Former Chelsea midfielder and head coach Roberto Di Matteo reflects on the influence a strong group of Italian players had at Stamford Bridge in the Nineties, as the Blues were transformed into a club capable of taking on the best in Europe.
In the first half of the 1990s, Chelsea and English football was very different.
The Premier League had only been launched in 1992/93 and, during its maiden campaign, the Blues, with only two members of our squad being born outside the UK and Ireland, finished in the bottom half of the table.
Meanwhile, the division as a whole was struggling to re-establish itself as a top league following English clubs' ban from continental competition.
Perhaps prime among Europe’s leagues during the late 1980s and early 1990s was Italy’s Serie A, which had contributed four Champions League winners and nine finalists during that period.
You can imagine the surprise, then, when several big names from Serie A and the Italian national team decided to move to England and join Chelsea, a side which had only managed to qualify for European competition once in the previous 25 years.
It was during the summer of 1996 that the influx begun, with core members of Chelsea’s Italian group Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola arriving in west London in short succession.
They prepared to line up under a true Serie A legend, Dutchman Ruud Gullit, who had become player-coach following the departure of Glenn Hoddle to take charge of the England national team.
‘Gianluca was the first and I arrived later in the summer,’ remembers Di Matteo, who admits he was moving to unfamiliar surroundings.
‘For me, it was my first time in London; I think Gianluca had been on holiday a few times before. And for Gianfranco, when he joined, I think it was the first time as well. So we moved to this new city, a big city as well, and this new club.
‘Everything is exciting when you move to a new place, a new club, a new stadium. It was an exciting time.’
Di Matteo's enthusiasm for a new challenge at Chelsea was coupled with the understanding he and his countrymen were trailblazers for moving abroad, especially to England.
However, he could see the only direction was up for football in England, as shown when several more Italians followed him to Chelsea, most notably Carlo Cudicini, in addition to other Serie A stars Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, and George Weah.
‘In the mid-to-late-90s Serie A was the biggest competitor to the Premier League – maybe Serie A was even more attractive. Obviously, the Premier League was starting to become a little bit more competitive and there were a few teams buying players from Serie A.
‘They founded the Premier League in 1992, so we understood that there was a big change in English football. Obviously clubs began to invest into the infrastructure, a lot of clubs built new stadiums, but they also invested in new players.
‘It became a destination for some players to explore and I felt it was an easy decision. Ruud wanted me and the club had big ambitions. From day one I fell in love with everything about the club: the fans, the stadium, the city, everything.’
In Di Matteo’s mind, there is no question having so many fellow Italians at Chelsea was a big help as he settled in London. He then passed on the favour by helping those who followed to find their feet.
‘We obviously spent many years together. There was myself, Gianluca, Gianfranco, Gigi Casiraghi, Sam Dalla Bona, [Gabriele] Ambrosetti came later on, so there was a nice group. The early years it was a very tight group and it was very enjoyable.
‘The British guys made us feel very welcome and they helped us integrate. But the fact there was me, Gianfranco and Gianluca who came from the same country, spoke the same language, had some of the same habits and culture helped a little bit outside to socialise, even though London is a metropolitan city and it’s very cosmopolitan. It was certainly a positive aspect of us being in London together.
‘Me and Gianluca spent a lot of time together in the beginning. He had a girlfriend at the time, but she wasn’t always in London and I was single, so we used to go out quite a lot to have dinner together and go to the cinema to learn English.
'We went to the cinema to watch English movies quite a lot because that was a good way to learn the language. In the early days we spent a lot of time together.’
It may be hard to believe for a man who still lives in England – where he enjoyed so much success as a player and manager with Chelsea – and speaks the native tongue, but Di Matteo appreciates those informal extra English lessons with Vialli were invaluable.
‘My English wasn’t very good. I had studied English at school but it was mostly business language I learned in business school. But I learned pretty quick.
'I speak German and that helped a lot with the English language because some words are similar and the accent and so on. I self-studied for a little while and I think I learned it pretty good.
‘I did learn some English off Dennis Wise, Steve Clarke, and some of the others around the training ground... but I knew that they are probably not the words I would use a lot, or the polite way of saying things!’
That is the second time over the course of the discussion that Roberto mentions the importance of his British team-mates at Chelsea.
That may seem to be obvious these days, but given the scarcity of foreign players in English football at the time, they were often distrusted on and off the pitch. You only need look at the furore which surrounded the Blues becoming the first team to field a starting line-up without a British player on Boxing Day 1999 for an example.
However, Di Matteo insists that distrust is not something he ever experienced. Instead, he was welcomed with open arms by players and supporters alike, although it was an understanding which went both ways.
‘Not at all, I never felt that [distrust] to be honest. The team made me feel very welcome, the supporters made me feel at home, the chairman and everyone in the club as well, the manager.
‘We had a fantastic group really, a close group as well, so that really helped, as did the fact that a couple of other foreigners came in around that time as well, Vialli and [Frank] Leboeuf.
'I spent a lot of time with Frank in the beginning because we arrived together and then Gianfranco. We felt very good here.
‘We never felt that it was like an Italian team. We always had a lot of respect for the country we were in, for the culture, for the habits, the traditions. So we never felt in any way it was something from Serie A, absolutely not. We had a lot of respect.’
Di Matteo looks back on his time as a Chelsea player with nothing but fondness. The combination of a close group of players, a strong relationship with the fans, and success on the pitch ensured he and his fellow Italians’ decision to come to Stamford Bridge in 1996 was fully justified.
‘We just hope we made the supporters proud. We also had a really good time. We had a really good period, we started to win trophies and I think that helped. You don’t have to worry if you are successful.
‘If you look back at Vialli’s interviews and Zola’s interviews, we all say we really had a love connection with the fans from day one. So I’m not sure if it was the personality or they appreciated our efforts and commitment and professionalism or what. So we really had a wonderful time.
‘We started a really good era for the team. Obviously, nobody knows what the future holds for you, but I could certainly see the ambition that the club had with Ken Bates and Gullit and the way they told me their plans. Also, they signed a certain calibre of players.
‘I guess in a final you can win or you can lose. We were lucky to win a few and then go on to play European football and win that. It was just a fantastic period in our careers and lives, and we are still a pretty close group.’