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Jun 4, 2014

Javier Zanetti: 'Play Like a Man'

After 19 years at Inter, Javier Zanetti retired at the end of the 2013-14 season.
Rating:

Inter's 2014-15 season will mark the start of a new era for the Nerazzurri. With Walter Samuel's, Esteban Cambiasso's, Cristian Chivu's, Diego Milito's and Javier Zanetti's contracts expired, there won't be a single player left at the club who won the triplete (treble) in what was an epic campaign. And about time, too. The phantom of Jose Mourinho's indestructible squad has loomed over the last few seasons, influencing the destiny of team and managers, as an impossible term of comparison.

However, the past cannot and should not be completely discarded, and it would not be in Inter's style to shoo off its most emblematic players. Zanetti, the captain who wore the armband for more than 15 years, was given such an emotional salute after his last match at the San Siro, that even one Bayern Munich fan present at the stadium (certainly no Inter sympathiser) described it as being "crazy, crazy, crazy."

While new owner Erick Thohir showed no romanticism toward triplete heroes Cambiasso, Milito and Samuel -- three-fourths of the fabled Argentine Clan -- allowing their contracts to expire with no fanfare, Zanetti was another story. Yes, Thohir unquestionably had a part to play in encouraging him to retire -- until recently, the Argentine showed no signs of even giving up his captaincy, let alone hanging up his boots -- but Thohir recognises Zanetti's role as a club icon.

Zanetti will "become part of the management," according to Thohir. He certainly needs to stay at the club, for whom his love is made clear in his recently released autobiography "Giocare da Uomo" ("Play Like a Man"). In the book, he repeats time and time again that he is not fit to be a manager (unlike Cambiasso); his new role with Inter will likely be behind a desk, nowhere near the dugout.

In "Play Like a Man," we find out that players never really stop -- well, not Zanetti, anyway. He recalls playing against fellow professionals on small suburban pitches, away from the eyes of fans and journalists (or even sometimes playing with them). It is impossible to imagine Zanetti without a football, running down the right flank after a successful tackle, dribbling past players until he reaches the end of the pitch.

The most interesting aspects of his memoirs relate to his rapport with managers and teammates. As captain, he would always be the first to communicate with a newly appointed manager, and the first to welcome new players and make them feel included in the group -- a task that requires a personality that one wouldn't normally associate with Zanetti. Usually quiet and reserved, he confesses that he is not one to shout to make himself heard and respected, but prefers to talk with reason and calm resolve to prove his points. This is how he made sure players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo, with their flair and difficult personalities, would work for the team and not for themselves. Mario Balotelli was probably too hard of hearing.

It is easy to imagine his fondness for managers like Hector Cuper and Roberto Mancini, the ones who started building Inter's successes. A whole chapter is dedicated to Mourinho and that unforgettable season. But one feels that he is not being completely honest and open when talking about Marcello Lippi. There is too much controversy over that campaign, but the Italian manager's status as Campione del Mondo leaves little space for argument. He remembers Roy Hodgson respectfully, though he is the only manager with whom he has ever had an argument in the dressing room. He finally leaves his most critical remarks for Marco Tardelli, the worst person and manager he has ever encountered, guilty for Inter's infamous 6-0 Milan derby thrashing at the turn of the millennium.


“I even trained on the day I married Paula, the mother of my three children. I had the time so why not do it...? ”


The final chapter of "Play Like a Man" looks closely at Zanetti's personal life and his charity work with the PUPI Foundation, which works with street children in Buenos Aires. It's clear that he understands deeply the difficulties faced by many children, and is fully aware that through his foundation he can only help so many. Argentina's economic and social problems are deep and structural and need to be addressed strategically to eradicate the endemic poverty that persists in the barrios of Buenos Aires and other cities.

I wouldn't normally consider footballer's autobiographies as the kind of literature I enjoy, but Zanetti's "Play Like a Man" is inspirational in understanding the amount of sacrifice, passion and work rate required to make it at the top level in football.

Zanetti's footwork may not be at the level of compatriots Lionel Messi or Diego Maradona and he may not have the "crazy" personality of Zlatan or Antonio Cassano, but there is still a lot to be admired in someone who manages to squeeze a training session between his wedding ceremony and the reception.