Yes, Walter Zenga watched the Academy Awards in March. He saw
the Italian director and star of Life Is Beautiful win the gold
statuettes, dance atop his seatback, charm a nation with his
broken English and his loopy theatrics. Zenga saw Roberto
Benigni and, naturally, saw himself. "If I could be the Benigni
of soccer in this country, that would be wonderful," says Zenga,
the Italian goalkeeper-coach of the New England Revolution. "But
Benigni says life is beautiful. I say life is strange."
He may be on to something. After all, few things could be odder
than one of the greatest goalkeepers in history playing in MLS.
Or a 39-year-old who has better reflexes than any 20-something
keeper in the U.S. Or a miraculously rejuvenated mop top whose
owner rides a custom-made Spiderman Harley, stars in steamy
Italian soap operas and is widely recognized as the Billy Blanks
of European infomercials.
Perhaps strangest of all, Zenga has turned the Revolution,
usually a dreadful club, into a team that could make the
postseason for only the second time in four years. With a 3-2
victory over D.C. United in Foxboro last Saturday, New England
ranked second in the Eastern Conference; the Revolution has yet
to lose in regulation time this season. No MLS player or coach
has made a greater contribution to his team than Zenga, who has
done the soccer equivalent of tap-dancing on everyone else's
seatbacks. "Coaching is one thing, but Walter's play has been
phenomenal," says Revolution defender Dan Calichman. "He's been
out of the game for over a year, and he's getting his fingers on
everything. He's even saving penalty kicks."
Known in Italy as L'Uomo Ragno, or Spiderman, Zenga developed a
fanatical following during his 15-year career in his home
country, where he starred with Inter Milan and led the national
team to a third-place finish in the 1990 World Cup. But after he
was named the world's best goalkeeper in '96 by the
International Federation of Football Statisticians, he was
dropped by Inter. He bounced around Italy before joining the
Revolution in '97 and leading the team to its only playoff
berth. Although Zenga retired after that season, he returned as
coach last August and decided during the off-season to resume
his goalkeeping career.
Zenga says he feels like a 20-year-old in the nets again, and
who's to argue? His wrists are covered with the kind of woven
cloth bracelets you'd find on a fourth-grader; he wears a
necklace with an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life; and he
sports two large tattoos, a Pegasus on his right ankle and a
rising sun on his right wrist. (Just don't ask about their
origins; Zenga will react as if you're a paparazzo and stomp off
to the equipment room.) What's more, his once-thinning hair has
become as thick as a colander full of spaghetti, a development
that he swears is wholly natural.
The most significant addition to Zenga's life, however, has been
his girlfriend of three years, Hoara Borselli, a 23-year-old
Florentine actress and lingerie model who lives with him in
suburban Boston. (Zenga has been married twice and has three
sons, the eldest of whom, Jacopo, 13, plays for an Inter youth
team.) "Hoara is the best girl in the world," says Zenga, who,
during his brief retirement, spent much of his time with her in
front of the camera. Besides peddling dietary products on a
ubiquitous Italian infomercial, the two filmed a lusty
miniseries called Costanza, set to air later this year, in which
Zenga plays...Walter Zenga. "The scenes were very easy for us,"
he says with a cackle.
To deepen the Revolution's understanding of soccer, Zenga took
the team on a five-week tour of Italy. How beloved is he in his
home country? Put it this way: Just as Zegna is the standard for
Italian suits, Zenga is the standard for Italian goalkeepers.
"Walking around with him was like walking around with Michael
Jordan," says forward Joe-Max Moore, who was with his teammates
when Zenga marched them onto Milan's San Siro Stadium field in
front of 80,000 fans before the Inter-Juventus match in March.
"Forza America!" the crowd chanted as Moore stared slack-jawed.
An Italian soccer crowd cheering Forza America? Sometimes life
is beautiful--and a little strange. Maybe Benigni and Zenga are
on to something. --G.W.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER At 39, despite a year away from the game, Zenga has the reflexes of a goalkeeper only half his age.