Wednesday 24 May 2017, 09:38

Rejuvenated Zaza's World Cup dream

  • Zaza went 10 months without scoring after penalty miss at EURO 2016

  • The striker has since regained his confidence at Valencia

  • He talks to us about Italy’s push for a place at Russia 2018 A total of seven players – four Italians and three Germans – all missed from the spot in the marathon penalty shootout that decided the third quarter-final at UEFA EURO 2016. Among them was Italy’s Simone Zaza, who lashed the ball over the bar after a stuttering run-up, a combination that earned him no little ridicule as Gli Azzurri exited the tournament.

“You can’t forget things like that because they’re what you get remembered for in your career,” said the Italian forward, in conversation with “The only thing is, I know what happened and I’m not interested in what people say or in their negative thoughts. Ignorance is not a part of my life. I don’t want to go into that.”

Nearly a year has gone by since that fateful penalty miss and the front man is anxious to move on, though memories of that night are still painful, not least because of Italy’s elimination from the tournament: “As I’ve always said, what hurt most was not being able to go through because of that penalty, because we could have made it to the final.”

Things did not improve much for Zaza in the months that followed. He arrived at West Ham United with much fanfare only to spend most of his time on the bench. “It’s very important to adapt in football, and I didn’t manage it,” he said, almost with a shrug of the shoulders. “I don’t know if it was me or because I didn’t understand them.”

By the time January came around, Zaza knew he needed a change. He decided to make it with Valencia, a Spanish heavyweight that was also experiencing a slump in its fortunes. “I arrived at a very tough time for the team, which was flirting with relegation. It was a tough time for me too, because I hadn’t played in the previous six months and I didn’t feel good.”

Los Ché gradually pulled away from the danger zone, however, and ended the season in altogether better shape, while Zaza, who hails from the village of Metaponto in southern Italy, was smiling again by the campaign’s end. “Let’s just say that I’ve been through so many experiences in the last year that it’s changed me a lot.”

Did you know?

  • Football and taekwondo: Zaza played both sports as a child. “I was told I had a talent for taekwondo, that I was pretty good. Some of the movements come in handy in certain situations on the pitch.”

  • Breaking through with Sassuolo: After spells with Atalanta and Sampdoria, Zaza finally made his mark in the Italian top flight with Sassuolo. The scorer of the club’s very first Serie A goal, his 21 strikes in 69 matches earned him a call-up to the Italy team and a move to Juventus in 2015.

  • Fox in the box: “You could say I’m a hot-blooded fighter,” says Zaza. He is also a classic finisher, a player who is always in the right place at the right time in the box, ready to put chances away first-time with his left foot.

  • Off target: Unable to find the net in his short stay at West Ham, Zaza went ten months without scoring, between his last goal for Juve on 1 May 2016 and his first for Valencia, on 19 February this year. Having regained his confidence, he is now setting himself another goal: to consolidate his place in the Italy side, having begun his international career under Cesare Prandelli a few months before the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.

Though Zaza did not make the Azzurra squad for the world finals, Prandelli’s successor Antonio Conte called on his services during the EURO 2016 qualifiers and the finals in France. And though he has found opportunities hard to come by during the course of a difficult 12 months, he has the support of Giampiero Ventura, the man currently occupying the Italy hotseat, who said: “Zaza is important to the national team.”

The striker knows what he has to do to get back into the Italy side: “The key is performing for your club and getting regular football.” His six goals in La Liga and his fine form over the last few months may well earn him a recall for the Russia 2018 qualifier against Liechtenstein on 11 June. Currently level on points with Spain at the top of their group, Italy cannot afford any slip-ups prior to their crucial meeting with La Roja on 2 September.

“Both Spain and Italy knew right from the start that the two games between them were going to be decisive,” said Zaza. “They’re two great sides that know each other well, and it’s all going to come down to the little details. The keys for us will be to take our chances, be effective and avoid making mistakes in defence.”

Understandably, Russia is looming large in the striker’s thoughts at the moment: “It goes without saying that being at the World Cup is one of my goals right now. It’s an important tournament that every player dreams of.”

It would also be the perfect way for him to overcome the hurt he still feels after a testing time in his career.