Star making – Gianfranco Zola

Gianfranco Zola was the first overseas player to make 300 appearances for Chelsea, a feat matched at the FA Cup final by Eden Hazard who became the sixth.

The similarities between the two do not end there. Position on the pitch, skill to beat an opponent, ability to make a difference with a piece of magic, height, entertainment value - the list goes on, even if their Chelsea careers are getting on for two decades apart.

To celebrate their achievements, the official website asked both a similar set of questions about what was needed and what came together successfully to produce the genuine Chelsea superstars they undoubtedly are.

Yesterday we heard from Hazard, but today it is Zola’s turn. Here are his answers…

Can you remember how old you were you when you first realised you could beat an opponent with a football, you could dribble past someone?

When I was young I knew I had some qualities because I saw the players that I had around me and I saw what I could do, so I was just realising that I had some abilities in playing football. But there was one year in particular when I really felt I had done a big step forward and it was when I was playing in the equivalent of the Conference league in England. It was in Italy and I was 17 years old and I was playing for this team, Nuorese, and it was the first year I was playing regularly in a team at a decent level. All of a sudden, and I remember this very vividly, I came to realise I was able to do things that before I could not do and everything I was imagining with my mind was coming true. That was the moment I realised I stood a chance because I can control the game, I can control myself and that was a crucial moment for my career.

Were there things you had done to develop your skills, had you spent a lot of time dribbling around cones or people for instance, or was it a gift?

In the beginning I used to start my day at eight o’clock in the morning and then finish at eight o’clock in the evening, sometimes pretending to go to school and instead going to play football, and so the practice was every day, playing with a wall or inside or outside. I used to spend hours doing that so I practised all my skills a lot, especially at a young age.

Did you play football with friends as well, because you must have had to learn about the other person’s balance etc.?

My whole childhood was in a small town, 8,000 people living there, where the only thing you could do to have fun for me personally was playing football, and so we used to play football all the time with my mates. Nothing different from other places but the fact we did not have much else to do allowed me to have total focus on what I was doing. That was one of the reasons why I came to a point where all of a sudden everything I used to visualise in my head came on the pitch.  

A lot of players end up primarily only using one foot, some great players too, but you weren’t like that.

One of the reasons why I had success in my football career was because I had a good mentality, a good attitude and I remember days when I used to go and train when I was 16 or 17 and I would decide that day I would train only using my left foot. The whole training session would be me not touching the ball with my right, like a left-footed guy, and that gave me the ability also with the brain to learn to do things with the left. It was great training, even if I was not going to be great in that training session but it was good for me because I was learning how to use my other foot. The left foot still feels different now, the right is stronger, but I got to a good stage because I did it at a very young age.

Did it take months or years before you felt you could use the other foot properly in a match situation?

The process is not one you start today and then in one week you are going to be good. It is a process that takes time, you improve every day, it is like you put layer after layer after layer down and then all of a sudden you have resources you did not image you would.

Is the real key to everything the first touch?

All the people who know football very thoroughly, they regard the first touch as the key. In those days when football was a little bit slower, when the distances between the players were bigger than now, first touch was very important. Now in the modern football world the distances are smaller and the time you are allowed on the ball before they press you is very small, so the first touch is becoming even more important because it allows you to be all the time a step ahead of the opposition.

Even if you have the head up, if the first touch is not good you have to put your head down to control the ball, you lose time anyway because the ball is not under control.

You, like Eden Hazard did, settled in quickly at Chelsea. What was the key to that?

Attitude, that was one of the most important things. I came with the right frame of mind and I wanted to impress, I wanted to adapt and also the other key was the environment I found at Chelsea. A lot of people were helping me to settle quickly and that is what made the process so quick.

You came into a very physical form of football, people did try to kick you, like they try to kick Eden Hazard. How did you manage to keep your cool, because both of you just tend to get up and get on with it. Is that natural personality?

It is part of our game, we know very well that people they want to stop us, and we know we are going to get into situations where they are going to try to stop us in every possible way and this is part of the game you have to accept. You have to develop your own strategies to get round the problem but actually it was good, because it forced me to be creative, it improved my game a lot.

We remember you getting angry only once or twice.

More than that for sure! I didn’t mind a fair challenge, even if it was strong, but used to hate those tackles which intentionally just used to put you down. If you ignore them it could be best but sometimes it depended on the moment and there were moments when you were focused and nothing would touch it, and you ignore it and you get on with it, and sometimes there was not the same situation so I used to get upset.

You and Hazard both have reputations for making the right decisions at the right times in games. Is a lot of that instinct, or being conscious of every possibility and being able to weight it up quickly, imaging what is going to happen next?

It is a very good question and I believe it is because both him and myself, we live for football and by doing that, you are always trying to work out better ways to play our football. You come up with ideas, like for example the people who do business, they are thinking about the business and they find solutions to improve the business, and we do the same in football. We try to work out ways to be better, strategies to be more effective, so when it comes to that and you have such an active brain like that for football, then the ideas will come.

Sometimes you plan them before, sometimes they come on the pitch so it is a process that is always going on. But it is like that for everything, if you spend a lot of time and by time, I don’t mean just going on the pitch and training, also when you stay home and you are thinking and you visualise. You are watching other players, you get other ideas, all these things they improve your brain.

It didn’t take long for you to be the person people looked at to do something special at Chelsea. If it was a tough game people were looking to you to get a lot of the ball and the fans were paying to see you. That brings a lot of pressure.

I never thought of that, those were not the situations that put me under pressure, not at all actually. Instead that was excitement for me. I knew that something special could come as long as I was in the right frame of mind. It was very important for me to create certain conditions, and when those conditions were there, always something good was happening.

You were barely ever injured.

Luckily so, wherever I have been I was never very much injured apart from one year in Parma when I had a few physical issues. I was always injury-free most of the time and that was because I used to spend a lot of time on my fitness and despite my size, I always had a good body, good strength.

Was there something you did to ride out a tackle for instance?

I think it was because I was always on the move, it was not easy to catch me standing still. Even when they kicked me I was not standing strongly so it did not have so much effect. I believe it was this, sometimes I was lucky, and I could get on with it and not get too many injuries.

Was avoiding muscular injures linked to your whole lifestyle?

That was very important because the way you behave outside is going to reflect on everything you do on the pitch. To be fit, to be always ready to perform is part of what you do. When I was at home, I used to look after myself a lot because football was everything for me, so everything I used to do was to make sure I was ready to go on the pitch and perform the best.

Hazard and you are similar heights and you did score the odd header or two, as does he. Are you happy with the amount?

I am happy because scoring with the header, maybe you are not tall but if you have a good spring with the legs you can jump and if you have timing and you go to the right place, you can still score good headers. I scored good headers and I see Eden also doing that. Of course I was never going to be as good as Casiraghi for example, but we had our say.

Tell us some of your thoughts about Hazard.

I watch him playing a lot and obviously he is one of those players you like to watch, he is one of those type of players that made you fall in love with football and what I have noticed in the last couple of years is that he has improved a lot. He has become more efficient on the pitch. He has become very effective when he has the ball because he is always producing something, maybe a goal or a pass or an assist for a team-mate. It is good to see that because I always regarded him as a very good player. Sometimes I said the day he uses these qualities better he would become a much better player so I am delighted he is going the right way, and I believe there is a lot more to come.

You, like he, was named Chelsea Player of the Year on more than one occasion. Special moments?

Of course. As a footballer you love what you do but when you get recognition for your job it is a fantastic feeling and it makes every sacrifice that you make worth it.

Would you have enjoyed playing now, in the current team and era that Hazard does?

In a way I would like to say yes, because to be part of a winning team like Chelsea all these years is always very good. But at the same time, I am afraid of not paying enough respect to the players I played with and in my time they were very good to me and they were part of my success, so that is the reason why I answer this question with thank you, I appreciate the thought but I enjoyed my time and I had a fantastic time. I have been blessed to be in that team and I would not change it.