Change has been a constant in Argentina over the last 17 years, a period of considerable political, social and economic flux that has seen the country’s presidency change on eight occasions and countless currency fluctuations. One thing that Argentinians could bank on in all that time, however, was the ultra-dependable Javier Zanetti. Between 1994 and 2011, give or take the odd absence, El Pupi manned the right-back slot with distinction for La Albiceleste before finally calling it a day on home soil at this year’s Copa America.
Fortunately for Argentina, they have a ready-made successor to Zanetti in the shape of Pablo Zabaleta. A proven performer who has been waiting patiently in the wings since skippering the side that triumphed at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005 and then winning the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in 2008, Zabaleta is now filling his esteemed predecessor’s shoes with aplomb.
“Up to now, I’ve had the odd game under different managers but never an extended run in the side,” the Manchester City man told FIFA.com. “Luckily, since [Alejandro] Sabella took over I’ve been playing more regularly, which I’m delighted about.”
Zabaleta started both of Argentina’s first two preliminary matches for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ - as many qualifiers as he played in the last six years, during which time Jose Pekerman, Alfio Basile, Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista all came and went in the dugout. Yet, despite being kept out of the reckoning by the indestructible Zanetti for so long, the man charged with maintaining the standard he set is not thinking about what might have been.
Zabaleta said: “Zanetti was in the national side for a long, long time and he defined an era. I’ve always modelled myself on him and he’s a real example. To be taking his place is wonderful but a huge responsibility too, and my aim is to stay there for the next few years and make the place my own.”
The 26-year-old has the pedigree to do just that. An outstanding performer for his country at youth level, his made his first appearance on the global stage alongside Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Trinidad and Tobago 2001, where he scored a superb goal against a Spain side featuring Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres. He then appeared at two FIFA U-20 World Cups, captaining a team containing Lionel Messi to victory at the second of them, Netherlands 2005, where he struck a dramatic late semi-final winner against Brazil.
Zanetti was in the national side for a long, long time and he defined an era. To be taking his place is wonderful but a huge responsibility too.
Nevertheless, making the step up to senior team, where the likes of Roberto Ayala, Juan Pablo Sorin and Zanetti manned the rearguard, was always going to be a difficult task requiring both persistence and patience.
“It’s probably true to say that defence is the area where we have the least number of options,” explained the quietly-spoken Zabaleta, who started out with San Lorenzo and made his way to Manchester via Espanyol. “That said, we’re always going to suffer in comparison to the tremendous potential we have up front, and the most important thing is that we build a solid defensive unit, regardless of who the players are. And the only way you can do that is by applying yourself.”
Tough tests expected on the road to Brazil
The Argentinians can expect plenty of hard work in their upcoming Brazil 2014 qualifiers against Bolivia and Colombia, two sides who both forced draws against them at the recent Copa America.
“They’re going to be two totally different games,” Zabaleta remarked. “Both sides keep their shape, though the Colombians have more quality up front. They’ll be anything but easy matches for us, that’s for sure.”
Though still to score for his country at senior level, Zabaleta insists he is not losing any sleep over it: “I can honestly say that’s not something I’m getting worked up about. My job as a fullback is to keep things tight at the back, and in my case providing an assist is just as, if not more important, than getting a goal.”
Shaken by a 1-0 defeat in Venezuela in their last qualifying outing, Zabaleta is nonetheless confident the fans will be out in force when the Bolivians visit the Estadio Monumental on Friday: “We need them to get behind the team. That’s what counts. It’ll be up to us then to get them going and to excite them, but I hope they’re looking forward to it because we’re working hard and giving our all.”
Two positive results in the next few days will inch Sabella’s side closer to their goal of a place at Brazil 2014, though the guarded Zabaleta is reluctant to think that far ahead: “There’s a long way to go, and you never know what might happen. All we can do for now is focus on these two games. As for the rest, time will tell.”