By Carlo Garganese
Football is such a tribal game that it is very rare that you find a player who transcends club colours and national boundaries.
Lionel Messi may be a hero for Barcelona fans and Cristiano Ronaldo an idol for Real Madrid supporters, but even these superstars have plenty of enemies elsewhere.
Javier Zanetti is one of the few icons who is adored by almost everyone.
Even Juventus diehards, aggrieved by the 2006 Calciopoli scandal which has created an unbridgeable divide between the Bianconeri and Inter, have nothing but admiration for the Argentine.
Zanetti is loved because he has epitomised the meaning of class, both on and off the pitch, throughout his incredible 22-year professional career.
As a footballer, ‘Pupi’ will go down in history as one of the greatest full-backs the game has ever seen. Tactically, technically, physically and mentally – he possessed every attribute.
Manchester United hero Ryan Giggs labelled the Argentine as the toughest opponent of his career.
"I faced Zanetti for the first time in the Champions League quarter-finals in 1999, he was the right-back and I was on the left,” the Welshman told Gazzetta dello Sport.
"He impressed with his qualities, his speed, power, intelligence and expertise.
"I played against him twice more and he was my most difficult opponent, a complete player."
What is even more impressive is Zanetti’s longevity. An outfield footballer’s peak usually lasts from five to seven years. In exceptional cases it can be longer, but at the very highest level of the sport it is often much shorter. Take Ronaldinho, for example. During the middle of the last decade, the Brazilian hit heights that merely a handful of players have ever reached. But ‘only’ four or five seasons of his career were actually spent as a truly world class player.
Zanetti maintained such a level for the best part of 15 years. At the age of nearly 37, when Inter defeated Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona in the Champions League semis on the way to clinching the treble, the great Lionel Messi barely got a kick in two legs as his countryman put on a defensive masterclass.
His indefatigable consistency over the past two decades has been unhuman. Until he ruptured his Achilles tendon against Palermo just over a year ago – an injury that he never fully recovered from and has restricted him to just 11 appearances this term – Zanetti had averaged 45 club games a season after debuting for Talleres in 1992. It is no surprise that the man nicknamed ‘The Tractor’ holds the all-time appearance record for both Inter, whom he joined in 1995 from Banfield, and the Argentina national team.
As a man, Zanetti embodies everything that is good about football: honour, fair play and respect. Not once did he try to achieve success through foul means. Never did he protest against a referee. Even in the face of injustice and hardship, he retained his dignity.
When he was snubbed for Argentina’s 2006 and 2010 World Cup squads, on the ludicrous grounds that he brought bad luck, Zanetti didn’t complain – even though he had every right to question how the likes of Lionel Scaloni and Jonas Gutierrez had been preferred to him. Ironically, only in Argentina has there ever been debate over Zanetti's quality, but it is a debate the player never became embroiled in.
When Inter and Valencia players were involved in the ugliest of Champions League bust-ups in 2007, punches, kicks and blood flying everywhere, one player rose above all the lunacy.
When the Nerazzurri were, as then coach Roberto Mancini described it, “robbed” by the referee the following year in their European tie with Liverpool, Zanetti refused to be drawn into the polemics – despite two inexplicable red cards that had conditioned the outcome.
He may not have always been the most vocal or motivational but, in the way he carried himself and the example he set to his team-mates, he was the perfect captain. When he lifted the Champions League trophy to the Madrid skies in 2010 after Inter’s 2-0 win over Bayern, there cannot have been one football fan who wasn’t delighted for Zanetti.
“To quit at 41 is a unique sensation, I feel proud of myself, this is the right moment," he told La Nacion on Tuesday.
"I dreamed of ending my career with the Inter shirt, Inter is my house and I'll try to give my contribution off the pitch as well. I'll be a sports manager for the club, a new fascinating challenge. I'm willing to learn again.”
Zanetti will retire this summer as arguably the greatest player Inter have ever had. He will also hang up his boots as perhaps the most universally respected footballer the sport has ever had the pleasure of seeing.