By Kris Voakes
Football is the cruelest of mistresses. Most of the time we love her, but we also have those days when we hate her with a passion. Never have any of her actions been more steeped in betrayal than on Sunday in Sicily. The wonderful springtime sunshine was on our backs as we strolled hand in hand with her on our latest adventure, but our sense of joyful anticipation was quickly cut short at 15:14CET when we saw what football had done to Javier Zanetti.
As the Argentine made just another trademark run to the byeline in Inter’s visit to Palermo, his pull-back caused the home defence to panic and clear for a corner. Yet a split second later it was the travelling players and medical staff who were panicking. Watching the 39-year-old wave to the bench is far from a regular sight. Watching him crumple to the ground with his head in his hands, however, was nothing short of sickening.
|ZANETTI'S 1101 GAMES
|845||Inter (1995- )|
|12||Argentina Olympic team (1995-96)|
The Achilles tendon rupture which he suffered as he put his body on the line to keep the ball in play could rob Zanetti of the farewell from the game that he, more than anyone, deserves. A player who transcends rivalries like no other, adored by Inter fans but also admired and respected by Milanisti and Juventini, will be sent nothing but good wishes by the football world as he attempts to recover from such a cruel blow over the next eight months.
Yes, he has been lucky in his career in steering clear of a major injury until now, but the timing could not have been worse. Turning 40 in August, ‘Pupi’ now faces an immense struggle to cope with the kind of rehabilitation programme he has never previously had to endure. Younger, more naturally resilient bodies have found it difficult to overcome such challenges, with so many never standing up to the rigours like before when they have returned to full working order.
But there isn't a football fan alive who wants Zanetti’s career to end this way. His is the last story that should end on a stretcher, heading for the tunnel little more than 15 minutes into a game. The whole world will be willing him on to succeed in his fight to return to the field of play midway through next season, as he vowed to do in a message to supporters on Sunday night.
“I felt a real pain, I still do, but I will overcome this,” he reassured Inter followers, and one can only hope that he approaches this most monumental of challenges with the same vigour with which he has taken on the mantle of being the Nerazzurri’s best player this season despite his senior citizen status.
Andrea Stramaccioni and his side have a lot on their plates right now, but this takes centre stage above everything else. Days like Sunday bring a sense of focus. Inter lost three more points in their continued battle for European football thanks to Josip Ilicic’s 10th-minute goal, but the result and its consequences are nothing but an afterthought. Concern for Zanetti is the be-all and end-all.
Innocuous injuries are so often the most damaging. It is not the beef behind a challenge which causes the pain, but simply the body giving out thanks to the wear and tear of a life in football. Javier Zanetti has given his heart and his soul to the game, and now his body has temporarily been handed over too.
But we will believe. We will retain hope that Zanetti will be back. His final chapter will come with him bouncing up and down in front of the Curva Nord at San Siro, just as it should be. The fans will sing “C’e’ solo un capitano” and the man himself will have a big grin on his face. If football owes one man that happy ending, it is Javier Zanetti.