Words, however, were not the common ground between this former Italian international goalkeeper and Britain's wartime prime minister. Both were leaders of men. Indeed, Zoff's finest hour came when he led his country to victory at the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™. Unlike some of today's heroes, he was a legend precisely because of his achievements as a player: including 112 Italy caps spanning three World Cups; and an international football record of 1142 minutes without conceding a goal.
Yet this son of Friuli farming stock would not have had it any other way. "All that I have, I have earned through hard work," he once said. Football would take the country boy out of Italy's agricultural north-east; yet the country, proud and pragmatic, never really left Zoff.
Growing up in this erstwhile corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire had its advantages, not least the diet. When he was rejected by Inter Milan and Juventus as a 14-year-old - with the time-honoured excuse that he was too small - Zoff's grandmother Adélaïde had the answer: to feed him up on eggs. Five years on and Zoff's displays for his village team, Marianese, were giving the scouts at nearby Udinese food for thought. He had grown 33 centimetres to 1,82 metres - a rise in inches which earned him a leap in faith on the part of the Serie A club. Soon Zoff was leaving his job as a motor mechanic to sign professional forms. He was not, however, a smooth starter and let in five goals on his debut at Fiorentina on September 24th 1961. Demotion beckoned, for player and club.
Zoff had made just four appearances for the Friuli club when Mantova restored him to the top flight the next season. Here his career really did take off. By 1966 he was being considered for Italy's FIFA World Cup squad alongside Albertosi, Anzolin and Pizzaballa. In the event, Azzurri coach Edmondo Fabbri selected the latter trio, because, as Zoff explained, "he did not want to be accused of favouritism being a Mantova man himself". Consolation came in the shapely form of wife Anna-Maria. The subsequent birth of son Marco meant there would be two new arrivals in Zoff's life in 1967. That was the year Napoli welcomed him to the south of Italy in exchange for 130million lire and goalkeeper Bandoni. The Naples club succeeded where AC Milan, ever reluctant to meet Mantova's price, had failed. "I have great memories of my time there," Zoff said. "It is such a lively city."
A memorable one too, it transpired. Zoff made his international debut there in the 2-0 win against Bulgaria in April 1968. It was a European Championship quarter-final and he stayed in the team as Italy reached the Final, where they beat Yugoslavia in a replay. A worthy start to an international career that only the great Paolo Maldini would eclipse three decades on (Zoff played 112 times for his country). Yet not even the photogenic Maldini made the front cover of Newsweek magazine. That particular honour fell to Zoff in 1982, as he bowed out of international football in much the same way he had entered it: with a winner's medal.
That he did so as a 40-year-old in the FIFA World Cup was suitable recompense for his years of dedication. Seasons punctuated more by triumph than by disaster. The small defeats of losing his place to Albertosi at the World Cup in Mexico, of being "not at my best" in Argentina eight years later, were nothing compared with six Italian championships won with Juventus. It was half a lifetime ago that Zoff swapped Turin for Naples. It was a fresh challenge for a player who always seemed as interested in setting goals as he was in saving them. Perhaps this was the secret of his longevity.
In Zoff's case, the past really was history. And the fact he was only ever as good as his last game allowed him to retain his enthusiasm through 570 Serie A appearances, 330 made in perfect sequence while at Juventus. Halcyon days indeed, those 11 terms at the Stadio Comunale. Certainly, the Bianconeri got their money's worth out of their 330million lire signing. In return, as well as the six Scudettos, Zoff picked up the UEFA Cup and two Italian Cups. The one caveat was the European Cup, where he was twice a loser: against Ajax in 1973 and Hamburg in 1983.
The latter final was Zoff's farewell to the big time. He retired to become a goalkeeping coach at Juventus. But it was not enough. "As far as I was concerned it was a dead-end job," he said. So he took the post of coach to Italy's Olympic team ahead of the Seoul Games - and impressed sufficiently to be offered the manager's job back at Juventus in 1988. Victories in the Italian and UEFA Cups, plus a third-place finish in the league, ensured the club would not regret their choice, although the arrangement lasted but a year.
Next stop was Lazio. In Rome, Zoff had four campaigns as coach then assumed the role of president. He oversaw the Eagles' transition from poor relations in the Eternal City to plc... and even had a brief spell at caretaker coach in 1997.
His next appointment was arguably the pinnacle: replacing Cesare Maldini as Italy trainer after the Azzurri's poor showing at France 98. And but for David Trezeguet's golden goal in the Euro 2000 final, he might well have been the man responsible for the country's first international success since Spain 82. Yet according to the Italian press, second place was for losers. Stung by the criticism, Zoff retired and returned to Lazio, again as coach. He took them to third position and the Champions League, yet could not satisfy fans who had feasted on a league and cup double a year earlier. So when the 2001/02 season began with embarrassing defeats at home and in Europe, the Zoff removal vans were again in motion... doubtless laden with the trophies of a wonderful career in the game.
570 Serie A appearances
1973 Italian championship
1975 Italian championship
1977 Italian championship
1977 UEFA Cup
1978 Italian championship
1979 Italian Cup
1981 Italian championship
1982 Italian championship
1983 Italian Cup
1968-1982 Italy (112 appearances, 59 as captain)
Three FIFA World Cup™ finals
1968 European Championship winner
1974 FIFA World Cup™ first round
1978 FIFA World Cup™ second round
1982 FIFA World Cup™ winner
1990 Italian Cup
1990 UEFA Cup
2000 European Championship runner-up