Most of his peers are gone: Now they’re journalists or directors or managers of their own. Javier Zanetti is 40, and he is still playing. He is a lucky and happy man, but he is also fit, and he brings a pair of sneakers almost everywhere he goes in the case that he may get a chance to go for a run.
“Of the young guys I started out with, nobody is left. Only a few goalkeepers,” Zanetti wrote in his autobiography, Giocare da uomo (as translated by the journalist Steve Amoia). “Without the knowledge of the press and fans, as a great secret, on small pitches on the peripheries, they don't hear the cheers of the fans and the whistles from adversaries.”
Few others from his generation still play for the same team. Daniele Conti has suffered with Cagliari since 1999. Gianluigi Buffon sacrificed a season in Serie B to stay with Juventus. Antonio Di Natale warded off the advances of AC Milan and Inter to keep on playing for Udinese. It is a relationship that has lasted nearly 10 years.
But the one that remains above all of those is Francesco Totti, who is 37 years old himself. Totti was destined to play for Roma. He was raised in a traditional Roman household. His mother ironed his uniform and he was a fan of the club as a boy.
At 16, Totti made his debut with the first team. He first played in Serie A in 1993. The stats prove his loyalty: 232 goals for Roma as the all-time leading scorer, and more than 650 appearances in total.
In 2001, Totti helped Roma win the Scudetto after a long 18 years. It was only their third triumph. The fans painted a mural of Totti, pointing his finger to the sky, on the wall of a dead-end in a nondescript part of the city.
He, too, could’ve left for Milan, or even Real Madrid. But he is Roman, and he embodies the wild spirit of the common fan. Often after scoring a goal—especially in the eternal derby against Lazio—Totti would reveal a shirt with provocative messages that riled up the opposing supporters. Once he ran to the corner flag, with the ball stuffed into his shirt, and his teammates delivered it like a baby.
There was the time he kicked Mario Balotelli. Before that, Totti spat on Danish midfielder Christian Poulsen while playing for Italy. Several times he’s stormed off the pitch and pushed team trainers out of the way.
This is the King of Rome, and he is cosmopolitan. All four-and-a-half hours of his wedding were televised on Italian TV, as John Foot writes in his book, Calcio. He married a model, and they named their daughter Chanel. He collected a bunch of jokes about him and put them in a book and donated the earnings to charity. He also penned his own guide to the ancient city.
Even when he wasn't playing so well, back when Luis Enrique coached the team, some of his own supporters confronted and insulted him in the streets, while he was out walking with his wife and children.
What he did on the field before that was everything. He once negotiated with the referee to call off the derby in the middle of the match as fans began to believe that a child had died. (Clouds of smoke consumed the stadium and limited all visibility.) He does free-kicks and flicks and assists, and he scores goals like a striker, only as an attacking midfielder. He is behind Silvio Piola, the great inventor of the bicycle kick, in Serie A scoring all-time, and no one else.
But there are things he could not do. In the 2006-07 season, Totti scored 26 goals in Serie A and won the European Golden Boot. (He also missed seven penalties that year.) Roma still came second. He and Roma were runners-up on six occasions.
There was little success after 20 seasons. Totti could have won more elsewhere—and at times he did not know whether he would continue as captain of the club he always supported—but he is attached to the city, and in many ways he is the city.
It was different and yet similar for Zanetti. Eventually, he won everything, but he suffered with Inter, too. He played for a decade without winning an Italian championship on the pitch. A week after he won the Champions League in 2010, on his 700th game for Inter, his mother passed away. Even victory was painful.
Now there is a desk and office waiting for Zanetti, if and when he so chooses to retire. But things weren't so predetermined. Zanetti was born poor. He worked in construction with his father, carrying sacks of cement to and fro. His mother combed his hair, and he’s kept the same style: brushed across and aside.
Massimo Moratti, only starting as the president of the club in 1995, was scouting another player from Argentina, but Zanetti was the one running up and down the pitch. He was the first signing Moratti made.
This is a man who trained with Argentina on the morning of his wedding. (Much like Sir Alex Ferguson, who missed his honeymoon to get his coaching badges.) His teammates in practice mocked him. “Stop running,” he recalls them saying, in an interview with UEFA.com. “Let us win for a change.” He even trained on holidays, without the rest of the squad.
Giuseppe Bergomi, himself a defender and long-time captain of Inter, once said Zanetti could play until he is 50. "Now I seriously believe he can play until he's 45,” Bergomi told UEFA.com. “It will be for him to decide when and why to quit football.”
That is rare. Juventus did not allow Alessandro Del Piero the dignity to retire with the club on his own terms, and neither did Milan with Massimo Ambrosini, Clarence Seedorf or Gennaro Gattuso. Zanetti deserves the respect his peers did not get.
Think about the dedication: Zanetti has only missed 115 games for Inter, the team he joined 19 years ago.
At one point, between 2006 and 2010, Zanetti played in 137 consecutive games—a club record. He has played in more Serie A matches than any other foreigner. Only Paolo Maldini has played more games than Zanetti in the league.
This past summer, he joined his teammates on tour of the U.S. He was injured—a torn Achilles to rehabilitate—but he stayed with them. He didn't sit with an entourage during the games he spent out, up high with the executives. He didn't stay home and watch it on TV with his wife and three children. He wore a blue tracksuit, issued by the team, and he sat on the bench with the coaching staff. Six months after suffering the injury, he was back playing.
Time is everything to Zanetti. There is time for a run, time to kill, time to savour. Nursing a 3-1 lead on aggregate, Inter went to Camp Nou. They had to manage the clock in the game against Barcelona in the semi-finals of the 2010 Champions League, and they conceded one goal, but that was OK. The resistance won. But time was the enemy when it is usually a friend.
“In life there is always time for everything; however, we have to know how to find it,” Zanetti wrote in his autobiography. “Perhaps having played over a thousand games, 100,000 unrelenting minutes on the pitch, taught me to respect the value of time.”
Over time, he won the Scudetto, the Coppa Italia, the European Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. He is still the captain, leading since 1999. He spends a lot more time on the bench. But he's left us a career like none other.
All quotes selected from Javier Zanetti's autobiography translated by the journalist Steve Amoia here.