He may stand only 5 foot 5 inches high, but in terms of integrity, skill and impact on the Premiership, Gianfranco Zola is a modern-day giant. His footballing genius has rightly earned him hero status at Chelsea, where in 2003 he was voted the best ever player by fans, but his down-to-earth, even shy, personality means he is fondly regarded beyond Stamford Bridge.
Born in Sardinia on July 5, 1966, Zola signed his first professional forms in 1984 with Nuorese, a small Sardinian club. Two years later he joined Torres, before a move to Napoli in 1989. Led by the legendary Diego Maradona, Napoli won Serie A in 1990, as Zola, in very much a junior role, scored twice.
It is impossible to underestimate the influence that the great Maradona had on the young Sardinian. The two little maestros would spend hours together after training practising their free-kicks, curling ball after ball into the top corners of the net. Zola himself said: "I learned everything from Diego." The following year saw the club win the Italian Super club as Zola became a full Italy international under coach Arrigi Sacchi.
In 1993 Zola moved onto to Parma, where he won the UEFA Cup and finished as runner-up in Serie A. But his creativity didn't fit into the rigid style laid down by boss Carlo Ancelotti and he was forced to move on. It was to prove a blessing in disguise as at his next club he finally found his spiritual home, plus managers and fans that appreciated his unique gifts.
It was November 1996 when Zola arrived at Stamford Bridge for £4.5 million, as a new signing of flamboyant boss Ruud Gullit. He had promised the fans "sexy football" and it was Zola who provided it, scoring several memorable goals in his first season. Silverware arrived too, as Chelsea won the 1997 FA Cup with a 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough, Zola's four goals en route to the final proving crucial.
His immense contribution to the resurgent CFC was recognised by the Football Writers Association who voted him their player of the year. He was not only the first Chelsea player to receive the prestigious accolade, but the first player to earn it without playing a full season.
In 1997-98, under new boss and fellow Italian Gianluca Vialli, he helped the Blues to three more trophies; the League Cup, the UEFA Cup Winners Cup and the Super Cup. Influential throughout, his impact was felt most keenly when, not fully fit, he scored the winning goal in the Cup Winners Cup final 21 seconds after coming on as substitute.
A further FA Cup winner's medal came in 2000 against Aston Villa, before a blistering final season to his Chelsea career, which saw him net 16 times. In 2003, to the disappointment of the CFC fans, he honoured a promise to join Sardinian club Cagliari, and while Chelsea have never officially retired his number 25 shirt, no player has worn it since. His achievement in leading Cagliari to Serie A in his first campaign was honoured by the Italian club retiring the number 10 shirt for one season.
In November 2004 his impact as one of the most influential and well-liked foreign players to grace the Premiership was recognised with the award of an OBE. Sir Alex Ferguson, no mean judge of a player, once described Zola as a "clever little so-and-so". But the last – more eloquent – word is best left to one of his former managers, Claudio Ranieri: "Gianfranco tries everything because he is a wizard. And the wizard must try."