Over 700 players have had the honor of wearing the Chelsea shirt through the years, representing multiple nations from all over the world in the process. From the English greats such as Peter Osgood, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Bobby Tambling, to the Dutch delights in the form of Ruud Gullit, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Arjen Robben, the Blues have been truly blessed by players from everywhere.
In particular, Italy have provided players, and coaches, who have graced Chelsea’s history books in recent times and are currently influencing Chelsea in what is a bounce back season in 2016.
An Italian Revolution
The best place to start when talking about Chelsea’s Italian players is during the mid 1990s. On the August 18th 1996, two Italians made their debuts for the Blues in a 0-0 draw with Southampton at The Dell. Roberto Di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli joined Chelsea in the summer of ’96 and it didn’t take long for them to make an impact on the club.
Di Matteo scored nine times in his debut season, including a stunning goal after just 43 seconds of the 1997 FA Cup Final against Middlesbrough, which Chelsea went on to win 2-0. The midfielder netted in the 1998 League Cup Final against Middlesbrough in a 2-0 triumph before proving his love for big games by scoring the winner in the 2000 FA Cup Final. Di Matteo’s playing career with the Blues came to end in 2002 after 175 appearances for the club, scoring 26 times and winning five major trophies.
Vialli’s start to his Chelsea career was a little different to his fellow countryman’s. He failed to cement a first team place under manager Ruud Gullit until the Dutchman was fired in 1998. After the departure of Gullit, Vialli took over as player-manager and guided Chelsea to a cup double, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and League Cup. Vialli’s Chelsea continued their success with a European Super Cup in 1999 and a victory in the 2000 FA Cup Final before the Italian was sacked at the beginning of the 2000-01 season.
Three months after fellow Italians Vialli and Di Matteo made their Chelsea debuts, Gianfranco Zola, a diminutive forward signed from Parma, donned the Chelsea kit for the first time. Zola’s seven seasons became some of the most impactful in club history, with Chelsea reaching the Champions League for the first time in 1999. Zola also played major roles in securing two FA Cups, a League Cup, a Super Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, in which he scored the winner 21 seconds after coming on a substitute.
Zola’s influence under Vialli was not unnoticed as he was praised by the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson in his time with the Blues and scored some spectacular goals in the process, including a free kick against Tottenham and a back-heel flick against Norwich. In his time with the Blues, Zola made 312 appearances for Chelsea and scored 80 goals in the process. He was named the club’s Player of the Year twice, in 1999 and 2003, and his number 25 shirt has remained vacant at the club since his departure in 2003. In 2005, Zola was voted into Chelsea Centenary Eleven, showing just how big of an impact the Italian made while with the Blues.
Turn of the century
As the nineties came to an end and a new century began, the Italian influence remained. With Zola, Vialli and Di Matteo coming to the end of their stints at Chelsea, Carlo Cudicini made his debut in 1999 and became a huge factor in the club’s rise to power in the early 2000s. Cudicini picked up the club’s Player of the Year award in 2002 and helped Chelsea qualify for the Champions League at the end of the 2003/04 campaign. Cudicini’s 101 clean sheets are the third best in the club’s history and he left the club in 2009.
Ranieri’s look to the future
At the beginning of the the 2000s, alongside Cudicini, was manager Claudio Ranieri. The Italian didn’t make his impact on the club by winning trophies but instead, Ranieri laid the foundation for the future of the club. He signed Chelsea's now all-time top goal scorer Frank Lampard from West Ham in 2001, nurtured the young talent of John Terry in the heart of Chelsea’s defence and signed goalkeeper Petr Cech in 2003, who would join later in the summer. All three players have written their names into Chelsea’s history books and are some of the best to ever wear the Chelsea blue, making Ranieri forever a fan favourite at Stamford Bridge.
Ranieri’s departure in 2003 would be followed by years of success for Chelsea, mainly due to the foundation that he laid. Another Italian wouldn’t follow in his footsteps until 2009 when Carlo Ancelotti took the reigns at Chelsea. Ancelotti’s first season with the Blues would end with silverware as he guided the club to the Premier League title, setting a Premier League record with 103 goals scored. Six days after securing the title, Ancelotti watched on as his side won the 2010 FA Cup Final against Portsmouth.
Despite a successful first campaign in England, Ancelotti was sacked at the end of his second season in charge but his double winning season in 2009-10 remain one of the best in club history.
Two years after Ancelotti’s departure, Roberto Di Matteo would return to his beloved Chelsea in March 2012, replacing Andre Villas-Boas as interim manager. From that moment on, Di Matteo wrote himself deeper into Chelsea’s history books with a historic double. Chelsea’s remarkable run to the Champions League Final was capped off with a dramatic penalty shootout win, just days after they had won the 2012 FA Cup Final. Di Matteo was sacked in November 2012 but his short time as Chelsea boss will long be remembered and he has a special place in the hearts of Chelsea fans.
After a disastrous 2015-16 campaign, Chelsea chose Italian national team manager Antonio Conte to be the man to lead them forward. Conte’s arrival was coupled by the return of Carlo Cudicini in the summer of 2016 and after a shaky start to the current Premier League campaign, Conte’s traditional 3-4-3 formation took the league by storm. Chelsea surged to the top of the Premier League, playing scintillating football at times and defending with a purpose. Conte’s time with Chelsea has so far been brief but he has already showed signs of impacting the club in a major way.