“Inter is my life”, Javier Zanetti reflects fondly. “For me, the ties between myself and Inter remaining after my playing career was very important. I made myself available straight away.”
Zanetti is a player synonymous with success, with football fans worldwide almost unanimous in their admiration for the Inter Milan hero. 858 games for the Serie A outfit spread across almost two decades has led ‘Il Capitano’ on a fascinating journey, which today sees him actively involved with his former club’s day-to-day operations as vice president; a responsibility of which he is immensely proud.
Inter became the first Italian club to be taken over by Chinese owners in the form of the Suning group last year and it has become a frequent debate in the modern game whether clubs should take the risk of selling to foreign investors. Zanetti, however, is adamant that the current owners have been nothing but a positive influence since their arrival; a statement supported by their unbeaten start to the campaign ahead of their top of the table clash with Napoli on Saturday evening.
“Suning are a group with a lot of ambition," he tells The Independent. "They are serious about their work here and respectful of the history of Inter Milan. Together, we all have the intention of returning the club to winning prestigious trophies. This club is structuring itself to make that jump and I believe collectively we have formed a very ambitious project. Suning for us are a great support.”
On the day of this interview, the media gathered at the club’s training base to learn about ‘Inter Media House’ - an initiative driven by the owners designed to increase engagement with their growing following. A revamp at the Suning training ground, including a new press room and state of the art training facilities, will act as a hub for the club’s multimedia platforms through which they will provide closer insights into one of Europe’s most successful clubs. “Today we saw the Inter Media House presentation, which has the objective of helping to reach our wider fan-base and improving and expanding upon the key values of our brand”, Zanetti said.
“I follow all aspects [of the project] including the social aspects. Me personally being a part of Fifa and Uefa’s international projects is very useful for Inter Milan, too. There are also big projects here in Milan which I am a part of and I believe that all involved have the capacity and the will to reach the objectives which we have in mind.”
Zanetti’s busy schedule means that his responsibilities include acting as the face of the club, while trying to give back to the fans who have adored him since his arrival in 1995. “I have the privilege of travelling the world and meeting so many Inter Milan fans, so it’s important to us to maintain this connection between the supporters and the club.”
What is unquestionable is that Zanetti, who could be forgiven for wanting to unwind after a long and strenuous career, is as committed as ever. He is also someone who places huge emphasis on helping others, and taking a step back in time to his childhood reveals the foundations upon which these values were developed.
“I grew up in a humble neighbourhood in Argentina called Dock Sud. From my house, about 200 metres away was a football pitch. That’s where I spent my childhood”, he says. “It’s a neighbourhood where everybody helped each other because there was a lot of difficulties. There, I grew up happily, because I learned a lot of things.
“My mother was a cleaner and my father a builder. I watched both of them make big sacrifices for my brother and I to study. This is where I get my work ethic from. This is also the source of my generosity and willingness to help.”
The lessons he learned from his parents are ones Zanetti directly attributes to his eventual move to Lombardy. “I am a big fan of Independiente and I played in their youth systems before being released for being too small, so I went to work with my father as a builder. This helped me understand a lot of things about life; it made me mentally very strong and it also pushed me to go and play for another team.”
These experiences led the Argentinian to Milan, having decided not to give up on his dream of becoming a footballer. He recalls being gifted a ball aged three by his mother, which he credits as the catalyst for his love of the game. Taking the leap of faith and switching South America for Europe was a risk which ultimately paid off.
“It was a very big change for me to come from a smaller team and move to a huge club like Inter Milan. Inter were the most decisive with their offer and that’s why I decided to sign. When I first came, I quickly realised that it’s like a big family here. Being a young man it was a difficult time; I had to learn a new language, meet new people who have different tendencies to Argentinians.
“When I arrived I wanted to prove myself and that was my biggest challenge.” Despite those inevitable difficulties, he says the hospitable nature of the club staff and Milanese locals alike ensured a swift transition into Italian football. “People were open to me, very helpful and they had faith in me, especially the [then] manager Ottavio Bianchi, and that’s why I ended up playing so many matches in my first season.
“I was motivated [for so long at Inter] because of my desire to leave an imprint on the club. In the first decade here I only won one Uefa Cup and we endured some difficult times”, a fact which it is not often realised due to the plethora of honours won in eventuality. “In the second decade, we won everything we could win and along with my teammates, we wrote some very important pages in the history of the club.”
15 of the 16 trophies Zanetti won there were achieved under his captaincy. “I was captain during some hard times for the club and it’s in those moments you find out who is a good captain. A leader always put himself in front of the cameras in those situations, but the successes are the moments you look forward to. Having won all of these trophies is an unforgettable thing and they will always be in the club’s history. Most of all, we have made a lot of fans happy.”
It is not to say, however, that Zanetti’s dedication was never tested. Famously, a chance meeting at with then Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson turned into an attempt at persuasion by the Scotsman to acquire the Inter Milan captain’s services. “When I met Sir Alex Ferguson at the airport with my wife it was a really special moment because I have so much respect and admiration for him. A club of Manchester United’s stature looking at me is something I am very proud of.
“The same goes for Barcelona and Real Madrid [who also showed interest], all are rich historically. I was grateful to them for their interest but my intention was always to remain at Inter. I wanted to stay here and help the club win important trophies.”
He also acknowledges that the days of building success upon ‘one club players’ like himself have passed. “I think it’s different because times have changed. I hope those times return, because feeling ‘part’ of a club is an extraordinary feeling” he enthuses. Myself, Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Ryan Giggs; these are all careers which are very similar. We all share a special feeling, because we have all been a real part of our respective clubs.”
The span of Zanetti’s career also means that he has ties to a number of figures in the English game, some more obvious than others. The first to come to mind is Jose Mourinho, with whom Inter Milan enjoyed winning 5 trophies in 2010, including the domestic treble. “Mourinho is very well prepared; he takes care of every detail, has a big personality and obviously a great passion for football.
“All of these components combine and with us, within two years he built something quite amazing. That is why we won all that we did.” He also speaks highly of his former international teammate Mauricio Pochettino, who he says is a “meticulous” coach who “transmits his passion for the game in his work at Tottenham.” Interestingly, Zanetti also has an indirect link to the managerial situation at Crystal Palace. As Vice President, he watched Frank de Boer’s reign at Inter last just 85 days, with the Dutchman facing an even harsher fate at Palace earlier this season, where he was sacked after four games in charge.
“Results were not produced [under de Boer at Inter] and the first thing that happens is that the manager is held accountable” he admits. “Frank was very professional right up until his last day here, but unfortunately the results during his time were negative. Most of all, I remember that he joined us just one week before the start of the season, so perhaps he simply didn’t have enough time to prepare. In football, success is measured in results and he suffered a difficult start. This does not take away from the fact that Frank is a great person and a great professional.”
Ironically, the man to replace De Boer was another of Zanetti’s former managers, Roy Hodgson. ”I have great respect for Roy. I saw him at a game last year and we hugged. I learned a lot from him so I hope that his new adventure at Crystal Palace will be a positive one because we are talking about a person who understands football and who is a great manager. He will bring a lot of experience and knowledge from managing many different teams and his wisdom will translate to the players and give them more belief”. This effect was seemingly the case last weekend at Selhurst Park, when The Eagles beat champions Chelsea 2-1.
Beyond football, Zanetti is a multi-faceted man, who confessed: “I have always wanted to be known as a person first and a player after.” He splits his spare time between his family, restaurants and charitable foundations. He does keep in touch with his playing-side, training regularly through the ‘InterForever’ programme with other club legends. Retiring, he says, has been like “the start of a new life” to him.
“I have two restaurants in Milan, one with just Argentinian cuisine, and the other is a mix. There’s also my Foundation - ‘Fundación PUPI’, which seeks to help disadvantaged children in Argentina, as well as the football schools established by myself and [former teammate] Esteban Cambiasso. I try to dedicate a lot of time to these, along with the social projects we have at Inter, which I feel very strongly about and are extremely rewarding.”
The incredible emphasis placed on helping others stems also from Zanetti’s religion, which has guided him throughout his life. “I have always been a believer in God and this has helped me throughout my career. Especially during moments of hardship I am someone who goes to church to thank god, rather than to ask for anything. Religion to me is so important.
“I have had the fortune to meet the last three Popes; most recently Pope Francis. He is my compatriot and the first encounter I had with him was very emotional for me. I found myself with someone who is very close to the people. This is why we decided to organise the interfaith ‘match for peace’ in 2014 to help bring people of different religions together through football, and I was very excited when Pope Francis suggested it.”
What next, you might ask, for a man who has experienced so much? Simply, Zanetti says he will carry on. He is “at the disposal” of the club he loves so dearly and the ambition he once harboured as a player he continues to translate into his current role. “I want to further my work with this club and its growth, to support our Suning owners. Like I said, Inter is like family, and to transmit all of its values through our projects is very important to me.”
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