In the first part of an interview with Gianfranco Zola, the Italian genius talks about his late arrival on the football scene, the help he received from Diego Maradona and the best football of his career.
Born in Oliena, a mountainous, remote corner of northern Sardinia, on 5 July 1966, the small, wafer thin but precocious Zola plays for lower league sides Nourese and Torres until he is 22. In 1989, Luciano Moggi, then general manager of Napoli, the southern Italian club that had recently clinched their first scudetto, makes a rare scouting trip to the beautiful island. "I have been down to Sardinia," he says once back home, "and I can assure you that this is a little Maradona."
Playing as the great Argentine's understudy, Zola plays his part as Napoli claim their second Serie A title in four years. After Maradona is banned and departs Italian shores, the Sardinian emerges from Diego's shadow, picking up the famous number 10 shirt and breaking into the Italian national side. With Napoli in financial disarray by 1993, Zola moves north to Parma where while hitting it off with Colombian Faustino Asprilla and winning the UEFA Cup in 1995, he would solidify his position alongside rival Roberto Baggio as Italy's most talented fantasista,
FIFA.com: Would you describe yourself as a natural?
Gianfranco Zola: I really worked hard to become a footballer. I had a little bit of talent but I had to work on top of it. I first realised that I would do something important in football when I arrived in Naples at the age of 21 or 22 I think. Before that I was playing in Italy's lower divisions.
Twenty-two is pretty old nowadays.
Well it wasn't young then either. But yes, now it is even more difficult for someone of 23 to get into one the big teams. In those days a coach might not have had the possibility to get to see a player until a late age - remember television wasn't involved as much as now. For me to get the possibility to show the others what I could do was not easy.
Naples were a huge club at that time with Maradona, Careca and the rest.
We were one of the biggest clubs in Europe. It was great because in front of me I had some of the best in the world and I had the possibility to learn something. As a player, I made a big step forward.
What was it like to be in the dressing room with Maradona and these big players? Weren't you a bit intimidated?
Well at the beginning yes obviously. For me everything was new. Plus I had in front of me one of my idols and so certainly at the start I was a little bit embarrassed. But then I caught up quickly.
There was a huge rivalry between the teams of Italy's North and Napoli at that time. Did you and the team suffer a lot of abuse on your travels?
Certainly then there was a little bit of this abuse as you say, but at that moment we didn't feel it too much as Naples, along with Milan, was probably the best team in Italy. It made us feel very proud to belong to Naples. Although I have to say there is a little bit of difference between the North and the South, at that time football was helping to bridge the divide.
Did the comments help form a bond among the players?
Yeah it was vital really. Behind every success there has to be a strong group that works as a unit - and in Naples we had it.
What memories do you have of playing with Maradona?
Every time I think of that experience I feel lucky because I had a great opportunity. I was young and wanted to learn, and he really was a big help.
Did he give you any special advice?
Everybody was close to Maradona because he was a very kind boy. If you talk to anybody who has played with him, I'm sure you won't find anything bad said. He has problems, we know now he has problems, but he never loaded anybody else with them. He was very human and simple as a man.
I remember many things, first day, for example, when we met and he said 'finally I've found someone smaller than me' (laughs). Actually he was lying because I'm not, though he never admitted that. But no, we had a very good relationship and it gave me a lot of confidence.
Of course when he left in 1991, you took over the number 10 shirt. Did it weigh heavily on your shoulders?
Honestly I have to say that I took advantage of it because Maradona's popularity was unbelievable all over the world and, you know, being nominated as his successor was big publicity for me - it made things a lot easier!
In any case, it never entered my mind that I had to do what Maradona did because that would have been impossible. He was unique. I just said to myself that I'd try to play my best football and to carry out on the pitch all the things I learned off it. Our supporters and the other players helped because they let me play the way I liked.
You went to Parma after four years in the South and helped turn the club into one of Italy's top sides.
I probably played my best football there in terms of quality and consistency. I also became the first choice in the national team during that time. Parmalat had given Parma the means and I must say we had a very good team.