For many Chelsea fans, the 2nd July 2003 was the day that changed their club forever. For that was the day that a Russian billionaire oligarch by the name of Roman Abramovich arrived in West London along with his bottomless pot of black gold.
Within two years of his £140m takeover the club had secured their first league title in fifty years, only their second ever league success. Since then, with Russian Rom at the helm, the Blues have added three further titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups and maiden successes in the Champions League and the Europa League. For those who believe that money really can buy you success, Abramovich and Chelsea were the living, breathing, cheque-wielding embodiment of it.
And yet, there remained one thing that remained elusive to Abramovich, something that even one of the world’s wealthiest couldn’t get his hands on. And it came in the shape of a 5ft 6in, 36-year-old Italian.
Gianfranco Zola had scored 80 goals in seven years since joining Chelsea from Parma for £4.5m in the summer of 1996. Not only had he charmed his avid followers at Stamford Bridge (he’d later be voted the club’s greatest ever player), but his balletic style on the pitch as well as an amiable air off it ensured that he was a favourite among Premier League neutrals too.
True to character, he upheld a vow to return to Sardinia when his contract at Chelsea came to an end in the summer of 2003. Despite the offer of a one-year extension from a club keen to keep him on for their Champions League campaign, Zola signed for Cagliari. Hours later, Abramovich’s takeover was announced.
Following a request from manager Claudio Ranieri, and keen to show the fans of his new club just how far his money and influence could reach, the Russian made changing Zola’s mind his first task.