On 28 April, the players of UAE club Al Nasr surprised their coach Walter Zenga by presenting him with a cake on his 51st birthday. Perhaps an unwelcome reminder that he was now into his sixth decade, the touching gesture was nonetheless a fitting tribute to the Italian’s belief that such occasions are as important to coaching as picking players and honing their technique. Building good relationships with the media, the club’s administration and support staff, not to mention fostering team spirit and friendships between players, are among Zenga’s top priorities.
Known as Spiderman for the incredible shot-stopping reflexes that allowed to him to keep a clean sheet for a record 518 consecutive minutes of FIFA World Cup™ football, Zenga finally hung up his goalkeeping gloves at the age of 39 to pursue a career as coach. His new career has taken him to six countries in three continents, with the latest stop at Dubai’s Al Nasr Sporting Club.
Here, Zenga talks to FIFA.com about the achievements of a life in football and the challenges to come in Dubai and further afield.
FIFA.com: Walter, how are you enjoying life in the Gulf?
Walter Zenga: Of course it’s different to anywhere I’ve lived before. Every place has its own character and atmosphere. Life in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is similar to Turkey, where I lived for a while. Football itself tends to stay the same no matter where you are. I try to bring European professionalism to the players, because that is what they are lacking. Everyone has their own unique skills and talents; my job as coach is to bring out the best in the players I deal with and help them put in good performances on the pitch.
Did you ever think that football would bring you to this part of the world?
Sometimes you don’t get enough time to stop and think. Football took me to the United States as a player, for instance, and that’s where I retired and started out as a coach with New England Revolution. I went back to Italy, where I coached an amateur side in Milan called Brera Calcio, and then I went wandering: lots of different countries and clubs.
Was it easy for you? As a former goalkeeper, didn’t people assume you should stick to training goalkeepers?
There’s no such thing as an easy job. The belief that goalkeepers don’t make good coaches is just one of those silly myths. There’s no basis to it. There are a lot of superstitions like that in football and people repeat them unthinkingly until they become the truth. For instance, there are players out there who are labelled 'crazy' because they once lost their heads on the field, but the label sticks with them for life. It’s the same as saying a goalkeeper can’t coach. I always ask these people: 'Why not? What’s stopping him?' They’re forgetting that some great goalkeepers went on to make great coaches, people like Romania’s Valentin Stanescu, or Michel Preud’homme from Belgium. These two alone are proof that goalkeepers can do it.
How would you describe your career to date?
I’m pleased with what I’ve achieved. I live for football: it’s given me 40 years so far, with more to come, and in return I’ve dedicated my life to the game. It feels like I’m doing the right thing. If I were only involved in football for the money that would be a mistake. Like everyone, there have been wonderful moments in my career and bad times, too, but the one thing life has taught me is not to look back. I don’t keep any photographs of myself as a player at home and I’m not one for swapping memories with former team-mates. What’s done is done: it’s in the past now. There’s no point in chewing over things that happened 20 years ago. I think about the present and the future. I’ve played a lot of football in my life. I’ve seen happy times and tough times, and it has all helped make me more experienced. I was nine when I started, and I went on to play at the highest level. Now I coach teams at the highest level. If I was pressed I’d say being part of the Italy squad at the 1990 World Cup was a highlight, but as I say, it’s all in the past.
Is there anything in your career that stands out for you?
I truly believe that God gave me a talent, and I’ve looked after it: I haven’t wasted it. I achieved a lot as a player: I took part in the World Cup and represented my country on numerous occasions. Then there are all the clubs I played for, including my hometown team Inter Milan, where I won titles.
Do you dream of coaching Inter one day?
If I was offered the job I certainly wouldn’t refuse, but I don’t like to live in a dream world. I don’t sit around waiting for things like that to fall in my lap. I love my work and that’s what I prefer to focus on. Right now I’m with Al Nasr and I’m doing my best to make the team better.
Some people say that working out here in the Arab world could affect your chances of being offered a coaching job in Europe. What do you say to that?
People might think like that, but I don’t. If there are those that reckon I’m a poor coach or a failure because I’m not in Europe, I couldn’t care less. My life is where I am, not where I’m supposed to be. I enjoy my life here and I’m not thinking of anything else. Right now I work for a big club; all the clubs I’ve coached have been big clubs. Let me list them: Steaua Bucharest and Dinamo Bucharest in Romania, Red Star Belgrade in Serbia, Al Ain in the UAE and Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia. Then there’s Italy: Catania and Palermo are both top clubs. Anyway, that’s not the way I measure my success.
So how do you measure it?
Not by where I work, but rather how I work. The names of the clubs aren’t enough: it’s what I’ve managed to achieve with the staff and players. I’ve coached three of the biggest clubs in Romania. I won the 2004/05 league title with Steaua and in the 2005/06 season I won the Jelen SuperLiga in Serbia with Red Star Belgrade, but even so, it isn’t all about titles. When I took over at Catania they had just avoided relegation the previous season, but in my first year in charge they rose to the middle of the table and in the process got a reputation for playing attractive football. Even with the clubs where I didn’t stay long, like Palermo, Al Ain and Gaziantepspor in Turkey, I still left my mark. My departure from Al Nassr came in unfortunate circumstances but under me, the club came second in the league and never lost a match against the other big sides, despite the fact I was fielding a young and inexperienced team.
What is the biggest problem you have faced as a coach?
Language. At Catania and Palermo things were easy because I communicated with the players and media in Italian. I speak English but it’s not my first language and all my teams have included both local players and overseas signings from all over. At Al Nasr, for instance, my instructions are translated into three languages: French for Ismael Bangoura, Spanish for Leo Lima and Arabic for the junior players in the squad. It’s tricky to wait while each phrase is translated then try and pick up your train of thought. It’s made me use simple phrases to communicate my ideas directly to the players.
How do you spend your time in Dubai?
Preparing training sessions, training and matches. I work long hours, between five and six hours a day on average. Away from the football I spend my time with my family. I play with my daughter Samira and occasionally I’ll have a meal with friends or the support staff.
Do you ever see Fabio Cannavaro?
We’re friends. We live in the same part of the world and our wives get on well.
Why did you choose to give your daughter an Arabic name?
My wife speaks eight languages including Arabic. She studied it in Romania. We love this part of the world and decided to give our daughter an Arabic name. In Italian, Samira means 'my sweetheart'. If we’re blessed with another child we’ll choose an Arabic name for them, too. We love living here. Although we were only in Riyadh for six months my wife cried when we left. She spent the whole day in tears.
Is the United Arab Emirates different to Saudi Arabia?
Not so different, I think. The customs and traditions are all the same. The football is a little different, perhaps: there’s a different atmosphere to the matches. In Saudi Arabia the terraces are packed, the fans are very vocal and it’s quite normal to have thirty or forty thousand spectators at a game. In the UAE the stadiums are a little emptier.
What were your impressions of the Riyadh derby between Al Nassr and Al Hilal?
At Al Nassr we had some big games against Al Hilal, Al Shabab and Al Ittihad and we didn’t lose one. The fans were fantastic and supported the team wherever we played.
Do you think Inter Milan will win the scudetto this season?
I’m not in a position to guess. I haven’t followed Serie A because of the time difference and the schedules clash with some of my games here. Generally speaking, though, the winner will deserve it. To win the title you need to keep winning all season long, and if you end up on top you’ve earned it.