Main Position: Right Back/Wingback
Other Positions: Left Back/Wingback, Right Midfielder, Central Midfield
Clubs: Talleres (1992-93), Banfield (1993-95), Internazionale (1995-2014)
Honours: 5 x Serie A, 4 x Coppa Italia, 4 x Supercoppa, 1 x UEFA Champions League, 1 x UEFA Cup, 1 x FIFA Club World Cup
International Caps: 145
18th May, 2014. A standing ovation erupts at the Stadio Marc ‘Antonio Bentegodi in Verona, just like it had done the previous week at the Giuseppe Meazza. Inter Milan had finished a reasonable fifth in Serie A, meaning European football was back for Il Nerazzurri, despite a last day defeat to Chievo.
OK, so there would be no Champions League football for the Black and Blue half of Milan, but celebrations were in still the air. The curtain hadn’t just fallen on another Serie A season, but also on one of Italian football’s greatest servants. The bows and the appreciations were reserved for one man. Step forward Javier Adelmar Zanetti: Il Capitano.
I could flood this bio with quotes I found on the internet, as everyone from football’s top table had a great deal of respect for him. From the players and managers who worked with him, to those he played against. Even those from the other side of Milan couldn’t help but admire someone who had become almost part of the Italian football family despite being born nearly seven thousand miles away. He showed a level of loyalty very rarely seen nowadays; someone who was born Blue and White, but then became Blue and Black.
Born in Buenos Aires, he never had the chance to represent one of the powerhouses of the Argentine capital. Boca Juniors, River Plate, and Independiente seemed to overlook him (although he did have a trial at the latter) and it was with the more modest club Banfield that Zanetti would make his way up the footballing ladder. Catching the eye as right full/wingback who loved getting up and down the wing, he was christened the nickname “El Tractor”. He was grabbing the attention of some nifty admirers; two in particular would shape the future of the young Zanetti.
One was a former World Cup winning captain, Daniel Passarella, recently appointed the head coach of the Argentina national team. After only a year of top flight experience, he played for his country for the first time against Chile. He didn’t know it back then, but it would be the start of a love/hate relationship with the national team.
The other admirer that would change Zanetti’s career was someone who was only a novice in the football world, but with big plans and big pockets. That man was Massimo Moratti, the new president of Internazionale Milano. Back in 1995, Zanetti (along with fellow Argentine Sebastian Rambert) became the first signing made by the Moratti regime. In the close to billions that the oil tycoon has spent on his beloved club over the years, it was, quite possibly, the first purchase he made that would be his most inspired.
Zanetti playing for Inter Milan in 1999/2000
In the history of Inter Milan, only two players have had their shirt numbers retired. Giacinto Facchetti, another full back who graced the club for 18 years in the 60’s & 70’s, and Javier Zanetti. No overseas player has played more Serie A games than the Argentine. Captain since 1999, he has lifted 15 major trophies for the club. Very few could match his work ethic and professionalism; it became hard to picture Inter without him in their side.
It was not just his leadership skills which made him first choice on the team sheet. His versatility, if sometimes forced, made him the manager’s confidant. His football brain meant he could cover a number of different positions on the pitch. If Maicon came in at right back, Zanetti would go into right midfield. If Luis Figo played, he would go to left back. If Cristian Chivu was playing, a place would be found in central midfield for him. Simply, Zanetti, if fit, must play.
When Inter Milan took to the pitch of the Bernabeu in Madrid for the club’s first European Cup final since 1972, not a single Italian was present. The Italian champions were winning trophies in Italy without any homegrown players in their team. However, if one player could be nominated to be a home-grown player, then there would be only one candidate. He might have been born in a different continent, but Milan was his home. Lifting ol’ big ears aloft after fellow Argentine Diego Milito had scored a brace to defeat Bayern Munich, no one in the football world would deny him his moment.
Javier Zanetti’s international career spanned 17 years. He is Argentina’s most capped player of all time (145 caps). He played at five Copa America’s and two World Cups. Yet, many believe that he should have even more caps for his country, even a possibility the record appearance holder for World Cups, too.
He featured at France ’98, scoring against England in that classic second Round match. He had finished a beautifully crafted move from a free-kick that bamboozled the English. Despite the epic that resulted in the penalty win for the South Americans, Argentina were knocked out at the quarter-final stage by the Netherlands.
Four years later, he was part of a much fancied team that was one of the favorites for the Cup in Japan and South Korea. However, the favourites tag was just a smoke screen and a side that was considered the best for a decade were eliminated in the group stages.
In 2006, after playing in the qualifying round, he looked a certainty for the trip to Germany, quite possibly as vice-captain. But, Jose Pekerman stunned the football world when he omitted him from the squad. What added to the shock was Argentina were in short supply of natural right backs that were of international standard. By this stage, Zanetti had won over 100 caps and surely would have added experience to the squad.
He overcame this disappointment when he was recalled to the squads for the Copa America in 2007 and featured promptly in the World Cup qualifying campaign. Even under the stewardship of Diego Maradona (the other Argentine World Cup winning captain), Zanetti still seemed to be his man. Yet, bizarrely, history repeated itself as he was not included on the plane to South Africa.
Even at 36, many believed he was still an automatic choice for the right back slot. But it seemed it was never meant to be when it came to honors with his country. A gold medal at the 1995 Pan American games was his only success; but he is comforted by the fact that he is not alone when it comes to Argentine legends failing to win titles for their country.
Zanetti lifts the Champions League trophy with Inter in 2010
In his time at Inter, Zanetti saw the manager’s hot-seat change over 20 times, sometimes in Moratti’s desperation in getting Inter back to the top in Europe. One manager who got it right was Jose Mourinho. Two Scudetto’s and one Copa Italia was the least of what was expected with Inter’s hegemony of Serie A. But by adding the Champions League to these triumphs, Inter became the first Italian side to win the treble of league, domestic cup and Europe. Zanetti’s arms must have been knackered after lifting all that silverware, but it was becoming a familiar sight.
He very rarely missed games through suspension. In his reign he was only ever sent off twice, the second coming twelve years after the first. His only major injury was a torn Achilles that left him out for six months at the age of 39. It’s typical of the man that he wanted to go out on his own terms. Going into his 40’s, he was determined to have a final season as a player, not a casualty.
So the last day of the 2013-14 season, and it was the final curtain. Ironically, Mr. Versatility actually played at centre-back. If only time was on his side, he might even have done a job there, or maybe even as a goalkeeper or striker (although his goal scoring record was never much to write home about).
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