After 19 impressive years of loyal service to Inter Milan, Javier Zanetti was the recipient of a series of moving, unanimous tributes at the San Siro on Saturday, as the evergreen captain’s marvellous career was given a fitting send-off.
In his 857 appearances for I Nerazzurri, the tireless Argentinian stalwart, who has fulfilled a variety of roles across the defence and midfield, exhibited an impeccable attitude and demonstrated a great respect for referees and opponents alike.
This coming weekend, against Chievo in Verona, he will pull on his boots for one final time. Next season, he will embark on a new adventure, taking up the position of sporting director with Inter, thereby following in the footsteps of Giacinto Facchetti, another club legend.
FIFA.com takes a look back at five key dates that helped to establish Zanetti’s legendary status.
16 November 1994
Zanetti, who would eventually become the most capped player in Argentinian history, made his international debut in a comprehensive 3-0 away victory over Chile in 1994, and bid farewell to La Albiceleste 17 years later, on 16 July 2011, after a defeat on penalties by Uruguay in the quarter-final of the Copa America, a match that marked his 145th appearance.
However, the adaptable right-footer did not enjoy the same success for his country as he did at club level. He suffered a total of five losses in major finals, three of which came against Brazil (in the 2004 and 2007 Copa America tournaments, as well as the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup).
Beaten 2-1 by an inspired Dutch side in the quarter-finals of the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, in what was his first experience of football’s most prestigious competition, he was later part of the team that was unexpectedly knocked out in the group stage at Korea/Japan 2002.
While he appeared to be in the form of his life in the run-up to Germany 2006, Zanetti was omitted from his country’s final squad, despite strong pressure from fans calling for his inclusion. Four years later, it was Diego Maradona’s turn to overlook the Inter icon.
In keeping with his unflappable temperament, he refused to criticise his non-selection and returned to the starting XI in September 2010 to help Argentina dispose of newly crowned world champions Spain 4-1 in a friendly fixture, prior to participating in his fourth Copa America the following year.
13 May 1995
Practically unknown in Europe after an initial season with Talleres de Remedios de Escalada and two more with Banfield, the young South American was the first signing of the Massimo Moratti era.
No fewer than 19 campaigns later, on 18 May 2014, he will take part in his 615th Serie A match, a record for a foreign player plying his trade in Italy and one that places him second in the all-time top-flight appearances list, behind the great Paolo Maldini (647).
At 40 years of age, he is also the oldest player – by 276 days – to compete in Serie A. Now, with 857 official encounters in all competitions under his belt, he has represented Inter more times than any other player, and is 100 matches ahead of his nearest ‘challenger’, ex-defender Giuseppe Bergomi.
22 May 2010
Zanetti’s 700th match for Inter coincided with the greatest victory of his long career, a 2-0 win over Bayern Munich in the final of the 2010 UEFA Champions League. The triumph was the ideal reward for I Nerazzurri, who had ousted two other heavyweights, Chelsea and Barcelona, on their way to lifting the trophy.
It was a bumper year for the club and its tireless skipper, who also secured an Italian league and cup double, the Italian Supercoppa and the FIFA Club World Cup.
The then 36-year-old was performing as if he was ten years younger, propelled by a burning desire to win and aided by an extremely healthy lifestyle. Whether the team’s requirements dictated that he played in defence or midfield, he invariably put in the same effective performance.
That versatility enabled him to star in a record 162 consecutive matches between 28 October 2006 and 13 December 2009. In addition, he has been involved in more Milan derbies (47) than any other Inter player, with the aforementioned Facchetti lying in second place (40).
11 May 2011
The Buenos Aires native attained the symbolic benchmark of 1,000 professional appearances in May 2011, almost two decades after his debut for Talleres on 22 August 1992 versus Instituto (2-1).
Once he hangs up his boots for good after this weekend’s swansong, he will have taken part in 1,104 professional matches, a tally that puts him sixth in the all-time table behind Peter Shilton (1,390), Roberto Carlos (1,127), Pele (1,120), Ray Clemence (1,118) and Rogerio Ceni (1,113).
That statistic goes some way to explaining his nickname, El Tractor (The Tractor), bestowed upon him as a result of his remarkable strength and resilience, and despite his average frame and weight. “The captain ought to be cloned, because in my view he isn’t human,” said former Nerazzurri coach Andrea Stramaccioni in 2012. “He’s bionic.”
28 April 2013
As the 2012-13 season drew to a close, the seemingly invincible Zanetti was forced to leave the pitch grimacing and limping in the 17th minute of a game with Palermo. He was quickly diagnosed with a ruptured Achilles tendon; at 39, he was forced to deal with the first serious injury of his career.
Undeterred, the talismanic veteran worked hard on the sidelines and returned to first-team action six months later. “Retiring while still in good shape is an incomparable feeling,” stated the winner of five Serie A crowns, four Italian Cups, four Italian Super Cups, one UEFA Champions League title, one UEFA Cup and one FIFA Club World Cup.
It was a natural step for Inter Milan President Erick Thohir to offer the Argentinian a managerial role within the club. However, he has now set the future retiree a challenge of a different kind. “He will have to study English and management," said Thohir. "His knowledge of how things work on the field is not enough - he also needs management awareness.”
If Zanetti’s playing career is anything to go by, it is a challenge he will meet with aplomb.