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 seat-backs. "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 mat 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 in-fomercial, 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. Go America!
An Italian soccer crowd cheering Forza America? Sometimes life is beautiful—and a little strange. Maybe Benigni and Zenga are on to something.