Milkman Zanetti prepares to deliver for 1,000th time

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Independiente unwittingly made a milkman out of a young Javier Zanetti. “That was the year in which I did everything,” he said. “They let me go just when I’d closed my books at school and there was no chance of going to another club. So I started to work with my cousin Carlo who delivered milk for a dairy company. I would get up at four in the morning to go pick it up and then take it to the supermarkets. I had to arrive early. When we got out, we’d have lunch and then I’d go train with Talleres.”

A hard worker by nature who had to be persuaded to down tools and leave work on building a wall at the family home to play football with his friends in the Dock Sud barrio of Buenos Aires, it’s often forgotten that, as a child, Zanetti suffered from the same growth problems as Lionel Messi.

Indeed, many - not least Independiente, the club he still supports - wrote him off simply because of his size. “I was skinny,” he recalled. “We saw a lot of doctors. Some said that I wouldn’t grow. Others said that I would. One of them recommended that I eat lentils and potatoes. It traumatised me. I am incapable of swallowing one or the other to this day.”

What Zanetti did do, however, was drink half a litre of milk every day. The rounds with his cousin proved he certainly had stamina and it wasn’t long before he made it as a professional. “I still remember the face of my father, Ignacio Rodolfo at our house the night before my debut. September 1992, Buenos Aires, the third week of the season in National B at five o’clock in the afternoon: We were playing at home in a small ground – 5000 people more or less – Talleres against Instituto Cordoba. It finished 2-1 to us. I played 90 minutes on the right of a three-man midfield.”    

Nineteen or so years later, the player nicknamed The Tractor is still ploughing his furrow in football. When Zanetti steps out on the pitch at San Siro tonight for the second leg of a Coppa Italia semi-final against Roma, he will make the 1,000th appearance of his remarkable career.

Zanetti lifts the Champions League trophy with Inter in 2010

To mark the occasion, Inter have prepared a special commemorative armband for their captain, featuring the names of nine other players to realise the feat from Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence and Pat Jennings to Paolo Maldini, Andoni Zubizarreta and Roberto Carlos. Asked to reveal his secret, Zanetti smiled: “I live peacefully, enjoying every training session, every game: I feel happy every day. I know that the time will come to say enough is enough, but I am not thinking about it right now.”

Zanetti arrived at Inter in August 1995. A videotape of his performances was one of the first things that landed on Massimo Moratti’s desk when he bought the club earlier that year. He watched it with his son, marveling at the youngster he saw playing in the green and white of Banfield against Boca Juniors in a famous match at the Bombonera.

Moratti’s South American scouts Giovanni Branchini and Paolo Taveggia were already in Argentina drafting reports on the River Plate playmaker Ariel Ortega and Independiente striker Sebastián Rambert when they decided to take in a match between Zanetti’s Banfield and Gimnasia De La Plata.

A bid arrived shortly afterwards and the rest, they say, is history. “I was in South Africa for a friendly with Argentina and the coach, Daniele Passarella said: ‘Inter have signed you’,” Zanetti told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “In that time, there wasn’t the Internet or anything. A van from the club came to pick me up at the airport and we went directly to the mountains for pre-season. I had my boots in a plastic bag. When they saw me drinking maté, the people thought I was crazy. They thought I was taking drugs…”

Not much was expected of the unassuming full-back, then aged just 22. No one could have known that the first transfer of the second Moratti era at Inter was also the best. Inter’s captain at the time Beppe Bergomi, who recently saw Zanetti beat his club appearances record in Serie A, was one of those taken by surprise.

Zanetti is congratulated for scoring in Inter's UEFA Cup Final win in '98

“I remember that we had bought Rambert at the same time and they talked about him as if he were a great player for the future, then there was Javier. The first day of training at Cavalese we were doing a possession-based exercise. Pupi never lost the ball. You couldn’t get it off him. It was glued to his feet. That day, I swear I said: ‘This one will make history with Inter’.”

Of course, looking back, nothing was guaranteed. Inter were in flux. Zanetti felt a long way from home and the adaptation wasn’t easy. “It was like there were no traffic lights in Italy,” he said. “I didn’t know when to cross and when not to. I used to walk out into the middle of the road and stop the traffic.” Hours were spent in one of Como’s phone boxes calling his childhood sweetheart Paula. “The worst time was in winter,” Zanetti sighed. “The doors didn’t close properly. Fortunately the fax machine arrived. I bought one right away. I wrote letters, messages, everything.”

Things on the pitch were tough too. Players and managers came and went [Zanetti has had no fewer than 12 at Inter], as a success-hungry Moratti driven by the desire to emulate his father tried to end the dominance of Milan and Juventus.

It became an all-consuming obsession, one fuelled by the conspiracy of la grande ruberia in 1998 with Mark Iuliano’s assault on Ronaldo and of course May 5, 2002 when Inter blew a six-point lead at the top of Serie A with five games remaining and threw away what would have been their first Scudetto for 13 years on the final day of the season.

The only constant was Zanetti and his hairstyle, the eternal side-parting. “Once we tried to change the cut,” he laughed. “Honestly, I can’t tell you what it looked like.” Joking aside, he had been through it all, suffering just as much as Moratti. He only ever lost it once, his cool exterior betrayed by an uncharacteristic strop after Roy Hodgson substituted him during the 1997 UEFA Cup final against Schalke

Parting shot: THAT haircut back in 1998

And yet, amid the frustration and disappointment of his first 10 years at Inter for which he had just two major trophies to show [the 1998 UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia in 2005], Zanetti’s outlook remained unyielding. The grass never looked greener on the other side. He didn’t take the easy way out, not even amid interest from Real Madrid in 2000. 

“One day Giacinto Facchetti said to me: ‘Javier, you’ll never get anything without sacrifice’. Thanks to my father I always knew this. But hearing it from Giacinto had a special weight because he didn’t speak often, but his words were like stones.”

Naturally, the wisdom of Facchetti held true. It would all pay off in the end, for after the drought came the rain, bringing with it five straight Scudetti, an unprecedented treble last season and a Club World Cup. Few can boast a similar medals haul. A place in the pantheon of all-time greats surely lies in wait for Zanetti who counts Ryan Giggs and Kaká as the two best players he has come up against.

With a contract until 2013, the boots he brought to Inter in a plastic bag aren’t yet ready to be hung up at Appiano Gentile. A run of 137 consecutive games in Serie A stretching from October 26, 2006 to March 24, 2010 led José Mourinho to say: “His passport must be wrong. He can’t be 36. He must be 25 or 26 at the most.” When cast in that light, Diego Maradona’s decision to leave Zanetti out of his World Cup squad last summer – ostensibly because “he no longer has the legs” – looks foolhardy to say the least.

“In Italy, they say that I am Inter’s Maldini. So it must mean that I am the Argentine Maldini,” Zanetti said. "If I feel like I do today in 2013 then maybe the time to retire will come later.” And who knows maybe he’ll get a new haircut. “I will never change it,” he grins. Then again, maybe not.