Zanetti: Argentina deserve success

Javier Zanetti is a man fulfilled. The Inter Milan captain celebrated his 600th appearance for the Nerazzurri this season, and his tally now lies at 617 matches in all competitions, including 445 in Serie A. Since making his debut in the Italian top flight in the 1-0 win over Vicenza on 27 August 1995, the Argentinian defender has shared the San Siro dressing room with a succession of 14 coaches and hundreds of players, but like a rock, he has remained at the club through good times and bad, never once dropping out of the first-team reckoning.

During his 13 seasons in Milan, the 35-year-old has made the right-back spot his own, eventually graduating from undisputed starter to club icon. His collection of honours is rich too, including three scudetti, two Italian Cups, three Italian Super Cups and a UEFA Cup. All of which more than justifies Inter's decision to sign him all those years ago, when Zanetti was an unknown entity fresh from just three seasons in his native Argentina, first with Talleres de Remedios de Escalada and then with Banfield. met up with the Albiceleste veteran at Appiano Gentile, Inter's training complex. Javier, you have now played over 600 games for Inter. What does that mean to you exactly?
Javier Zanetti: It means a lot, especially at a club like Inter, one of the big names in world football. It makes me truly proud to have made such a long journey, coloured by some marvellous memories that I will always carry in my heart - especially the titles we have won.

Among those memories, no doubt you have a special fondness for your UEFA Cup win in 1998, coming after you beat Lazio 3-0 in the final?
Of course. That cup was particularly sweet as it was the first trophy I won with Inter. Scoring a goal in a match as important as a European cup final remains an unforgettable moment.

What is your least favourite memory, on the other hand?
Without doubt the scudetto we lost on 5 May 2002 in our final league game of the season against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico (4-2). That day is still a sad one for everyone connected with Inter - for us, the players, but I think for the supporters as well.

When you joined, Inter were struggling to live up to their glorious past, but today the club continues to amass trophies. How do you explain that transformation?
It's just that we had time to build on solid foundations. The problems I saw at the start gradually got resolved. Now, for the last four years, we've found our own identity, which has allowed us to become more competitive and win championships and cups.

Have you never been tempted to ply your trade elsewhere?
Yes, of course. I had the possibility of leaving the club for England or Spain, but I identified myself so strongly with Inter that I decided to stay.

This new generation differs from the older one of Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simeone, which was more combative. The new generation has a more technical approach and a few of the players are able to change the outcome of a match through a moment of inspiration. 
Argentinian veteran Javier Zanetti on Argentina's new generation of players

Of all the great players you have shared the pitch with, could you give us your thoughts on Ronaldo?
He's been a great champion. I had the incredible luck of being his team-mate because players with his talent are rare. At his best, he could really make the difference all on his own.

How do you explain that certain players, such as Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf, failed to flourish at Inter but have since become key men for AC Milan?
That's down to the individual evolution of every player. Perhaps they were experiencing various difficulties at that time in their lives which prevented them from playing at their true level. But we're talking about two great players who have made great careers for themselves, winning lots of titles.

Some players, such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, are reputed for their talent on the ball, while others, such as yourself, are known for your combativeness. Which type of recognition is worth more in your eyes?
Whether it's one or the other, it's already good to be praised (laughs)! If everyone tries to give the best of themselves and contribute to the development of their team, the reasons why we get recognised don't really matter. Whatever happens, it always makes you happy. After that, everyone chooses their own path. Personally, I've never regretted my choices.

Do you regret never having won the UEFA Champions League or the FIFA World Cup™?
I still have time to change things. Let's hope I manage!

What do you think of the generation of Argentinian players that won gold at Beijing 2008?
They're all excellent players or players on their way up. They're making careers for themselves at great clubs where they're starters, and that can only benefit the national team. This new generation differs from the older one of Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simeone, which was more combative. The new generation has a more technical approach and a few of the players are able to change the outcome of a match through a moment of inspiration. Let's hope this triumph has set off a new run of success for Argentina because the country deserves it.

What have you made of Argentina's progress so far in qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa?
With eight games to go, we're in one of the qualifying berths. We need to do everything to book our ticket to South Africa as early as possible. After that, we'll be able to work a little more calmly and prepare for the World Cup.

What are your thoughts on how football has evolved since you made your start in the game?
Football has changed enormously, both for better and worse. It's impossible for me to list all the changes; it would take too long. But I think we should always try to provoke changes, for the good of the sport.

After the performances of Anorthosis and Cluj this season, the gap seems to be shrinking between Europe's strongest and weakest teams.
We recently experienced that at Inter against Famagusta. That suggests football is becoming more balanced and that there are no longer any easy games. Results can swing in one direction or the other based on one incident during a game.

Will the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa be your last?
Probably. I hope to get there first! As for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, I think I will definitely be there... but as an Argentina supporter (laughs)!