With Samson, the power lay in the hair. With Javier Zanetti, the strength was in the hairstyle.It’s usually advisable not to extend a metaphor beyond its reasonable limits, but not here. It is an unusual thing to say about anyone, but Zanetti’s hair defined him as a player: Simple, efficient, enduring and resilient. Rather than an affectation or fashion statement, Zanetti’s side parting was an extension of his personality. It became iconic in its own right.
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. 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.
Zanetti told OK Salute magazine in 2009 that
“If I had a lock of hair out of place then I would not feel ok, 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.”
Most players forge a reputation through the brilliance of their football, but Il Capitano was different. Zanetti’s stature was not formed by the things he did, but how he did them and how long he did them for. By the time he retired from football, Zanetti had broken the record for the most appearances by an outfield player in football history, with 1123 matches played. Between 1995 and 2014, Zanetti played 858 matches for Internazionale. He is the club’s record appearance-maker, captaining the Nerazzurri for 15 years. The club retired his No. 4 shirt and named him as Vice President of the club after his final match. It was the least they could do.
Javier Zanetti : The Bricklayer
Rather than me writing who he was or what he was, this is what the man said about his family in his retirement speech :
“My Mom Violeta, did housework for people while my father, Rodolfo Ignacio, was a bricklayer. Both left the house at 6 AM in the morning, and I would see them during the night. During this period, I was in school, I worked with my father, at my cousin’s grocery store, delivered milk and played football at the same time. Back when we didn’t have the money to buy football shoes, my father sewed me one.”
Adding on to that he said :
“At Independiente, I got discarded because I was too young. I was 13 years old and it was a disappointment that was hard to swallow. I was a fan of that team.”
“We had just won the Italian Cup against Palermo and we were on our way back to Milan to celebrate. Then I got a telephone message: ‘Son, congratulations. I am so happy for you… I really love you.’ The party ended late and so I thought I could return the call the next day. I never had that opportunity. She passed away in her sleep.”
As Javier Zanetti recounted tales of immense hardships with a soft spoken demeanor so often criticized on the football pitch, one almost instinctively knew that the Argentinean legend was exponentially tougher than what met the eye.
Javier Adelmar Zanetti was born on the 10th of August 1973, in Dock Sud, Buenos Aires amongst humble beginnings. Rejected by Independiente’s youth division at the delicate age of 13, Zanetti signed for second division Talleres de Remedios de Escalada. One season later, he signed with Banfield in the first division. It was here that Zanetti’s outstanding displays came to the fore, eventually leading to his call-up to the national team. Despite strong interest from Argentinian heavyweight clubs like Boca Juniors and River plate, Zanetti stayed on for another year. 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.
Zanetti’s captaincy coincided with one of the most successful periods in Inter’s history. The Argentinean led the club to 15 trophies: Five Scudetti (2005–06, 2006–07, 2007–08, 2008–09 and 2009–10), four Coppa Italia (2005, 2006, 2010 and 2011), four Supercoppa Italia (2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010), the UEFA Cup in 1998 and the 2010 Champions League. That 2010 triumph, when Diego Milito’s double gave Inter a 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich, was Zanetti’s 700th match for Inter. He marked the occasion by becoming the first captain to win the treble with an Italian team.
The tendency is to marvel at Zanetti’s longevity, but that is only the effect. The cause is far more impressive. Such durability does not happen by accident; Zanetti was arguably the greatest professional of the modern game.‘Football training according to Zanetti’ is the imaginary textbook for every child to follow. Every decision was made with a view to extending and improving his career, every action a step closer towards the greater good. As Italian journalist Luigi Garlando wrote:
“Javier Zanetti is the figurine of a saint which every father would put in the hand of his son. Train like this, behave like this, play like this.”
There are an infinite number of anecdotes regarding Zanetti’s commitment, but by far the best comes via his wife Paula, who he married in 1999. Paula, Zanetti’s childhood sweetheart and wife of 17 years, shares a telling tale of their wedding day. She says
“If I got angry every time Javier went training, Then I would have had a sour face on every day since I was 14 years old.”
Paula was referring to her husband changing into his tracksuit in between their wedding ceremony and reception in order to go for a run.
Zanetti recalls telling his wife Paula in his autobiography
“There’s some time to spare, Amore, The church ceremony is over. We’ve exchanged rings. The guests are yet to arrive for the reception. I’m going to go for a jog. I’ve brought my running shoes because in 3 weeks time I have to face England for World cup qualifiers.”
Zanetti and Inter continuously reaped the rewards of his astounding professionalism, but never more so than in 2013 when he ruptured his Achilles tendon at the age of 39.
Zanetti during his recovery broke down as doctors said he cant play football anymore since he is 39 and would take sometime to recover but Zanetti had other ideas and he said to club that he doesn’t care if he has to lose his leg but he wants to play in front of Inter Milan fans one last time. The president later recalled this conversation as Zanetti always said never to share this but president was coaxed to tell and he said
“I just want to play at least once more in front of the Inter fans, and I would hope it might be more than once,”
He returned to the pitch just six months later, three months before his 40th birthday. What Zanetti wanted, Zanetti made happen.
In his autobiography, the Argentinean remembers comments from international teammates Fernando Gago and Sergio Romero regarding the sacrifices he was making just to return to the game for a short time. His response pricks up the hairs on the back of your back.
‘I’d like to say to them: “Lads, it’s no sacrifice,” Zanetti wrote. ‘I love this hard work. I love this sport. I love this life. Every training session, in the cold and under the snow or sweating in the heat has given me joy, has made me smile. I am a lucky man.’
Merely focusing on Zanetti’s longevity would undermine his quality. There were no flashes of brilliance or mesmeric skills to his play, but consistency was the signifier of his greatness. Nicknamed El Tractor in reference to his stamina and strength, that moniker fails to represent Zanetti’s poise, range of passing, vision and anticipation.
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.
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.
The Man, The Myth and The Legend
For all the plaudits for Zanetti the footballer, they are insignificant in comparison to Zanetti the man. He is a global ambassador for the Special Olympics, and has founded three separate charities to help children affected by poverty and problem with social integration. The first was started shortly after he arrived in Milan.
Zanetti along with his wife Paula have created Fundacion PUPI to help malnourished children by taking care of their food needs; providing educational opportunities and along with his team mate Esteban Cambiasso has started a charity called Leoni di Potrero, to assist young children with mental disabilities and social isolation problems. Mark of a person who is giving back to the society from which he has gotten so much love and adulation.This is the player you would most want your daughter to date.
Loyalty is a dying trait in football. Zanetti is not necessarily a reminder of a better age, but certainly a markedly different one. He was an antiquity, the antithesis of modern celebrity culture. Simply a man completing his craft to the highest limits of his potential ability.
The duplicitous world of modern football appears home to fewer and fewer bonafide gentlemen, fewer selfless professionals, and showcases many an example of a questionable role model. Javier Zanetti, on the other hand, is undoubtedly a gentleman, a selfless professional, and a peerless role model.
Inter legend Giacinto Facchetti once said
He is extraordinary at being ordinary
He was right, too. When Javier Zanetti retired, we lost the last gentleman of the game.
For anyone wondering what happened to that match where he went on a run? Well Argentina faced England at the knockout stage and a certain young David Beckham was creating havoc with his free-kicks and was the poster boy of the WC but when England faced Argentina he was subbed off in 51 mins because in 51 mins Beckham was allowed to touch the ball 7 times and if you are wondering why ? The answer is Javier Zanetti