Playing until 39 years of age would be an achievement for most ordinary football players, let alone suffering a serious injury at that archaic age and still expecting to make a comeback. Then again, Javier Zanetti is no ordinary footballer. Or at least according to former Argentina defender Roberto Ayala, who reacted to his former teammate’s injury by allaying fears it may force a premature conclusion, “no doubt he will come back and continue his career normally” he said.
It says something of the resilience of the man that a possible return from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, suffered in the 14th minute of Inter’s 1-0 loss to Palermo on Sunday night, is even being mooted. “I had to change tyres after so many miles” said Zanetti upon leaving a hospital in Pavia on Monday evening, using the pit-stop metaphor like it was nothing to an indestructible midfielder who had ticked the dial over to 1,101 professional appearances before injury struck.
It was at the very same ground two years earlier in which Zanetti had suffered breathing problems, only to insist on playing on before fainting in the dressing room after the final whistle. It looked like he may have needed an operation, but the Argentinean soldiered on, leading Inter to a “mini-treble” that year of the Italian Super Cup, the Club World Cup and Coppa Italia.
They were just three medals of an illustrious career that has yielded 16 trophies with Inter during a spell that has now meandered into an eighteenth year since moving from Banfield in 1995. His honour roll includes 5 Serie A titles, 4 Coppa Italias, 1 Champions League and 1 UEFA Cup amongst a series of minor trophies. Zanetti may not be the most decorated player in the game but few can match his longevity and remarkable loyalty, traits that saw him win the ‘Loyalty and Critics’ choice award in 2013.
It is an astounding record of personal achievement and endurance that he has featured in 845 of the 938 matches Inter have played since Zanetti joined them in the mid-90s, registering an appearance record of 90%. Between October 2006 and April 2010, Zanetti, known endearingly as “Pupi” in his native Argentina, made a record 137 consecutive appearances, only to have the remarkable stopped by reaching the yellow card limit.
During Zanetti’s time in Milan, Inter have passed through 20 managers and each one has found the Argentinean’s unrelenting professionalism and continual devotion impossible to ignore. Every supposed new dawn at Internazionale over the past two decades has been characterised by Zanetti’s diligence on the right, using his experience to defend solidly as well as use his relentless energy and evergreen legs to launch lung-busting runs from his usual withdrawn positioning on the right-side. It was slightly ironic to see Zanetti’s downfall on Sunday originate from one such run, he was shaping up to deliver a cross before his leg gave way and he was forced to signal to the bench, pain etched on his face.
Andrea Stramaccioni’s reaction was suggestive of the standing and reputation his Argentine midfielder still demands at the club. Stramaccioni, winner of the 2011 Next-Gen series as Inter’s youth coach has tried to usher in a younger generation with the likes of Ricardo Alvarez, Mateo Kovacic and Ezequiel Schelotto, yet Zanetti has played 40 times this season as the manager has found his wisdom and experience too important to ignore.
“To lose someone like him is an awful blow” he said, “because in such a difficult moment the value of someone like Zanetti to the team is incredible.”
Stramaccioni was in no disillusion about the seriousness of Zanetti’s injury and what it meant to his side but neither was the player when it came to the prospect of making a recovery. “My career isn’t over” said the midfielder, “my goal is to come back stronger than before and I believe I’ll overcome this too”. It was an unequivocal response to the most legitimate of doubts that this injury, ruling Zanetti out for six to eight months, just four short of his 40th birthday, just maybe, could finish him off.
That is not according him or even Ayala, who went on to say “this injury is not going to affect anything” when pressed on his fellow Argentine international. It maybe an outrageous claim, but there are few who would dispute the possibility of Zanetti making a return to try and overhaul Paolo Maldini’s Serie A appearance record of 647, which the Inter man stands just 45 games shy of.
It is his permanence and strength that has almost become mythological in Italian football, that concedes there will be little doubt Pupi will make the most illogical of returns.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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