By Chris Dunlavy
DURING his Italy and Inter heyday, Walter Zenga was…well, the man himself put it better than anybody.
“I was rich, unbeatable and pampered,” said the 56-year-old Wolves boss. “I was the handsome playboy who thought he could do what he liked, a kind of happy-go-lucky man about town. I was on an adventure through life.”
And he still is. From his appearance in an Italian soap opera to a Vegas wedding, Romanian drug bust and management career spread over three continents, the goalkeeper has always been what the Italians called un libertino.
“Walter did things his own way,” said Zenga’s friend and Inter team-mate, Giuseppe Bergomi. “He liked to party, to live life to the full and enjoy himself. For some players, fame is unwanted. For Walter, it was a beautiful part of the experience.”
Flamboyance was ingrained in Zenga. Married three times, he had relationships with numerous models and actresses, once missing a call-up to the national squad as he was locked in a hotel room, phone unplugged, ‘entertaining’ a guest.
When Madonna labelled him ‘the sexiest man at Italia 90’, rumours of an affair with the pop singer – never confirmed or denied – abounded.
In 1987, he released an eight-track LP – one of which was called Maestro Zenga – titled From Your Friend Walter and also hosted his own radio show.
On the pitch, too, he was emotional and expressive: part model, part gymnast, an immaculately coiffured contortionist whose lightning reflexes and spectacular saves earned the nickname Spiderman.
Not for him the nuts and bolts. His catching and kicking were notoriously weak. But, when every shot was repelled, who cared?
Certainly not Inter, who won a Scudetto, Italian Super Cup and two UEFA cups with Zenga minding the back door.
Not Italy, who saw their goalkeeper go 518 minutes without conceding at their home World Cup in 1990, a tournament record that stands to this day.
Nor the children in the back lanes of Milan, where every flying save was met with a cry of ‘Aah, Zenga’.
Their idol had walked the same streets. As a boy, Walter kept goal in the gutters while a wireless broadcast the exploits of Helenio Herrera’s all-conquering Inter side.
His father, Alfonso, had taken Zenga to the San Siro as a six-year-old. A 7-0 destruction of Brescia in his first match sealed a life-long love affair.
By ten, he was on the books, having falsified his birth date to dodge a rule that forbade under-11s from playing competitive games.
By 22, he was in the first team. By 23, he’d seized the No.1 jersey, forming a defensive trio with Bergomi and Riccardo Ferri that would eventually power Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter to glory.
Zenga’s lifestyle never impacted his form. At the height of his fame, he was voted the world’s best goalkeeper three years in succession.
“For me, without taking anything away from (Gigi) Buffon and (Dino) Zoff, Walter Zenga was the greatest of all Italian goalkeepers,” said Bergomi. “On his day, he was literally unbeatable.”
He was, however, a man of his time. When Arrigo Sacchi took charge of Italy and Osvaldo Bagnoli of Inter, both demanded strait-laced professionalism.
Yet, as one Italian journalist put it: “Zenga belongs to the category of histrionic, constantly torn between rage and strokes of genius, in the match as in the locker room.” In the age of Michael Schumacher, Zenga was James Hunt.
He left Inter in 1994, and Italian football three years later. That decision was informed as much by the changing landscape as the abuse he suffered for costing Italy a place in the 1990 World Cup final, when his mistimed leap allowed Argentina’s Claudio Caniggia to net a semi-final equaliser.
“I was tired of the constant insults to my wife and my children, tired of the choirs of ‘Argentina, Argentina’, tired of getting banned for answering back,” said Zenga, whose side eventually lost on penalties.
The subsequent two decades have been little short of a world tour. After playing and managing New England Revolution in the USA, Zenga has coached in Romania, Serbia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Along the way, he was arrested for cocaine possession in Romania (which later turned out to have been planted by police), starred in a late-night Italian TV drama and met his third wife, Raluca, who he credits with helping him mature.
“Up to 37 years, I did not understand much of life,” he said. “I was just a football player. When I stopped, it took years for me to understand what to do when you grow. Then, I found a wonderful woman, Raluca, who enlightened my life.”
Success has been patchy, titles at Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest offset by uninspired spells in Italy with Sampdoria and Palermo.
Zenga, though, says success is relative. “People look at the internet and judge me,” he said at his Wolves unveiling. “But sometimes I left jobs because I didn’t get a salary for six months. The internet doesn’t tell you that.”
A showman to the end, Zenga couldn’t help himself at the press conference, claiming with typical bravado that Wolves were the most famous English club in Italy.
In 2009, a forecast that minnows Palermo could win the Scudetto was met with similar levels of mirth. Such outbursts, says his old Inter team-mate Beppe Baresi, are evidence of Zenga’s humour, yet beneath the surface lies a serious coach.
“I had no doubt that Walter would reach certain goals,” said Baresi. “He is a real coach, with the same dedication he had as a player. For me, he can still aspire to manage the best teams, even Inter.”