One club players are a rare breed when it comes to elite club football and are rightly venerated by football fans. Such players are held in high esteem by even the fans of the fiercest rivals. Milanista Chintan Mehta pays tribute to one such legend, Javier Zanetti.
“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, it might be horribly cliched but it is true, even in football. Inter Milan lost one of their biggest stars and one of their most celebrated captains after serving the club for 21 years, Javier Zanetti. A loss which might be bigger than we thought, a hole, which might take some time to fill and a leader who will be difficult to emulate.
Zanetti began his career with Argentine second division club Talleres FE in 1992 before moving to Banfield FC the following season. He played with the Argentine side for 2 seasons before making his move to the Italian giants, Inter in 1995.
Zanetti won his first silverware with Inter in 1998 when they beat Lazio in the 1998 UEFA Cup finals. He managed to get on the score sheet as well.
At the start of the 1999-2000 season, Zanetti was appointed as the Captain, taking over the armband from the legendary defender Giuseppe Bergomi and 11 seasons later, Zanetti surpassed Bergomi when he walked out to play his 757th match for Inter Milan.
The league title eluded Zanetti for a decade but he finally got his hands on the Serie A title in the 2005-06 season as they were the highest placed side in the season’s final league table after points were stripped from Juventus and Milan—both sides involved in the match fixing scandal that year.
The following season, Juventus were relegated to the Serie B and Milan given an 8 point deduction, Inter Milan started as favorites and they did not disappoint. Zanetti took them to the summit and helped them defend their title but this was sweeter as Inter won the title on the pitch for the first time since 1989. Inter turned into a winning machine as they clinched the next two league titles as well.
After tasting success in Italy, Zanetti set his eyes on the one title that his trophy cabinet was missing, the Champions League. With his career entering the twilight stage, he knew time was not on his side. But some players just don’t stop dreaming. In Mourinho, Inter had an astute manager who could help them win the trophy that both Massimo Moratti and Zanetti yearned for. With his rival Silvio Berlusconi’s Milan dominating Europe since the ’80s, the bragging rights were on the wrong side of Milan.
With Mourinho wanting to enhance his reputation as ‘The Special One’ and Zanetti trying to write his name in the history books, the motivation was enormous and come the 2009-10 campaign, Inter defeated teams like Barcelona and Bayern to win their 3rd European Title after 45 years. Zanetti won the title he craved for the most, the trophy which further enhanced his legendary status.
Zanetti’s international career was not as clinquant as his club career. He was on the losing side in the 2004 and 2007 editions of the Copa America losing to Brazil on both the occasions. He retired from International football in 2011 after representing his national side for over 15 years and ended up scoring 13 goals. He retired as the most capped Argentinian with 145 games, a record still left unscathed.
After winning all the possible club honors, Zanetti decided to call it quits after representing the black and blue of Inter for almost 2 decades. Inter’s rise from the ashes in the mid-noughties was under the captaincy of Zanetti, winning 5 Scudetti, 4 Coppa Italias and 1 UEFA Champions League.
He was never a world-beater who would light up the stage but it was his dedication, hard work and loyalty that earned him the “legend” status. Only a handful of players have been able to cocoon themselves in concentration as Zanetti did all through 1000 appearances.
His performance over the years have been masterpieces of serene grit and determination, which rubbed off on his teammates. His versatility was on display when he moved to left back when Inter bought Maicon back in 2006. He further showed his class when he played in the midfield as injury hit the team severely. He excelled in every position he played in. He was doing it for his coach, his team and his supporters. His love for the club made him a better player.
He was not born an Interista but he loves the club as much as any ardent fan does and the club loves him back. Inter decided to retire the number 4 jersey which was donned by him and he was made the Vice-President of the club for at least 2 years. His loyalty has earned him something which money can’t, Respect.
Loyalty is not learnt, no manager or coaching staff can instill it within a person, you are born with it. It’s a fading trait, the modern era is full of players who are more than happy to jump ship when rich aristocrats come calling with their cheque books.
Zanetti was a gentleman who appeared shy and slightly vulnerable off the pitch; however you sensed a depth of resilience.
Being an optimist, I do not think that sport is incessantly declining from a golden age, it’s modifying as per the current scenario, it’s evolving. But sometimes one cannot avoid the sense that a certain type of sportsman is progressively endangered and Zanetti is one of them.
No player is irreplaceable, the sport is defined by continuity rather than full stops and some might say that there will soon be another Zanetti, another captain of timeless grit and dignity. But I don’t think there will be. Zanetti will go down in the club’s history books as one of the best to captain a traditional super power club like Inter. He will be remembered as one of the last in a line of traditional captains who oozed loyalty. It is not an exaggeration to say that a traditional aspect of the game where your club comes before any personal awards or silverware departs the scene with Inter’s number 4.
In the modern era, where we are drawn to flashy players who catch the eye, Zanetti kept it simple and efficient. Posterity might give him a fairer verdict and hail him as a legend.
In the years to come, we may realize what the footballing community lost: the civility, craft and dignity that Zanetti brought to every game he played.
Football is a funny sport in which you hate a club for so long that you forget what players they produce. Grazie Zanetti, you were the best rival Milan ever had. As a Milanista, your name on the team sheet instilled a sense of fear in us and not seeing your name in the coming season will ease our worries.
The rivalry continues but we have to give respect when it’s due. Thank you Zanetti, for those innumerable memories. Football is poorer without you.
Written by Chintan Mehta
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