~ Arvind S Balasubramanian
In a very long season for a top club, how many outfield players would start more games than the first choice goalkeeper? The answer would be closer to zero.
What if in most of the 50+ games in the season, the player runs more distance than all of his teammates, and in many cases outruns all his opponents too.
What if he does it at a ripe old age of 36, an age where most players have either retired, or will struggle to complete 3 games in a month? Is he a man or a machine? Inter’s beloved Il Capitano simply defies the laws of human evolution. For his seemingly boundless energy, he is nicknamed “Il Trattore” or the tractor.
15 seasons, 700 official games, 5 league titles and 1 Champions league. His 700th official game was one where he fittingly lifted the much deserved Champions league. Loved by Inter fans and respected by foes, “Il Capitano” is one of the fast vanishing breeds of “Gentlemen” in the game.
Captain Marvel for Inter Milan!
Il Capitano started his career at an unknown Argentine second division club called Tellares. Within a year he had impressed enough to be signed up by Banfield, then a mid-table club in Argentine Apertura (top-division). His impressive performances convinced the national coach Daniel Pasarella, who was looking to rebuild the Albiceleste squad after the 94 World Cup fiasco, to call him up for what would be the first of his record 136 caps. Again he impressed enough for big clubs in Europe to take notice and he became Massimo Moratti’s first signing as President (and maybe the best till date)
He immediately established himself as the first choice right-back and won over fans with his tireless performances.
The move that never happened
The first few years of Zanetti’s Inter career was marred by whimsical sackings of the coach, transfer market incompetence and general feeling of negativity pervasive all around. The moments of success were limited and occasional. The most memorable moment for Zanetti was when he scored the second goal when Inter beat Lazio to lift the 1998 UEFA cup.
In summer of 99, Zanetti was awarded the captaincy when the legendary Giuseppe Bergomi hung up his boots. However fortunes on the pitch didn’t change a bit as Inter continued to hunt for their elusive Scudetto. In 2000, Playing for his 8th coach in just his 5th season at Inter, and disillusioned with the way things were going on, Zanetti decided to pack his bags. In the summer of 2000 he agreed for a move to Real Madrid. Thankfully for Inter fans, a talk with Moratti made him change his mind and he agreed to stay on and as they say – the rest is history.
The Best Years 1998-2005
After a slow start to his Inter career, Zanetti quickly established himself as the first choice rightback in his second season. His arrival caused Giuseppe Bergomi to switch to Center-back position. His power-house performances meant that he was named in the Serie-A team of the year for 97-98 season. Since then for next 7 years, along with the legendary Cafu (Roma, Milan) he was named in every Serie-A team of the year, either as the first XI or part of first XVI. For the fans of the league, it was a treat watching two of the best right-backs of the world with albeit different characteristics ply their trade in one of the most competitive leagues of the world. While Cafu was the traditional Brazilian fullback, more comfortable making his marauding runs into opponent territory, Zanetti was a bit more balanced in his attacking and defensive duties.
Remarkably for a man who epitomized Inter defense for quite a while, he has been sent off only once in his Inter career, that too from a referee mistake.
But sadly Inter didn’t have a team which could support their legendary Capitano in his quest for silverware. So unfortunately he only picked up a few minor trophies in his best years at Inter.
Playing style and Versatility
Being right-footed, his preferred position was right-back. However he was comfortable playing as a left-back or as a right/left winger. In quite a few seasons, when Inter faced injury crisis, he has started as the defensive midfielder. In his 15 seasons at Inter, he has played 700 competitive games, and the least number of games he played in a season stands at 34. This is a testament to his endurance and his continuous quality. Inter fans will be hard pressed to remember the Il Capitano had a bad game. Season after season, when everything around the club looked dire, the only silver lining used to be the never say die performances of the Captain.
Even when the likes of Maicon arrived on the scene, potentially making his place in first XI redundant, Il Capitano reinvented himself as a subdued Right-winger who combined superbly with a marauding Maicon. The duo worked so well that in the recent semifinal against Barcelona, they kept Lionel Messi in perfect check not allowing the best player in the world any space to operate his magic.
Il Capitano holds the record for most number of caps (138) for an Argentine player. Inspite of a low key demeanour, he has missed last two world cups because the coaches for some reason decided to choose someone else in his position. Jose Pekerman chose Lionel Scaloni (Who?) instead of Zanetti in 2006. In 2010 Maradona decided to choose Nicholas Ottamendi instead. What a stupid move it proved to be.
Il Capitano recently signed a two year extension to his contract which will now expire in 2013 when he will be a few weeks short of his 40th birthday. As on May 22nd 2010 he has made 700 competitive appearances and stands second only to Giuseppe Bergomi who has made 757 appearances in about 19 seasons at Inter. Now the question is when and not if Zanetti will break Bergomi’s record. After that he is expected to join the backroom staff becoming a director. His charitable foundation does good work with the underprivileged children of Argentina. Combining the two would be a great exercise to spread the good name of the club among Latin American children.
It would be a sad sad day for the Inter fans when Capitano finally hangs up his boots. But looking back at his club career he can hardly have any regrets. Maybe his International career could have turned out better.
The Holy Grail!
As 2010-11 season beckons, Inter fans will be cheering for the captain to break the appearance record. Hopefully he can add a second star to his jersey before he finally calls it a day (In Italy, teams which have won 10 scudettos put a star in their Jersey. Inter and Milan have one each, while Juventus has two).