Tomorrow, almost 30 years after he lifted the FIFA World Cup™ at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Italy legend Dino Zoff will celebrate his 70th birthday at his home in Rome, surrounded by his family.
The former goalkeeper made 570 appearances in Serie A from his debut on 24 September 1961 up until his retirement on 2 June 1983. An unassuming man, he enjoyed a hugely successful career at both club and international level. Zoff also made 332 consecutive Italian top-flight appearances for Juventus, without a single absence through injury in 11 years, even if he does admit to having played with broken ribs on some occasions.
“I could list all the victories that you managed to achieve through your skill, talent and ability to overcome almost effortlessly any obstacle in front of you,” wrote FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter in a birthday message to Zoff.
On the pitch, Zoff went about his business in the same cool-headed, efficient manner that he still shows in everyday life. And when asked why he chose the high-risk profession of goalkeeping, his answer is quite simple: “I’ve never been an artist Never one for over-the-top dives or unnecessarily showy saves, Zoff was revered for his exemplary positioning, great sense of anticipation, outstanding reflexes and flawless handling. Thanks to a combination of commitment and hard work, the man from northern Italy is to goalkeepers what Franz Beckenbauer is to defenders and Pele is to forwards: a legend. His most memorable achievement is, without doubt, captaining Gli Azzurri to glory at Spain 1982 at the age of 40, after having made one particularly extraordinary save against Brazil.
“It takes courage to play in a World Cup past the age of 40,” Blatter continued in his message. “It is not the age that counts, but the quality. It was an incredible save to stop Oscar’s header from finding the corner. They still remember it in Brazil now.”
Zoff has always gone about his work in a quiet and unfussy manner, while constantly looking for ways to improve. And despite never being the most vocal presence, he still has a remarkable ability to get his ideas across.
“Your authenticity is the quality I most admire,” added Blatter. “Being seen but not noticed. In an increasingly noisy world, you have always made yourself heard by using measured, balanced and fair words. There is no need to raise your voice to make people listen. It is the substance that is important."
Indeed, Zoff may be a man of few words, but when he does open his mouth he always has something to say. “It’s true, I don’t speak much,” he said. “But, in the Friuli region where I’m from, we are rather reserved in the way we express our emotions.”
Thirty years after he retired from playing and nearly a decade after the end of his brilliant career as a coach and director, Zoff is still very much loved in Italy. The famous game of cards he played on the return flight from Madrid to Rome alongside Italian president Sandro Pertini, coach Enzo Bearzot and Franco Causio, with the FIFA World Cup Trophy sitting on the table next to him, perfectly captures his straightforward, honest and fair approach to life.
Zoff still mourns the untimely death of his friend and former team-mate, Gaetano Scirea, a player with whom “a glance was enough gain an understanding”. And he still has respect for former Juventus owner Giovanni Agnelli, who would often drop in to the Bianconeri dressing room for a “quick coffee” at half-time during home games. “He never came to interfere on a tactical or technical level,” Zoff explained. “Just to give encouragement. He was a completely discrete presence.”
Zoff revealed “Michel Platini, Jose Altafini and Omar Sivorni were the best players” he played with, while in terms of those he coached, he said: “Francesco Totti, to whom I gave his international debut, has phenomenal technique and power, and had the ability to leave an even greater impression.”
These days Zoff is happy to watch matches on television, although he does feel that modern football “places too much importance on the physical side and on creating a spectacle, to the detriment of technique.” Still as sharp and physically active as ever at 70, Zoff’s days are now divided between golf, tennis, swimming and family life. “Life has given me a great deal, and I was able to practise a profession that I enjoyed and that I had dreamed of,” he said. “I’m a peasant, and the seasons of life must respect the seasons of nature.”
“Putting aside all the trophies one can win, it is this genuineness that makes the difference between a contender and a real champion,” Blatter concluded, before wishing “happy birthday” to one of the most likable and unassuming characters in football.