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December 6, 2023

Bettitude’s Football Idols: Javier Zanetti, A Spirited Leader And A Tireless Machine

A look at the career of one of the best full backs to have graced a football pitch…

Written By Jacobs Dunga

Javier Adelmar Zanetti was born on the tenth of August 1973 in the Dock Sud district area of Buenos Aires in Argentina. He was born to Argentine parents. Rodolfo who was a bricklayer and Violeta Bonnazola who was a cleaner.

“Inter is my life”, Javier Zanetti reflects fondly. “For me, the ties between myself and Inter remaining after my playing career was very important. I made myself available straight away. My mother was a cleaner and my father a builder. I watched both of them make big sacrifices for my brother and I to study. This is where I get my work ethic from. This is also the source of my generosity and willingness to help.” He told the independent in 2017.

Zanetti was only discovered by then Inter president, Massimo Moratti while studying a video tape of an Argentina U23 game to see Ariel Ortega who had been recommended to him as a good player. The president instead was caught by a 21-year-old’s exploits on the flanks and he eventually became the first signing of the Massimo Moratti era.

“He [Zanetti] is the first player I saw and chose,” Moratti recalled this year to Italian magazine Sette. “I had not even bought Inter when I received a video cassette so I could see Ortega, who didn’t really impress me all that much.

“Instead, strangely I was enchanted by a full-back who did things I’d never seen before.”

Zanetti is known as one of the most humble personalities to have ever played the game of football and just like almost every other South American kid, he started by playing on the streets of the city. He would later have the opportunity to try out with local club, Independiente who refused to take the then little boy because they felt he didn’t have the required physical attribute to succeed in football. Zanetti would as a result of the damning judgement of his physical appearance by the local club prioritize his academics while he helped his father with masonry before being snapped up by Talleres where he spent a year before he was transferred to Banfield form where Inter discovered and brought him to Italy after two years.

The former Player who was known for his versatility and stamina spent nineteen years playing for Italian powerhouse, Inter Milan, where he won sixteen trophies, fifteen of which he was captain, including the UEFA Champions League. He is till date the club’s record appearance holder with 858 matches played across all competitions while he is the foreigner with the highest appearance in the Italian Serie A with 615 matches played in the Italian top flight.

Due to his leadership attributes from a very young age, Zanetti consistently captained Inter between 1999 and 2001 following the recurring injury to Ronaldo De Lima before he was officially named the club captain in the summer of 2001. The 48-year-old went twelve years after his first sending off for Inter, which came during a Coppa Italia match against Parma in 1999 before picking up another red card in a Serie A match in 2011. He captained Inter for thirteen years and remains till date the only player to have captained an Italian team to a treble of trophies in just one season.

He was until 2018 the most capped Albiceleste player with 143 caps before being overtaken by Lionel Messi. Zanetti has captained more matches in the Champions League than any other player with 82. A veteran of two World Cup tournaments, Zanetti helped his nation get to the finals of the 1995 and and 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup while he appeared in five Copa America tournaments. He also was a part of the Argentine Olympic team that lost to Nigeria in the final in 1996.

The Buenos Aires native is a fans favourite in the city of Milan and even has a restaurant of his own in the Italian fashion capital. With 1,114 games to his name, Zanetti is the tenth player with most appearances in football and just the third outfield player behind Roberto Carlos and Xavi Hernandez and holds the fourth most Serie A appearances behind Gianluigi Buffon, Paulo Maldini and Francesco Totti, all of whom are of Italian descents. His five Scudetti, four Coppa Italia, four Italian Super Cups, one UEFA Cup, one Champions League and a Club World Cup covering an illustrious career that had Inter Milan officially retire his number 4 jersey in honour of his hearty and dedicated services to the club.

Zanetti is FIFA’s ambassador for SOS Children’s Villages project in Argentina and in 2005 was presented with the Ambrogino d’Oro award by the city of Milan for his social activities. He retains a global ambassadorial role for the special Olympics. His Pupi Foundation is aimed at helping disadvantaged children in Argentina while he has combined with former teammate, Esteban Cambiasso to build football schools.

During his playing days, El Tractor was a tireless and ardent footballer who could fit in anywhere on the pitch. He played several roles during his time and even appeared in the central defensive role in his final career game against Chievo Verona in May 2014. Jose Mourinho utilized him as a full back, a midfielder and a wide player on their way to winning the treble in 2010. He wore a commemorative armband in his last game at the San Siro, the special band carried the names of all the players he played with during his inter career with the match jersey carrying a special (JZ 4 Ever) tag on the arm, a match that ended four goals to one against Lazio on the 10th of May. His career lasted twenty two whole years, retiring at jus a few months before his 41st birthday.

“I faced Zanetti for the first time in the Champions League quarter-finals in 1999, he was the right-back and I was on the left. He impressed with his qualities, his speed, power, intelligence and expertise. I played against him twice more and he was my most difficult opponent, a complete player.” Ryan Giggs said of the tireless runner.

Zanetti revealed his only career regret as failing to pull Inter teammate Adriano out of depression following the death of his father.

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He said, as quoted by ​Sempre Inter: “Adriano had a father he was very attached to. One night He got a phone-call from Brazil with the news of his father’s death. I saw him in his room, he threw the phone and started screaming. You couldn’t imagine that kind of scream. I get goosebumps even to this day. Since that day, Massimo Moratti and myself watched over him as he was our little brother.”

“Meanwhile he kept on playing football, he scored goals and watched towards the sky dedicating them to him. Since that phone-call nothing was the same. Ivan Cordoba spent one night with him and said: ‘Adriano, you’re a mix of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic. Are you aware that you could become the best player ever? We did not succeed in pulling him out of depression. And that is perhaps my biggest defeat of a whole career. It still hurts me. I was so powerless.”

Zanetti at different points in his glittering career had advances from FC Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid but on every single occasion, his decision was to remain at Inter. There seems to be no player alive, past or present, who understands the core values of Inter than Il Capitano.

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