Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola owns a booming ice cream business that now boasts four stores in London and another in Milan

He is back in SW6 to play for a Chelsea legends team against Inter Milan in memory of Ray Wilkins – what you may not know is that the little genius returns as a successful ice cream man.


Zola isn't quite hanging out of the window of a van selling Mr Whippy, but owns a chain of successful gelato parlours, with business booming.

Italy is the home of ice cream, with the first machine made scoops made by Sicilian fisherman Procopio Cuto in 1686.

Zola has an acute sweet tooth – his dad sold ice cream when he was growing up and he once took a six-hour round trip, in a helicopter, so he could get a second helping of a particular ice cream he'd had in Bologna a few days earlier.

He later went back and bought 30 kilos of the stuff.



Now 51, Zola was inspired to start up his own shop while on holiday a few years ago.

He told SunSport: "It was five years ago, me and a friend used to quite often go to Grand Cayman.


FOR RAY Zola, Ballack and Vialli return to Stamford Bridge for Chelsea legends match in Ray Wilkins’ memory


"We saw that there was no decent ice cream out there, so we decided to open [a shop].

"It was very, very successful and with that in mind we decided to open one in England as well."
The shop, Unico, got its first branch in Bromley, south London, in 2015 – with Chelsea legends Dennis Wise, Roberto Di Matteo and Andriy Shevchenko on hand to help out – and has rapidly stretched across the capital and into his native Italy.

The cafes are found in Notting Hill and affluent St John's Wood, while a new venue opened a mile down the road from Stamford Bridge in Fulham just last month.

Gianfranco Zola factfile

CHELSEA

  • 311 matches, 80 goals
  • FA Cup: 1997, 2000
  • Uefa Cup Winners Cup: 1998
  • League Cup 1998
  • Chelsea Player of the Year: 1999, 2003
  • FWA Player of the Year: 1997
  • Premier League Player of the Month: December 1996, October 2002
  • Premier League Goal of the Month: February 1997, April 1997


A shop in Milan is also opening in the coming weeks.

"We are doing OK," says a modest Zola, who decides not to mention that his ice cream has won a number of awards and is adored by food bloggers.

"We are getting bigger and opening some new places," he adds.

"We believe that we have good quality and hopefully it will continue to be successful."

The cafe offers 20 different flavours of gelato, another six vegan options as well as a range of pastries, cakes and hot food.

Traditional ingredients are used, no conservatives or artificial flavourings are in the food, with gelato made in-store by chefs throughout the day.

Gourmet coffees are flown in from a specialist company in Bologna, which sources the best beans from independent businesses around the world.

Waiters at Unico have been on special training courses to ensure their coffee is served at its best.

One of the flavours has been named after Zola – the pine nut-flavoured Magic Box, the nickname given to him by Chelsea fans when he was at the club.

 

Sadly for Blues supporters, although understandably,  the Italian isn't often found behind the counter.

He laughs: "I don't scoop ice cream!

"I'm not the one on the operational side. I follow it and keep an eye on it.

"I tend to be more [involved] when there are decisions to be made."

Zola, who has been out of football since being sacked by Birmingham City last year, also revealed he is enjoying his time away from the game.

"To be honest it's not something I'm desperately looking for," he says when asked about a return to management.

"I'm not going crazy putting my name everywhere. I decided not to rush.

"If a good opportunity comes then I will think about it, but I'm not going for every job around.

"It's been a year where I've focused on other things and to be honest I've enjoyed it a lot."


 

Fifteen years ago, in May 2003, Zola made his final appearance in a game that changed the course of Chelsea history – and changed English football.

The Blues were facing Liverpool on the final day of the season needing a draw to finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League.

The Reds went in front through Sami Hyppia, before Marcel Desailly equalised and then Jesper Gronkjaer scored a now infamous goal to earn Chelsea the three points and the top four spot.

Six weeks later little-known billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the Blues – with Champions League football a must-have for the Russian.

Had Chelsea not own that game, the club could be in a very different place today.


Zola, who had already committed to leave the club and play for Cagliari, came as a sub, getting a roaring reception from the home support.

"I remember the importance," he says of the game, "I remember coming on for the final 20 minutes and the reception [from the fans] was great."

Mr Abramovich was desperate for Zola – who at age 36 he was named Chelsea's Player of the Year – to stay and offered him a princely sum to change his mind, but the forward kept his word and joined the Serie A minnow.

A couple of weeks earlier, the diminutive maestro had scored his final goal in Blue – a majestic lob against Everton that was arguably his best ever.

"I always rated that as one of the best goals I ever scored, considering the difficulty of the goal, I really like it.

"It wasn't easy and it was important."


On Friday night, Zola will join old team-mates – Dennis Wise, Roberto Di Matteo and Marcel Desailly among them – to play an Inter legends side containing superstars like Javier Zanetti, Marco Materazzi and Jurgen Klinsmann.

Alongside those players, Zola became one of the most adored players in Chelsea's history.

His 311 matches in Blue brought magical dribbling, sensational goals and silverware – all with a huge smile plastered on his face.

Zola scored 80 goals for Chelsea, created countless more and helped the club win two FA Cups, the League Cup and the Uefa Cup Winners' Cup – the first trophies won by Chelsea since the 1970s.

He was also named player of the season twice.


Zola can't wait to step back onto the pitch and is looking forward to playing with his old pals "very much", he says, the excitement clear in his voice.

"It's a big opportunity to play together and see each other after a long time.

"Some of them I haven't seen for a very long time, it will be a pleasure.

"On top of that we are playing in front of our supporters, which will be amazing and we hope they will be up for it."


One star who sadly won't be at the game is Ray Wilkins, Chelsea's youngest ever captain who passed away last month.

The match will be played in his memory, with a proceeds from the match to be donated to Crohn's & Colitis UK in honour of Butch.

Wilkins was Gianluca Vialli's assistant between 1998 and 2000, helping the club finish 3rd in 1999 – Chelsea's best finish since 1970 – and win the 2000 FA Cup.



Zola, who was at Wilkins' funeral at the start of the month, said: "[I remember] A lot of things about him.

"When he was working with us he was always very good. To all of us.

"Considering that Vialli was very young as a coach, Ray played a big part.

"He was the one keeping everybody together, he was always the one who had the right word for everyone, for every circumstance.

"He's going to be a big miss for a lot of us."


Zola has been at Cobham with a few of the old boys to prepare for the match, but admitted tactics were out of the window.

"Just to get fit. A few of us got together and played together, it was good fun.

"Tactics not really, a little bit of fitness, that's what we need more than the tactics."

When asked how his fitness was these days he joked: "Do I have to be honest?

"Let's put it this way I've been in better condition!"

Maybe he's had one too many gelatos.

  • Chelsea Legends vs Inter Milan Forever takes place at Stamford Bridge on Firday, May 18. Kick-off is at 7.45pm. Tickets can be purchased on the Chelsea website here

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