Dino Zoff: The quiet genius

Who is the greatest captain of all time? From Aug. 18-29, ESPN FC will reveal its 10-man shortlist of the finest skippers to have graced the game, before conducting a vote for the winner. The result will be revealed on Sept. 1.

As the only goalkeeper on this list of captains, Dino Zoff is something of an anomaly. Goalkeeper-captains have become increasingly prevalent since Zoff's retirement, but the intriguing thing about Zoff is the way he bucked the trend in both roles. Goalkeepers are supposed to be crazy -- in a colourful sort of way, captains are meant to be extroverts. Zoff, however, was neither.

Zoff had a quiet upbringing, born in the tiny town of Mariano del Friuli in northeast Italy. He's invariably described as having been a modest and hard-working boy in his teenage years. Despite his obvious talent as a goalkeeper, there were consistent worries about his lack of height. Different family members had different responses to this concern: his grandmother fed him eight eggs a day from her farm (to boost his height); his father instructed Zoff to become a mechanic, for fear he wouldn't become a footballer. So he did, and while he didn't last too long in that career, for obvious reasons, the knowledge became useful in later life when he became La Repubblica's Formula 1 columnist.

Indeed, while football-mad, Zoff always had a keen interest in other sports. As a young man, Zoff's two idols were not footballers, but the legendary cyclist Fausto Coppi and, bizarrely, the race walker Abdon Pamich. Both were renowned as modest, understated but highly professional competitors, and Zoff carried that approach into his professional career.

Widely considered a musone -- a gloomy, stoical and rather downbeat character -- Zoff's captaincy had four main characteristics.

First, he was an excellent learner. He says he played until the age of 41 because there was always opportunity to draw upon experiences and translate that into an improvement on the field. As recounted in Jonathan Wilson's "The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper," Zoff believes that a young Gianluigi Buffon is the best goalkeeper of all time, but says Buffon failed to improve over the course of his career as much as himself, and that he, Zoff, was a better keeper into his 30s.

His careful, methodical attention to detail made him an excellent role model for his teammates. "I had the opportunity to acquire special knowledge and experience [in his later years] -- I was a leader for my teammates, and when I became a coach I didn't have to change my mentality too much," Zoff once said.

Second, he was good at the political side of being a captain. When Italy crashed out of the 1974 World Cup among squabbles between players -- before Zoff's days as captain -- the goalkeeper was widely spared abuse because he hadn't become involved in the silliness. He struck up good relationships with his teammates, and rarely angered anyone.

Third, he was always extremely close to his manager, without appearing a teacher's pet. He instantly got along with Giovanni Trapattoni when the coach joined Juventus in 1976, despite the fact that Trapattoni was just three years older than him. Zoff made no attempt to undermine Trapattoni, despite having coaching ambitions himself, and recognised the opportunity to learn from a brilliant football thinker.

He also developed a great relationship with Enzo Bearzot, the man who led Italy to the 1982 World Cup, with Zoff as captain. Zoff famously came over to Bearzot at the end of the second-round victory over Brazil -- a game in which Zoff made his most famous save, from Oscar -- and gently kissed Bearzot. "For me, that fleeting moment was the most intense of the entire World Cup," said the manager.

Fourth, and most crucially, Zoff was a quiet man. "He was capable of staying calm during the toughest and the most exhilarating moments," Bearzot adds. "He always held back both out of modesty and respect for his opponents."

In the dressing room, he wasn't the type to organise a huddle before the kickoff; he didn't go around getting players psyched up. Instead, he sat back and set an example. On the rare occasions he did choose to speak to the group, his words therefore carried extra significance. The SoloCalcio website summarises his demeanour beautifully, saying that Zoff "learned to express himself using his silences and his eyes."

In this sense, Zoff became something of a caricature, an impression that he didn't always appreciate. "I'm not a cold, calculating person," he once said. "I put my heart before anything else." Zoff isn't denying his quietness, or attempting to come across as an ultra-passionate captain, simply insisting that his quiet demeanour was out of a respect for fairness, order and team spirit, rather than because he was cunning.

Zoff was as good at deflecting attention as he was opposition shots -- he was never a self-centred leader. Going into the 1974 World Cup, he had set a new world record for the longest period unbeaten, which was ended at 1,143 minutes, somewhat surprisingly by Haitian forward Emmanuel Sanon. "Such a record never bothered me," he said after the game. "Now, perhaps people will stop asking me how I feel about such a record, because it is no more." Far from focusing on keeping clean sheets, somewhat bizarrely Zoff seemed to suggest he was happy to concede, because the attention was no longer upon him.

The peculiar thing, of course, is that it's often tough to shine as a goalkeeper, especially in a good side. For long periods there was little to do, especially when Zoff was playing behind the well-drilled defences of Juventus and Italy. Zoff simply played a reserved, solid role, more a goalkeeper who made few mistakes, rather than one who made spectacular saves. He played 11 seasons for Juventus, and didn't miss a single league game -- although he was never actually the captain of the side, that honour falling to Giuseppe Furino.

His greatest success came in 1982, of course, becoming the second goalkeeper, and the first quadragenarian, to lift the World Cup as captain.

"He was the only one who truly represented the team," Paolo Rossi, top goal scorer in the 1982 World Cup victory, later said. "He was an example to all of us, myself more than anyone."

That was the genius of Zoff the captain -- as a goalkeeper he had completely different responsibilities to everyone else, but still led by example.