Walter Zenga is one of the game's larger-than-life characters. A physically imposing presence, difficult to beat on his line and never afraid to come off it, he was the perfect prototype of the modern goalkeeper for over a decade. Flying from post to post in a bid to keep the ball out, he rightly earned his nickname of Spiderman.
Like Enrico Albertosi, one of his predecessors in the Italy jersey, Zenga might have had an eccentric approach to the art of goalkeeping, but as his career record shows, he was one of the most highly regarded custodians of his time. He won 58 caps for the Azzurri and made 369 Serie A appearances for Inter Milan, where he spent 12 seasons, and Sampdoria. He also played in 71 European matches for his clubs and was voted UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year on three separate occasions, in 1989, 1990 and 1991.
Catania come calling
After donning his gloves for the last time in 1999, Zenga made a seamless switch to coaching, taking charge of nine clubs across the globe but never lasting more than a season at any of them. This April, the man who helped his country to third place at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™ was handed a new mission: to save struggling Serie A outfit Catania from relegation.
Despite his championship wins with Steaua Bucharest in Romania in 2005 and Crvena Zvezda in Serbia the following year, Zenga's appointment was met with scepticism in Italy. Oblivious to the criticism aimed at him, the former goalkeeper applied his coaching maxim. "Every player is needed but no-one is indispensable," he said.
The results soon began to show, with Catania acquiring an ability to adapt to their opponents' tactics and to change their own during the course of a match. And by the season's end, they had had scrambled to safety.
Making light of the Sicilian club's scarce resources and having held on to his players over the close season, Zenga has masterminded a surprisingly good start to the new campaign for the southerners, leading them into a lofty sixth place. Even so, his continuous shuffling of the starting XI has had the fans scratching their heads at times.
The secret of Zenga's success has been to encourage his players to draw on their mental and physical attributes. "Players always need to be ambitious and be prepared to go through suffering," he explained. "They must never forget that success is not just winning one game but coming out on top again the next week. The only objective here is to win points."
In keeping the pressure on his players, the coach is having to make some difficult selection decisions. "The further we go into the season, the harder it's getting to put together the starting line-up, name the seven substitutes and tell the other five squad members they've not even made the bench. All the same it's a nice problem to have and the credit for that goes to the players."
With unfancied Catania flying so high after narrowly avoiding relegation last season, one might be tempted to talk of miracle. Zenga has an altogether different take on the turnaround, however. "It's just a team that's reaping the rewards of their hard work," he commented.
"Take a look around Europe and you'll see quite a few other similar cases like Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, Hull City in the Premier League and Urziceni in Romania. ."
Catania reinforced their position in the upper echelons of the table by securing a point from Saturday's visit to Siena, Giuseppe Mascara scoring a late equaliser from the spot. A veteran of the club's promotion from Serie B in 2006, the 29-year-old is continuing to prove his worth this season, having taken his tally to three.
One man following the Sicilians' adventures closely is former Italy coach Enzo Bearzot, who guided Italy to their Spain 1982 triumph. A one-time Catania player, the 81-year-old is greatly taken with the current crop's progress.
"I really admire the spirit of the team, their enthusiasm and organisation. But the fact that Catania, a team that doesn't have any stars, has the best defence in Serie A and is doing so well in the league is all down to Zenga if you ask me. The players need to follow their coach's advice and keep their feet on the ground now. After all, the main objective is to stay in Serie A without going through too much suffering."