A rock; a workaholic; a perfectionist: Dino Zoff is one of the greatest goalkeepers the world has known. The facts speak for themselves: he was part of four FIFA World Cup™ squads, playing in three and emerging a champion at Spain 1982, won 111 caps and holds the record of 1,142 minutes without conceding a goal.

Yet this son of farming stock would not have had it any other way. "All that I have, I have earned through hard work," he once said. Football would take the country boy out of Italy's agricultural northeast; yet the country, proud and pragmatic, never really left Zoff.

Humble beginnings
Growing up in this erstwhile corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire had its advantages, not least the diet. When he was rejected by Inter Milan and Juventus as a 14-year-old - with the time-honoured excuse that he was too small - Zoff's grandmother Adelaide had the answer: to feed him up on eggs.

Five years on and Zoff's displays for his village team, Marianese, were giving the scouts at nearby Udinese food for thought. He had grown 33 centimetres to 1.82 metres - a rise that earned him a leap in faith on the part of the Serie A club. Soon Zoff was leaving his job as a motor mechanic to sign professional forms. He was not, however, a smooth starter and let in five goals on his debut at Fiorentina on 24 September 1961. Demotion beckoned, for player and club.

Zoff had made just four appearances for the Friuli club when Mantova restored him to the top flight the next season. Here his career really did take off. By 1966, he was being considered for Italy's World Cup squad alongside Enrico Albertosi, Roberto Anzolin and Pierluigi Pizzaballa. In the event, Azzurri coach Edmondo Fabbri selected the latter trio, because, as Zoff explained, "he did not want to be accused of favouritism being a Mantova man himself".

Consolation came in the shapely form of wife Anna-Maria. The subsequent birth of son Marco meant there would be two new arrivals in Zoff's life in 1967. That was the year Napoli welcomed him to the south of Italy in exchange for 130m lire and goalkeeper Bandoni. The Naples club succeeded where AC Milan, ever reluctant to meet Mantova's price, had failed. "I have great memories of my time there," Zoff said. "It is such a lively city."

Remarkable achievements
A memorable one too, as it turned out. Zoff made his international debut there in the 2-0 win against Bulgaria in April 1968. It was a UEFA European Championship quarter-final and he stayed in the team as Italy reached the Final, where they beat Yugoslavia in a replay.

A worthy start to an international career that only the great Paolo Maldini would eclipse three decades on. Yet not even the photogenic Maldini made the front cover of Newsweek magazine. That particular honour fell to Zoff in 1982, as he bowed out of international football in much the same way he had entered it: with a winner's medal.

That he did so as a 40-year-old in the World Cup was suitable recompense for his years of dedication. Seasons punctuated more by triumph than by disaster. The small defeats of losing his place to Albertosi at Mexico 1970, of being "not at my best" in Argentina eight years later, were nothing compared with six Italian Championships golds with Juventus.

It was half a lifetime ago that Zoff swapped Turin for Naples. It was a fresh challenge for a player who always seemed as interested in setting goals as he was in saving them. Perhaps this was the secret of his longevity.

In Zoff's case, the past really was history. And the fact that he was only ever as good as his last game allowed him to retain his enthusiasm through 570 Serie A appearances, 330 made in perfect sequence while at Juventus. Halcyon days indeed, those 11 terms at the Stadio Comunale.

Certainly, the Bianconeri got their money's worth out of their 330 million lire signing. In return, as well as the six Scudettos, Zoff picked up the UEFA Cup and two Italian Cups. The one caveat was the UEFA European Cup, where he was twice a loser: against Ajax in 1973 and then Hamburg years later.

Leading from the bench
The latter final was Zoff's farewell to the big time. He retired to become a goalkeeping coach at Juventus. But it was not enough. "As far as I was concerned it was a dead-end job," he said.

So he took the post of coach to Italy's Olympic team ahead of the Seoul Games - and impressed sufficiently to be offered the manager's job back at Juventus in 1988. Victories in the Italian and UEFA Cups, plus a third-place finish in the league, ensured the club would not regret their choice, although the arrangement lasted but a year.

Next stop was Lazio. In Rome, Zoff had four campaigns as coach then assumed the role of president. He oversaw the Eagles' transition from poor relations in the Eternal City to plc, and even had a brief spell as caretaker coach in 1997.

His next appointment was arguably the pinnacle: replacing Cesare Maldini as Italy trainer after the poor showing of the Azzurri at France 1998. And but for David Trezeguet's golden goal in the UEFA EURO 2000 final, he might well have been the man responsible for the country's first international success since Spain 1982.

Yet according to the Italian press, second place was for losers. Stung by the criticism, Zoff returned to Lazio, again as coach. He took them to third position and the UEFA Champions League, yet could not satisfy fans who had feasted on a league and cup double a year earlier. So when the 2001/02 season began with embarrassing defeats at home and in Europe, the Zoff removal vans were again in motion - doubtless laden with the trophies from a wonderful career in the game.