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Gianfranco Zola at Chelsea: Blues celebrate 20 years after Italian signed

Gianfranco Zola, pictured here after winning the Cup Winners' Cup in 1998, joined Chelsea 20 years ago.

A little Italian striker arrived at Stamford Bridge 20 years ago and changed Chelsea forever.

Signed for £4.5 million from Parma in November 1996, Gianfranco Zola lit up the Premier League and helped transform the Blues from traditional underachievers into a club accustomed to challenging for major trophies.

Along the way his outrageous skill, spectacular free kicks and charming personality won the hearts of Chelsea supporters everywhere, as well as earning the almost universal admiration and respect of opposition fans, players and managers.

Over the course of seven dazzling seasons in English football, Zola scored 80 goals in 312 appearances for Chelsea, winning four trophies and producing countless more memorable moments on the pitch.

His departure in the summer of 2003, having turned down the offer of a contract extension from new owner Roman Abramovich in order to honour an agreement to return to home town club Cagliari, caused great sadness among Chelsea supporters -- many of whom later voted him the club's greatest ever player.

To mark the 20th anniversary of Zola signing for Chelsea, ESPN FC takes a look at some of the best quotes from former teammates, opponents and managers -- as well as from the man himself.

Ruud Gullit on signing Zola in November 1996...

"I think with Gianfranco that his qualities are obvious. He has great technical ability and he sees the game very well. I think it's vital for us that he is the sort of player who can decide a game with his vision, technique and ability to open it up from even ordinary situations."

Sir Alex Ferguson after watching Zola score against Manchester United in February 1997...

"He's a clever little so-and-so -- much better than I thought."

Peter Schmeichel on Zola, who scored against him in Premier League matches at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford...

"I could never tell where he was going to shoot. He was unplayable and read the game like no other."

Dennis Wise, former Chelsea captain, Zola's teammate and close friend...

"When you've got players like Gianfranco in your team, it frightens the life out of the opposition."

Zola on scoring the winning goal for Chelsea just 18 seconds after coming on as a substitute in the 1998 Cup Winners' Cup final against Stuttgart...

"It was quite incredible for me. I couldn't contain myself. This is one of the best moments of my career. I want to thank the masseur who treated me [for a groin injury]. He [Mimmo Pezza] did a fantastic job. You must imagine my situation. Eighteen days ago, my dream turned into nothing. Then after treatment, suddenly I'm in the match. I came in ... scored and we won the cup."

Gus Poyet on Zola, who set him up for one of the most memorable Chelsea goals ever with a chip in a 4-0 win over Sunderland in August 1999...

"The best I ever played with, no doubt. I used to marvel at him in training each day. Gianfranco made you a better player: he knew what I was going to do before I'd even thought of it."

Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier, another of the Premier League's great entertainers, on Zola...

"He was one of the players in the Premier League that I would have paid money to go and watch."

Graeme Le Saux, who played alongside Zola at Chelsea from 1997 to 2003...

"He was a phenomenal player, and such a lovely bloke as well. Dedicated, a great example, worked hard and carried his ability with so much humility, and I think that stands him out. He always works incredibly hard, so he got his reward for dedication and commitment. Also the way he spoke to young players; the whole thing with Zola was class."

Zola on his unforgettable backheel volley against Norwich City in the FA Cup in January 2002...

"Don't ask me how I did it, because I don't know. It is one of those goals you could try 100 times and it will probably never come off again."

Former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri on the same moment of brilliance...

"Fantasy, magic. Only Maradona or Pele -- only the big players -- would do something like that. Gianfranco tries everything because he is a wizard and the wizard must try."

John Terry on learning from the veteran Zola in February 2003...

"Franco is fantastic still for us. He is like an 18-year-old when he is running about and he's a great example to myself and the other young players at the club. He's looked after himself and I try and copy everything that he does on and off the pitch.

"His enthusiasm rubs off on everybody. Some of the young lads like myself, Frank Lampard, Jody Morris and Eidur Gudjohnsen go out for a kick-about every morning before training and he's always there with us. You'd think he'd try and save himself with his age and everything but it is a testament of how much he still loves the game."

Frank Lampard on Zola, his biggest career inspiration...

"Zola took me under his wing. I was fascinated by the way that at 35, and very established as a world-class player, he still trained and practised his free-kicks daily. He was always the last on the training ground, always looked after himself impeccably, really lived well and I learned from that. I watched how he played, how he was a gentleman off the pitch. I thought 'that's how I'd like to be' if I could get anywhere near what he has done in the game. He was certainly someone I looked up to."

Gianfranco Zola won six trophies in his seven-year career at Chelsea.

Former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates when Zola left for Cagliari in 2003...

"Zola was undoubtedly one of Chelsea's greatest players ever. He's been a joy to watch and a great influence both on and off the field, particularly because of his great interest with young fans. We owe him one hell of a lot of thanks."

United legend Ryan Giggs on Zola in his autobiography...

"It says everything about his ability that whenever we played against him, the gaffer would single him out for special attention. Normally, United would never man-mark anyone, whatever the personnel or the system we were up against, but there were one or two exceptions to the rule. Zidane was one, Zola another... We knew we had to nullify Zola because he was pure quality -- the sort of player I'd love to have played with."

Zola on his style of play...

"I think my way around the pitch, always changing my pattern to make it difficult for opponents. I can twist away quickly and stay on my feet. I'm also strong for my size."

Ferguson, post-retirement, talking about Zola in September 2015...

"Little Gianfranco Zola, he annoyed me. He was one of these players who was unperturbed about who he was playing against. He always seemed to have a smile on his face and that annoyed me. How can he be enjoying himself playing against United? Nobody else does. He was a fantastic player and I loved watching him. It was enjoyable and for me to say that about an opponent tells you how much I admired him."

Zola on his memories of Chelsea...

"Chelsea is the place where I received everything I was dreaming for when I first started playing football. The fans gave me everything I was looking for. They made me feel a very, very important player, even when I wasn't playing very well. I felt special since day one here."

Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.


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