Labelled 'water-carriers' in cycling or the 'engine room' in rugby, in football they are the players who operate in the shadows with low-key, hard-working performances. Balance and toil are the qualities they bring to the table, and few men contribute those vital elements better than Inter Milan and Argentina duo Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso. takes a closer look at a pair of players more used to grafting away than grabbing headlines.

Mention Inter to most fans of the game and the players who first come to mind are usually strikers Samuel Eto'o and Diego Milito or playmaker Wesley Sneijder. Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar and South American centre-backs Lucio and Walter Samuel frequently get a mention too, as do the likes of Maicon, Ivan Cordoba and veteran defender Marco Materazzi.

Rarely, however, does captain Zanetti come in for individual accolades, despite his 674 appearances for the Nerazzurri and rave reviews from his peers. For his Juventus and Italy counterpart Fabio Cannavaro, for example, the 36-year-old is “an incredible player and a perfect captain”.

As for Cambiasso, who seems to channel both Fernando Redondo and Bernd Schuster with his style of play, “he will be the next captain of Inter when Javier decides to quit,” according to club President Massimo Moratti.

Club symbol
Javier Adelmar Zanetti first arrived in Milan in 1995, having made the move from Argentinian outfit Banfield. Since making his Serie A debut in a 1-0 victor over Vicenza on 27 August 1995, he has seen 14 coaches and hundreds of players come and go without his place in the first XI ever coming under scrutiny. Instead, he has become nothing short of a symbol of the club as the years have passed.

“He’s an exemplary athlete, a rigorous professional and an example for the youngsters,” says Tarcisio Burgnich, a fellow Inter legend. “If today’s players knew how to take care of themselves the way he does, club treatment rooms would be less crowded.” Difficult as it is to believe when watching him in action, Zanetti will turn 37 less than a month after the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. In addition to being a first-rate skipper whose words are listened to religiously in the dressing room, Pupi boasts the ability to shine at right-back, left-back or in defensive midfield.

He’s a great player as well as a generous one, whose also very intelligent tactically. He’s ready to take the captain’s armband.

Javier Zanetti on Esteban Cambiasso

He likewise possesses a rare vision for the game for a player in such a withdrawn role. “Zanetti is better than all the rest of us put together,” stated none other than Diego Maradona shortly after taking over as Argentina boss. “He’s a great guy and positive for the squad, to whom he talks all the time, and he also knows exactly how best to use his experience.”

Team-mate Cambiasso, known as El Cuchu, began his European adventure at Real Madrid, where he spent two seasons in the youth ranks. Initially shown the ropes at Maradona’s first club, Argentinos Juniors, the then 15-year-old’s career began to take off when Real scouts approached his parents with an offer. “I’ve been working for 60 years and have nothing in front of me,” explained his father Carlos, himself a former professional footballer. “You don’t have the right to let a chance like this go begging.”

Ten years later and the holding midfielder with a penchant for getting forward could already point to an impressive raft of titles, though the 29-year-old has so far missed out on global success at senior level after claiming the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1997. “He’s a positive guy who helps all his team-mates with his words, his legs and his lungs,” says Zanetti. “He’s a great player as well as a generous one, whose also very intelligent tactically. He’s ready to take the captain’s armband.”

A glimmer of hope
Almost any other FIFA World Cup contender would find a way to slot both Zanetti and Cambiasso into their starting line-up for this summer’s showcase, but Maradona has yet to add to the latter’s 46 caps and seems set on pursuing different options in defensive midfield. “It’s not easy to stay at the top in a country like Argentina, where new talents are coming through all the time,” says Zanetti, the most-capped Argentinian player of all time with 136 appearances under his belt.

The two men nonetheless appreciated Maradona’s presence in the stands during the second leg of their UEFA Champions League first knockout round contest with Chelsea. “Maradona knows what I can bring to the national team, both on and off the pitch,” says Zanetti. “The national team is very important to me. I won’t lose hope because football has taught me that you have to believe right up to the end.”

Should those hopes bear fruit and Cambiasso and Zanetti find themselves on a plane to South Africa, both would no doubt start dreaming of the chance to take a rare step out from the shadows.