Ronaldo was introducing futuristic movements into football, showing the world of the 1990s how it would be playing 20 years later in a new millennium, moving his legs like a sprinter and swerving like a skier, while Zanetti was running. While Zidane – with his dribbling, passes, left-footed volley after ballerina-style turns and his rainbow flick from the edge of the penalty area into the top corner of the goalposts in the Champions League final – was showing the football world the meaning of sheer elegance, Zanetti was running. While Pirlo was looking west but passing the ball north in a World Cup semi-final, giving a Palermo defender the winning ball in Italy versus Germany – and meanwhile was tracing ballistic trajectories for a future war manual based on his penalty shots – Zanetti was running. While Beckham, Totti, Batistuta, Maldini and the purest football talents were regaling football with actions that were unequivocally their own, be it three toes of the right foot striking the ball to impart a secret-recipe effect or the superhuman power of hundreds of unstoppable goals or the most stylish tackle followed by a fake retreat, only to set off gracefully on the attack again. During all this, Zanetti was running. Now, Zanetti has stopped and I ask myself: what place does Zanetti, the one who ran, occupy in football memory?
I was born in Milan to a family that were mild but not mad Milan supporters in the 1990s, the years when Milan was trained by Sacchi and Capello, the Milan team that fielded Marco Van Basten, Marcel Desailly, Dejan Savicevic and Franco Baresi, becoming in those years the legendary team it had never been before. Yet, I remember little of those cups and championships. They are all book-like and childhood memories, stories handed down as if by oral tradition. Football and I, Milan and I, we were fond of each other but not intimately acquainted. We really “got” each other in 1997 when the great Milan was finished and went onto the pitch in a confused state, a new but badly put together Milan. I really fell in love with Milan after it lost 1-6 to Juventus. I remember it well. I remember the Tele+ TV channel, the paisley sofa, my mother washing up and popping her head out of the kitchen, asking how it could be happening and saying how embarrassing it was. But I can’t tell you why, at the very most I can guess that I was unconsciously waiting for the collapse of that cycle commenced previously, a moment of failure and of possible reconstruction, so as to be able to enjoy a story that was totally and generationally mine, a story in which I was not just the late-comer in the sequence of fathers, grandfathers, of adults. In this context and from this point on, I grew up with just one captain, not Franco Baresi (the old captain) but Paolo Maldini. Starting from that annus horribilis for football, I managed to see My Cycle of Milan which was that of the Milan team trained by Carlo Ancelotti (although without forgetting that trained by Alberto Zaccheroni) and had a very precise cosmogony that was and is mine, not of the fathers or of the grandfathers. Paolo Maldini sat and sits at the summit of that pantheon. I have always felt fortunate and privileged every time I compared My Captain, the symbol of My Cycle, with their captain, the symbol of their (then) non-existent cycle: Javier Zanetti.
As I have said, before my epiphany, football was a mere accessory to my pre-teenage life. I preferred the basketball of Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Formula One of Jean Alesi and Damon Hill. But, in 1995, there was a player I liked in particular. I remember him because children (I was nine) imagine themselves transfigured into players when they play football. As a defender in the games of a-few-children versus another-few-children played at school, when I did not see myself as Paolo Maldini I saw myself as him, an Argentinian playing for Inter, with the face of a comic-book hero and exaggerated features: a trapezoidal chin, rationalist jaw, protruding cheekbones and eyes and nose arranged in the form of a cross. Javier Zanetti, one of the many purchases made by Massimo Moratti, the new Inter president and son of Angelo Moratti, also an Inter president, winner of three Championships, two Champions Leagues and two Intercontinental Cups. The story of Zanetti playing on the outside of Sebastián Pascual Rambert, El Avioncito or Pascualito and the attacker of Independiente which rejected Zanetti is well known today but was not in 1995. Even had it been, I probably would not have known it back then. I liked Zanetti without knowing him. I liked his clean face, not in the allegorical sense but purely aesthetically, a face I would not have been able to place in a specific age bracket because it eluded the typical characterisations of age. Young but how young? Even today, it remains the same. Two years later I was to become a real Milan supporter and a footballer’s clean face started to interest me far less than their skill on the pitch and the colours of the jersey they pulled on every Sunday. Zanetti continued, undeterred, to wear the black and blue stripes. Javier Adelmar Zanetti has retired from football, as a symbol of Inter and as the Inter record-holder, and also from the Argentinian national team, although he did not play in one of the last two World Cups of his career, not the 2006 one in Germany or the 2010 one in South Africa. As always when icons or banners or record-holders retire, the editorials, tributes, emotional TV reports and tearful send-offs abound. I was moved watching Pupi’s eyes during the last match at San Siro, Inter-Lazio on 10 May 2014 (especially moved during a perhaps random shot, shortly before the final whistle, showing Zanetti look up to where I know there is a chronometer, perhaps thinking “these are all the minutes Zanetti has left in this particular life”). I, who have always felt fortunate and privileged to support a team that had a footballer of the calibre of Paolo Maldini as its captain, have asked myself whether, over and above all the commotion, the tribute and the send-off, there are grounds to believe that Javier Zanetti might be remembered as one of the finest footballers.
I must point out that, as I write, I am not writing as a supporter. As is only right with the passing years, my “extreme support” has waned and been watered down into a pure passion for football, a passion that drives me to appreciate the action rather than the jersey, always. Anyway, what does strong mean? Why is a player remembered? My point-blank thought is: for being extraordinary, from the Latin extraordinarius, out of the ordinary, beyond the norm. The players who succeed better than others at demolishing the steel doors of time, which are the same ones of oblivion, are those who are capable of unique actions, ones that cannot be transferred to other bodies or other contexts (because the context also matters). Maradona is one of these and like him there is perhaps only Ronaldo. Pelé is one as too Cruyff and Zidane. There is Totti and there are Del Piero, Beckham, Owen, Maldini, Thuram, Cannavaro, Buffon, Rivaldo, Figo, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Riquelme, Henry, Bergkamp, Mancini and many, many more. Some of these are banners. All should receive, in memoriam or at the time of retirement, flower-strewn walkways and celebratory epic poems. The first Italian videoed interview with Javier Zanetti was on the day of his presentation at the Terrazza Martini in Milan, Piazza Diaz, in an old city centre part Risorgimento part Fascist. It is a poor interview, the journalist’s fault, and somewhat absurd. The journalist does not appear and Javier is wearing a double-breasted suit purchased in Lanús and a blue tie embroidered with racehorses. They both speak in Spanish and Zanetti says he has not yet talked to anyone in the team, not even the coach Bianchi. He says that by being humble they can achieve good results and that he is proud to be at Inter. The journalist asks him what part of Italy his great-grandparents came from, since Zanetti has Italian roots. He says he does not know and he never met them. The journalist asks him if he has never talked to his parents about his origins. Does he not even know whether they came from the north, centre or south of Italy? Zanetti says no. The journalist presses him and says that Zanetti is a norther Italian surname. He says look I really do not know. Then he asks: are you from Buenos Aires? Yes. City or province? Avellaneda. Oh, Avellaneda. Yes. Independiente? Yes, I am from Independiente. Is that where you started your career? Yes, there. Good, thank you.
Javier Zanetti played for Independiente (in the youth team) between 1982 and 1989 and then his parents were told: Zanetti is too thin, we’re sorry but he will never be a footballer. He went back to working as a bricklayer helping his father, beefed up a bit and two years later returned to football, having been taken on by Talleres where he made his professional debut in 1992. He then went to first-division Banfield and scored 10 on his report card. Two years later he was at Inter, in a beige double-breasted suit looking timid and bored. A few days after his arrival the Corriere della Sera newspaper was already writing: "Zanetti has shown that he is head and shoulders above everybody else in terms of athletic fitness.", although it then took a step back saying: "No comparison – with the past and even less with Brehme but great dynamism at the service of the team." His athletic fitness and tireless running was, from the outset, Javier Zanetti’s most distinctive trait. The latter one was noted a year later, in an article dated November 1996 again in the Corriere della Sera, saying: "One of his greatest drawbacks is that he is an incorrigible holder of the ball.” But in that game, Inter-Verona November 1996, Zanetti scored his third goal in eight games and an Inter coached not by Bianchi but by Hodgson was at the top. They were to be his only three goals of that season and combined with the two from the previous championship make five. In all the 19 championships played for Inter, they form nearly 40% of his goals, which today still sit at 12. He played in the 1997 UEFA Cup but they lost against Shalke 04. He won it the following year against Lazio, scoring perhaps the finest goal of his career, a volley from outside the box which saw the ball rise and dip under the cross-bar. Of that night, however, history will recall the step-over dribbling by a 20-year-old Ronaldo just arrived from Barcelona that drove Marchegiani crazy and ended up in an open goal. After that, Javier Zanetti lived through what was probably the darkest period in all Inter’s history, a time when it became the banner of endless defeats. In 1998, the darkest year of the darkest period, that of Marcello Lippi, he became captain for the first time.