The big interview: Javier Zanetti – "The free-kick against England? We'd practised it for four years!"
In a professional career that spanned more than two decades, Javier Zanetti has seen it all. Even since hanging up his boots in 2014, he’s been pretty busy: setting up a non-profit foundation that helps more than 1,000 kids in Argentina, becoming Inter’s vice-president as well as opening a steak restaurant in Milan.
El Gaucho has a long table saved for special guests: then-Inter boss Stefano Pioli, his assistant Walter Samuel and the rest of the Nerazzurri coaching staff are coming over for dinner – and their host naturally wants everything to be perfect.
“This will be the first time I have ever cooked a steak while in a suit,” he says while under the glare of FFT’s cameras. But before he can tuck in, it’s time for him to get stuck into your questions...
- 1992-93 Talleres
- 1993-95 Banfield
- 1995-2014 Inter
Hi Javier. Your restaurant sells what looks like Cornish pasties. Have you ever been to Cornwall, or England for anything other than football?
Harry Batt, via Facebook
[Surprised] Cornish pasties? You mean empanadas! Don’t tell me empanadas are from there. They’re not! [Laughs] It is the first time I’ve heard this. I’ve not been to Cornwall but now I’m curious to check it out. Empanadas are typical Argentine food! As for England, I have been there many times with my family: London, of course, but also Birmingham, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool.
I like to go travelling with my wife. Paula is a big Beatles fan, so when we visited Liverpool she was super excited. We went to the museum and wanted to go to the Cavern Club, but since there is a Cavern Club and a Cavern Pub in the same street, we visited both – just to make sure we didn’t make a mistake!
Who gave you your nickname ‘El Tractore?’ How did it come about?
Cristian Benta, via Facebook
It started in Argentina and was linked to my style of play: covering lots of the pitch without stopping. When I arrived in Milan, Italian journalists asked some of the journalists back home about me. They heard the nickname and adapted it to El Tractore. It remained my football nickname until I became captain, when I was rechristened Il Capitano. Nobody would call me the tractor ever again!
Before turning professional I delivered milk, setting my alarm to go off at 4am each morning, before going to school at eight and then on to training sessions in the afternoon
You used to work as a bricklayer for your father? What did that teach you about the importance of hard work? Are you still able to build a wall now?
Andre Adams, London
Those were among the best times of my life; it was one of the things I have enjoyed most. Not only because I was giving him a hand and able to be with him, but also as it was a life-changing experience to see first-hand the huge sacrifice my dad was making in order to provide for our family. It has stayed with me throughout my life and also guided me during my career. And, of course, I still know how to build a wall – I have not forgotten! If I had to build one, I could.
The day in which my dad encouraged me to be a footballer was while we were working on a wall when I was 12. Before turning professional I delivered milk, setting my alarm to go off at 4am each morning, before going to school at eight and then on to training sessions in the afternoon.
I once heard a tale that when you first arrived at Inter, you had your boots in a plastic bag and the fans waiting at the training ground did not know who you were. True story?
Ally Grier, via Facebook
The official presentation was at the Terrazzo Martini hotel. I arrived with Sebastian Rambert – a striker who’d joined from Independiente – and we were both welcomed by the president, captain Giuseppe Bergomi and some board members. It was the first time that I had ever been to Milan and there was a downpour. After that, the team headed off for our pre-season training camp in Cavalese, up in the mountains, and I went there carrying my boots in a plastic bag. Nobody knew who I was – it was another era, I was a stranger.
I passed through the fans that were waiting for their idols and moments later, when I appeared on the terrace to greet them, they realised I was the new signing. During my first season at Inter I was living alone, and back then mobile phones were new and expensive. There was a payphone two blocks from my home in Como, so I’d buy a prepaid phone card and spend hours standing there talking to [then girlfriend] Paula. The people who were left queuing as we spoke would say some rather harsh words, particularly in the winter. I’d be freezing cold, but I still kept on talking.
There’s a famous montage of your Panini stickers from 20 years with Inter (below) that highlights the fact you looked identical for the whole time. What’s your secret? And is it true you have always had the same haircut that your mother gave you?
James Grieve, via Facebook
I’ve seen them, yes, and they really are all the same! But there is no secret – just be passionate about what you do. As for the haircut, I admit my mother used to cut it into a moptop until I was 12. Then I went to a hairdresser and changed it to a side parting – which I decided to carry on with ever since.
Why were you so angry when Roy Hodgson subbed you just before the shootout in the 1997 UEFA Cup Final, and what was Roy like as a coach?
Stu Greenhalgh, Merseyside
At that moment I did not accept the substitution. I had played well and didn’t think the player being sent on [Nicola Berti] would be taking a penalty. I understood it afterwards, but my reaction was in the heat of the moment. Later that evening we hugged, and I’ve still got a great relationship with Hodgson. He was a good manager, always prepared and able to take care of small but important details.