Saturday, 14 May 2011

The unstoppable Javier Zanetti still going strong as he makes 1000th career appearance

Whatever your feelings on Inter, it was impossible to begrudge him his moment of sheer joy. As he lifted the Champions League trophy aloft in Madrid last May with a glint in his eye and his mouth agape, Javier Zanetti did so with the whole world behind him. Few players have earned such respect and widespread backing in their career as the Argentine has, and on Wednesday night the entire football fraternity will stand and applaud him once more as he plays his 1000th professional game in the Coppa Italia semi-final second leg against Roma.

Twenty years after signing professional forms with Talleres in his native Argentina, the Inter skipper will wear a special captain’s armband to commemorate the nine other men who have reached the landmark figure whilst playing the majority of their careers at the top level. Each name will have a star above it, much the same as world champions have a star added to their shirts for each success. It is a sign of how humble Zanetti is that he should use his big night to recognise those that have gone before him.

After making his first team debut in September 1992 in front of around 5000 people in Talleres’ 2-1 home win over Instituto Cordoba, it took Zanetti little time to make a name for himself. The following summer he was snapped up by Banfield, and he would never again drop below the top flight. Two years later, and with 15 Argentina caps already behind him, Massimo Moratti made the midfielder/full-back his first signing as Inter president.

It has been during his 16-year spell at San Siro that he has really gone on to write his name into the footballing annals. He was one of those who gloried in the 1998 Uefa Cup final win against Lazio in Paris as he picked up his first of 15 trophies with the club. In an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport this week he picked out that evening as probably his best performance in his 999 games so far.

He has also seen the tough times too, of course, and admitted to Gazzetta that there is one game in particular he would like to play again. “Lazio-Inter; May 5, 2002. Even today I don’t know what happened that day,” he said of Inter's blowout on the final day with the Serie A title all but in their hands.

More recently, there have been much better times for Zanetti and his troops, with consecutive league titles being stacked up between 2006 and 2010, Coppa Italia and Supercoppe Italiana successes aplenty, and of course those Champions League and Club World Cup triumphs of last year. But it has been his ability to lead the side with honour and grace, win or lose, that has stood out the most.
 THE 1000 CLUB

Alan Ball
David Seaman
Paolo Maldini
A. Zubizarreta
Roberto Carlos
Tommy Hutchison
*Includes only players who played majority in top flight

Inter’s club captain for the last 12 seasons, he has not been sent off since receiving his marching orders in a Coppa Italia clash against Parma in February 1999. It is a sign of the way he plays the game even today. He names Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs as one of the two toughest opponents he’s ever faced – the other being Kaka – and it is fitting that the two continue on as pillars of the game. Giggs himself has also famously named Zanetti as his most testing adversary.

There comes a time in the latter stages of most senior players’ careers when they seem to be doing little more than ticking off records. As is the case with Giggs, though, that can certainly not be said of Zanetti. At 37 years of age it would be fair to expect him to show signs of the ageing process, but instead he remains a vital part of the Inter side. If anything, he has been one of the few men able to hold his head high in an otherwise tumultuous 2010-11 season.

So when he joins the list of stars to have racked up four figures tonight, he will do so as a player with plenty more left to give. He rarely feels the strain that others might have suffered off the back of averaging more than 50 games a season for nearly two decades, admitting this week: “Maybe [I felt tired] after the final in Madrid when the adrenaline of two crazy weeks – with the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Champions League all at one time – drained away. But believe me: My children tire me out a lot more than playing a football match.”

It appears the tractor has plenty more miles left on the clock just yet.

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