In December of 2006, UCLA forward Sal Zizzo didn’t know what the future held for him. He was in camp with the Under-20s, but a spot on the qualifying roster wasn’t a sure bet. That was until the San Diego native impressed head coach Thomas Rongen in the team’s final training camp in Bradenton, Fla., secured his place on the team and eventually helped the U.S. qualify for the U-20 World Cup. However, it was six months later at the U-20 World Cup when Zizzo really made his mark. Taking advantage of an injury to starter Johann Smith before the tournament, Zizzo seemed almost unstoppable on the right wing during the USA’s group games against Poland and Brazil. His impressive performance on the world stage was being watched closely and shortly after the tournament, the 20-year-old signed a three-year deal with Hannover in Germany. We sat down with Zizzo just before he was to leave for Germany and talked about becoming a professional and his expectations during his first year.
When did you first find out that Hannover was interested?
Sal Zizzo: “I was actually going to go on trial over to Hannover before the U-20 World Cup, but I got called into the camp in Rochester when we played Argentina and I ended up going to that instead. From there they said they were going to keep track of me so during the World Cup they watched a couple games and from what I’m told they were very interested. My agent told me after the World Cup that they were really serious and they wanted to make an offer. I went there with my family and everything seemed perfect."
If they were interested before the World Cup, when did they first see you play?
SZ: “My agent actually contacted them and told them I played with the Under-20s and was interested in going pro in Europe. They said they were interested in taking a look at me, so that’s when I was going to go train with them before the World Cup. Of course, since I couldn’t go, they then watched me at the World Cup.”
You weren’t projected as a starter, but Johann Smith got injured before the World Cup and you took over the right forward position in Thomas Rongen’s 4-3-3 formation. With Hannover scouts watching, and I’m sure other clubs, you really took advantage of the playing time and were one of the standouts for the U.S. Your performance had to be the selling point for Hannover.
SZ: “Definitely. The U-20 World Cup is on a world stage so everyone is watching you, and when Hannover saw me they liked me.”
You have Italian citizenship and I know you had some interest in playing in Serie A. Were there options to play in Italy?
SZ: “I’m not really sure. I think there were, but a lot of it was considering what seemed right for me. With Steve (Cherundolo) in Germany and just going there Hannover was so great and I just felt like I could definitely go there over going to Serie A.”
Were there any other clubs that were interested?
SZ: “I wasn’t really too sure what clubs, but I do know some others were interested. Hamburg had been somewhat interested, but I don’t know of any straight up offers. I just know Hannover was the best and everything just turned out so great.”
How tough of a decision was it to jump overseas and leave UCLA?
SZ: “It was very hard leaving UCLA. I kind of felt like I wanted to, or almost had to, leave for my soccer development and career, but it was definitely hard leaving all my teammates and coaches. My coaches at UCLA were so great throughout the process in supporting me with my decision. In the end, it all worked out well.”
You mentioned your new teammate Steve Cherundolo earlier. Did you talk to him during the process of deciding to sign with Hannover?
SZ: “Yea, actually my parents had talked to him right when the U-20 tournament ended and he was kind of pitching it to us. He explained what the city and the team was like, and he will always be a big help for me, especially in the first six months because that’s always the hardest. Whenever you hear from somebody that goes abroad they say the first six months is the hardest. I think with him there and other factors I’ll feel really comfortable. The team really rolled out the red carpet for me, you could say. The coaches and the sport director were really nice.”
Being from San Diego, did you know Steve Cherundolo before this or did your families know each other?
SZ: “I knew about him obviously, but I didn’t know him and had never met him. It was pretty cool meeting him this past week when I was in Hannover, and he had dinner with me and my parents. We had a good conversation and he was a really nice guy.”
What advice did he give you?
SZ: “He just told me that the first six months are hard, but you have to want to attack it. You have to want to speak German, you have to want to be in Germany and playing soccer there, you can’t just sit around or mope around.”
Is learning German going to be the hardest part?
SZ: “Probably. I don’t think the culture thing will be difficult to get used to, but the language to be honest will be tough. Once you learn the language, though, and you’re able to communicate with everyone it just makes things so much easier. I’m going to take classes over there, so I think I’ll be OK.”
Your former UCLA teammates Benny Feilhaber and Kamani Hill are both in Germany. Did you talk to them about moving there and what pointers did they give you?
SZ: “I haven’t talked to Benny, but I did speak with (U-20 teammate) Preston Zimmerman and Kamani who is with Wolfsburg. I talked to them a couple times, but it was basically the same information that Steve gave me.”
What do you know about the Bundesliga? Is that a league you followed closely growing up?
SZ: “I didn’t follow too many leagues in Europe growing up, but I obviously know that the Bundesliga is one of the top leagues along with England, Spain and Italy. All four of those I kept up with the top teams and the players, but I never really got into the standings and everything. I’m sure I will now, though.”
What’s the city of Hannover like?
SZ: “The city is really nice. I thought it was going to be smaller than it was. They have a nice city center by the City Hall. They played a number of World Cup games at the stadium, which is really nice. You walk out on the stadium and the fans are just crazy; I think it holds about 50,000. I think they renovated it for the World Cup and it’s really nice. It’s great and I can’t wait to get the chance to play there. The training ground is perfect. The team facilities overall are just great. The city is great and I’m excited to be there.”
What is your living situation in Hannover when you arrive?
SZ: “When I was over there I got an apartment, but for the first two weeks I’m just going to be living in a hotel before I get everything situated. I think in mid-August I’ll move into the new apartment, bring in all my furniture and go from there.”
What has the club told you about your place in the team right now? Will you be with the reserves first or will you be fighting for a spot with the first team right away?
SZ: “I’m not really sure, but I believe I’ll be training with the first team. Other than that, I’m just going from there. I think they just want to see where I am right now before they make that decision.”
You were issued the No. 15 shirt, which is the same number you wore for the U-20s. Any significance there?
SZ: “They gave me like three or four options and when I heard 15 I was like, why not? I was No. 8 at UCLA and when I wore 15 (with the U-20s) it was the first time, so when they had it at Hannover I was like why not keep going with it.”
Have you looked back and thought about the whirlwind year you’ve had?
SZ: “Yea, I look at all that and it all happened so quickly, but also for a reason. It all turned out great and I’m really happy. I’m just excited. I’m just anxious to train. It’s going to be pretty crazy, it’s all happening pretty fast, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”