x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Wanderer Walter Zenga now keen to lay down roots with Al Nasr

The nomadic Italian coach Zenga confident of staying put and bringing long-term success to Al Nasr, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

Walter Zenga, right, the Al Nasr coach, has led a nomadic existence since leaving his first coaching post with New England Revolution, managing 10 clubs in 11 years.
Walter Zenga, right, the Al Nasr coach, has led a nomadic existence since leaving his first coaching post with New England Revolution, managing 10 clubs in 11 years.

Back in 1999, when Walter Zenga was the goalkeeper coach of New England Revolution in the United States, he attended the Academy Awards and saw fellow Italian Roberto Benigni receive three gold statuettes for Life is Beautiful.

"Benigni says life is beautiful. I say life is strange," Zenga said in an interview a few days later.

At that moment in time, many would have been surprised by Zenga's statement. His life had been anything but strange. Nicknamed L'Uomo Ragno (Spiderman), one of football's greatest goalkeepers was winding down his career in Major League Soccer, regularly outshining the 20 year olds in goal at rival sides.

Blessed with amazing agility, the Italian had a grand career before his arrival in Major League Soccer, at both club and country level, making glorious reaction saves that were a photographer's dream.

He spent 11 seasons at Inter Milan and was a favourite of the Nerazzurri faithful with his gymnastic ability and tirades at defenders. He helped Inter win the 1989 scudetto and the Italian Super Cup, as well as the Uefa Cup in 1991 and 1994.

Zenga left a similar impression on the Azzurri fans, earning 58 caps for the national team and appearances at the 1984 Olympics and the 1986 and 1990 World Cups. Italia '90 brought out the best in Zenga as he set a record of not conceding a goal at the finals for 518 minutes.

His five clean sheets propelled Italy to the semi-finals, where he was beaten just once: by a Claudio Caniggia header. The home side eventually finished third.

"Believe me, from 1983 to 1995, it was an unbelievable 12-year journey," Zenga said. "I was at two World Cups. I went to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and it was a great experience. I also played the 1988 European Nations Cup."

Zenga was voted the world's best goalkeeper for three consecutive years, from 1989 to 1991, by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics. He also picked up the Uefa Goalkeeper of the Year award in 1990. He is also the only goalkeeper to have an international career average below 0.5 goals per game, at 0.414.

With all these records and accolades, why would life seem strange to Zenga? Perhaps he had a vision of the future that was to visit him 11 years later. Around the time he was being touted as Rafael Benitez's replacement at Inter, he was dismissed by the Saudi Arabia club Al Nasr.

Ironically, a few days after his December 24 sacking, Zenga was appointed coach at a namesake club: Al Nasr of Dubai.

Nasr had gone through two coaches in three months before they turned to Zenga, and the Italian's five months at the club have convinced the management to give him a one-year extension.

"The problem is sometimes people judge the coaches on short-term success," Zenga said after a three-hour workout with the team. "You win one game, you are a good coach; if you lose one game, you are a bad coach. This is not the way.

"Al Nasr have shown the way. We have renewed our contract for one more year because we want to reach the top with this club and we want to do this together. We need time and the people have to understand that you cannot build a strong, competitive team in one or two months."

Zenga has tasted instant success before. He guided Steaua Bucuresti to the Romanian league title in 2004/05, his only season with the club. They have won only one title since.

He has managed clubs in eight countries, and he admits to enjoying the diversity that the world has to offer. He is married to a Romanian woman and has announced his intentions to take Romanian citizenship.

"When I was a player, there were not too many opportunities to move around," Zenga said. "So you could not, for example, go to Spain and play. When I finished my career, I moved to the United States in 1997. I spent three years there as player-coach. It was a good experience and after that I wanted to stay away from Italy because I was in love with the rest of the world.

"I wanted to see and visit different parts of the world and I made lots of friends from around the globe. I started to understand different cultures and enjoy them. So I love to stay outside Italy."

Zenga coached at Al Ain in 2007 and is enjoying his second stint in the UAE, particularly since his wife, Raluca Rebedea, "speaks Arabic and she wanted to live here".

The Italian is also keen to turn around the fortunes of Nasr, who won their last of three league titles in 1986; they have not won a trophy since the President's Cup in 1989.

"It is not my problem that Al Nasr have not won anything for a long time," he said. "I was in another country, living another life. I have arrived now and my plan is very simple.

"When I arrived here in January, there were two things I was looking for: the first thing was to win some games immediately and improve the players. The second thing was to set the rules and impose my style, and this is a long-term venture."

Abdulrahman Mohammed, the former captain of the national team and Al Nasr legend, believes the club will buck the league trend and give Zenga time to foster his philosophy and plans.

"We like Zenga's vision for the club and we understand he needs time to implement his plans," Mohammed said. "He has done a good job till now and the results would also show that. In eight matches, the team has lost twice and we were unlucky not to win a few more."

A product of Inter's youth academy, Zenga will also be playing close attention to the juniors at Nasr, promising to usher in a strong squad of home-grown players.

Given the fickle nature of UAE football, Zenga knows he might not last long enough to see his plans through. But he remains positive.

"Pressure is part of my life," he said. "I chose to become a coach and if I cannot accept the press, my critics or other problems, I have to choose a different job. So for as long as I am here, I will try to do everything I can because this club deserves to be at the top."

arizvi@thenational.ae