Zanetti: I never felt out of the picture

For most of the last decade, Javier Zanetti has been ever-present in two of the biggest sides in world football: the Argentinian national team and club side Inter Milan. Despite that, the inspirational and hard-working 33-year-old suffered one of the biggest setbacks of his career last year when he was omitted from the Albiceleste squad for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.

This season, however, the player's fortunes have changed for the better, with El Pupi having recently been crowned Serie A champion for the second successive year and been invited back into the national-team fold by coach Alfio Basile. Known for his tireless work with the charitable foundation he set up for disadvantaged children in his homeland, Zanetti found time amid the preparations for this month's Copa America to talk exclusively and at length to about the events of the last year - his triumphs in Italy, the pain of being overlooked for German 2006, his recent recall to the national team and his dream of helping his beloved Albiceleste win a major title. Javier, it is more than 12 years since you debuted with the national team. What changes have you noticed in that time?
Javier Zanetti:
A lot of things have changed, although the desire to play [for the Albiceleste] is exactly the same. Every one of us would do everything in our power and make whatever sacrifice was needed to play for the team. I can honestly say that there's nothing more beautiful for a sportsperson that to play for his or her country, regardless of the tournament or the location. Of course, I've seen team-mates and coaches come and go in my time, but that sense of pride when you pull on the shirt remains intact.

Do you think people realise the sacrifices that are involved?
The most important thing is to be at ease with oneself, play your part when your time comes and just try to do your best for Argentina. We know the country is always behind us, watching our every move, and that we have to represent them as best we can. I hope people recognize that.

Given your vast experience and international record, it must have hurt being left out of the squad for the FIFA World Cup™ in Germany...
It left a bitter taste all right, especially as I'd been involved all the way through. I'd played in the qualifiers under (Marcelo) Bielsa and (Jose) Pekerman, as well as the friendlies and the Confederations Cup. I don't know what happened in those final couple of months for me to be dropped, nobody ever gave me a straight answer. Moreover, when I was with the squad, I was being told I was an important part of the team and a standard-bearer. I was led to believe I'd be playing a key role at the World Cup. Anyway, these things happen in football. Right now, I'm just enjoying the moment.

What was it like experiencing Germany 2006 from the outside?
It was a strange sensation because I'd love to have been there. That said, I encouraged my team-mates as I really wanted Argentina to do well, and many of them are also good friends. I was bitterly disappointed when we were knocked out.

Was your recall all the sweeter after what you went through?
Yes, but I never felt I was out of the national-team picture. On the contrary, I continued to feel like an international player. I knew if I continued to play well for my club that I'd get another opportunity. Football always gives you a chance to set the record straight. Things go full circle and end up the way they should be.

You have played in some very good Argentina sides in your career, yet none of them have ever won a title. In fact, the last time the senior team won a major championship was at the 1993 Copa America...
(Interrupts) Yes, unfortunately we haven't been able to crown some of those great performances with a major title. Now, we have another chances at the Copa America. Let's hope this is the one.

Can you think of any reason why major honours have eluded the team?
I think it's just circumstances. With (Daniel) Passarella, we came close to reaching the last four at France 98 before losing out to the Netherlands. With Bielsa we were very impressive in the qualifiers and friendlies prior to Korea/Japan 2002, but at the finals we suffered the cruel and undeserving fate of being knocked out in the first round. If we'd beaten Sweden 5-1 [as opposed to drawing 1-1 in our final group game], it wouldn't have been an injustice. But these things happen, and you just have to learn from them. Hopefully, this Copa America will provide us with the title we're looking for.

With Hernan Crespo, Juan Veron, Roberto Ayala and yourself going to Venezuela, would you agree this Copa America will be one of the last chances for this generation of players to win a major title?
Yes, we've come a long way together, and we've been on the cusp of glory many times. Never having taken that final step, every new tournament represents a new challenge, and this one will be no exception.

Do the youngest squad members find it difficult to fit in with the more experienced members of the group?
No, not at all. As a group we all get along fantastically well as the youngsters are very intelligent and good listeners. With every passing game, they are more and more prepared as they know what to expect and give their all to achieve our goals. I know there has been lots of conjecture about problems within the squad. In my 12 years with the team, I've heard it all: that we were fighting among ourselves; that the foreign-based players didn't want to come to certain games because of all the travelling involved, but they were all lies. We'd kill for the chance to play, and would take the boat or even walk if we had to! No other feeling comes close to that of representing your national team.

Of the youngsters in the squad, would you say Lionel Messi has had the biggest impact?
He's a player or immense quality, although he's still young and has plenty of room for improvement. What he's achieved thus far makes us believe we're witnessing the emergence of a genuine great, and he'll bring us lots of joy in the years ahead.

Can you tell us a bit about your club football in Italy. How have you managed to remain a key player for so many years at a team like Inter?
It hasn't been easy, especially as we've had to endure some difficult moments. Inter are a huge club and so always obliged to win. Fortunately, we've been able to deliver titles in the last three seasons. Once and for all, the truth has been told about what was happening in Italian football, and we [Inter] were the ones who were really affected. I'm not saying that was the only reason we hadn't been winning titles before, but it was a factor in our not winning three or four championships. Now, things are more transparent, and we've achieved the goals we'd set ourselves.

Does it annoy you that some people have tried to belittle your recent title triumphs given the current state of affairs in Italian football? No, it doesn't bother me because we know the sections of the media who are saying that are on the side of those who were wrong. For anyone seeking affirmation of how well we've done, they need only look at all the records we've set in this season's league championship.

As an Inter man, how did you take AC Milan's triumph in this year's UEFA Champions League?
The old enemy eh! There is a lot of passion when it comes to our rivalry; it's on a par with Boca-River in Argentina. Luckily, our winning the Serie A title in the manner in which we did meant we were still euphoric despite their Champions League win.

But how well the other team fares is still important in Milan?
Of course, it pained us Inter fans to see them win the Champions League, but that doesn't change the fact that we were delighted with what we achieved.

Could you imagine yourself playing for a European side other than Inter? No, I can't see that. I've only played for them in Europe, and they've always been great to me. I feel at home there. I realise that I'm at one of the world's top clubs and that it's not easy to stay there.

A couple of seasons back Juan Veron took a pay cut to return to Argentina to try to get back into the national team. Although he had a lot to lose he accepted the challenge, won a domestic title and is now back in the Argentina squad. Could you see yourself following in his footsteps in the future?
I know there will always be doors open to me in my country, and it would certainly be a nice challenge. I can easily understand why Seba made the move, as he's Estudiantes to the core, lives there and has great affection for the club. I'm delighted with what he and others who I've played with, like (Diego) Simeone and (Nelson) Vivas, have achieved.

So you would consider a return? Any club in particular...
Yes, I'd like to return [one day]. I'm a fan of Independiente, so I'd naturally like to wear their colours, and I also like Banfield, who gave me a lot as a young player. Either would be nice.

Finally, have you given any thought to what you might do when you eventually hang up your boots?
Well, I won't be going into coaching. I would like to dedicate myself to my children's charity [ Fundación Pupi] and set up something similar with Inter. I've already broached the subject with the club president, and he really likes the idea. AC Milan have a similar foundation, but as yet Inter don't. I'd like to set that up and devote my time to that.