Not many symbolise strength as well as Javier Zanetti. It must have taken a staggering amount for him to have made it through the last few days. He did not just have to endure the ignominy of missing what would have been his last Milan derby appearance on Sunday, watching powerlessly from the bench as Inter surrendered tamely to defeat. Two days later, he issued a wrenching confirmation that he would be retiring from the game.
Inter’s Captain Fantastic has managed to stave off the inevitable for so long. But 856 appearances later and nearing 41, the man affectionately known as ‘The Tractor’ is finally ready to pack it in. “Because after the Achilles injury last April, I wanted to demonstrate that I could return and be competitive, but I could not,” he explained. “I feel complete and have realised to retire at 40 is a priceless feeling.”
The writing was perhaps on the wall before the season began. Stretchered off in agony against Palermo, Zanetti still vowed what seemed the impossible then. “My career does not finish here. After travelling so many kilometres, I just needed to change my tyres. I want to come back even stronger than before.”
Determined to fulfil that promise, his return just over six months later gave testimony to his superb physical conditioning and reserves of willpower. Coming on versus Livorno, Zanetti was no passenger either, starting the move that resulted in Yuto Nagatomo making it 2-0.
Boss Walter Mazzarri hailed the side’s ageless talisman later: “All our players have a lot to learn from Zanetti, just by looking at him, and seeing that you can make a difference. He's world class and you saw that today. In just 10 minutes when he came on he was a calming presence for the whole team. You don't find many people who can slot back in with so much ease after an injury like he had.”
A fixture at Appiano Gentile since 1995, Zanetti’s longevity meant he was the bridge between a couple of generations of Inter players. He’s outlasted many of them, going through some of the outfit’s greatest depths and similarly, triumphs. Through it all, a slick comb-back hairstyle has stuck with him. It embodies his qualities on the pitch best - elegant, economist and unmistakably stylish, regardless of position. Always getting on with the simple things best, with finesse and minimum fuss.
Such staying power at top level is quietly amazing. He owes his extraterrestrial levels of endurance to an unshakeable commitment which is the hallmark of a long and glittering career - that unapologetic need to prepare his state of mind and body for the games played week in and week out. “I don't mess around when it comes to fitness,” the constant powerhouse once stated. “My teammates at Inter mock me when we are training. ‘Stop running, let us win for a change’, they joke.”
Winning incarnations of Inter always kept a spot open for him, confirming his continued relevance. Jose Mourinho switched him about right-back, central midfield and left-back in 2010, where he famously muzzled compatriot Lionel Messi en route to clinching the Champions League and a historic treble. Leaving the flashy work to Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito, Zanetti was reliability personified as he established himself in Inter folklore.
His recent comeback from injury should have marked the beginning of the Argentine’s resurgence, but Zanetti has only occupied a bit-part role in the club’s campaign. Playing only nine games since, the eventual downfall culminated in Coach Mazzarri’s baffling oversight of not presenting the San Siro icon his swansong in Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina.
The snub should have proven more than a little difficult to stomach for someone of Zanetti’s standing in the Inter community. Yet in a reign spanning a pair of decades, he has rarely betrayed a moment out of character. Dignified in all his actions, he has been unruffled by rejections and decisions made against him - even when being inexplicably omitted from his country’s World Cup squads in 2006 and 2010.
He will continue his love affair with the Nerazzurri, albeit in a suit and tie. It will be a new challenge joining President Erick Thohir’s fledgling directorship, but one Zanetti is typically ready for. “Do I fear life after this? No, there is no fear. Certainly I will miss things, aspects of the routine of a player. Yet I think that the fear must be for those who do not know how to occupy their new free time and fortunately in this I have resolved the issue,” he affirmed.
“It is clear that nothing will be as before, but I am ready because I will continue in the world of football and this will keep me alive. A new world opens for me, and that excites me. There will be a thousand things to do.” Having Zanetti’s core principles of hard-work and perseverance on board will serve as a driving force for many more years to come as Thohir paves the way to Inter’s future.
For the present though, he has one last moment to soak up the adulation of the Inter faithful when they host Lazio this Saturday. It would be a grand opportunity to salute the living legend for an era of faithful service as a player, and simultaneously open another chapter in his sustained partnership with the club.
Image: Javier Zanetti and his haircut have seen through 19 seasons together at Inter.