He hasn’t scored a League goal in six years. He wasn’t picked to represent his country at the World Cup in either 2006 or 2010. He can’t carry a tune to save his life.
He’s the greatest living player in the history of FC Internazionale Milan.
And at 39, Javier Zanetti just tore his Achilles.
* * *
Javier Zanetti has seen 19 managerial changes at Inter since 1995. Manchester United has had 21 managerial changes total. Since 1892.
* * *
You know you’ve left an impression as an athlete when your teammates or fans give you a nickname. Zanetti has three: Pupi, Il Trattore (the tractor), and Il Capitano. It’s that last one that resonates. More so than in American sports (with the exception of hockey, possibly), being a captain in soccer actually requires something of a player. The captain leads the team onto the field, and is tasked with first speaking to the referee before the match. During the match, it’s the captain that is supposed to communicate the ref’s warnings to his teammates.
You may have never heard of Javier Zanetti if you’re a casual soccer fan. It’s understandable; he’s not a prolific striker who’s scoring tons of goals and he’s certainly not a flamboyant attention-seeker with the ego of a rock star. He’s never played in England, media capital of the footballing world, like fellow aged one Ryan Giggs. He even plays an unsexy position, on the right side of the defense.
If you were to ask someone on the street what they would be like as a professional athlete, most reasonable people would probably say, “I’d only play in one city my whole career, the fans would love me, and I would respond to reporters with actual answers instead of canned nonsense.” In other words, they want to be Javier Zanetti.
Javier Adelmar (!) Zanetti started playing for Inter in 1995. He came over from Argentina after a relatively brief professional career with some local teams. He didn’t speak Italian, but had heard of Inter’s status as a world power. Four years later, he was captain of the Nerazzurri, at the ripe old age of 24.
* * *
Javier Zanetti has been red-carded exactly once in 604 Serie A appearances. He shook the referee’s hand as he walked off the field.
* * *
You could say that Zanetti is something of a late bloomer. He didn’t win his first Serie A title with Inter until 2006. But then he won again in 2007. And 2008 and 2009 and 2010. Captaining Inter to five straight scudetti was only the beginning. The Inter of 2009-2010 won the league, the Italian Cup, and the Champions League, completing an unprecedented treble. Zanetti started 37 of the 38 league games, and all 13 of the Champions League contests. He was 36 years old.
So Zanetti wins. But that’s only part of it. He also plays. Almost every game. Since 2001, he’s played over 30 league games a year in all but two seasons, which doesn’t include the dozens of European games he’s played in addition. If you know Inter is playing, you know you’re going to see Zanetti out there. There’s a comfort associated with that; a consistency that underlies everything that the team does even when soccer players change clubs seemingly every six months.
He holds the all-time record of appearances for an Inter player, with over 940 across all competitions. He’s second all-time in Serie A performances for any team, only 40 behind the leader. That’s about one more season for Zanetti.
* * *
Javier Zanetti was recently granted a one-hour private audience with Pope Francis. The new Pope also held a private audience with ex-Pope Benedict XVI a few months ago. They spoke privately for 45 minutes.
* * *
If you had to pick an athlete whose career most closely mirrors Zanetti’s, you might think of Derek Jeter. Both have stayed with one team their whole careers, and have won everything there is to win, multiple times. But the comparison’s not perfect. Remember when the Yankees signed A-Rod and Jeter refused to move to third base? Even though Rodriguez was a plus defensive SS and Jeter was one of the worst in the league? I’m not exactly reinventing the wheel here to suggest it had just a bit to do with pride and ego.
In 2006, Zanetti was one of the top right backs in the whole world. He had been captain of Inter for seven years, and was coming off a year in which the team won the league. Yet in the offseason, Inter signed Maicon, a fast, hulking, offensive-minded Brazilian right back who was playing in France. As is probably obvious to anyone reading, and to make a short story even shorter, Zanetti moved to right midfield, a position he had never played before. Never said a word. To continue the baseball analogy, Zanetti’s borrows from the visible leadership of Jeter and combines it with the quiet, no-nonsense attitude of Mariano Rivera. Only if that sounds like hyperbole is it appropriate for Pupi.
Say what you want about Zanetti’s leadership. Disparage his playmaking ability. Call him a product of talented teammates. Just don’t say anything about the man’s hair. His head makes a polar bear pick up the phone after seeing a 3AM ad for Rogaine. The rumor is that one time one of Zanetti’s hairs decided to come out of place, but only made it as far as his forehead before feeling such immense shame that it was forced to return to its proper place. It’s this consistency that powers Zanetti, and Inter as a whole. You’ll never see Il Capitano disheveled or even with a hair out of place. That’s one hell of a psychological advantage.
Approaching his 40th birthday, Zanetti hasn’t slowed down a bit. Fortunately, his game has never been reliant on blistering pace or sheer physicality; he’s always been more of a tactical savant who’s in the right place at the right time. At 39, he’s third in all of Serie A in passing, and second amongst all defenders in successful dribbles per game. In every single Inter game you watch, you’ll see number 4 making at least one deep run down the sideline. His Youtube highlight videos don’t show goals, or even passes. They show lung-busting, balance-defying exertions. This one comes from just last year, in the most important game of the year against chief rivals AC Milan.
It’s a sort of graceful energy; a mix between “grittiness” and agility. It’s no surprise that fans will love a player who goes all out for his team game in and game out. But there are plenty of players who are max-effort guys (cc: USNMT), who fail to make an impact with their teams. It’s the combination of Zanetti’s personality, determination, and actual, verifiable, palpable skill that distinguishes him from just about any other player in the world.
* * *
Upon hearing the news of Zanetti’s injury, longtime rival Francesco Totti tweeted for Zanetti to “stop joking” and that he would see him at the next Roma/Inter game in four months.
* * *
Much like Kobe’s Achilles injury, Zanetti’s didn’t appear to be very serious at first. He sort of gets tangled up with the opponent, but there’s no obvious twist or unnatural movement that would signal such a serious injury. Kobe’s 34 now, and no one doubts that he’ll play again.
Imagine Kobe in five years. Is he still in the NBA? Has he ripped off Dwight Howard’s head with his teeth? Do his knees still contain actual knee?
Zanetti’s 39. His contract is technically up this summer, but it was all but a formality that he would sign on for another year with Inter. He has a front-office position waiting for him when he does the unthinkable and eventually retires. He has numerous charities to look after and other interests that he could pursue instead of playing.
For the next six to eight months, Inter will have to figure out what an Inter without Javier Zanetti looks like. It’s a question they haven’t had to ask in 18 years. And knowing Il Capitano, it’ll only be a temporary question.
Update (5:25PM): The Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy top sports newspaper, allowed fans to send in messages today for Zanetti. So far they've published four pages from fans across Italy. It's pretty remarkable.
Update 2: (6:25PM): AC Milan has been fined €8,000 after its fans chanted "Javier, jump with us!" at their game yesterday evening against Catania.