When Roy Hodgson became Internazionale coach 16 years ago he inherited two young Argentines who had been spotted by ambitious new president Massimo Moratti.
One of them, a striker called Sebastian Rambert, had cost a hefty fee from Independiente, one of Buenos Aires' major clubs. The other, Hodgson recalls, was initially regarded as "something of a makeweight".
Hodgson soon realised Rambert was overrated, and moved him on, but thought the "makeweight" was worth persevering with. Rambert has long since retired, but Javier Zanetti has rarely been out of the Inter XI since. This month he achieved a landmark few professional footballers will ever reach: 1,000 senior matches. At 37, Zanetti is still an automatic starter for one of the game's leading clubs and tomorrow night he will captain Inter in the final of the Coppa Italia, against Palermo. Victory would be his 16th major title.
"Reaching a thousand matches is a fantastic achievement," said Hodgson. "He's played most of those matches at the very top level, in Serie A and for a national team that's one of the powerhouses of the game." Zanetti has made 140 appearances for Argentina and continues to figure for La Albiceleste.
Hodgson was the second of 14 coaches Zanetti has had at Inter. "Through good and bad he's been a constant figure," said Hodgson. "He's become a sensible player. He doesn't try things that are not on. That makes him an invaluable team player and captain.
"When I was there he was a hard-working right-sided midfield who got up and down and looked to bomb on, like a James Milner. He's added the defensive side to his game as the years have gone by [Zanetti usually plays full-back now].
"He's a fantastic athlete, up with the very best, and one of the best at protecting the ball; even when he was surrounded by players he had a habit of coming away with the ball. He's rarely injured, rarely suspended – he's not a dirty player [Zanetti was last dismissed in 1999]. He's an excellent trainer and a very nice lad. I don't think he cost very much but he's turned out to be one of their best ever signings. When I see him on TV he doesn't look any different from the 21-year-old I inherited."
Zanetti feels the same. After he led Inter to last season's treble of domestic league, cup and Champions League, he said: "You always find motivation, there are more trophies to win." He then signed a deal that runs to the eve of his 39th birthday.
"Maybe [I felt tired] after the [2010 Champions League] final in Madrid when the adrenalin of two crazy weeks – with the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Champions League all at one time – drained away," he said, "but believe me, my children tire me out a lot more than playing a football match."
In between the matches Zanetti, married with two children, has also found time to establish charities in Italy and Argentina. His autobiography was called Captain and a Gentleman; the hugely respected Zanetti is one of the few footballers who can get away with a such a title.
A Grand Tradition
While Javier Zanetti will not surpass Peter Shilton's 1,390 matches, he may beat Alan Ball's 1,054-match outfield record. It is hard to be certain as records, especially in the game's early decades, and even quite recently in Brazil with its multiple competitions, are unclear. Some lists include, for example, Roberto Carlos, though it is hard to track down 1,000 matches for him. Most do not include Pele, though with friendlies, for Santos toured constantly, he played 1,319 matches.
Nine 1,000-match players
Alan Ball (M, England, Blackpool, Everton, Arsenal & Southampton)
Ray Clemence (GK, England, Liverpool & Tottenham)
Pat Jennings (GK, Northern Ireland, Tottenham & Arsenal)
Paolo Maldini (D, Italy, Milan)
Nilton Santos (D, Brazil, Botafogo)
David Seaman (GK, England, Peterborough, QPR, Arsenal)
Peter Shilton (GK, England, Leicester, Stoke, Nottingham Forest, Southampton & Derby)
Javier Zanetti (FB/M, Italy, Internazionale)
Andoni Zubizarreta (GK, Spain, Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona, Valencia)
(Only players who have spent the bulk of their career in the top flight of major leagues included. Clubs mentioned are those for whom they played more than 100 games).
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