LONDON: It does not necessarily follow that a man who is smart on the pitch is bright in the brain. However, Gianfranco Zola, the most endearing and enduring of the 500 foreign players who have flooded into England's Premiership club football this past decade, is gifted in all departments.
As a player, he darts between defenders with zest and fine technique, a dancer among footballers. He is a 37-year-old who has not outgrown the joy of a seven-year-old. This season, fearing it might be his last, he was determined to go out with a flourish, chasing every ball, scoring every goal he could.
Consequently, he leads Chelsea in its most competitive season in decades. There will be a new contract for Franco, a plea for him to play on until he drops.
It is not just how Zola plays but often what he says that inspires. Last week, at a conference in London bringing all 52 national football associations under the UEFA banner, many contrary attempts to solve racism were in evident conflict.
The longer the talk went on in the workshops of administrators, sociologists, security advisers and human rights experts, the more obvious it was that a UEFA conference is as difficult to lead toward consensus as the United Nations.
Even a universal game played to one rule book operates under disparate legal and cultural systems. Football crossed boundaries between East and West Europe years before glasnost, yet tackling racism in our stadiums is the devil's work for UEFA.
From Holland, for example, comes a proposal that 52 nations adopt zero tolerance toward racist minorities. Henk Kesler, from the Royal Dutch Football Association, then Jan-Willem Meerwaldt from the Dutch Sports Ministry, outlined their prototype for eliminating such evil as witnessed when Arsenal's Thierry Henry - one of the most wonderful athletes in sport - was verbally abused by a handful of PSV Eindhoven fans.
The Dutch idea is that if chanting or verbal abuse lasts longer than 15 seconds, there is a public announcement that the game could be stopped. If abuse continues, the match is then suspended for 15 minutes, during which time the police and stewards take up positions.
If the game resumes and the racists continue to make themselves heard, the match will be abandoned and the stadium evacuated.
Some time ago, the mayor of Amsterdam authorised a train heading there from Utrecht to be halted because of anti-Semitic chanting by FC Utrecht followers aimed at Jewish connections of Ajax Amsterdam.
“All 700 passengers could not be arrested,” observed Kesler, “but the train was sent back to Utrecht and they did not see the match at all. Since that, we have had less racism and less verbal abuse in Holland.”
From far and wide there were diverse reactions to the Dutch methods. Many delegates agreed that their governments and police did not have such sweeping powers and perhaps not the political will to deprive the mass of supporting their team because of the loud mouths of some.
Nevertheless, the Dutch think UEFA should impose this rule. It is, responded David Taylor, a Scottish member of the UEFA Disciplinary Committee that has dealt with 30 racist claims over 10 years, “a superficially seductive idea.”
Taylor pointed out the dangers of a section of fans taking advantage of such a draconian law to get a game in which their team was losing abandoned. Delegates doubted the wisdom or the effectiveness of UEFA's recent punishment of Slovakia after black players on the England side were systematically jeered and taunted by large sections of Slovaks.
UEFA reacted by fining the Slovak FA and ordering the stadium to be closed for the next Slovakia match. But Gerd Aigner, UEFA's chief executive officer, told the London conference that this was not the solution to a complex, evil poison that visits sport from societies at large.
He heard delegates' plea that stadium closure destroys the freedom and enjoyment for the masses and, in a way, delivers power to the racists.
Nevertheless, talking between the nations, accepting that football has a responsibility for what goes on in its arenas, beats hiding and hoping racism will ebb away.
But, and this takes us full circle, the performers have a role to play.
At the end of eight hours' discussion, a handful of players came into the conference. Marcel Desailly, the captain of France at a time when Jean Marie Le Pen atrociously denounced the right of “African” players to play for France, was eloquent, strong, and reasonable in his summation that the collective chanting often represented stupidity rather than harmful racism.
“If there is violence, we have to do something,” he concluded. “If it is only words, we must not always react.”
On the podium besides him was Zola. To my eye this is the ultimate contrast.
Desailly is a defender, a huge, muscular, physically powerful man. Zola is the smallest of professionals, with the biggest appetite for the game and the eye for the big picture.
What was he doing on a platform about race? “I get it all the time,” Zola replied, a smile forming on his lips. “They keep calling me midget!”
He allowed the laughter to settle down and then he addressed the subject seriously, saying that while players have the responsibility to know that how they behave acts as a catalyst to the young, in his opinion the game must always go on.
“To stop it is to give the platform and the importance to the loudest,” he said. “We have to make this a collaboration between the club, the supporters and the players. Our part is to show by competing together, white and black, there's no difference.”
Zola cannot say what he will do when the whistle blows on his playing career.
He did end the conference perfectly: “Certainly I will use the experience of playing for teams with many different cultures for myself and to educate my children.
“It starts from the relationship between father and son or daughter, and in this way we hope to have a generation who are not talking about racism anymore.” – IHT