Javier Zanetti: A giant of the game
After Sunday, the world of football will never be quite the same again.
Sunday is the last day of the Italian league season, and Internazionale play away at Chievo Verona. It will be Javier Zanetti's last day as an Inter Milan player. After 19 years at the club and almost 860 competitive games, the defender -- who has captained the team for the past 15 seasons -- will retire from the game.
During his long career, Zanetti was never seriously considered for the Ballon d'Or, the trophy for the European footballer of the year. That tells you he has never been truly recognised as a superstar outside of Milan. And yet he should be remembered as a giant of the game.
Zanetti has set quite a few records that will be hard to beat. He is, for example, the oldest player to score a goal in the Champions League (he was 37 years and 71 days old when he found the target against Tottenham Hotspur in October 2010), and has also played in every position except goalkeeper and as centre-forward for Inter.
And even though he has normally been used as a defensive player, Zanetti went 547 Serie A games without being sent off. When the streak ended, in late 2011 and against Udinese, Zanetti didn't argue with the referee but simply handed his captain's armband to a teammate and walked off. He has always been an impeccable gentleman on the pitch.
But the most impressive thing about Zanetti's career is the 19 years he spent with the same team in senior football. They do not constitute a record, though. Many people assume that players change clubs so quickly and regularly these days that all records having to do with loyalty and longevity were set a long time ago.
That isn't necessarily the case. In fact, quite a few currently active players easily better Zanetti's 19-year stay with Inter. The first who comes to mind is, of course, Ryan Giggs, who has just completed his 24th -- and perhaps final -- season with Manchester United. But we also have someone in the same country in which Zanetti became an icon, Italy: Francesco Totti made his first senior appearance for AS Roma in March 1993, which means that the current season is his 22nd for the club. And he seems to have no intention of retiring in the near future, having signed a two-year contract extension in September. Or think of Sao Paulo FC's Rogerio Ceni. He is famous as the goalkeeper who has scored the most goals in the history of the game, but he might set some more records before hanging up his gloves. Like Totti, he is now in his 22nd season with the same club, but he has played more than twice as many games as the Italian.
Finally, there is Hussain Al-Romaihi, a goalkeeper with Qatar SC. During the past five or six years, he's been used mainly as a reserve keeper, but the 39-year-old is still in the squad -- and in his 20th season at the club. So that tells you it's not at all unprecedented to spend two decades or even more with the same team in the professional game today.
And there could be quite a few players who manage to break the 25-year barrier when you look at semiprofessional football. A well-documented case is that of the legendary Sait Altinordu. He played for an Izmir-based club that now bears his name, Altinordu FK, from 1926 to 1953 -- 27 years. Most sources say that Altinordu was born in 1912, which would mean that he joined the first team at only 14 years old. However, there are some hints that he was in fact born two years earlier, in 1910, and made his debut with the first team at 16. Totti was the same age when he played his first senior game for Roma.
But there is one crucial difference between Zanetti and all of the players listed above. Internazionale is not the club where he started his career; in fact, it's not even based in the country in which he grew up, it's on a different continent.
Zanetti was born in August 1973 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He started out with his local club Independiente, but the team's youth coaches felt he was too small and too delicate to cut it as a professional player. "It was a disappointment that was hard to swallow," Zanetti later said. "I was a fan of that team."
He was forced to leave the club he supports to this day and joined Talleres, a second-division team, when he was 18. Two years later, he was snapped up by Banfield, at the time a topflight club but not one of the big, famous teams in Argentina.
Zanetti's parents -- Rodolfo Ignacio Zanetti and Violeta Bonazzola -- were of Italian origin, which means that Javier was technically one of the players known as oriundi, footballers who could have played for Italy even though they were born elsewhere. Argentina has a long history of oriundi. There were Luis Monti and Raimundo Orsi, who both won the 1927 Copa America and then the 1934 World Cup with Argentina. In the modern era, Mauro Camoranesi comes to mind; he was born in Argentina but played more than 50 games for Italy. Yet Zanetti has always considered himself Argentine.
Another record Zanetti holds is that of Argentina's most-capped player. He has made an amazing 145 appearances for the country. (Roberto Ayala and Diego Simeone trail him by more than 30 games.) Which illustrates that, despite his Italian roots, Zanetti moved to an entirely foreign country when Inter signed him from Banfield in 1995.
Zanetti made his league debut for Inter in August of that year, just a few days after his 22nd birthday. Now, imagine there was a 5-year-old boy sitting in the stands of the San Siro for the first time on that day. He will have asked his father to point out the players to him and his dad will have said: "That man over there is Zanetti; we have just signed him from some small club in Argentina. I don't know if he's any good."
The little boy enters primary school at the beginning of Zanetti's second season. Two years later, in 1998, Inter wins the UEFA Cup and Zanetti scores the crucial second goal in the team's 3-0 win over Lazio. In 2001, the little boy isn't quite that little anymore and enters middle school -- scuola secondaria di primo grado. By that time, Zanetti has already been made Inter's captain.
Three years later, in 2004, the boy, who has turned 14 years old, enters upper secondary school -- scuola secondaria di secondo grado. He has no way of knowing this, but Inter, who haven't won Serie A in 15 long years, are on the verge of a new golden age. They will be awarded five scudetti in a row, and Zanetti would miss only 17 league games during those five seasons. The boy leaves school in 2009. He is now 19 years old. He finds a good job and a girl. In May 2010, Zanetti makes his 700th appearance for Inter in all competitions. It is the Champions League final. Inter defeat Bayern Munich and win the most important European trophy for the first time since 1965.
In January 2011, the boy receives the news that his girlfriend is pregnant. In the same month, Zanetti plays his 520th Serie A game and overtakes the legendary Giuseppe Bergomi as the Inter player who has made the most league appearances for the club.
In March 2013, Zanetti plays in his 600th league match for Inter. The boy has become a father himself, and his son is 18 months old.
Today, in May 2014, the boy has become a 24-year-old man. He has never known an Inter team without Zanetti. He is thinking about taking his own son to the game on May 18. Yes, the son is less than 3 years old, but the boy would like to point out Zanetti to him.
"This," he would say, "is Javier Zanetti. He's a giant of the game."