Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp are undoubtedly two of the best foreign stars to grace the Premier League. Regardless of nationality, this indelible duo are two of the greatest from the PL era. Both were supreme talents who had style, grace, natural ability and the capacity to entertain. As No10s who both arrived from Serie A, they supplied innumerable opportunities for their team-mates and scored plenty of goals, ranging from the sublime to the crucial match winners. Zola was voted Chelsea’s greatest player of all time but both are fondly remembered beyond their respective fan bases. In their prime could these mercurial players be separated?
Hailing from the Sardinian town of Oliena, where Zola’s father ran the local football team, the diminutive player was considered too small to succeed. Nuorese, another island team provided him with the opportunity to feature in the lower divisions before the author of the calciopoli scandal Lucinao Moggi, then of Napoli, recognised his ability. He played at the San Paolo with Diego Maradona who was said to have felt slightly taller in stature after the Sardinian’s arrival. “He will be better than me,” the Argentinean once said. Zola won a scudetto with the southern club and eventually inherited the club legend’s shirt. Zola’s goal ratio at Parma improved but ironically it was Carlo Ancelotti who precipitated his move to west London. The ambitious, young manager dropped Zola, which persuaded him to accept Ruud Gullit’s offer to join Chelsea.
He was already known for his specialist free-kicks and spectacular goals. It was only just that he continued to inspire and dazzle at his newly adopted home. During seven years at Stamford Bridge he won the club’s Player of the Year award twice and scored 80 goals in 312 games. Those goals helped the club to win four trophies; one Uefa Cup, one Cup-Winners Cup, in which he scored the winning goal and two FA Cups. Devoted followers of Channel 4’s Football Italia coverage would have known that goals such as his flying back heeled effort against Norwich were part of his impressive repertoire. He memorably scored with a sublime turning shot against Wimbledon in the 1997 FA Cup Semi-Final. His skill, affable character and beaming smile gradually softened the stance of hostile away supporters. Those traits recently endeared him to West Ham fans where as manager he led the team to a ninth place finish in his first season.
Those superlatives could equally be applied to Arsenal’s historic No10 Bergkamp. In his eleven year spell in north London he scored 120 goals and assisted many more. Johan Cruff gave Bergkamp his professional debut at Ajax where he excelled, instigating a move to Inter Milan in 1993. His career in Italy never launched in the manner that had been expected. The supporters dubbed him the ‘cold turkey,’ but the Dutchman frequently complained that he could not understand the broad, Milanese dialect of former manager, Osvaldo Bagnoli. Whether attributable to footballing or personal reasons, the Holland international recognised that a move to Bruce Rioch’s Arsenal signified a new beginning.
Arsene Wenger soon took charge and Bergkamp transformed himself from the ‘cold turkey’ to the ‘Iceman.’ The Frenchman described his presence as being “like a gift” and that is precisely what he provided to the Highbury crowd on a regular basis, banishing the chant of ‘One-nil to the Arsenal.’ “When I came here I did not know about ‘Boring Arsenal.’ I just wanted to get back to playing football after my time in Italy.” After a lacklustre start in English football, he began to confound the cynics as the creative fulcrum of the team. He had an unnerving knack for executing that incisive final pass and contrary to Zola he had the physical presence to shield himself from aggressive centre-halves. He had exquisite skills and goal-scoring prowess too, playing a key role in their double winning season of 1997-98. His best bits will always incorporate the swivel and shot at Newcastle and the lob against Bayer Leverkusen. The man with a love of gardening and a fear of flying stayed with the Gunners until they left Highbury in 2006, winning the league thrice and the FA Cup four times.
It has been argued that Zola and Bergkamp profited from English teams’ inclination to play a flat back four. As second strikers they ruthlessly exploited the generous space between the midfield and defensive lines. This may explain their success but skill and class were instrumental too, qualities they both oozed. Sitting on the fence may be uncomfortable but it is impossible to separate these two luminaries of the modern era. Debates over their respective merits should be left to those who were fortunate enough to witness them week after week.