Roughly sixteen months on since Italian international Simone Zaza bizarrely tip-toed up to the spot and fizzed his penalty attempt wide and above Germany keeper Manuel Neuer, Azzurri supporters still seem somewhat disturbed by their exit in the 2016 UEFA European Championships two summers ago.
As Italy prepare for a two-legged, win-or-go-home play-off with Sweden to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia, and already having mulled over manager Gian Piero Ventura’s latest squad, many, including myself, feel compelled to reflect on how several made it to this point – in particular Zaza who has only redemption on his mind for ‘La Nazionale.’
After leaving his post in charge of Turin’s ‘La Vecchia Signora’, Antonio Conte took up international duties for Italy after Cesare Prandelli failed to skipper ‘the Blues’ out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Group Stages. Leading a revolution into France, initial skeptics raised concern over the Lecce native’s choices that left fans outraged and pundits perplexed. Against popular demand of selecting Toronto FC’s diminutive superstar Sebastian Giovinco and in-form forward Leonardo Pavoletti, Conte entrusted players who he felt, in his mind, adhered to his methods, and could carry out his master plan to hopefully defy oddsmakers by winning the tournament his way.
Along with Graziano Pellè and Eder, whose harmony up front as a pair evidently struck a chord with Conte throughout the qualification phase, became the preferred tandem in the Italian’s tried and tested 3-5-2 shape. Included in Conte’s squad was Juventus striker Simone Zaza who, despite playing in just shy of 1,000 minutes the season prior for Massimiliano Allegri’s Scudetto winning Juventus, possessed the physical means, tenacity and flair for the dramatic as he always found himself deciding matches with late goals as a role player.
Over 24 appearances throughout all competitions during the 2015-16 season, Zaza buried 8 goals – one of which came very late in the 88th minute to defeat their biggest threat to a title in Napoli 1-0 at J Stadium.
Early on, Conte’s Italy slowly began winning the hearts of those back home and abroad. Each of his criticized selections seemed to make an impact in some way and contribute in a winning effort – Zaza included who was summoned from the bench in the second half versus Sweden, and eventually supplied Eder’s 88th minute winner to ensure the fairytale journey would continue into the Round of 16. As Zaza’s competition would regrettably be remembered for “the penalty attempt” that subsequently led to Italy’s 6-5 shoot-out defeat to Germany, following his miss, he issued a heartfelt apology to the fans and nation, explaining:
“I am sorry to have let the Italian people down. I missed the most important penalty of my life and I will carry this burden with me forever.”
Months later, after being mocked on social media and the butt of many internet jokes, Zaza was loaned to West Ham United on a €5m loan deal with the Premier League side holding a permanent appearance-based obligation of 20 million euros. His stay would be short lived in London however, as he struggled to settle into unfamiliar grounds and adapt to the different brand of football.
The Hammers limited him to only 8 appearances in the league, purposely avoiding triggering his option. From there, he packed his bags yet again and headed to Spain in January 2017, joining La Liga outfit Valencia where he’s resurrected his career ever since.
The 26-year old scored 6 goals after entering the fray for Valencia who had seen a total of three managers take the post at the Mestalla in 2016-17 en-route to a disappointing 12th place finish. Fast forward a year, now both Zaza and Els Taronges‘ fortunes have changed dramatically.
Since arriving this past summer, Spanish tactician Marcelino has steadied the ship, and currently has his men sitting second in the table above both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid – and have Zaza to thank for it.
Up front in Marcelino’s 4-4-2 setup, Zaza’s been faced with stiff competition for minutes as both Santi Mina and Rodrigo Moreno’s early demonstrations prove they possess the clinical means to be regulars. But, when you’ve bagged 8 goals in your last seven league matches like Zaza has, and trail only Barcelona’s Lionel Messi in the scoring chart, proof of his scintillating form is shown in the company he holds. His torrid run is legitimate and was undisputedly worthy of a re-call to the Azzurri.
Following his departure from West Ham, Zaza opened up to Gazzetta dello Sport in February of 2017 about how the penalty was a problem that had haunted him ever since leaving France. “After the European Championships,” Zaza explained, “I lost so much weight.” His former coach Slaven Bilic, who although failed to fully tap into his potential, defended Zaza after his London exit, having said “he is a really good player. Just because you have one bad spell it doesn’t mean you are a bad player.”
Zaza has since proven Bilic right, earning back his spot on the Italian National Team roster as a result of his blistering club form. Though the vast majority of Italy supporters shared a common interest in seeing OGC Nice striker Mario Balotelli get the nod, and be rewarded for his own upswing in performance, Zaza’s undeniably deserving of the shirt that can all but satisfy his craving for redemption. And, if the stars align, he could get it sooner than he thinks.