Giafranco Zola - Chelsea Greatest Player Ever
In November 1996, Zola joined English Premier League club Chelsea F.C. for £4.5 m as one of several continental players signed by Ruud Gullitand wore the number 25 jersey. In his debut season he put in several notable performances and scored a series of memorable goals. In February 1997, after spiriting the ball around Manchester United's defence in the penalty area before slotting the ball past goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, he was described by United manager Alex Ferguson as a "clever little so-and-so." He was a key player in Chelsea's resurgence that season, helping them win the FA Cup with a 2–0 win over Middlesbrough at Wembley having scored four goals en route to the final, including a 25 yard curling shot against Liverpool as Chelsea came from 0–2 behind to win 4–2, and a "twisted blood" effort in the semi-final against Wimbledon, backheeling the ball and turning 180 degrees before slotting the ball into the net. At the end of the season he was voted FWA Player of the Year, the only player ever to win the accolade without playing a full season in the English league and the first Chelsea player to win it.
In 1997-98 he helped Chelsea win three more trophies, the League Cup, the Cup Winners' Cup and the Super Cup. An injury denied him a place in the starting line-up for the Cup Winners' Cup final against VfB Stuttgart at the Råsunda Stadium in Stockholm, but he came on as a second-half substitute and scored the winning goal within 21 seconds. With only his second touch of the game, he struck a through ball from Dennis Wise past goalkeeper Wohlfahrt into the roof of the net to secure Chelsea's third major trophy in a year and the second European trophy in the club's history. In the same season Zola hit his first professional hat-trick, in a 4–0 victory over Derby County at Stamford Bridge in November 1997.
"Gianfranco tries everything because he is a wizard and the wizard must try."
-Claudio Ranieri reflecting on Zola's back-heeled goal against Norwich in 2002.
Zola scored his final goal for Chelsea, a lob from outside the penalty area against Everton, on Easter Monday 2003, and made his final competitive appearance for the club on the final day of the season with a 20-minute cameo against Liverpool, beating four Liverpool players during a fantastic dribble late on in the match, gaining applause from both sets of fans. This would become the final class moment of his Chelsea career. He played in a total of 312 games for Chelsea and scored 80 goals. In early 2003, Zola was voted as the best ever Chelsea player by Chelsea's fans. In November 2004, he was awarded an OBE - Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire in a special ceremony in Rome. In 2005 Zola was voted into the Chelsea FC Centenary Eleven, occupying one of the two forward roles. Whilst the club has not officially withdrawn Zola's number 25 shirt from circulation, no other player has held the squad number since his departure.