three months of the season they won just one league game, whilst being eliminated by Inter in the Coppa semis. Naturally, the sole Serie A win – a 3-0 triumph over Roma – saw a starring performance from capitano Zola with another 25-yard strike.
He would round off his career with a brace in a 4-2 loss in the false crowning of Juventus’ ultimately revoked 2004/05 Scudetto. Coming on for the final half-hour, he bowed out with a brace, celebrating his second goal by high-fiving Juve’s stand-in goalkeeper Antonio Chimenti. As the Bianconeri players and fans celebrated long into the night, Zola was left to reflect on the final act of his storied career.
Arriving home having turned west London into a second abode, Zola had helped fire his island’s premier club back to relevance. Ending four years of second-tier wilderness, a 12th-place finish in Serie A was highly commendable. Zola’s contribution would lay the foundations for an 11-year top-flight spell, Cagliari’s longest for four decades.
During this time, other heroes such as Andrea Cossu, Daniele Conti and Radja Nainggolan would come to the fore, however none possessed the allure of Zola. Even a failed stint as manager in 2014, which saw him sacked after just ten games, would do nothing to dampen his standing in Sardinia.
Despite being more highly regarded in England, with Chelsea fans having voted him their greatest player, than Italy, in this two-year swansong, Gianfranco Zola reminded his country what he was all about. Doing it with a smile on his face and pasting that expression onto the faces of thousands of fellow Sardinians, it proved the greatest homecoming imaginable.