The curious case of Walter Zenga

For most men, a 21-year playing career followed by 15 managerial jobs in 18 years would afford ample opportunity for a sabbatical and some much needed relaxation.

Walter Zenga

However, as many of you will know by now, Walter Zenga is not most men.

As a player, few can argue with his credentials. At Inter Milan he won the UEFA Cup twice as well as the Serie A title and was named best goalkeeper in the world three years in-a- row. However, since his arrival at Wolves, there have been serious doubts about his managerial capabilities.

I have likened Zenga’s record to a dot-to- dot puzzle. After all, Wolves are now his 16th club in during a managerial career that has now spanned no less than eight different countries across three continents.

It would be easy to judge the strength –or more appropriately, length – of his CV on face value.

So, here’s the million pound question: what can he offer Wolverhampton Wanderers? Why does Walter Zenga suddenly find himself in the same position as successful Wolves managers of old such as Graham Turner, Mick McCarthy, John Barnwell, Bill McGarry and the legendary Stan Cullis?

There must be something, surely.

I mean just a few months ago, the Southampton board were seriously considering appointing the same Walter Zenga as Ronald Koeman’s successor. He wouldn’t be appointed on the basis of his overwhelming desire to manage in England – so what could it be?

I decided to scratch the surface…

My aim was to investigate Spiderman’s CV in chronological order and find out anything I could about his spell at each club. Sometimes articles can only give you so much detail so, in the interest of clarity, I decided that I would talk to a supporter or local journalist as well. So here goes.

First stop: Boston, Massachusetts, USA

New England Revolution (March 1997 – September 1999)

Walter Zenga New England

Sports are a major part of Boston’s culture. As a Red Sox fan myself, I can safely say that sport is a way of life to these people. Boston also has a sizeable Italian community – so an Azzurri goalkeeping great and the locals would have been a perfect match, right? Well, not exactly.

It started well enough. Zenga had a successful first season as a player and became a crowd hero. There was one embarrassing moment when he decided to celebrate a team goal by running to the sidelines to snog his girlfriend, which nearly resulted in the opposition scoring, but overall it went well.

At the end of his maiden campaign, he left to pursue an acting career before being lured back as player-manager a few months later in August 1998. His return was not a successful one and he was sacked in September 1999.

A quick delve into the USA Today archives finds this nugget on Zenga’s sacking:

This fiasco culminates a bizarre season where the Revolution will once again likely miss the playoffs. It was a mess of their own making: there is no denying that Zenga did little to actually train his charges, and instead sought the spotlight for himself as a solo act.

The ‘fiasco’ was Revs’ GM Brian O’Donovan admitting that the Italian was dismissed earlier than planned due to Zenga faxing the club’s office to demand an immediate decision on his contract extension.

Revs supporter Scott McCullogh added the following comments:

Zenga the player was loved here; he was a big personality with real passion for the game. But he struggled as a manager. He tried to implement a catenaccio style of play, but that was ultimately too complex for the mediocre Revs defenders.

Towards the end, it was clear he had lost the dressing room. He was always clashing with referees and he would do silly things like sub himself out of the matches in the final minutes if it was heading for a shoot-out (the old MLS way to settle a draw, thankfully abolished in 1999). The one time he did stay on for the shoot-out, he got himself sent off and an outfield player had to go in goal, which cost us the game. He was a loose cannon and that made it impossible for the team to believe in him as a manager.

Not a great start; let’s hope our next stop can bring us some joy.

Next stop: Milan, Italy

Brera (October 2000 – January 2001)

After 12 months in the wilderness. Walter resurfaced in his home nation when he was unveiled as the new manager of Milan-based Serie D team Brera Calcio. The newly-formed amateur club were looking to make a name for themselves as Milan’s third team.

There is not much information available in English about Zenga’s time with Brera, so I enlisted the help of FourFourTwo and When Saturday Comes writer Matthew Barker. He told me the following:

As Gazetta dello Sport pointed out at the time, it probably helped that the team played their home games pretty much on Zenga’s doorstep, at the city’s historic Arena Civica. Zenga was in upbeat mood at his unveiling (which took place at a local nightclub!), ‘I started from the bottom as a player, and that’s what I’m going to do as a coach.’ But he found it tough in Italy’s lower leagues, and despite the initial press interest in the appointment, it quickly fizzled out and Zenga was sacked after just three months.

His record from his 9 games at Brera was 1 win, 4 draws and 4 defeats. Whether this was a short-term PR stunt to sell tickets or not, I don’t know, but it’s safe to say it was a complete disaster.

Next stop: Bucharest, Romania

National Bucharest (July 2002 – December 2003)

When Zenga arrived in Romania to take charge of FC National Bucharest, it caused a fair few raised eyebrows in the national press. But he proved his doubters wrong by guiding the club to a respectable eighth place finish in Liga I and the Romanian Cup final before leaving in December 2003.

The circumstances surrounding his departure are somewhat unusual.

Zenga was arrested during a drugs raid on swanky Bucharest nightclub The Office in November 2002. The couple were with some friends, including former Chelsea player Dan Petrescu and his wife. Around midnight, armed police arrived and headed straight for Zenga’s table, finding a wrap of cocaine under the table and another behind his chair.

You see, at the time Zenga was dating tennis player Raluca Sandu. Raluca, daughter of Romanian FA president Mirceas Sandu, who disapproved of her relationship with Zenga, had just separated from Ion-Ion Tiriac (son of legendary tennis coach Ion) to shack up with Zenga. Anyway, Zenga and his girlfriend were released without charge, but then reports emerged that Ion-Ion Tiriac was also in the nightclub that night. Coincidence? Who knows?

Following the bust, Zenga wanted out and one month later, he left Romania and headed home.

Romanian journalist Emanuel Rosu believes this incident and his subsequent departure were unconnected:

National were a small team that nobody really cared about. It was a nice club in a wonderful area, but they just couldn’t attract the same number of fans as Steaua or Dinamo. Zenga left simply because National couldn’t afford to pay him to continue.

Romanian scout Radu Baicu added the following:

Zenga left a very good impression at FC National. His attacking style posed big problems to the Bucharest big clubs and rivals.

Strange events, indeed, but things are about to get a whole lot stranger. No need to go anywhere, we’re staying in Bucharest…

Steaua Bucharest (July 2004 – May 2005)

Zenga Bucharest

After a short sabbatical, Zenga returned to Romania at National’s bigger neighbours Steaua Bucharest.

Steaua had not a trophy for three years and they felt that Zenga was the right man to bring them the success they craved.

He got off to a flyer. They led the league after 10 games and reached the last 16 of UEFA Cup for the first time in 13 years. Steaua would go on to claim the title. So that’s one trophy on Zenga’s CV, right?

Wrong!

A run which saw eleven points dropped in six of the final nine games led to Zenga’s dismissal.

Steaua were still top of the table with three games to go, one point ahead of arch rivals Dinamo, but a loss to Zenga’s former club National was deemed not good enough by owner Gigi Becali.

“Zenga is the man responsible for the team’s poor play recently,” Becali said, “Steaua might lose the title and Zenga must pay for that! The team needed a shock in order to wake up.”

So after all of Walter’s hard work, it was the wonderfully named Dumitru Dumitriu that steered Steaua over the line.

Radu Baicu commented:

Zenga says that he felt betrayed by Dorinel Munteanu, who was still an active, veteran player for Steaua. In his book, he says: ‘Defeated by FC National, I didn’t go in the team’s bus as usual, instead I stayed and confessed to Munteanu, as you do with a close friend, that I was feeling tired and fed up. I felt betrayed because I think Munteanu was the one who told everything to the club’s owner…’

Emanuel Rosu added:

Zenga was fantastic at Steaua; he changed a lot of things for the better regarding training and mentality. Everybody he worked with has good things to say about him and he was very popular among the Steaua fans – they were sad to see him go.

So our friend Walter was looking for work again, but he wouldn’t be unemployed for too long.

Next Stop: Belgrade, Serbia

Red Star Belgrade (July 2005 – May 2006)

Zenga Belgrade

Just 63 days later, the Italian became the first foreigner to take charge of Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade. His stint in the The Balkan Gate was very successful as he led the team to a domestic double (league title and national cup), winning every single home game in the process.

Serbian football expert Milos Dusanovic commented:

The title wasn’t a huge surprise as Red Star had a very talented side full of national team players. He also earned the club a very famous victory over Roma in the UEFA Cup group stages. He was charismatic and very popular with the fans, and the team were very exciting to watch at the time and played some nice attacking football. The controversies only happened off the field. He was often spotted at local night clubs and going out with a lot of Serbian celebrities, so the paparazzi were always after him.

Red Star supporter Nenad Mijaljevi? added:

Zenga was a bit of an unknown to everyone even though he was a big name in football. But he proved to be a good fit for us as the players seemed to trust him completely. He played modern, all-action football, which was applauded by the fans. But it wasn’t all good. He left as a champion, but he didn’t stick around for the Champions League qualifiers and that was the most important thing for the Zvezda fans.

His wife also wrote in her magazine column that Belgrade is a small, boring town, which caused some more friction. But all in all, he did well here, but he left too early and perhaps missed an opportunity to achieve something really exceptional.

Zenga resigned shortly after Red Star won the league. Rumours were afoot that he’d been offered a highly-paid position in Qatar, but the Middle East would have to wait, as Turkey became the next destination on the Walter Zenga World Tour.

Next Stop: Gaziantep, Turkey

Gaziantepspor (June 2006 – January 2007)

Later that summer, Zenga accepted an offer to become manager of Gaziantepspor. It would be another short hop, as Turkish football writer Eren Sarigul explains:

Zenga’s time in Gaziantep was quite short lived. He managed just five victories in 17 games and resigned after just six months. Yes, he was under fan pressure, but it was quite a forgettable spell – the amount of foreign mangers that come and go from the Turkish league is a bit crazy. The clubs usually put pressure on managers to resign rather than sack them to get out of paying compensation.”

But Zenga’s decision to jump before he was pushed paid off when he was offered an immediate return to management, this time in the Middle East.

Next Stop: Abu Dhabi, UAE

Al-Ain (January 2007 – June 2007)

Zenga Al Ain

Just two days after his departure from Gaziantep, Zenga was unveiled as the new boss of Abu Dhabi club Al-Ain. But even though he led his new charges to the UAE President’s Club final, he was sacked, yet again, after just five months in charge.

John McAuley, sports reporter for The National, recalls the Italian’s spell at Al-Ain:

Walter came into the club at a pretty turbulent time. Al-Ain had been slipping down the league for a few seasons (following their last league title in 2005 and a run to that year’s Asian Champions League final) so he was installed to stop the slide. The players liked him and people at the club from his time there are still very complimentary of him as a coach and a man. However, a problem existed between Walter and a member of the management and he was dismissed that summer. It came as a complete shock to Walter, who was planning for the season ahead. He never really forgave Al-Ain.

But like a cat with nine lives, Zenga wouldn’t be out of work for long and soon found himself back in familiar surroundings.

Next Stop: Bucharest, Romania

Dinamo Bucharest (August 2007 – November 2007)

Zenga returned to Bucharest to take the helm at Steaua’s arch rivals Dinamo Bucharest. There was a lot of speculation at the time that the Italian took the job to seek revenge on his former employers, which Emanuel Rosu believes to be true.

He accepted the job because he wanted revenge, no doubt about it. Walter tried to change a lot but he was always fighting with the shareholders, who were disagreeing with his methods.

Zenga resigned after just three months, following a limp display in a 1–0 loss to Steaua. Dinamo, who were champions the previous season, were 13 points adrift in 7 th place and out of the UEFA Cup at the time.

Radu Baicu adds:

His record over his 11 games in charge – 5 wins, 4 draws and 2 defeats – wasn’t awful, but both defeats came in local derbies against Steaua and Rapid, plus he had failed to qualify for the group stage of the UEFA Cup. When he took the job his objectives were to win the league and make it out of the group stage in the UEFA Cup. He quit after the loss to Steaua, quoting the poor display of the team and the need for a change. He waived his right to receive €300,000 in compensation with this decision. I think he realised he had failed.

Another black mark on his copybook, but things are about to get better…

Next stop: Catania, Italy

Catania (April 2008 – June 2009)

Zenga Catania

After six years abroad, Zenga sought refuge in his home nation and was appointed coach of Serie A strugglers Catania. Many Catania supporters were initially underwhelmed when Zenga arrived in Sicily, but he quickly won them over by leading them to a dramatic relegation escape.

Catania supporter Nick Murphy explains:

Zenga’s appointment was a surprise to most. Though he somehow managed to scrape us through the relegation battle with a draw on the last day of his first season, it was the following season he will always be remembered for. At one stage pushing for a UEFA Cup place, he ended with Catania’s highest points haul in Serie A history. He seemed to be a good fit for Catania. His style of management had some grit about it but was also able to make the most of the few flair players at the time.

At the end of 2008/09 season, Zenga surprisingly announced that he would be leaving Catania by mutual consent with most people thinking he was Lazio-bound. But as it turned out, he had accepted a job much closer. Murphy adds:

It was disappointing to hear he would leave at the end of that season. But it was devastating to hear he was going to Palermo of all places!

Next Stop: Palermo, Italy

Palermo (June 2009 – November 2009)

Just days after stepping down at Catania, Zenga made the short trip across Sicily to rivals Palermo. The move was a huge surprise, given the bitter rivalry between the two Sicilian clubs. Zenga started well enough with an impressive home win against Napoli, but a bad run of results followed and Palermo’s trigger-happy owner Maurizio Zamparini ran out of patience.

Football Italia writer Lorenzo Vicini commented:

Zenga’s appointment was contested at first given his arrival from Catania, but he ultimately won the fans over with his enthusiasm and charisma. His biggest fault was his own expectations heading into the season. Zamparini was already aiming for Champions League and Zenga just kicked it up a notch when he said Scudetto [Serie A title] was his aim. Yes, it was said a little tongue in cheek but his argument was that you should always be aiming to win no matter what.

He probably deserved more time but it was the stretch of games that did him in. After three straight wins, they lost to Inter (albeit in a 5-3 thriller) before a draw against lowly Genoa and a loss to Bologna really piled the pressure on. And when you only draw against you rivals (Zenga’s former club Catania) despite having a much better team, Zamparini felt the need to pull the trigger.

Zenga was sacked because Zamparini was worried that the Champions League was going to be out of reach if he stayed in charge. Delio Rossi’s arrival led to an incredible push for Champions League qualification that came up short by just one point. Sadly, the club missed out and the thought is “what could have been” had Rossi coached those first 13 games instead of Zenga.

Zenga’s record at Palermo was fairly average: 13 league games, 4 wins, 4 losses, 5 draws. 17 points, 17 goals scored, 18 goals conceded. Maybe he should have had more time, but the subsequent revival under Rossi suggests that Zamparini made the right decision.

Following his dismissal from Palermo, the Italian looked abroad to further his coaching career.

Next Stop: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Al-Nassr (June 2010 – December 2010)

Zenga resurfaced in Middle East just seven months later. He signed a lucrative deal to manage Saudi Arabian giants Al-Nassr. However, things did not quite go according to plan and he was sacked after just six months.

John McAuley added his thoughts:

On the surface, a succession of poor results led to Walter’s dismissal. Yes, Nassr were second, but they’d surrendered their position at the top of the table. Walter and his coaching staff apparently weren’t paid for six months, but he carried on regardless, even when he was growing exasperated at players regularly turning up late, or not at all, for training. At the time, there was a huge turnover of managers at the club – Walter’s five predecessors failed to last longer than 18 months – and that trend has continued, suggesting a deep-rooted problem at Nassr.

Another tumultuous time for Zenga, yet surprisingly, he was then considered a serious contender to replace Rafael Benitez at Inter, but instead he would remain in the Middle East.

Next Stop: Dubai, UAE

Al-Nasr SC (January 2011 – June 2013)

Zenga

Electing to stay in the Gulf, Zenga was appointed as new head coach of Dubai-based Al Nasr SC just 13 days after leaving his previous club. His appointment lasted longer than his three previous posts combined. John McAuley explains why:

Fundamentally, Walter’s a good coach, tactically astute and a fantastic motivator. At Nasr, he found the right environment to work, had an excellent relationship with the club management and, at the time he joined, the team were battling relegation so needed rescuing. He built confidence and then momentum, which carried the club to third in the table and then second in successive seasons. He was sometimes labelled as a defensive coach, but when Nasr finished runner-up they were the league’s second most prolific side, while they conceded a lot, too. In his final season, Nasr appointed Sven Goran Eriksson as technical advisor, which seemed to undermine Walter, although he never admitted that publicly. There was a disciplinary issue with one of the players that caused upset within the camp, and by late May Walter was told he was no longer required. Again, he was shocked, but his relationship with the management remains strong.

This was arguably one of Zenga’s more successful appointments and by this point, his family had settled in Dubai so it was no surprise that he would remain in the UAE for his next job.

Next Stop: Abu Dhabi, UAE

Al-Jazira (October 2013 – May 2014)

Later in 2013, Zenga opted for a 90 minute journey between the emirates to take up his next job at Al-Jazira. Although he had quite a successful time in Abu Dhabi, his tenure would end rather abruptly as

John McAuley explains:

Walter did brilliantly at Jazira, including getting the club beyond the group stages of the Asian Champions League and into its last 16, where they lost to Al Ain. He left immediately after that defeat.

His remit had been to qualify from the groups and get to a cup final: he delivered on both, so his dismissal was harsh. However, Jazira had long coveted Eric Gerets, who had impressed in Qatar, and when it became clear he was available, the club pounced.

Yet again, Zenga was on the receiving end of a harsh sacking and Al-Jazira have been through four managers in two years since Zenga left, with his highly coveted successor, Gerets, lasting less than a year in charge.

Following his dismissal, Zenga took a year-long break from football before returning to Italy to manage a club very close to his heart.

Next Stop: Genoa, Italy

Sampdoria (June 2015 – November 2015)

Zenga Sampdoria

In June 2015, Walter was announced as the new manager of Sampdoria, a club where he was held in high regard having spent two seasons there as a player in mid-1990s. His return was not a happy one, however, as he was dismissed after just 14 games in charge.

Luca Gunby reveals his thoughts on Zenga’s departure:

Zenga’s appointment was a complete surprise as he’d been off the Italian coaching carousel and I’d expect he was given the chance simply because he was a former Sampdoria player. He got off to a mixed start with a big win over Carpi and then an impressive draw away at Napoli after going two goals down.

While the home form was respectable, problems away from home then became the main issue. He struggled to stick to a settled XI, as a strong attack was undermined by a weak defence so he mostly tried to keep things simple and play more direct football. He probably had enough time as it never seemed to click for him and the fans were unhappy. However, although he was mediocre at Sampdoria, the issues are more structural and some of the ire directed at Zenga has since passed onto the President and he goes down as just another name on the bench at a time when players were sold to balance the books.

There were also rumours that Zenga took an unauthorised trip to Dubai prior to his departure, but these remain unconfirmed. Nevertheless, Sampdoria have gone through 11 managers in the last 6 years. This means, on average, they have about 7 months to prove their worth or they get the chop. Zenga was unlucky to only get 5 months with the reigns, but it seems he may have had a lucky escape.

Next Stop: Sharjah, UAE

Al-Shaab (November 2015 – February 2016)

11 days after being sacked by Sampdoria, Zenga was back in the UAE – taking over the Arabian Gulf League’s bottom side Al Shaab.

This would be a palpable disaster, as John McAuley explains:

Walter’s decision to take charge at Al Shaab surprised everyone. Shaab were bottom of the league, had taken a couple of points in the first half of the season and were 10 points from safety. Walter readily admitted the job was “mission impossible” and that soon became apparent – they took four points from his 12 matches. From the outside, it appeared that Walter was there only because he needed to work, that he’d accepted he was fighting a losing battle. He was obviously hurt by what had just happened at Sampdoria. He absolutely loves football, so there was a sense that he simply needed to be involved again in some way. In the long run, though, I’m not sure it helped his standing in the UAE.

Zenga left Al-Shaab by mutual consent after just four months at the helm.

Next Stop: Wolverhampton, England

Zenga Wolves

In conclusion, it’s a real mixed bag and the negatives probably outweigh the positives. Out of 15 jobs, he has been sacked a whopping NINE times. He resigned from two jobs (Gaziantepspor and Dinamo Bucharest) under intense pressure and left another two (National Bucharest and Red Star) under rather dubious circumstances.

You could argue that a number of his sackings have been harsh, but he has made some really bad decisions when choosing his destinations. In the Middle East, it is not uncommon for clubs to have two or more managers in one season. Italian club owners are notoriously trigger-happy and managers have to make an immediate impression. And as for Turkey, well, Turkish football is incredibly volatile and foreign managers are known to get the push very quickly.

Perhaps his biggest enemy would be his inability to stay away from football following his dismissals and wait for an attractive option rather than simply taking the first job offered. He has taken jobs with clubs in precarious positions and tried to swim against the tide, more often than not he has failed.

However, it does seem that when he has been given enough time to implement his own ideas and philosophy, it has led to success. Taking his first job at New England Revolution out of the equation, it would be fair to say that in the other five jobs where he has served for a season or more he has experienced success.

So what can we expect from Walter Zenga at Wolverhampton Wanderers?

Well, based on his CV, he probably won’t be here for a long time, but it will be eventful and it will certainly be entertaining.

Graham is the editor of Wolves retro magazine Old Gold Glory. Copies of the magazine can be purchased from the website: www.oldgoldglory.co.uk

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