The life and legacy of Inter and Argentina legend Javier Zanetti, a footballer like no other

The life and legacy of Inter and Argentina legend Javier Zanetti, a footballer like no other

This article was first published in the Argentina issue of These Football Times magazine. Support our journalism by ordering a copy for yourself, as a gift to someone, or for your workplace. It’s what keeps our online content entirely free.

To the untrained eye, the tidy and sturdy figure emerging in possession looks almost top heavy. Momentarily awkward with the ball at his feet, he very briefly lends the illusion of losing balance. Counterpoising the upper body strength of Paul Gascoigne in his prime and the dancing feet of George Best, balance is carefully sustained. In the pristine stripes of Italy’s Internazionale, he’s just dispossessed an attacker, controlled the ball, beat the same attacker, held off four strong challenges, and set-up another wave of attack.

The sight is blissfully familiar to millions of football fans. It is the artistry and prowess of Javier Zanetti. Inter’s eternal number four is a rarity in many senses of the word. As one of Argentina’s most gifted defensive players, it could be argued he went against the grain. La Albiceleste have good form in producing two rudimentary types of defenders. Zanetti, though, is not an untamed libero, and neither did he rely on the dark arts.

Zanetti’s was an unassuming, total and technical expertise. His application as a full-back or defensive midfielder was sublimely simple. With purposeful longevity and breathtaking consistency, he made the ordinary beautiful and laced it with moments of sheer brilliance.

The numbers are impressive: five Scudetti, four Coppa Italia, four Italian Super Cups, a Champions League, a UEFA Cup and a Club World Cup winner’s medal; nineteen years – 15 as captain – and a record 858 appearances for Inter, and 143 caps for Argentina. The humble attitude of a bonafide gentleman consistently shrouded those numbers and moments of brilliance with a blanket of modesty.

When Argentina and England collided at the 1998 World Cup, the occasion provided a fitting example of Zanetti’s marriage of glorious application and modest simplicity. As something of a developing theme, Zanetti’s admirable virtue, and the contrasting subsequent actions of Michael Owen, David Beckham and Diego Simeone transpired to gloss over a personal moment of brilliance.

At the business end of a deliciously intricate free-kick routine, it was Zanetti who bought a definitive match level at 2-2. In one fluid and natural movement, he received a brisk pass with his back to goal, cushioned the ball with his right foot, and drilled it into the top corner with his left. Glenn Hoddle’s England may well have spent a significant portion of half-time contemplating how a full-back could be so expertly two-footed and finish like a natural striker.

The goal, the physical control it demanded, and the way it was made to look ordinary, depicted Zanetti in a nutshell. As other events of that fateful match cast Zanetti’s brilliance to the shadows, so played out a charming truism of the man. For all the accolades, trophies, appearances and honours, Zanetti is a man who did what he did for the pure joy.

Having finally hung up his boots in May 2014, Zanetti was fittingly appointed as Inter’s vice-president. While it remains to be seen if his role will bring equal happiness, his selfless work ethic and professionalism can be counted upon.

Naturally, such an unassuming disposition hails from humble beginnings. The aptly named Dock Sud area of Buenos Aires exists as a polar opposite to romantically lavish images of Argentina’s capital. It’s where the working-class Zanetti family called home, and it hosts little in the way of expansive boulevards or quaint European-style cafes.

Born to a bricklayer and a cleaner, one could safely conclude Javier and family were far too busy to yearn for luxury. Along with his brother, Sergio, Javier soon found football as not an escape, but merely another avenue upon which to apply pragmatism for the sake of pleasure. He hinted at the professionalism to come by tending to the local pitch during his spare time.

Almost inexplicably, though, Zanetti’s football career was nearly over before it began. In 1989, a raw 16-year-old Zanetti had trials with one of Argentina’s big five, Club Atlético Independiente. However, after a matter of weeks, coaches dismissed him as too slight and too weak.

Undeterred and with a defining maturity, he knuckled down and completed his education. Upon leaving school, Zanetti took great pleasure in securing a job delivering milk with a cousin. Upon completion of a shift which started at 4am, he then took great pleasure assisting Rodolfo, his father, as an assistant bricklayer. “I liked my father’s work,” he’d later recall. “But above all I liked the idea of doing something concrete and useful. Building a house is a metaphor that I like, it’s at the core of my life philosophy: starting from the bottom and reaching the top.”

In joining second division Club Atlético Talleres in 1991, Zanetti started at the bottom. Suffice to say he soon became an immediate fixture in the team. Still, few would have predicted such a rise to the top of world football, which would soon be a reality.

After a solitary season in the second tier, Zanetti was signed by Banfield. Whilst quickly adorning himself to the El Tarado supporters, he became known by the moniker of El Tractor, which shouldn’t require translation. Already famed for his stamina and positively relentless attitude, Zanetti further endeared himself to the Banfield fans for rebuffing interest in his signature from both River Plate and Boca Juniors.

If Zanetti wasted little time in establishing himself at Banfield, Daniel Passarella, Argentina coach at the time, was equally swift in handing 21-year-old Zanetti an international debut. Three months after the 1994 World Cup, a rejuvenated Argentina faced Chile in a friendly, and won 3-0. The match marked the start of an international career which would hold more troughs than Zanetti’s club career.

Rising to international prominence meant more suitors lined up for Zanetti, and they weren’t restricted to the cream of the Primera División. In the summer of 1995, Massimo Moratti, an Italian petroleum tycoon turned football club president, assumed control of Internazionale. Over the course of the following years Moratti is rumoured to have spent €1.5bn of his personal fortune on football superstars including Zlatan Ibrahimović, Wesley Sneijder, Luís Figo, Patrick Vieira, Samuel Eto’o, Christian Vieri, Iván Zamorano, Hernán Crespo and Brazilians Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Adriano and Maicon, most of whom were signed in their glorious prime.

The very first signing he oversaw was that of Javier Zanetti. Well, alongside fellow Argentine Sebastián Rambert, at least. As Zanetti’s Milanese love affair enters its third decade, Rambert was sold to Real Zaragoza in 1996 after failing to make a single appearance.

With the possible exception of several Silvio Berlusconi actions and soundbites, Milan is a classy city. Its social etiquette is strict and those in the public eye carry an extra weight of responsibility. Their application, presentation, professionalism and personal life all fall unforgivingly under the microscope. For a footballer of Zanetti’s style, and for a gentleman of his integrity, Milan proves itself a suitable home.

It didn’t take long for avid La Gazzetta readers, writers and editors across the Milanese football divide to realise they had nothing on Zanetti. Each week for two decades, Zanetti offered only dedicated professionalism and joy.

Serving testament to Zanetti’s longevity and rectitude, along with Rambert and countless team-mates, he has out-lived an incredible 17 managers during his 19-year Inter playing career. From Roy Hodgson to José Mourinho, Marcello Lippi to Héctor Cúper, Rafa Benítez to Roberto Mancini, and everyone in between, each manager made Zanetti a mainstay. Post-1999 and the retirement of legendary Inter defender Giuseppe Bergomi, they all made Zanetti their captain.

The list of qualities which made Zanetti an ideal leader are plentiful. Though for a defender and defensive midfielder who played all his football in Argentina and Italy, Zanetti’s discipline record is both exemplary and astonishing. Having been red-carded for the first time in February 1999, Zanetti would go a remarkable 12 years before receiving the second and final marching orders of his career.

Incidentally, it is only Roy Hodgson who invoked any public display of aggression. With the second-leg of the 1997 UEFA Cup final delicately poised at 1-1 in extra time, Hodgson chose to replace Zanetti with Nicola Berti. Having already switched Zanetti to a wide right position to accommodate Paul Ince, Zanetti wasn’t happy at being hauled off with a penalty shoot-out looming. Tellingly, he still found the grace to not only hug Berti as he entered the action but affectionately embrace Hodgson whilst berating the Englishman at the same time. Definitely a clip worth looking up.

At 36, Zanetti’s already dazzling Inter career was crowned as the curtain closed on a dreamy 2009/10 season. Fellow countryman, Diego Milito, rightfully took plaudits for his Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Champions League winning goals, but it was Il Capitano who remained the driving force. Of the 28 players deployed by Mourinho throughout the campaign, Zanetti clocked up the most appearances and started every game in which he played.

However, the glittering high’s of holding trophies aloft rarely exist without some form of pain. As with most leaders with an obvious abundance of integrity, suffering is something of a rite of passage. Ironically for Zanetti, the pain of missing a second consecutive World Cup came just days after winning the 2010 Champions League.

In a hauntingly similar fashion to José Pekerman’s snub prior to the 2006 World Cup, Zanetti had played in the majority of qualifiers yet was left out of the final squad. Journalists and pundits in Europe and South America were perplexed. Under the erratic stewardship of Diego Maradona in 2010, Zanetti lost the captaincy to Javier Mascherano and lost his place to Jonás Gutiérrez.

Likely to come as little surprise, Zanetti stood tall and refused to walk away from international football. With Maradona ousted, Zanetti was recalled in September 2010. Along with Gabriel Batistuta, the pair were honoured by the Argentine Football Association, and subject to a moving evening of tribute prior to a friendly against Spain. Zanetti did eventually retire from national team duty following the 2011 Copa América.

Domestically, and in the increasingly unpredictable context of modern Inter in Serie A, Zanetti kept going. With his 40th year looming on the horizon, he registered 30-plus appearances in the 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons, and remained one of Inter’s star players. After rupturing his achilles in April 2013, only the 2013/14 season saw injury hamper his record.

All good things must come to an end, though, and despite the dedication to physical conditioning, Zanetti is only human: “I just want to play at least once more in front of the Inter fans, and I would hope it could be more than once,” he defied and pleaded shortly after diagnosis.

It is therefore an overwhelming testament to his dedication, fitness and strength of mind, that Zanetti did indeed force himself back for a 12 appearances throughout 2014, the last of which, on 18 May, just three months shy of his 40th birthday, he started in central defence as Inter were defeated away to Verona.

Upon retiring and swapping the Giuseppe Meazza pitch for its boardroom, Zanetti came to prominence thanks to a collection of photos. Browsing Zanetti’s collection of annual Panini mugshots provides a couple of striking conclusions. Firstly, it is possible for an embryonic black and blue striped kit to suffer several striking designs. Secondly, and most relevant for this article, is that Zanetti appears to get younger across the span of two decades.

It should be said that an almost alarmingly consistent hairstyle plays a significant role in Zanetti’s age-defying. His defiantly dark and neatly cropped locks are not once out of place. Coincidentally, Zanetti has remarked upon his hair several times: “If I had a lock of hair out of place, I would not feel OK”, he told Italy’s OK Salute! magazine in 2009. “I am a precise person in everything I do. Feeling my hair in place gives me confidence. It’s a question of image but also of character.”

Perhaps most tellingly is that his hair always frames a fresh and youthful face. It is the face of a professional athlete, one who took his profession and his body seriously. From Mourinho to Zanetti’s wife, Paula de la Fuente, many can testify that notion. “It’s an honour to coach him,” Mourinho claimed en-route to the historic treble in 2010. “He has strength and character, and these things make a difference in a player. Physically and mentally he doesn’t seem like a 35-year-old man.”

Perhaps more conclusively comes a tale from Zanetti’s autobiography Giocare da Uomo (Play Like a Man), which really should be translated into English. Paula, Zanetti’s childhood sweetheart and wife of 19 years, shares a telling tale of their wedding day. Though it’s not what might be expected from a footballer, it is Zanetti to a tee.

Following the exchange of rings and before guests were due to arrive for the reception, Zanetti asked if his new wife would mind if he went out for a quick run. While it would be easy for peers to poke fun at such a priority, it defines exactly how Zanetti was able to maintain such lofty levels of fitness right up till his final season as a professional footballer.

In Italy, and together with compatriot Esteban Cambiasso, he created Leoni di Potrero, a foundation to support children with social isolation problems. Fundación PUPI was formed by Javier and Paula in Argentina and supports social integration of children from low-income families.

As one might expect, Javier Zanetti appears every inch the role model on and off the pitch. Paolo Maldini, AC Milan’s own champion of longevity called Zanetti his “most respected enemy”. Ryan Giggs cites Zanetti as his “most difficult opponent”, and labelled him as “a complete player”. Maradona, speaking before that 2010 World Cup snub, said, “Zanetti is better than all of us put together.”

The duplicitous world of modern football appears home to fewer bonafide gentlemen than ever and showcases many an example of a questionable role model. Javier Zanetti bucked that trend through values of hard work, honesty and professionalism. It’s why he remains one of the most respected footballers in history.

By Glenn Billingham @glennbills

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