Paolo Maldini and Ryan Giggs are high on the list of players that defied their age with the longevity of their careers while continuing to play at the highest level. Maldini amassed a staggering 647 Serie A appearances for AC Milan, clinching the Italian title seven times and retiring as a five-time European Cup/Champions League winner. Turning 40 in November, Giggs’ Manchester United career is still ongoing and has thus far yielded 13 league titles. Both players’ achievements are all the more remarkable given that they are one-club men.
Meanwhile, in the same city where Maldini enjoyed so much success, another loyal servant is winding down his own illustrious career and deserves similar recognition. Javier Zanetti joined Inter Milan in 1995 and, 18 years later, the Argentine is still a central figure for the Nerazzurri. A model of consistency and capable of excelling in multiple positions, Zanetti may be one of his generation’s most underrated players, despite winning five Serie A titles, four Coppa Italias and, of course, the Champions League in 2010 to cap off a stunning treble under Jose Mourinho. The 40-year-old skippered that treble-winning Inter squad, after taking over the captain’s armband back in 1999, and he is closing in on Maldini’s Serie A appearance record.
Just as Maldini and Giggs developed lasting connections with their respective clubs, Inter have earned a place in Zanetti’s heart. He calls it “an infinite love affair” and refers to the club as “a family I truly love”. There was no shortage of interest from other European powerhouses over the years, but playing for Inter has clearly always had a special meaning for the man known as “Pupi” back in his homeland.
The grace and humility that the Argentine has brought to the game over the years will be part of his legacy. It is difficult to find a team-mate – or even an opponent – with a bad word to say about him. In today’s game, with egos and wages frequently out of control, a character like Zanetti is the exception rather than the rule.
But his role model status should not overshadow his accomplishments on the pitch. He has been a fine player, one of the best right-backs of the past 20 years and a capable midfielder with a remarkably versatile skillset. There are just no chinks in the armour. While Zanetti’s ability to churn out consistent, unflustered performances year after year has rarely received the deserved recognition, Inter fans know only too well what his presence has meant for their club.
Plenty of big names have graced the San Siro in the blue and black of Inter, from Giacinto Facchetti and Giuseppe Bergomi to Ronaldo and Christian Vieri. And Zanetti belongs alongside the greats. It would come as no surprise if Inter chose to retire the Argentine’s number 4 shirt when he finally hangs up his boots.
Thus far this season, Zanetti has been a frustrated spectator as he recovers from an Achilles injury suffered in April. For many veteran players, this would have been a career-ending injury – but the Inter man would not entertain the idea of retirement. Instead, he threw his energy into his recovery and resumed light training earlier this month.
Zanetti has spoken of his desperate desire to be back in action, with new manager Walter Mazzarri leading a revival, and he will have a chance to help Inter make amends for last season’s woeful ninth place finish, a whopping 33 points behind champions Juventus. This term, Roma continue to set the pace, but Inter look like genuine contenders for a top four finish.
Putting Inter back in contention matters as much to Zanetti as anyone, given his long-term bond with the club.
"I knew from the moment I arrived, in a thunderstorm with [Beppe] Bergomi and [Giacinto] Facchetti waiting for me, that my new life had begun”, he recently explained. “I'll never stop thanking the Moratti family and the fans for all of the love they have given me right from day one.
"We are one big family, in good and in bad. When the trophies that everybody expected did not arrive, we still remained proud of our dignity, carrying on that way, with success ultimately arriving."
While Zanetti technically is not a one-club man (he spent the first few years of his career playing domestically in Argentina), his loyalty and longevity put him on a par with Maldini and Giggs. He is an Inter man through and through.
As he nears a return to full fitness, Zanetti – whose autobiography is soon to be released – has time to write one final chapter. It would be only fitting if he finishes on a high with one final piece of silverware.