Javier Zanetti is already considered one of the finest players in Inter Milan’s history, and in 2010 he enjoyed the most trophy-laden year of his illustrious career by winning the Italian league and cup double, as well as taking the UEFA Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup titles.
The 145-time Argentina international, who turns 41 in August this year, is an icon in his homeland, yet as he told FIFA.com, he is not thinking of hanging up his boots just yet.
FIFA.com: You've been in Milan since 1995, a total of 19 years. Has part of you become Italian after so long?
Javier Zanetti: Yes, I think so. If you live in the same city for so many years and play in the same team, then of course you can identify with everything. The club took care of me fantastically well right from the start and made me feel at home very quickly. I haven’t forgotten my roots, but after so many years here part of me has become Italian.
How often do you go back to Buenos Aires?
I always spend some of my vacations there and I also go back on certain public holidays to visit friends and family. I also work with my foundation called “Pupi”, which helps disadvantaged children in the poorest areas of Buenos Aires. I always like going back home.
Do your friends and family in Buenos Aires want you to return home for good?
No, they know that my family and I are doing well in Milan. They also know what the city and the club mean to me, so they’re happy for me.
In the last 19 years you've made a lot of friends and met footballers from all over the world. Have your compatriots at Inter, where the famed Argentinian contingent is always big, become close friends in the meantime?
Yes, but they’re not the only ones. For example, Ivan Zamorano is Chilean and is my daughter’s godfather. Ivan Ramiro Cordoba is Colombian and is my younger son’s godfather, while a very good Italian friend is my oldest son’s godfather. I don’t limit myself.
What do Italians and Argentinians have in common?
There’s no doubt that we’re very similar. In the past a lot of Italians emigrated to Argentina, and now us Argentinians, and in my case, us footballers, are returning to Italy. We always try to keep our identity.
Looking back, what do you remember from your move to Inter from Banfield in 1995?
It was an important challenge for me. I was 21 years old and I still had a lot to learn and discover. To arrive in a city like Milan as a young man was a huge challenge. A lot of things, experiences I had, helped me to grow up and mature, both in terms of my football career and my private life too. The club always stood by me and were a massive help. Back then it was a very important decision for me and with hindsight I can undoubtedly say I made the right choice. It’s been almost 20 years and it’s been very intense. I’m still proud to belong to this fantastic club and to still be a part of it. Inter have given me everything.
That sounds rather like a declaration of love. Is your relationship with Inter one of eternal love?
Definitely. Those are my honest feelings for this amazing club, for the Moratti family and all the fans. It was love at first sight and that feeling has grown stronger with each passing day, week, month and year. The respect shown to me means so much.
Does your wife Paula not get a little bit jealous in that case?
No, quite the opposite in fact. Over the years she’s become a real Interista and knows that Inter Milan have been and will continue to be a very important part of our lives.
You and your wife have three children. Are you as decisive, proud and exemplary as a father as you are on the pitch?
Of course. Those are things I set great store by and I give everything and more for my three children. I spend as much time as I’m able to with them when I’m at home, I need that and it gives me great pleasure. I enjoy being with my kids.
You're famed for your tireless displays, ambition and discipline. Is it true that you returned to training just hours after your wedding with Paula?
It is true. We got married on 23 December 1999 and in the Christmas break we’re always given a special programme to follow to stay fit. That’s why I went back to training straight after getting married.
Is it that level of discipline and ambition that has made you what you are today: a living legend?
It’s just my way of doing things, it’s part of my working culture and my attitude. I’ve lived and worked according to those principles ever since I decided to be a professional footballer.
On 9 November 2013 you came on as an 82nd minute substitute at home to Livorno after a six-month absence with an Achilles injury. Your reception from the fans in the San Siro was truly remarkable. How was it for you?
It was unique. My heart was beating so hard and I had goosebumps after the deafening ovation. Our supporters gave me a wonderful present and I’ll forever be thankful to them for that. When I got injured my only desire was to play at least one more game in front of our fans in my stadium. That I was able to do so was thanks to hard work and indescribable support.
Equally astonishing is that whenever you are substituted on or off, regardless of which stadium you are at in Italy, the supporters - including the opposition fans - always applaud you. It is a wonderful sign of respect and recognition.
It’s very moving and makes me very proud. Football is a fantastic sport and can bring people together despite the rivalries. Titles aside, as a footballer there is no greater honour than to receive the respect and applause of fans whose hearts beat for a different club.
Do you see your love affair with Inter enduring?
I’d like to stay as part of this wonderful family forever, even after I retire as a player. One thing is certain: I always want to serve and be of use to this club.
Changing subjects, you also own two restaurants in Milan. What are you like as a restauranteur? Are you involved in any of the cooking?
Certainly not! I’m a very bad cook so I leave that to the professionals. I go to the restaurant in order to eat, which is the best thing for everyone.
Your “Pupi” foundation is also an important part of your life. How much has the project shaped you and is it a sign that not all footballers are only interested in money?
I can only speak for myself but footballers don’t only think about large sums of money. There are several who are involved in similar initiatives. It’s important to think of the people who are less fortunate. I’m aware of that responsibility and set the foundation up from scratch. We enjoy working for these children in the deprived areas of Buenos Aires that really need help.
“Pupi” is also your nickname in the football world. How did it come about?
I got it from a coach in Argentina who had also coached my brother before me. Since then friends and team-mates know me as “Pupi”.
Finally, do you not feel old? Anyone who watches you play would not think that such a combative, ambitious footballer would soon be 41…
I still feel young. It’s something everyone has to sense and feel within themselves. Whatever your age, it all depends on what you do with it and how you deal with it. If you’re satisfied with yourself, it’s easier to always do your best.