Before the final against Bayern Munich was even over, Zanetti looked over to his team-mate Walter Samuel, according to sempreinter.com, and began to cry. “Before the match I realized that I hardly was going to play any more matches like that,” he said.
After winning the Champions League, per inter.it, Zanetti took the big trophy to the dressing room and started talking to it, professing out loud that he had chased her and suffered for her, and that he would never let her go.
Now, at 40 years of age, he is ready to retire. The great Inter captain Giuseppe Bergomi seriously believed that Zanetti could play until he was 45.
Even now, in an interview with La Nacion, as translated by the journalist Steve Amoia, Zanetti could not really believe all he had done. No foreigner has played more games in Serie A and only Paolo Maldini has featured in more matches in the Italian league. Zanetti has served as captain Inter for 15 years. He never won a World Cup with Argentina, but he holds the country's appearance record.
There were consecutive years in which Zanetti did not win anything. There were also times when he could not stop playing: between 2006 and 2010, he played in 137 straight games—another club record.
Longevity is the defining trait of his career, and he bows out with 1,100 professional games under his belt. When he suffered an Achilles injury last April, Zanetti vowed not to quit—he would not let an injury end his career. He was backing playing six months later. He has done it on his terms, even though he has only played 11 times in this final season.
Inter honoured his wishes as well. They did not pressure him to retire. Months before he made the decision, per Goal.com, Inter’s owner Erick Thohir had already discussed Zanetti’s future with the team. Zanetti already has a desk and office ready for him, and he will become a sporting director. He will have to learn better English and take some management courses, but Inter did not deny him the opportunity to make the transition right away.
The move is unlike the way in which other rival clubs have treated their icons. Milan still choose to keep Maldini out of the club, and he is just waiting for the call, per Forza Italian Football. Alessandro Del Piero could not even retire with Juventus. Inter afforded Zanetti the respect he deserved.
And he has earned it. Hard work was everything, with coaches back in Argentina, per The Malta Independent, telling him as a kid that he was too weak to make it.
He has built everything from scratch, quite literally what his father did. Zanetti’s dad was a bricklayer, and his son would help him. Zanetti carried sacks of cement on the construction sites and delivered milk early in the morning.
His mother also left an impression on him. She cleaned houses and would leave early, only to see her son late at night. When he could not buy boots, according to sempreinter.com, she would sew him a pair. His famous swept hairstyle was first combed into place by his mother. Zanetti kept the look, which has stayed unchanged for years.
While doing the research to write the autobiography, Giocare da uomo, the journalist Gianni Riotta and Zanetti travelled back to Argentina, back to Dock Sud: “One of the most dangerous areas in all of South America,” said Riotta, per inter.it. “We were advised not to go too far, but it didn't matter to him. And they were all grateful to him there, they were hanging out of buses and lorries, it was a very emotional experience.” Zanetti never forgot where he came from.
Zanetti was always determined. We remember him as the composed elder statesman of the game, but he would get angry. “More times than people would imagine,” he told La Nacion (h/t soccertranslator.com). He fought for this career. He came to love football and it was not just a means for income.
When he initially signed for Inter, nobody knew who he was. Not even the gatekeeper. He told UEFA.com about the early trials, leaving his wife behind after making the move to Italy, talking on the phone with her for hours. “The problem was for the other people waiting to use the payphone,” Zanetti said. “Imagine the things they'd have been saying.”
Massimo Moratti had just started as the president of Inter in 1995. He was actually scouting another player from Argentina, but it was Zanetti making the impressive runs up and down the field. Zanetti was the first signing Moratti made.
Think about that: the legend began from chance.
Zanetti also had a tough choice picking out his first club car. He was afraid to drive a BMW because he did not want to seem too imperious. The car, Zanetti said, was in fact the ugliest in the parking lot.
He never gave up that humility. “If it were up to him,” writes Martin Mazur of UEFA.com, “he would still carry his boots in a plastic bag.” He famously went for a run just before his wedding, showing up at Argentina's training camp that morning. “My team-mates at Inter mock me when we are training,” Zanetti said. “ ‘Stop running, let us win for a change,’ they joke.” He went to train in the holidays, when nobody else was around.
Fitness was the reason for his success, and what made him one of the most consistent players of his generation—a force at both right-back and in midfield, who played with speed and great positioning.
Over the years, several clubs tempted him with offers—Real Madrid and, most recently, Chelsea. He never wanted to leave. That he ended up winning the object of his desire later in his career was justification enough.
It was a dream for him to play that first game in San Siro, and it was his dream to finish his career with Inter. He has realised both.