Big challenges ahead for Gianfranco Zola after romantic return to Cagliari

Gianfranco Zola is back in Sardinia and big challenges lie ahead, writes Ian Hawkey

Gianfranco Zola was given a glimpse at the size of the task at hand when Cagliari lost his first match in charge 5-0 to Palermo. Mike Palazzotto/EPA
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If Gianfranco Zola could have designed the gentlest possible fixture for his homecoming, the visit of Cesena would probably have been it.

The guests at the Sant Elia stadium in the capital of Sardinia on Sunday are propping up the rest of Serie A. The trouble is, Cagliari, who appointed Zola their new coach during the winter break, are only two places and three points above them.

The arrival of Zola, 48, as coach of Cagliari is a story so thick with romance that, well beyond his native island, where he is regarded with great love and considerable pride, many thousands winced with sympathy last Tuesday as he made his debut on the touchline.

Away at Palermo, the diminutive Zola got a sense of the scale of his task after just five minutes, which was when Cagliari conceded their first goal.

They were 2-0 down before 10 minutes had passed.

His first half-time team talk to a group of bruised and demoralised players had to address how they might come back from 3-0 behind. It finished Palermo 5, Cagliari 0.

Cagliari dismissed the veteran Zdenek Zeman as coach last month. Fearful of relegation, they needed a saviour and their youthful president, Tommaso Giulini, turned to just about the nearest sporting embodiment of a local saint.

Zola, born about 100 kilometres from Cagliari, is by a distance the most famous export of Oliena, his hometown in the centre of the island. It is olive grove and vineyard country. The wines, he reckons, are very good, but Zola the footballer was brilliant.

By his mid-30s, he had been voted by supporters of Chelsea, where he spent seven years, as the greatest player in that club’s history. English football in general admired him as soon as he arrived there in the late 1990s, because of his dexterity and his positive instincts, his guile and balance, from that low – he is 1.68m tall – centre of gravity.

He enchanted Serie A as a player, too, with Napoli, where he emerged in the squat shadow of Diego Maradona, and at Parma.

His career took in 35 Italy caps and his evident enthusiasm for the sport kept him close to his peak well into an age when most strikers have retired.

For his swansong seasons he joined Cagliari and would guide them to promotion from Serie B. In his 39th year, he scored a remarkable nine Serie A goals for the season.

Ten years later, he is back in the Sardinian capital, a coach with a mix of experiences. His intelligence as a player, as his obvious decency as an individual, always earmarked him for management and he began as coach of Italy’s Under-21s.

He was then at West Ham United, where a first season of adventurous, enterprising football gave way to a second campaign of struggle and then the sack.

Two years later, he dropped a tier to take over Watford and guided them to a play-off final for promotion to the Premier League. A 1-0 defeat in extra-time to Crystal Palace denied him promotion, then a poor run led to his departure.

His new job has a notoriety: under the previous president Massimo Cellino, Cagliari changed their head coach 36 times in 22 years. Giulini appears a more temperate type and will know that Zola would have a vast majority of Sardinians on his side.

The spirit of the islanders will be invoked tomorrow. “A Sardinian is very proud and we are good people, straightforward,” Zola once said.

“It’s an island where life isn’t easy. There are no big industries, but people have always worked hard. Throughout history we have been underestimated, we are far away from the centres of power and sometimes we have been penalised for that. So we want to prove we are capable of doing great things.”

The only way is up.

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