Every club in the world has an all-time Starting XI. The best eleven players in club history to occupy each position on the pitch. In the case of who Inter’s all-time best goalkeeper is, it is hard to argue against Walter Zenga. Zenga is Inter born and bred. He hails from the city of Milan and came up through the Inter youth system. Zenga was affiliated with the club from 1971-1994. He is the textbook definition of the term: “club legend.” A title he unquestionably earned during his time between the posts at the San Siro.
It is a rare thing in today’s game to remain with a club from the youth academy all the way through the prime of your career. This is precisely the story of Walter Zenga, “Inter’s keeper.” After spending seven years in Inter’s youth system from 1971-78, Zenga was called up to the senior squad at age 18.
He was immediately sent on loan (Salernitana 1978-79, Savona 1979-80, Sambenedettese 1980-81) and would not rejoin the Nerazzurri until the start of the 1982-83 season. It would take Zenga only one season to become Inter’s starting goalkeeper.
Zenga was named as Dino Zoff’s backup during the 1982-83 season. He did feature in Inter’s Coppa Italia matches however. He impressed the management staff so much that they named him the starter for the 1983-84 season after Zoff left to join Sampdoria. There was no better pick to replace Dino Zoff than young Walter Zenga, and the whole world was about to discover why.
Though Inter would finish only fourth in Serie A during the 1983-84 campaign, Zenga was nothing short of brilliant. The first-year starting shot-stopper conceded a mere 23 goals in 30 matches to help spark Inter to having the best defense in the league. No one came close to matching Zenga’s stellar performance (The next closest was Roma, 28) that season.
But what made Zenga such an instant success? The player was quite unique from a talent perspective. He had all of the tools a world class keeper could ask for. Nicknamed “Deltaplano” or, the hang glider, Zenga was agile, athletic, had excellent positioning and reaction speed, was intelligent, and possessed good pace. In short, he was the complete keeper.
Zenga’s development was second to none as the player continued to improve from season to season. Unfortunately, the club could not boast the same. Despite a third-place league finish in 1984-85 and controversial exit in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, something was missing at Inter.
This was evident during the 1985-86 season as the Nerazzurri finished outside of the top five in Serie A for the first time in over a decade (1974-75). This was the catalyst that sparked the managerial change that would see Inter return to domestic, as well as European glory. Mario Corso was out and Giovanni Trapattoni was in.
The team may have underwhelmed with managers Ilario Castagner and Mario Corso, but Zenga was gaining massive popularity among the supporters. His love for the shirt and passion on the pitch was unmatched. Zenga’s personality and ability to shine in the spotlight also helped him to become one of the premier names among goalkeepers on the planet.
With the appointment of Trapattoni, Inter would slowly add the missing pieces to the puzzle, though it would take a few years. In the meantime, Walter Zenga would continue to show his quality. In 1986-87 Zenga conceded an astonishingly low 17 goals. This was over the course of an entire season. Let that sink in for a moment.
Despite Inter’s amazing defensive numbers, the attack was still a step behind. As a result, the club could only manage a third-place result in the league. Though Inter were not quite able to catch Napoli in the race for the Scudetto, Zenga unequivocally cemented himself as the best keeper in Italy.
Trapattoni had a fantastic debut campaign at the club. His idea was to shift the team from being a defensive-minded side into an attacking force. It would take the manager one more season of falling just short before his vision would be realized. With the additions of Alessandro Bianchi, Nicola Berti, Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus, and Ramón Diaz, Inter was positioned to dominate.
The 1988-89 Serie A campaign is a season which Interisti the world over will never forget. Records were shattered and the league was conquered by Giovanni Trapattoni’s Nerazzurri. Additionally, the now starting keeper for the Italian National Team, Walter Zenga, would put on display for everyone, why he may have in fact been the best player in the world at his position.
With an attack that could now match those of Milan, Juventus and Napoli, and a defense that was already one of the best the game had to offer, Inter crushed the competition, winning the league by an incredible eleven points (At this time clubs were only awarded two points for a win). Zenga was brilliant yet again, conceding a league-best 19 goals over 34 matches.
This was a different era in Serie A. While the league is certainly making a comeback in 2018, during the late 1980s to mid 1990s it was unquestionably the best league on the planet. Inter will forever hold the record for the most points amassed in an 18-team Serie A with 58.
Under the current points system (three points for a win) Inter would have totaled 84 points after 34 matches played (W26 D6 L2). Napoli, who came in second that season, would have crossed the finish line with 65 points, nearly 20 behind the champions. This was undeniably one of the most dominant performances in Serie A history.
Walter Zenga’s finest hour however, may have not been lifting the Scudetto in 1989. While Inter had ended their nearly decade-long drought as champions of Italy, their European trophy case had not had any additions in over 25 years. The 1990-91 UEFA Cup would change that statistic.
The UEFA Cup had a vastly different format in the early 1990s. It was a pure tournament with no group stage play. There were six rounds from start to finish, including the final fixture. Each fixture was decided by a two-leg aggregate score. In order to lift the prestigious cup the Nerazzurri would have to be last team standing after 12 matches. Trapattoni’s squad would continue to improve the further they advanced in the competition, eventually finishing with a record of 6-3-3.
Inter defeated Serie A rivals Roma in the final two-leg fixture by an aggregate score of 2-1. Walter Zenga would concede a mere seven goals during the competition on his way to seven clean sheets, including a 2-0 victory at the San Siro in the first leg of the final fixture. Roma was unable to overcome the deficit in the second leg at the Stadio Olimpico. Inter’s European title drought was over.
In a span of three years (1988-1991), Inter, led by manager Giovanni Trapattoni, Italy’s best goalkeeper Walter Zenga, Ballon d’Or winner Lothar Matthäus, and world cup winners Andreas Brehme and Jürgen Klinsmann, had won the Scudetto, the Supercoppa Italia, and the UEFA Cup. This proud club had re-established itself as a global football power.
As Trapattoni left the club at the conclusion of the 1990-91 season, one could sense that things were about to drastically change. After the 1991-92 season the club would see Brehme, Klinsmann, and Matthäus all go their seperate ways. There was one constant however, Walter Zenga.
Under manager Osvaldo Bagnoli (1992-94) Inter would flounder domestically. In Europe however, they would add one more jewel to their crown in the form of the 1993-94 UEFA Cup. Inter’s performance this time around was even more impressive than their 1990-91 triumph as the squad would win eight of their 12 matches, drawing once, and only losing three.
Walter Zenga would again manage to keep seven clean sheets over the span of 12 matches. This included consecutive cleans sheets in the two-leg final fixture against Austria Salzburg (1-0, 1-0) giving Inter a 2-0 aggregate victory. The Nerazzurri would lift their second European trophy in three years, a truly remarkable accomplishment which few other clubs can claim.
1993-94 would be a landmark season for another reason, as it would signal the end of the road for Walter Zenga at the San Siro. He could not have ended his 20-plus year association with the club on a higher note. This was truly the end of an era at Inter. It can be easily debated that Inter have yet to find a keeper as good as the “Deltaplano.”
For three years (1989 – 1991) Walter Zenga was perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world, without question the best in his native Italy. He was nominated by the IFFHS (International Federation of Football History & Statistics) as the best on the planet at his position.
The Nerazzurri have certainly had their fare share of great keepers throughout the years. But none of them have been the complete package that Walter Zenga was when he stood between the posts for his beloved Inter. I will not say “there will never be another Zenga,” but we certainly do not appear to be retracting that statement anytime soon.
Other legends in these series: