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Zanetti continues to push boundaries

A rare midweek round in Italy this week, but one that will forever have a place in history. As he led out his team at Novara's Stadio Piola - the first Serie A match held there in 55 years - Javier Zanetti was breaking a record that many believed would stand forever.

By pulling on his No. 4 shirt for the 757th time, the Inter captain exceeded Beppe Bergomi. Making one appearance more than the man he replaced as club captain 12 years ago, 'Pupi' has overtaken the Italian legend as the club's record appearance maker.

Bergomi was there to watch the game, of course, as the 47-year-old is often seen bespectacled and clean-shaven in his role as an analyst on Italian television. Affectionately called Lo Zio (the Uncle) by his team-mates because he looked so mature, he even sported a hugely impressive moustache for one so young at the 1982 World Cup when he was only 18 years old. Capable of playing at either full-back position or in central defence, he emerged from Inter's youth system into the first-team during the 1979-80 season and stayed there for 20 years, an immovable object and the rock on which the Nerazzurri were built.

It did not take national team coach Enzo Bearzot long to acknowledge his ability, giving Bergomi what was at the time a surprise call-up to that famous '82 squad heading to victory in Spain. He had played less than 30 games of top-flight football, yet - in keeping with that wisened image - he established himself as one of the country's greatest-ever defenders, and would play in a further three World Cups as he set a standard that very few ever attain.

Winning the 1989 Scudetto and three UEFA Cups, he came to define the image of a one-club man, never playing for any other side and, as a captain, he was unsurpassed in terms of the example he set and the leadership he displayed. As such it was fitting when, upon his retirement in 1999, he had established what looked to be an unbreakable appearance record, although even he could surely never have imagined that the youngster he played alongside 134 times over the last four years of his career would one day surpass his total.

It is perhaps fitting, however, that it is an Argentinian now holding the record. As a club created from a desire to field foreign players, having a homegrown youth product as their most-capped player never sat quite right, but the man nicknamed 'The Tractor' has always been something of a contradiction.

During the 1990s and the early part of the new millennium, Inter were a club constantly beset by change and upheaval yet, for all the highs and lows, the exhilarating triumphs and the agonising defeats, Zanetti remained. Through the barren years he, unlike many around him, never looked for the exit and was rewarded with league titles, the Champions League, a World Club Cup and a raft of other honours. The man himself, though, is at a loss to explain the lure of Milan as he told Gazzetta dello Sport: "For some reason I have always felt at home here at Inter and this is why I have never thought of leaving."

As if to highlight just how tumultuous the club have been during his stellar career, the 18th different coach to write Zanetti's name on the Inter team-sheet, Gian Piero Gasperini, was sacked a day after the Novara defeat, and there may well be a few more added to that total before he hangs up his boots.

Yet looking almost as fresh-faced as he did when he arrived at the club - leading some to wonder if he has an ageing, haggard portrait of himself hidden in an attic somewhere like the fabled Dorian Gray - the 38-year-old is now the embodiment of Inter, every inch their talismanic captain in a way only rivalled in Italy by Roma's Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero at Juventus.

These players, like Paolo Maldini, Ryan Giggs and Raul, transcend the game and deserve the respect of even those fans from rivals teams. Yet all of this makes Zanetti's ultimately disappointing international career stand in even greater contrast to the success he has enjoyed at domestic level.

Unlike neighbours Brazil, Argentina has rarely produced dynamic attacking full backs but Zanetti, until quite recently at least, is almost the perfect exponent of that position. Perhaps because there is no alternative on the opposite flank, his time with La Albiceleste has been a tale of omission and failure. Despite being the holder of the nation's appearance record, he was left out of the last two World Cups and the country won its last major trophy in 1993 - the year before Zanetti made his debut.

While he may lack the vision and flair of those more revered in his homeland, he has guile, determination and footballing instincts that make him not only of equal importance to his team but, in a very different way, just as joyful to watch. Blessed with an incredible physique that is bordering on 'freak of nature' territory, Zanetti has become a prototypical utility man in recent seasons, shifting around the pitch to cover wherever that ever-increasing list of coaches needed him most.

Zanetti has done it all with the humility and grace that have typified his career, shunning the spotlight and happy to let his more vociferous team-mates write the headlines. But each one, from Samuel Eto'o to Wesley Sniejder to Ronaldo, all acknowledge him as the team's leader and reference point. He has been almost unbreakable, avoiding any serious injury and taking part in at least 50 matches in each of the past five years. This has taken his career total over 1,000 professional games, a milestone he is only the tenth man in the history of world football to reach.

But the greatest thing about this whole story is, much like Del Piero and Totti, he is not done yet. Like his illustrious contemporaries at Juventus and Roma, every time he now sets foot on the pitch he will be setting a new record, further increasing the strength of the legacy he will leave behind. When the day eventually comes that Javier Zanetti decides to walk away from the club for the last time, Serie A will lose not just lose one of its truly great players, but one of the finest men to ever play the game.

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