Gianfranco Zola still keeps an eye out for West Ham United. It is nine years since the club gave him his first management opportunity and seven since they took it away in the summer of 2010. In total he led the club through 73 Premier League games, only 14 fewer than Slaven Bilic before the Croat was fired earlier this month and replaced by David Moyes.
That might be where the similarities end. “I cannot compare my experience to his,” says Zola. “I believe they are completely different. But I understand what he’s been through. Every manager, when things don’t go well, they feel bad about it. That, unfortunately, is our job.”
Our job: Zola has not had a club since he resigned as manager of Birmingham City in April but seven months’ pause could hardly wipe away his identity as a football man. Nor have bruising experiences such as the ones he endured at West Ham diminished his enthusiasm for management itself.
A positive first season in east London gave way to a second in which events conspired against Zola – from a banking crisis that forced the club’s Icelandic owners to sell up through to the sceptical attitude of their successors. David Sullivan pondered publicly whether Zola was “too nice” to succeed, then criticised the team’s performances in open letters to the fans.
The claim that nice guys finish last is an insidious one in football. There is no shortage of case studies to contradict it – but Zola would argue that it is a pointless debate to begin with. “In the end everyone has to be normal,” he says. “Everyone has to be the way that they are. If I felt like I needed to be aggressive all the time, it would have been impossible to be the player that I was. Or John Terry, if he had tried to be a player of finesse, probably he wouldn’t have been the same. You have to be who you are but work hard and make sure that you always give the best of yourself.”
Even being yourself, though, can be exhausting. Zola is one of life’s great optimists, a man rarely seen without a smile on his face, but he too has his darker moments. As a player, when things were going badly, Zola could become “very introverted. I would get inside myself and sort it out.”
The same is not possible for a manager. “As much as we transmit ideas to the players – tactics and so on – it’s also about the positive energy we need to establish,” he says. “It takes a lot out of you. I believe it’s important to have that positive aura all the time, because your team look at you; they are influenced by it.”
For players, too, things are getting harder. When Zola first came to England he was delighted to find a media climate far less intrusive than the one he had known back in Italy. “You want to be a footballer but above all you want to be a man who is free to live his life. In Italy, in those days, it was impossible. Along with the football itself that’s the main reason that I loved, and still love, this country.
“But I think it’s changing here as well. The importance of this game has become huge in this country, the financial interest as well, and therefore there is more pressure.”
Might there also be a self-inflicted element? In this age of social media, it is notable that Zola does not own a public-facing account on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Is there a naivety, among young players yet to experience a difficult phase in their career, about what it means to be famous? “Absolutely,” says Zola. “You are totally spot on with that. As with everything, there is another side to the coin: it can be good, because you can promote yourself. But if things don’t go the way you want, you have no escape. Sometimes you need to be protected. You need a little bit of privacy to sort things out.”
It is tempting to wonder how certain former team-mates of his might have engaged with social media had it been available during their playing days. What might we have seen from a young Diego Maradona, with whom Zola won a Serie A title at Napoli? Faustino Asprilla’s Twitter account is raucous enough even in retirement.
Who was the wilder of that pair? Zola has no hesitation. “Tino by miles. Tino was another league. But always in a nice way. Not that Maradona was in a bad way. But Tino was really, really, a constant search for trouble. Good trouble.”
Zola was among the Premier League’s first wave of foreign talent and has seen the football culture in England transformed since then. He remembers being placed initially in the Chelsea midfield by Ruud Gullit but never touching the ball because it was always being hoofed back and forth over his head. He also recalls being teased for wearing gloves and leggings on cold days, while Terry strutted about in “these small, small shorts”.
To hear him tell such stories is to recognise a man who still yearns to be involved. Zola has a life away from football: a wife, three kids and a dessert business. We are having this conversation in a branch of Unico, the London-based ice cream chain that he owns together with his former Chelsea team-mate Roberto Di Matteo.
Zola has a serious sweet tooth. His father used to run a bar that sold ice cream in Sardinia when he was growing up. As an adult he once got a friend to fly him on a six-hour round trip in a helicopter just so he could get another taste of a new flavour – laced with pine nuts – that he had tried in Bologna a few days earlier. “It was the best I’d ever had,” he says. “I remember that I tasted it and said, ‘This is not possible, it cannot be this good.’ I had three right there and then but afterwards, when I went back to Sardinia, I realised it wasn’t enough. I had to go back and buy 30 kilos.”
Nothing quite compares, though, to the pull of a football pitch. Zola is happy where he is right now, resting, recovering and reflecting on what he could have done better at Birmingham. “But eventually the call back is too strong,” he says. “You cannot say no.”
Will that always be the case? “I believe so, yeah,” says Zola. The thought alone brings out another grin.
The Guardian Sport