There aren’t many people in the world who can claim to be a legend at a football club. Fewer still can claim to embody their club. And those who can have usually called their club their life for the majority of their existence on the planet.
And then there’s Pablo Zabaleta.
He was born in Buenos Aires and bought from Barcelona (the blue side, of course), but there really is no doubt about his legendary status in Manchester. And yet he somehow seems to fit those bills.
It’s not because Zabaleta was the best right back who has ever played for Manchester City – though any list would have to have him near the top – nor is it because his performances have been so great – though he’s always been very reliable.
Usually cult heroes are lionised for one thing in particular, for some sort of style. Zabaleta is, once again, different. He is a hero because he is a hero: in the medieval sense of the word – he is a warrior and a champion.
And Manchester City shouldn’t write him off in his old age, they shouldn’t desire to send him off to pasture and generally discard of their right back for almost a decade to bring in new faces at the club. City may need new, younger full-backs, but Zabaleta should still be regarded as an important part of City’s squad.
Over the past couple of weeks, he has been deployed as a defensive midfielder – an unusual role – and he’s been an important part of the team. He is useful for his institutional memory, his knowledge of the club and its fans, and how they’ve had success in the recent past. But he’s more than that, too: he’s a man who knows how to win, and how to fight.
Why else would Manchester City’s tribute to the man look like it’s almost entirely made up of blood, guts and mis-hit shots. All we’re missing from some of those clips is the obvious yellow card the Argentinian is about to be shown.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) January 16, 2017
But that’s the point. Zabaleta has never been a man who plays the game with silk and timidity. Joe Hart once described David Silva as ‘part weasel, part wizard (though more weasel than wizard)’, Zabaleta is the yin to that yang – he’s no weasel, he’s a lion.
It’s one thing to be a lion on the pitch, though. To be brave, to put your head where it hurts (and have the scars to prove it), or to give your all for the team. But it’s an entirely different thing to be the embodiment of the recent history of your club.
Recently, City have been written off and they’ve been derided as a team full of overpaid prima donnas who don’t like it up them, to use a phrase from the Middle English parlance. Spoiled by Middle Eastern money and hollowed out by a Catalan crew who have set the club on a course to failure and fuelled by spineless style of play that will never work in England.
And yet that’s not City’s recent history at all.
Pablo Zabaleta, a hardened soldier, ready to do anything for the cause, but stuck out at right back and forgotten about, is a very apt metaphor for his club’s successes over the past decade.
Because City never cause a stir, they never get the attention of a hype-friendly media – in fact they have, in the past, looked to be actively victimised by it – and they don’t sell newspapers or provide online clicks.
But they do fight until the end.
Everything they have won since 2008, in fact, has seen them fight til the end in some way or other. Often unsuccessfully, too, as victory is never as sweet without defeat to temper the palate’s excesses.
2012’s league title victory is the obvious example, but 2014’s victory is a similar story, too. Aguero’s last-second winner against QPR gave 2012 legendary status, but people forget that City had to persevere and fight until the end in 2014, too. The narrative is that Liverpool chucked away the title that season, the reality is that City had to fight tooth and nail to get results even when it looked like Liverpool were unbeatable.
That’s the spirit of Zabaleta, and it’s the spirit of the club too, though it flies under the radar. But it’s why everyone at City – the club and its fans – see Zabaleta as such a cult hero.
But there’s nothing ‘cult’ about it, really. In their eyes, he’s just a hero.