Monday, 19 January 2009

Nice Guys Can Be Winners

With everything else going on I forgot to add this nice little article on Gianfranco Zola that was buried away in the Sunday Times...

Gianfranco Zola proves nice guys can be winners- Hammers boss is last of Italy’s golden generation in top-level management
Ian Hawkey

If points were awarded for a manager’s courtesy, his knack for being widely liked, then West Ham United and Fulham might be higher in the Premier League than mid-table. Gianfranco Zola could lose count of the number of polls he wins as the best ambassador for expatriate footballers in England over the past decade. Roy Hodgson has not had a long career as an Englishman abroad by rubbing people up the wrong way.

The conditions in which Zola and Hodgson assumed their posts have something in common, too, though the rescue of Fulham that the Englishman was asked to oversee just over a year ago was already a cliffhanger. Zola has been given the larger part of a season to pull West Ham clear of trouble and make sense of how that club operates at boardroom level. Under Hodgson, Fulham have become formidably hard to score against — no team in the Premier League is meaner away from home.

After a trying start in which Zola’s first seven matches produced a single win — against Fulham at Craven Cottage — with the idea growing that here was a novice manager too nice for the role, West Ham have gradually gone the same way. On their visits to Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea under Zola, West Ham have conceded three goals. Under his predecessor Alan Curbishley, they shipped nine on those three expeditions.

Tidiness at the back is what you might expect from men with extensive experience in Italian football. Hodgson and Zola both worked in Serie A when it was the most sophisticated league in the world, during the 1990s.

When Hodgson received the first of his three invitations to coach Internazionale, Zola was curling in free kicks for Parma. He left for Chelsea because he fell out with coach Carlo Ancelotti, and the story of that spat is one he tells when asked if he is too amenable for the confrontations that come with his current job.

"I can be very stubborn," he told me once. "My stubbornness first made me come to England. At Parma I had played my best football ever, but then something broke down. There were discussions about my position. So I preferred a change of scene. I didn’t think it was right for me to alter my position, so I left. Because of my stubbornness, I made the best decision of my life."

Growing up as a player in Serie A’s golden age had given Zola an outlook that would lead him into management. It was the world’s best league and was worldly in a way the Premier League has become. "When I first started playing properly, it was 1986," remembers Zola. "There was a lot of money in Italian football, with wonderful players: Diego Maradona, Michel Platini. I had in front of me fantastic players, not just on television, but close to me. Without them, I wouldn’t have done what I have done. If you only have one influence, you can only do the one thing. If you have several, your brain opens up. It’s about knowledge."

Many of his Italian contemporaries would say the same. Zola’s generation of Serie A superstars retired from playing with a professional standing that equipped them nicely for the best jobs in coaching. Club presidents and federation chairmen took them on as managers in large numbers. The past three Serie A titles were won by Inter under Roberto Mancini, Zola’s contemporary, formerly his competitor for a place as second striker for Italy. Barcelona won two of the past four Spanish leagues and the 2006 Champions League coached by Frank Rijkaard, a Dutchman whose distinguished playing career found its peak with the Milan team of the early 1990s. Didier Deschamps, the French midfield general when Juventus took up the baton from Milan as Serie A’s dominant force in European football, appeared to take brilliantly to management when he guided Monaco to a Champions League final. Italy themselves looked immediately to the Zola generation when they appointed the former Milan winger Roberto Donadoni in charge of the national team, putting Zola himself among the support staff as assistant coach to the under-21s.

Italians now are surprised to see that, out of this school of young managers, Zola is just about the only one presently in work at a top-division club in a leading European league. Mancini, whose friends like to promote him as a future head coach of Chelsea, has not had a job since being replaced by Jose Mourinho at Inter. Rijkaard took a year out after leaving Barcelona last summer. Deschamps has been waiting for the right offer for 18 months.

Donadoni’s post with the Azzurri ended after Euro 2008. All will return to coaching, and at least one will probably join Zola as a coach in the Premier League, which now likes to call itself the most glamorous in the world.


In the 1990s, Serie A was the best and most glamorous league, with some of the canniest footballers. Many were expected to feature in the top tier of the next generation of head coaches. Several did, although Gianfranco Zola, inset, is one of the few now in a job

FRANK RIJKAARD Dutch star of Milan’s 1990s team. Coached Holland and then Barcelona from 2003-08, winning two leagues and Champions League. Currently ready for job by summer

ROBERTO MANCINI A star with Sampdoria, European Cup finalists in 1992. Coached Fiorentina, Lazio and Inter, whom he took to three consecutive titles in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Currently sniffing around Chelsea

DIDIER DESCHAMPS Heartbeat of Juventus team when they reached three European Cup finals. As coach took Monaco to the final of 2004 Champions League. Left Juventus after a year there in 2007. Currently awaiting an offer

ROBERTO DONADONI Winger with Milan and Italy. Coached Livorno in Serie A before taking over the national team, the world champions. Quit after Euro 2008. Currently awaiting an offer

PAUL INCE Moved from Manchester United to Inter in the mid-1990s for two seasons. Rose through managerial rungs with Macclesfield and MK Dons. Sacked by Blackburn Rovers after four months. Currently awaiting an offer

RUUD GULLIT Star of Milan team. Joined Chelsea near end of his career and became player-manager. Managed Newcastle United, Feyenoord and most recently, briefly, LA Galaxy. Currently awaiting an offer.

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