*** THE BOOK ***
On the night of May 22 2010, when Mourinho’s Inter arrived on the top of Europe and won the club’s third Champions League, to raise the trophy that had been waited and pursued for so long cannot be anybody other than the captain of many battles, Javier Zanetti.
Arrived as an unknown youngster in the hands of President Moratti, back in 1995, Zanetti has indissolubly linked his career with the black and blue shirt, the last “bandiera” (flag) in a sport of football where great champions often leave their roots. Everyone, from teammates to coaches, from supporters to opponents, admires his technical qualities as well as the tenacity and perseverance that he has brought to the game: today just like 20 years ago, the enthusiasm from him is always the same, his heart and many runs, he raises from the midfield to the attack, grinding thousand and thousand of miles on the wings.
His nickname is “El Trator,” or the tractor. A champion on and off the field as Zanetti has created Fondazione Pupi (Pupi Foudation) to help the children of all ages in Buenos Aries where he was born and grew up in. To help the family, he worked as a bricklayer with his father or delivered milk by getting up at three in the morning.
On the night of triumph at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, it is not very difficult to recognize someone with that face of wild joy, with the cup that he wore on his head like a hat, the authoritative captain who is able to speak just by the way he plays on the field and that is an example greater than any screams that he could have done. That is an example that assures everyone to consider him as the heir of another great captain in the history of Inter, Giacinto Facchetti. Maybe because they did not know that as a kid, Javier Zanetti was already serious, determined and “lucky and happy” as he defines his exceptional sporting adventure at Inter. Within him, likes a bit of that DNA from the madness of his one great team, the Pazza Inter with which, he has suffered greatly in both victories and sorrows. Who is proud for many trophies won, among them, the historic treble that no one can ever erase.
Looking back in his career together with Gianni Riotta (co-author), Zanetti puts aside the public figure and talks about everything on the field, reliving the never ending game of a little boy in Buenos Aires who played in muddy fields and at 40 years old, he has won everything. However, he has never forgotten that, if there is another opportunity for him to raise another trophy, he must value what he believes in and what is his work and family. Because chasing after the guys who are half his age and do not have as much breath, it takes character of a true man.
*** THE AUTHORS ***
Javier Adelmar Zanetti was born in 1973 in Buenos Aires. A fan of Independiente and has played for Talleres and Banfield in Argentina before arriving at Inter in 1995. With the Nerazzurri, he has become a legend, beating record in appearances with more than 800 matches in 14 seasons, many of which were with the captain armband. He has won everything: five Scudetti, four Coppa Italia, four Italian Super Cups, UEFA Cup, Champions League in 2010 and the Club World Cup. Zanetti also holds a record in appearances for the Argentinian national team of which he was captain for a long time. He is married since 1999 with Paula and has three children, Sol, Nacho and Tommy.
Gianni Riotta, Inter fan, teaches theory of new media at Princeton University. He is part of the Council on Foreign Relations and collaborates with La Stampa. He was the director of TG1 and “Sole 24 ore” and vice director of Corriere della Sera. His novels of “Principe delle nuvole” (1997) and Alborada (2002) have been translated into several languages. For Mondadori (publisher of this book), he has published “Le cose che ho imparato” (2011).
*** JAVIER ZANETTI - PLAY LIKE A MAN ***
My life told to Gianni Riotta
To Pau, the light of my life
to my family
and to those around me
1 - THE NEVER ENDING GAME
“And seven, and eight, and nine...” Luis Garcia, the physical therapist of the Argentinian national team, bends my left leg and counts the movements that I have left to do. “And one, and two, and three...” Following the rhythm of Luis, a very serious man, I look out the window of the gym to the great green meadows and dense forest of trees. The light is very clear as a plan flies high in the sky in the Buenos Aires airport in Ezeiza which is not far from here. It is a cool early morning. In Argentina, it is still winter while in Europe the people have already escaped to the beaches and gone on holidays, enthusiastically reading the news of the transfer market and the league is about to start. Teams are in training camp with young players dream of glory while the veterans return on the field with great confidence. Football pasión de multitudes or passion of the masses as they call it here in the metropolis of 13 million inhabitants where I was born and raised and tat when a game in the World Cup is being played, the old streets of Caminito are empty. I am focused on the training, it is my every day life. I even trained on my wedding day with Paula, the mother of my three children. I had the time so why not do it, so what if time is a bit tight for the wedding ceremony. In life, there is always time for everything, but we need to know to find the time, have the right method, do not let life pass us quickly without being noticed. Maybe when you have played over a thousand games, over 100 thousand inexorable minutes on the field, maybe that has taught me to respect the value of time.
Time is like a mirage, an optical illusion, and sometimes it can betray us. A great champion and my teammate at Inter, Samuel Eto’o, the only player to have won two trebles, you know league, domestic cup and a Champions League in the same year in 2009 and 2010, recalls one of the most important games in history - at Camp Nou, in the Champions League semifinals against Barca of my friend Lionel Messi, for many the best team every - where I shouted to encourage him after his amazing defensive recovery because he was playing almost like a full back: “Bravissimo Samu, we are only missing very little (time).” Reassured, Eto’o looked up at the scoreboard to find out that we are only at the 37th minute in the first half. Even in tension, whether you are the great Samuel or playing as captain, I had to remember that we can master the time.
Early this morning, when I train with Luis and calculate the time of exercises, the mind wanders - it happens when you try to focus and the body is just tired - and then I look around me to resume my train of thoughts. I was at Predio, the training ground of the Argentinian national team, a place where sports, history and myth breath on the fresh grass, as verdant Coverciano for the Italian national team and as the immaculate St. George’s Park for England. In the hall just outside the team, photographic panels reminiscent of the glorious Albiceleste victories, the Argentinian national team is defiend as Biancoceleste shirt, World Cups won and great coaches like Cesar Menotti and Carlos Bilardo.
On the walls are hung the photos and shirts of the magic number 10 of two Argentinians that rival Pele for the fame of best of the best: Diego Armando Maradona and Lionel Messi. I look at them every time I go to Predio: Diego who surprisingly did not give me a call to play in the 2010 World Cup, without a technical reason and unfortunately with poor results on the field. Regarding Lionel, I have seen him grow as the captain of the national team. He is a friend and a simple as well as very shy person off the field. He is a star in our game and fast enough to go around the opponents as if they were bowling pins and then scores the goal. I keep reading endlessly his matches in the newspapers, we exchange sms on mobile phones and like from a big brother I told him: “Lionel be careful, do not play too much, do not impose unnecessary matches just for business. Even your time will pass, defend your body.”
I am a very lucky and happy man, my body has not worn off. At 40 years old, I have beaten, according to the omniscient Wikipedia, every record in appearances with Inter in Serie A and Europe, with the Argentinian national team in the World Cup and Copa America. My number 4 has taken the field more than any other shirt of my generation. Some players who started with me are no longer here, only a few goalkeepers. Those who were together with me at the youth level are now journalists, directors, maybe organize a few practice matches with their former teammates or some other players to continue to play. But they no longer feel the pressure of the dressing room, the roar of the fans and the whistles from the opponents. For them, the whistle is already blown at the 19th minute in the last match.
I think of Ivan Ramiro Cordoba, the former defender of Inter and currently the team manager, a teammate with whom I shared room with in training camp. He is also the godfather of one of my children: I am religious, I am Roman Catholic and I chose Ivan because he believes in the same values. I remember what he told me after his final match: “I glanced at the ball and thought: this is my last lateral ball, this is my last relaunch, guarding that one attacker trying to pass when I made my last foul, a tackle...”
Will I be like him? I do not know. If I’m here in Predio to struggle while my younger teammates are still on vacation to soak in the sun in Maldives, it is because I want to return to the field. For a season or a derby, it does not matter. After that injury in Palermo that ended my 2012-2013 season, I want to try again.
I remember that injury very well: it was at the Favorita stadium and happened during one of my runs. I remember commentator Victor Hugo Morales was screaming my nickname “El Tractor,’ or the tractor as he was wondering if I would dribble past my defender or send a cross in the box for my teammates. But then a terrible pain as I fell down to the ground knowing it was something serious. Paula had never been so worried: if it is true that I have never hurt an opponent, it is also true that I have never hurt myself. When I see certain players who are gasping on the grass, it makes me smiles: I have taken a lot of blows, but all bearable without the Hollywood element to it. My daughter, Sol, was eight years old and knew immediately as she started crying: “Mommy, something wrong has happened to Daddy...”
From the bench, the Inter medical staff rushed out particularly Dr. Combi and masseur Dellacasa, and even them both realized that it was a bad injury. A Milanese friend but also a super fan, asked: “What did you think about when you were sitting on the ground with the Achilles teondon in your left leg torn apart?” I did not even think about that question and answered right away: “It is a new page of the book of my life, either to celebrate a victory or a defeat that crushes me. I should just get up and start again, as always.”
Just like when I was at Independiente, the team that I was rooting and cheering for and still am, they decided that I was too frail to play football and I was exactly that as a child through basically my youth.
I went to work as a bricklayer with my dad, Rodolfo, with my dreams of becoming a professional footballer over before they even started. Like when there was no way we could win a Scudetto with Inter, even if the team was strong and we gave everything on the pitch. Or when Adriano, a teammate at Inter whom I had helped in his fight against depression, scored an equalizer for Brazil in the last minutes of the final of the Copa America. The game went on to extra times and then penalties, with a sad ending for us.
Ball back in the centre, you start again. Always. I train to be on the pitch. It will be an endless game, says the chant that my ultras sung to me so many times.
Luis is amazed that I can manage to push 160 kilos at the training machines with my injured foot. I saw other colleagues going by, like Fernando Gago who’s just won the title with Velez Sarsfield, Argentina’s keeper Sergio Romero, talking to the staff and some friends who were hanging around, praising my spirit and my efforts.
I pretend not to hear them, I keep pushing the 160 kilos, first with the left leg, then the right leg. I feel like saying to them, “now”!, “come out!”. Orders shouted from the bench, the ball caught first time. They’re the players who couldn’t find a spot for the championship, the players called by the cynics “FC Unemployed”. I see them as exceptional colleagues and I wish them to find a deal and a new shirt soon. Some of them are young, just past their teens. If I was man marking them the commentator would say, like they did when I played against Vaslui in Romania, “Zanetti dribbles past an opponent who could be his son…” It’s true, well it would be if Paula and I, even if engaged since we were kids, didn’t wait a bit before we became parents of Sol, Ignacio and Tommy.
I am forty years old, many or few years, I don’t know. What I know is that I still push 160 kilograms per leg with velocity. What I know is that I want to run on the lawn of my yard, to run on the field, screaming at the young players to do so. What I know is I want to fly forward in the box as a forward hopefully to receive a good cross and.... goal! Practice match? Champions League final? It does not matter. It does not matter if there are no cameras to show the game in high definition. Who knows football and loves this sport understands that on the field, emotion and joy are equal.
“Passion of the masses,” football is now a global business involving billion of human beings, the politics of many countries, organizations, companies and corporate sponsors who committed intellectuals and academics and have led these countries to the brink of war. However this remains pure joy, both for celebrities without a care in the world and for desperate people with little hope. The show of lights and success, the TV networks and the championship competing are putting the secret of this passion at risk. What is magical in football? What makes the children in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America to dream? To take a free kick like Beckham, to dribble like Ronaldo, to defend like Maldini or to make incredible saves like Casillas?
As I am looking at the seriousness that these boys are training, I whisper to Luis Garcia something that I have always believed in: “The best thing about football is the players.” I know, on the front pages of the newspapers we read of showgirls brought to the beach to model, to model Ferrari and Maserati double-parked in front of the clubs, to model the excesses of the party of the magnate or cruises on the yacht of that lobbyist. Every profession has its own hot-heads and money is the rest. But who talks about the players of this morning, as I push 160 kilograms with my legs, hoping they will once again run on the field to play the never ending game? No one.
I lifted the Champions League trophy over my head at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, while for our fans, for many years, it will be the happiest time of their life. But when I played as a child on the field of Dock Sud (South Dock), the district of Buenos Aires where I grew up, I did not think of glory. I thought of only playing, to live to dribble past my classmate and score against him in the goal of stones and school books.
I did not push 160 kilograms because I had to, as well as those boys without a team are not only looking for a job: I struggle. They sweat. All for a passion. I am forty years old and have played more matches more than all the guys in front of me put together. And yet, it is the game that makes my heart tremble.
Luis Garcia carefully watches the scar on my left ankle after the surgery: it is healing well and quickly, he is very satisfied. Romero, one of the most talented goalkeepers around, is giving dozens of pairs of football boots in different sizes to a warehouseman. The school will then give them to the poor children, not whether they can afford. “You know how much they cost in shops in Buenos Aires? With the crisis that is going on, whose mom can buy them?” Later I have to go to Pupi Foundation where my father in law Andres de la Fuente takes care of the studies and education of the children who would otherwise end up in the street. I smile, in the shower: “The players are the best part of football.”
On the grass in Predio, colorful birds, which are very common in Argentina, are flying. They are fiery, proud, elegant. I think they are called in Italy. At the gate leading to the field I can see my father Rodolfo with his eternal friend Gustavo exchanging a few words with the guards. He then picked me up like I was a little boy. I then climbed in the car and said: “Dad, I have decided to go to South Dock tomorrow, I want to see the old house where you lived with mom and Sergio.” Sergio is my older brother, also a footballer. Rodolfo and Gustavo were surprised as they looked at me: I hadn’t been down there for years. The neighborhood is changed. Buenos Aries is changed. For the better in most things, inflation no longer increases the price of bread, police no longer seizes innocent boys and taking them away from their families. But unfortunately, they are often the prey to gangs and drug dealers.
My father did not ask me the reason for the decision, he said nothing. Just like always, in times of joy, sporting triumphs or pain, like when my mom Violeta passed away, his reaction was always secured, serene, with the strength of a Friulano in Sacile, from the Pordenone area, tempered by the wisdom of a Porteno. He is just a simple Buenos Aires man.
Tomorrow morning, after training, I will return to South Dock, on the field of my school which is like Disneyland to me, at the house of Rodolfo built, brick by brick, with his hands. My never ending match started there, there began the passion of my life, and to tell how a child becomes champion, I have to go there. My heart is already beating fast: what will I find?