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Ciao-ciao, Walter Zenga

June 2nd, 2013 · No Comments · Dubai, Football, Rome, soccer, Sports Journalism, UAE, World Cup

The first time I was in the same building with Walter Zenga was in 1990, at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. He was the starting goalkeeper for Italy, and they were facing Austria in the opening game of the World Cup.

Zenga did not allow a goal, which was a fairly common outcome, for him, and for Italy, while he was between the sticks. He was voted the world’s best goalkeeper three consecutive years, beginning in 1989.

(Later in the same tournament, he shut out the U.S. in another 1-0 victory. He kept a Peter Vermes shot out of goal by, essentially, sitting on it, leading the U.S. coach Bob Gansler to suggest his team would have taken a tie out of Rome had Zenga’s “butt been a little smaller”.)

The last time I was in a room with Walter Zenga? I’m pretty sure it was when his Al Nasr team played at Al Wahda last year, and he ranted at a local reporter … (the video of it is at the bottom of this story). The reporter complained to the police about it and Zenga eventually was fined 2,000 dirhams, about $540.

Zenga is almost never boring. He clearly knows his stuff, after a couple of decades playing at elite levels, and two decades working as a coach in Italy, Turkey, Serbia, Romania, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

He also seems perpetually about 10 seconds away from going “mental”, as the Brits would say.

His 2.5 years leading the Al Nasr club, in Dubai, seemed first and foremost about him stalking the sidelines as if he were preparing to punch someone. He never actually did, but he gave a very convincing impression that he might.

Nasr is no prize club, here in the UAE. Its fans are proud of the fact that it is the oldest club in the country, founded in 1945 — or 26 years before the country came into existence.

Nasr was good, once upon a time — about 30 years ago. Despite playing in a league that typically included only 12 teams, Nasr has not finished first since 1986. They are lumped in with the “big” clubs, but when you’re league winless streak is creeping up on three decades, being called “big” is more out of habit than proof.

Nasr plays in a stadium that looks as if it might date to the club’s founding, and it is in a Dubai neighborhood that is less than posh. Their facilities are rudimentary.

It is not at all clear that Nasr has the financial backing to bid for the best available talent. They certainly have not in the four seasons I have witnessed.

So, it was much to Zenga’s credit that he took over Nasr in early 2011 and coaxed them to a third-place finish, their highest in we’re-not-quite-sure-how-long-because-records-weren’t-really-kept. In a long time, anyway.

A year later, he did better, dragging Nasr up to second in the league, which secured them their second consecutive Asian Champions League berth. (They didn’t survive the group stage, but just being there was a big deal for the club.) Nasr actually had fans in the stands at times, those two seasons.

Another impressive aspect of this? Nasr has exactly one Emirati player who has been in the national side of late. The good teams here generally have three, four, five national-teamers. Nasr had Habib Fardan. So to win with second-tier Emiratis …

The recently completed season was not as successful. He attempted to work some younger Emirati guys into the lineup, with mixed success, and his four expatriates were solid, but not of the Grafite/Asamoah Gyan caliber. I liked Giuseppe Mascara quite a bit, as a player; Sicilian guy with a great work rate and an ability to score now and then.

Nasr never really got it going this season, and finished sixth in the league. Sven-Goran Eriksson, the former England coach, was brought in as a technical adviser in mid-season, and it was never quite clear if Zenga were still running his team, from then.

On Friday, Nasr said the club and Zenga had come to an agreement for him to leave, despite his having another year on his contract.

He will be missed. Not for his genial nature or calm discourse … but because he helped make domestic soccer here interesting. That covers a multitude of sins. Though not, apparently, a sixth-place finish in a 14-team league.


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