Born April 28th 1960 in Milan and an Inter fan as a boy, Walter Zenga will be remembered by most Interisti as the greatest goalkeeper ever to have worn the Nerazzurri jersey, as well as a candidate for the title ‘greatest goalkeeper of all time’.
At the peak of his career, the man known as ‘Spiderman’ was officially crowned the worlds best three years in a row. Blessed with outstanding reflexes and an assured command of his area, Zenga had an aura of invincibility, a characteristic that all truly great ‘keepers possess.
As flamboyant off the pitch as he was on it, controversy followed Zenga throughout his career. The man himself was once quoted as saying; “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.”
As a young man, Zenga enjoyed relationships with several models and actresses, one story being that he missed a call up to the national squad as he was locked in a room with his phone unplugged, enjoying the company of one such young woman! Always the ladies’ man, even in the twilight of his playing career, Zenga once celebrated a goal for his team in the USA by running to his then girlfriend in the crowd, and enjoying such a long kiss that the opposition decided to shoot at the still empty goal straight from kick-off! (being the MLS, they missed anyway!)
Unlike so many players with a taste for a wild-life off the field however, Zenga’s playing form never really dipped as a consequence of his lifestyle, which is why he will always be remembered as one of the true goalkeeping greats.
Zenga was only 10 years old when he was signed up into the Inter youth ranks, and after a few years learning his trade in the lower leagues with Salernitana, Savona and Sambenedettese, he was brought back to the club in 1982. In his second season, at the tender age of 23, he went on to establish himself as the Nerazzurri’s number one, and continued to play for the club until 1994, making a total of 328 Serie A appearances for his hometown team.
These were undoubtedly the golden years in the career of Walter Zenga, playing in one of the great Inter teams and enjoying a pivotal role in helping the club to the Scudetto in 1989, the Supercup in 1990, as well as the UEFA Cup in 1991 and 1994. Zenga’s determination to win and overall influence in this success will never be forgotten, not least by his team mates. Guiseppe Bergomi was once quoted as saying, “Whenever the opponents scored a goal, he could willingly have throttled his defenders.”
During this time, ‘Spiderman’ also more than made his mark on the world stage for Italy, particularly during the ‘Italia 90’ World Cup. To this day, Zenga still holds the World Cup record (518 minutes) for the longest time spent without conceding a goal, until Claudio Cannigia scored for Argentina in the semi-finals, Italy eventually being knocked out on penalties.
In a cruel twist of fate, Zenga himself was at fault for the goal, but recognising his overall contribution, he was still voted the best goalkeeper of the tournament by FIFA. In total, Zenga played for the Azzurri 58 times, and will always be remembered as one of the countries’ greatest, alongside Dino Zoff and Gianliugi Buffon.
In 1994, at the age of 34, Walter Zenga left Inter and joined Sampdoria, where he stayed for 2 seasons before moving down to Serie B with Padova. In 1997, Zenga decided to leave Italy and finished his playing career in America with the New England Revolution. In his last season in America, he was given the role of player-manager, and he has continued to coach ever since.
It was probably an attempt to forge a new reputation for himself (Gone now is the playboy attitude, replaced with a more mature, philosophical gentleman) that led Zenga to pastures new, before looking to find work in Italy. His coaching career certainly started well, and titles were won with both Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade, leading to the opprortunity to take charge at Catania in 2008. Again, Zenga enjoyed relative sucess and achieved a record points total for the club and a 15th place finish, playing some very attractive attacking football along the way.
In what was a surprise to many, having decided to leave Catania and look for a bigger challenge, Zenga opted to join fierce rivals Palermo. Given the Sicilians’ rivalry, coupled with Palermo President Zamparini’s itchy trigger finger at the best of times, it came as no real surprise that, once early results didn’t go Zenga’s way, Zamparini gave the coach his marching orders.
Following this, Zenga again looked abroad to continue his coaching career, and for the past two seasons he has been in charge of the Saudi club, Al Nassr FC. Hopefully, he can put his Palermo expeience behind him (I doubt whether Mourinho would last six months under Zamparini) and go on to become a truly accomplished coach, something that not too many ‘keepers have gone on to do.
For many Inter fans, myself included, there is the hope that one day Walter Zenga will return to Inter Milan as head coach, and go on to repeat the success he enjoyed there as a player. Regardless, for his achievements as a player alone, Walter Zenga deserves his place as a true Legend of Calcio.