Born: 28 April 1960 in Milan (Italy)
Nickname: uomo ragno (Spider-Man)
Playing career: 1977-1978; Inter Milan. 1978-1979: Salernitana. 1979-1980: Savona, 1980-1982: Sambenedettese. 1982-1994: Inter Milan. 1994-1996: Sampdoria. 1996-1997: Padua. 1997-1999: New England Revolution (USA).
Honours as a player: 1989: Italian league champion, Italian super cup winner, World’s Best Goalkeeper. 1990: best goalkeeper of the FIFA World Cup™ in Italy (semi-finals), World’s Best Goalkeeper. 1991: UEFA Cup winner, World’s Best Goalkeeper. 1994: UEFA Cup winner. 369 games in Italy’s SerieA. 58 international appearances for Italy.
Coaching career: 1998-1999: New England Revolution (player coach). 2002-2003: National Bucharest (Romania). 2004-2005: Steaua Bucharest. 2005-2006: Red Star Belgrade (Serbia). 2006: Gaziantepspor (Turkey). 2007: Al-Ain (UAE). 2007: Dinamo Bucharest. Since April 2008: Catania (Italy).
Honours as a coach: 2005: Romanian league champion. 2006: Serbian league and cup double winner.
The New Walter Zenga
Once an internationally acclaimed goalkeeper and a happy-go-lucky man about town, after years of peregrination, Walter Zenga returned home to Italy in April – as a coach and a different person.
The mobile phone rang once, stopped for a while, rang again and then broke into such a paroxysm of chirrups that it sounded as though its owner was trying for a mention in the Guinness Book of Records. Walter Zenga flicked through his SMS messages of congratulation until the moment he was due to appear in front of the television cameras. Forty-two messages had reached him in the space of 15 minutes.
The time was just after 5pm on 6 April 2008 on a warm, sunny day in Catania, Sicily. Although, according to the calendar, summer had not officially announced itself, that Sunday had the hallmark of an intoxicating midsummer party – at least from a football perspective. Catania, on the verge of relegation and without a winning point for weeks, had beaten favourites Napoli 3-0 and Zenga was already celebrating his first 90 minutes as a professional manager in Italy.
“That was an exhausting debut and my head was pounding with thoughts,” muttered Zenga, who had seemingly lost the plot during the match’s emotional roller coaster. “I am 48 years old but working as a SerieA coach is definitely something else.” In fact, Zenga was celebrating his 48th birthday three weeks later.
But he could be forgiven for jumping the gun a little as launching into his new career back home smacked somewhat of the classic film, Back to the Future. His official presentation had been in Catania on 1 April, which some cynics had prosaically described as “an April Fool’s joke”. Until the end of the season, Zenga in fact had more trouble changing his own reputation than battling with relegation.
THE OTHER ZENGA
For many fans, Zenga is still the nonchalant, provocative showman who, as a sideline, happened to defend the goal for Inter Milan and the Italian national team so brilliantly for several years while his main occupation was to take advantage of every possible opportunity to clutter the tabloids with sensational gossip. “I was rich, unbeatable and pampered — the handsome playboy who thought he could do what he liked, a kind of happy-go-lucky man about town,” explains Zenga. “You can afford to do that when you’re thirty and you live life to the full – but when you reach fifty, it’s a different story.”
In recent years Zenga has been traipsing around the world with varying degrees of success as a coach with New England Revolution, National und Steaua Bucharest, Red Star Belgrade, Gaziantepspot, Al-Ain and Dinamo Bucharest. When Catania contacted him, he was in the middle of negotiating with a Russian club. “During all that time, I was not trying to distance myself from Italy but from my image. You grow older and wiser with the years and today I am a different man.”
That is certainly true of his appearance. Now he is going bald and usually wears a tailor-made suit in which he could easily pass as a banker. But such is his reputation for being an inveterate reveller that no-one is willing to believe the latest version of his story. “People are so prejudiced,” he laments. But it was he who fanned the flames.
He was only ten years old and already a fervent Inter Milan fan when Italo Galbiati called him up to Inter’s youth team. As a ballboy for the club’s home games at the San Siro Stadium, he always headed towards a place behind the goal defended by his idol, Ivano Bordon. Then, after earning his spurs with lower division teams such as Salernitana, Savona and Sambenedettese, he took his first bow with Inter at the age of 23 on 11 September 1983. As fate would have it, a certain Ivano Bordon was keeping goal for opponents Sampdoria.
From that point on, Zenga’s star began to rise and the awards came pouring in: World’s Best Goalkeeper from 1989 to 1991, Italian league champion in 1989 and UEFA Cup winner in 1991 and 1994. While in his prime towards the end of the 1980s, he was regarded as practically unbeatable, even setting up a new FIFA World Cup1″ record during the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ on home ground — 518 minutes of play without conceding a goal. But he will never forgive himself for missing Claudio Caniggia’s equaliser in the semi-final against Argentina. Although Italy were subsequently knocked out on penalty kicks, Zenga was crowned best goalkeeper.
Despite the accolades, he is still remembered in Italy primarily for his antics off the pitch, his involvement with countless starlets, his work as a radio DJ while with Inter and his guest appearances on many television shows. One anecdote that keeps making the rounds is how the national coach decided to call him up belatedly but could not reach him as Zenga had locked himself in at home with a new flame and had disconnected the phone. In 1992, when national coach Arrigo Sacchi surprised him by leaving him out of the azzurri team, Zenga teacted by singing an Italian pop song into the reporters’ microphone: They’ve murdered Spider-Man. From that moment on, the name stuck and he was known as uomo ragno (Spider-Man).
GIUSEPPE BERGOMI’S PRAISE
“You’d have to write a book if you wanted to explain Walter well,” comments Inter idol and Zenga’s former team¬mate Giuseppe Bergomi. “Whenever the opponents scored a goal, he could willingly have throttled his defenders. But his image as a playboy wallowing in dolce vita, my God, that’s over 20 years old. Nowadays he’s a dedicated coach with thousands of facts stored on his computer. Impressive. Walter will be coaching Inter one day.”
Zenga has also been praised by other giants in Italian football. “He deserved this break with Catania,” comments 2006 Wold-Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi. “Walter learned a lot working abroad. He has a meticulous approach and is incredibly knowledgeable,” muses Zenga’s former Inter Milan coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, currently Republic of Ireland manager. “Anyone who dismisses him as a stereotype can’t see farther than his nose.”
One thing that Zenga learnt in the past ten years, during which winning the double with Red Star Belgrade in 2006 was his greatest triumph, is revealed in the following comment: “Sometimes all that the coach needs is just a lucky break.”
He once said that a coach’s career took a circuitous route via the motorway, the ring road or country lanes. So, in fact, uomo ragno was never killed off; on the contrary, he was meandering around country lanes. Now he has arrived home again. And Catania wear red and blue — just like Spider-Man.