Italian legend Walter Zenga was expecting to spend his birthday analysing his Cagliari’s performance against Sassuolo, but the coronavirus lockdown instead provides the 60-year-old time to reflect on a long and still active career in football.
It is, however, something of an understatement to remark that his coaching career – this a 19th coaching appointment in the last 20 years – contrasts wildly with a playing career in which he spent nearly two decades on the payroll at Inter.
Born in Milan in 1960, the young goalkeeper was the envy of his friends as he stood above the competition. But challenging for one first team position, he would have had concerns about whether he would realise those dreams when being sent on loan to Serie C1 side Salernitana in 1978.
Following additional spells with Savona and Sambenedettese, Zenga was finally promoted to second choice behind Ivano Bordon ahead of the 1982/83 campaign and waited patiently.
When Bordon joined Sampdoria a year later, the Nerazzurri promoted the youngster and their faith was rewarded in stunning fashion, conceding just 23 goals in Serie A. Fewer than any other goalkeeper and was selected as Italy’s No.1 as they finished fourth at the 1984 Olympics.
With an aggression and physicality to supplement his athleticism, the Milan local continued to highlight his importance to the Biscione through consistency of such performances, but two consecutive UEFA Cup semi-final exits to Real Madrid were the first signs that his talents would rarely be rewarded with silverware. Much like current Inter No.1 Samir Handanovic.
After travelling with the Azzurri for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Zenga’s efforts the following season – just 17 goals conceded – came close to delivering a Serie A title, but Diego Maradona inspired Napoli to the title.
Just as he had become undisputed first choice for the Azzurri, for an international career that would eventually end in 1992 after 58 appearances and a record-breaking 41 clean sheets, his Inter future was in doubt. As well as a heart-breaking World Cup semi-final loss on penalties to Argentina in 1990.
Labelled Il Deltaplano (the hang glider) due to his airborne shot-stopping abilities, transfer speculation spread amid reports Zenga was unhappy with the Nerazzurri hierarchy and close to joining Maradona’s Partenopei, but remained and medals finally arrived.
New signings Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthaus are often credited with the Scudetto triumph in 1988/89, but conceding just 19 times that season also played an often overlooked contribution.
A Supercoppa Italiana victory over Sampdoria later that year, though, would be the Italian’s last domestic success, as occasional continental triumphs masked general Serie A mediocrity during the remainder of his time at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.
In 1991, Zenga kept a clean sheet at the Stadio at home in the first-leg to help defeat Roma 2-1 on aggregate to win the UEFA Cup and a second triumph in 1994 versus Austria Salzburg arrived shortly before leaving Inter.
Like Bordon, he headed for Sampdoria and made a huge contribution to the Blucerchiati reaching the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final in 1995, only to suffer more penalty shootout heartache after a thrilling 5-5 aggregate draw with Arsenal.
Sadly for someone who was considered the leading player in his position between 1989 and 1991, his Serie A journey would end in relegation with Padova, before hanging up his gloves in the United States where he also became a stop gap player-coach with New England Revolution.
Flirting briefly with a career as an Italian soap actor, Zenga headed to Romania where he oversaw National Bucuresti and Steaua Bucharest, before a league and cup double with Red Star Belgrade in 2006 became his only coaching achievement to date.
Since then he has coached in Turkey, UAE, Romania (again), Saudi Arabia and England, with spells back home with Catania, Palermo, Sampdoria, Crotone and Venezia.
Rarely lasting more than a season, it was unsurprising that he stepped in at Cagliari in March, but he’s unlikely to stay in Sardinia for long and merely dilute the memory of his playing career.