Walter Zenga remembers Italia ‘90 defeat: ‘After, you feel like you want to take a gun and shoot yourself’
Walter Zenga remembers the crammed training sessions and the pavements filled with fans on the way from the Rome hotel to the capital’s national stadium.
He remembers the quiet focus on the team coach, looking around at trusted teammates, all major stars with country and club: Franco Baresi, Giuseppe Bergomi, Paolo Maldini, Riccardo Ferri, Gianluca Vialli.
He remembers not a feeling of calm – “first we must clarify this: I cannot be calm, because I am Italian” – but knowing what he had to do, that “this was my time”.
He remembers emerging from the tunnel at the Stadio Olimpico and being greeted by a wall of noise, as 73,000 compatriots urged their side to respond with victory at the 1990 World Cup. Their World Cup, on their own patch.
He remembers feeling invincible.
“Ah, the national anthem,” said Zenga, the Italian goalkeeper at Italia ’90. “We sang it every time with all the voice we had. We all stood there, holding hands, and you feel everyone else feels the same.
“It’s something I cannot describe. At that moment, you’re there with 70,000 people beside you, but another how many millions on television? And those people believe you can do your best. It’s an amazing thing; you feel like, not a lion, but that nobody can beat me.”
For much of the finals, they were indomitable. Italy began the tournament with a 1-0 victory against Austria; substitute Salvatore Schillaci headed home the first of the six goals that sealed the Golden Boot.
Said Zenga: “Can you imagine? Schillaci is 1.75 metres and he rose between the two central defenders at 1.90 metres. Football is strange.”
There seemed nothing peculiar about Italy’s next four results. Boasting the world’s finest goalkeeper – from 1989-1991, Zenga was voted above everyone else in his position – and some of the game’s greatest defenders, Italy stifled and stymied their opponents all the way to the semi-finals.
The hosts did not concede from the first whistle in that initial encounter with Austria; 450 minutes without being breached, all at their Rome stadium. Even in the build-up to the finals, Italy were leakproof in the capital.
But for the last-four clash with Argentina, they switched to the Stadio San Paolo in Naples. Diego Maradona’s Argentina at the home of Diego Maradona’s Napoli. The Argentine captain stirred the pot pre-match, calling Neapolitans to support his side instead of their countrymen.
He played to the perceived disdain Italy’s politically powerful had for Napoli’s “southerners” – Italy’s home-grown “foreigners”.
“The Neapolitans must remember one thing,” Maradona said. “Italy makes it feel important one day of the year, but forgets about it the other 364.”
The Stadio San Paolo did not turn on their compatriots that night, but it felt altogether different to Rome.
“It affected us,” Zenga said. “It’s hard to explain in five or so words, but we came from Rome where we played five games, with five wins and no goals against.
“The whole stadium did not care whether they were Roma fans, Lazio fans, Inter fans or Juventus fans. It was complete support, all 90 minutes.
“Then we arrive in Naples, Maradona says a few things, and the atmosphere changed. We cannot look at that as an excuse for Argentina beating us, but the feeling before was different. It surprised us, but it didn’t cause us to lose.”
But lose they did. Having taken the lead through Schillaci and stretched their defensive streak to 517 minutes – a tournament record that still stands – Claudio Caniggia pounced to level for Argentina, beating Zenga to the ball as the goalkeeper attempted to collect a cross. The complexion of the tie changed.
“The most important thing in our minds was that we didn’t concede a goal, we didn’t concede a goal, we didn’t concede a goal,” Zenga said.
“But once you do, it’s strange. We knew before that if we didn’t concede, we’re in the final, but subconsciously we started to think that if we did concede we wouldn’t arrive there.
“If I tell you to stop thinking about one pink elephant, what are you thinking about? One pink elephant. The mind all the time creates something.”
Defence punctured, Italy kept Argentina at bay for the remainder of the match, and all through extra time. Then, in the penalty shoot-out, Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena succumbed to the pressure, in front of the 60,000 spectators there and the millions on television, and Argentina triumphed 4-3. Italy’s World Cup dream was dead.
“This is the biggest disappointment in my life,” Zenga said. “We came into the tournament believing we would arrive in the final and play against West Germany there. Until the last penalty, I thought we would.”
Once back in the bowels of the Stadio San Paolo, the disappointment hit home. It hit hard.
“After, you feel you want to take a gun and shoot yourself,” Zenga said. “When we arrived in the locker room, nobody talked for 20 or 30 minutes. Nobody said anything and there was just this big silence, a silence that was much louder than any big noise. That’s the silence of a game lost, the invincible team that had lost something.”
Schillaci later revealed he spent two hours in the changing room, smoking and crying. “It was as if a large building had toppled on me,” he said.
Yet Italy would regroup and defeat England 2-1 in the play-off for third, 24 hours before West Germany outlasted Argentina in Rome to lift a third global title. While the world tuned in, Zenga tuned out.
“If I can’t arrive in the final,” he said, “why do I have to watch it? For what? I prefer not to.”
As time has passed, Zenga’s defiance has faded. He has reviewed that tournament, even the final, and he is proud of what he and Italy achieved. Amid the clamour and the acclaim, and the pressure and the strain, an entirely home-based Italian side, nucleus forged at the 1984 Summer Olympics, had performed on their own turf.
“Playing the World Cup is not easy,” Zenga said. “The ball does not weigh 485 grams – it is four tonnes. One month – we can use the poker expression – all in. You prepare for four years and then in one month, ‘boom’ like a shot, it’s done.
“But I feel we did one of the best tournaments in history. Like now, you have an iPhone with all your pictures, I have one reel in my mind, and I have a lot of moments. From the full training, the bus from the hotel, the travel and when you arrive at the stadium and all the people, everyone I met. All the time, good memories.”
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