Massimo Moratti spent 18 years as the owner and president of Inter Milan, yet almost without dispute, it is the very first signing he made that will go down as his best.
Over his career, Moratti spent hundreds of millions of lire (and later euros) on the likes of Ronaldo, Christian Vieri, Hernan Crespo and Francesco Toldo—yet his first signing did not quite hint at the extravagant spending to come.
Javier Adelmar Zanetti was a promising 21-year-old full-back when Moratti first laid eyes on him, while studying a tape recording of an Argentina Under-23 match—delivered to him so he could pass judgement on a forward, Ariel Ortega, who had been recommended to him as a good player to kick-start his intended Nerazzurri revolution.
"He [Zanetti] is the first player I saw and chose," Moratti recalled this year to Italian magazine Sette. "I had not even bought Inter when I received a video cassette so I could see Ortega, who didn't really impress me all that much.
"Instead, strangely I was enchanted by a full-back who did things I'd never seen before.”
Moratti could not possibly know that this all-action defender, physically still developing yet already mature enough to have rejected the overtures of Argentine giants Boca Juniors and River Plate to continue his education at mid-table Banfield, would go on to make over 600 Serie A appearances for the Nerazzurri.
Forty-three more (at the time of writing), and he will become the league's all-time record appearance-maker (1)—a stunning achievement for a player who was 22 before he even made his first competitive appearance in Italy.
“We signed him, he's still with us … and he will play a further four or five years,” Moratti added. “Only now have I've realised he comes from the planet Krypton."
Moratti is understandably, and justifiably, proud of his first signing. It shows a remarkable eye for talent to identify a player that would go on to become an all-time great for the club.
But there was another player who joined the Zanetti on that switch from Buenos Aires to Milan, being unveiled at Inter on the same day; June 5th, 1995.
The first acquisition was one for the ages—literally and figuratively. But what went wrong with Moratti’s second signing?
In a photograph taken at their joint unveiling, the two Argentine youngsters cut remarkably different figures. From the picture alone it is tempting to guess which player would go on to have the more successful career.
Standing to the right of Inter ambassador Giacinto Facchetti as he is presented to the press, Zanetti looks composed, assured—seemingly confident that, even in such unfamiliar surroundings, he truly belongs.
The man to Facchetti’s left, however, looks far less comfortable—perhaps overwhelmed as he gazes up at Facchetti’s impassive expression for something: for guidance, direction?
Yet it was arguably Sebastian Rambert who Facchetti, along with many of the members of the press, was there for.
It was Rambert, a striker, who came to Italy with the greater hype. Facchetti was an Inter club icon; he had even been a rampaging full-back like Zanetti in his time; yet it was Rambert who many now hoped would reach a similarly exalted level.
Six months younger than Zanetti, Sebastian Pascual Rambert’s goalscoring touch with Independiente had already earned him a handful of Argentina caps and goals (Zanetti had been given his Albiceleste debut after him in 1994)—and attracted Inter’s attentions in the process.
Identifying attack as an area that needed strengthening, Moratti had initially been interested in Eric Cantona, believing he could be lured from Manchester United after receiving a nine-month ban for kicking a fan in a match against Crystal Palace.
After signing Paul Ince from United, Moratti described it as his “goal” to add Cantona, but Sir Alex Ferguson had different ideas.
“We know it will be difficult for [Cantona] to return to normal football in this country but we think it is possible,” Ferguson said in April 1995. “I’ve said all along we want him to stay, and together we can work it out.”
With Cantona, who had tentative talks with the Italian club, ultimately deciding to stay at Old Trafford, Inter reluctantly turned their attentions elsewhere, and their eyes soon fell on Rambert.
Rambert already had a tenuous link with Cantona—his father, Angel Rambert, had played for many years in France with Olympique Lyonnais and, having become naturalised, even received a cap for Les Bleus 25 years before Cantona would make his international bow.
The family having returned to their homeland following the father’s retirement, Rambert Jr. soon carved out a reputation for himself in Argentina, helped in no small part by a clever goal away to Boca Juniors that helped Independiente seal the Clausura (the Argentine year is split into two seasons, the Clausura is the second half) in 1994.
His trademark celebration, arms spread as he wheeled away towards the corner flag, had earned him a nickname, “L’Avioncito” (“the little airplane”), a key status symbol for any young South American player.
Inter, impressed by what they had seen and perhaps convinced by his burgeoning reputation, soon expressed their interest in signing this young star.
Their interest in Rambert was in the public domain, but the deal was not struck before another Argentine was acquired. With rumours swirling around Rambert and Ortega, Zanetti was caught out to hear that the prestigious Italian club actually wanted him too—and, perhaps caught up in that surprise, negotiations proved remarkably straightforward.
Zanetti signed on the dotted line, then Rambert followed.
"Sometimes it's difficult to know when chances will be there, so you have to take the chance," Rambert subsequently said in one of his final television interviews before heading for Italy.
"It's a big step in my life, in football as well as outside of my profession. The press is more expectant, and the football is the most competitive."
In between the two deals, however, Inter’s new hierarchy received some criticism. The move for the relatively unknown full-back had not impressed the Inter fans, wondering where it fitted in with Moratti’s elaborate promises of heavy spending upon taking control of the club.
Rambert, similarly unseen by many but well regarded on the grapevine, escaped much of the criticism that soon came Zanetti’s way. The youngster had recently lost his place in the national team due to a dip in form, but this was not seen as the cause for concern that hindsight perhaps makes it.
In his 2009 autobiography, Captain and a Gentleman, Zanetti writes:
Inter did not buy us [Zanetti and Rambert] as a couple, but at different times. He came after me. This may seem like a trivial thing, but for me it is very important.
Many critics and fans, when they heard my name twisted their nose. "What? Moratti wants Inter to return to the glories of the past and he appears with Zanetti?"
They did not have much to go on: after all, I was a little-known player, one that, as they say in Milan, still had many michette [a Milanese bread roll] to eat before becoming a player at the highest level.
In Ince and Roberto Carlos—both signed the same summer—Moratti subsequently assuaged the fans and convinced them of his ambition; Ince was well regarded as the heart of a successful Manchester United team (but was dispensable due to the rapid emergence of the likes of Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt), while Carlos was already a full Brazil international and had only narrowly missed out on inclusion in the successful 1994 World Cup squad.
The signings had created a problem, however. At the time, only three non-Italian players were allowed to be named in a matchday squad—with their summer business, Inter had just acquired four.
Someone would have to miss out.
DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES
Initially, Zanetti (and most outside the club) assumed he would be the one to step aside—expecting either to be loaned out to another Italian side, or perhaps even forgotten entirely.
As Zanetti recalled:
One would have thought that I would be lent to some other team to 'make my bones,' as they say. Of the rest, my name was the least high-sounding.
Rambert had been much promoted in papers and on television they continued to show his famous goal in the Argentine championship.
Roberto Carlos, although little known to the general public, was one of the most promising youngsters in the world of football (and he would keep those promises in the future!); Ince was known by all for his time at Manchester United.
Zanetti? A complete unknown.
Ince, the most expensive acquisition by some margin at over £9m, was always going to play—while two goals in his opening two Serie A games left no-one in any doubt about Roberto Carlos’ ability and standing (in fact, Real Madrid would swoop in for him at the end of the campaign).
That left one remaining space for the two Argentines to fight for.
Rambert, however, had joined the club while sidelined with a knee problem—although one not serious enough to prevent him passing a medical at Inter—that had initially seen him return home for a month of treatment and recuperation.
"You never know when you can get injured, which is why I'm moving now [anyway]," Rambert noted briskly in an interview before his transfer was finalised. "I will have to speak about my role in the team but if I can’t play for Inter, I'm sure I can go to another foreign team [on loan]."
As the knee problem failed to heal properly before the start of the season, Zanetti was handed the third non-EU berth almost by default.
“Despite everything, I remained. And I played,” Zanetti noted. “The club immediately said flatly that it had no intention to 'turn' my card to another team. They believed in me and my potential.”
That left Rambert on the outside once fit again, fighting not just the likes of Marco Branca and Maurizio Ganz in his bid to get a game, but also his own physical problems and restrictive Serie A regulations (2).
Hardly helping the acclimatisation process for either player was the managerial situation. The Argentine duo arrived to work under the experienced Ottavio Bianchi but, despite Carlos’ scoring the only goal in an opening day victory over Vicenza, the Italian was sacked three games later following an away defeat to Napoli, his old club.
The great Luis Suarez briefly stepped in as temporary manager, before Englishman Roy Hodgson, who had received widespread credit for his work with the Switzerland national team, was appointed.
Speaking in 2011, Hodgson—somewhat inaccurately, perhaps having given the situation little thought in a while—described his first awareness of Zanetti the player as him having been “something of a makeweight” in the deal for Rambert.
Yet, soon deeming Rambert to be somewhat “overrated”, it was Zanetti who continued to progress in the first team under Hodgson, quickly earning the moniker “El Tractor” for the alacrity with which he covered ground.
Left on the outside looking in, Rambert was not helped by the fact his knee problem never seemed to fully clear, ending any real hope he had of impressing in training.
Isolated at the club's training centre, he was also somewhat lonely away from the club—always extremely close to his mother (who had even negotiated his Inter contract) after his father died in 1983, when Rambert was just nine, he had nevertheless travelled to Europe alone.
The adjustment was tough. Rambert told El Grafico in a 2008 interview:
"[My father] played eleven years in France, he could have been a great advisor to me.
"I owe almost all of my career to my mother, Norma. She has been an unconditional supporter of me all along, something you need in football. At home I was surrounded by women, because I have two sisters much older than me.
"[But] I had to live alone when I went to play in Italy. And there I learned to make decisions and be more independent."
Rambert eventually returned to fitness, but by then Hodgson was settled in his starting selections. Having not even played a minute for the Nerazzurri, a loan move midway through the season to Real Zaragoza—where it was hoped the climate and culture might appeal more to him—was soon agreed (3).
The door was left open to the striker's return but, when Nwankwo Kanu and Ivan Zamorano were signed by Inter in the summer, he was suddenly yesterday's man. The next summer, as Moratti's ambitions kicked into overdrive, Ronaldo and Alvaro Recoba were acquired, and Rambert—who had now returned to Argentina—was soon just just a fading memory.
While physical injury set Rambert back, and the league regulations did not help, 15 years later Zanetti seemed to believe it was in their mental approach where the two players differed, and that is what explains why their paths diverged so dramatically.
Going from Independiente, where everything was familiar and he was adored and encouraged, to Inter, where nothing was quite the same and yet he was expected to prove his worth almost immediately, Rambert floundered.
“My compatriot Rambert, who arrived with so much expectations, failed to withstand the pressure and after a couple of months left Milan,” Zanetti concluded. “For a striker, it is always difficult to establish himself in Serie A, especially if he is very young.
“Among other things, l’Avioncito had several physical problems that certainly shaped him a lot.”
Perhaps, however, his compatriot just was not the type of player to impose himself in such situations. In that era, a time before clubs woke up to the difficulties new signings faced and dedicated funds to helping players adjust to the club and city (helping them with accommodation, cars, language tutors and even basics like paying bills), Rambert's introspective nature was always less likely to help him assert himself than Zanetti's more bullish confidence.
"There is nothing worse than trying to prove that one knows a lot," Rambert told El Grafico, a window into his personality. "Ask anyone other than my close friends and they'll tell you I'm very reserved."
He added: "When Inter bought me, I was injured. But beyond that, the problem was they could only play three foreigners. It was very difficult to get in the team.
"It was hard, as a player, to understand that you do not fit in."
Despite his compatriot being somewhat reclusive, Zanetti nevertheless described Rambert’s departure as a “hard blow”, as he lost his most obvious ally in the dressing room and around Milan. But it did not seem to have harmed his progression too much; within four years he was named club captain—a responsibility he has held ever since.
Rambert, in contrast, seemed destined to continue to search for a similar level of stability he would be cursed never to find.
FAMILIAR FACES AND NEW CHALLENGES
While Zanetti remains exactly where he was in 1995—looking physically almost identical too, perhaps the one thing that separates him from the similarly evergreen Ryan Giggs (4)—Rambert’s career has been more nomadic.
By 1999, when Zanetti was made Inter captain (earning himself a shiny new nickname, “Il Capitano”), Rambert had already completed his loan spell at Real Zaragoza, returned to Argentina on a permanent basis with Boca Juniors (5) and, in 1997, completed a switch to arch-rivals River Plate—flattering to deceive at both famous Buenos Aires clubs.
By 2006, when Zanetti lifted his first Serie A title, Rambert had already been retired from football—having left River Plate in 2000 to return to Independiente, before trying to make it in Europe again with only a marginally more successful spell with Greek side Iraklis.
Not signed on for another campaign, and having been unable to secure a contract at Craig Levein's Hearts after a trial due to the club's financial restrictions (6), Rambert returned to Argentina in 2002 with Arsenal di Sarandi, where he would soon tear an anterior cruciate ligament.
Rather than recover at the club's expense, Rambert chose to retire.
"Having spent over a year standing still, it seems a long way back to playing football," Rambert said, when announcing his retirement. "To go through it again knowing that my knee is not right and I can suffer worse [injury] does not make sense."
The peak of Zanetti’s club career came eight years later, in 2010, at the Santiago Bernabeu, where he sat at the base of midfield (a new role, one fashioned partly by age and partly by the suspension of Thiago Motta) and marshalled the game as Diego Milito shot the club to Champions League glory.
That same year he was being controversially omitted from his second World Cup (he suffered the same shock in 2006, having represented Argentina in 1998 and 2002).
Rambert, meanwhile, was already moving into coaching—assisting the great Ramon Diaz (who he had played under at River Plate, and who was actually the last Argentine playing success story at Inter prior to Zanetti's arrival) at both San Lorenzo and Club America.
In April, when Zanetti tore his Achilles tendon, many expected the 39-year-old to retire. Instead, he committed to the arduous rehabilitation process and made his return to the first team—after his 40th birthday in August—at the start of November, before expressing his desire to play on until he is 42.
In the same month Zanetti went down injured, remarkably, Rambert had taken his first managerial job—claiming the reins at Nacional B side Aldosivi.
"I am happy to start work at this club that has grown in recent times,” Rambert, known in the Argentine press as “Pascualito”, said in a statement. “I hope to accompany that growth. Dream big.”
He added his hopes to play attractive football, albeit underpinned on a defensive excellence: "The goal is always to win. I have hopes about achievements, but it would be irresponsible of me to guarantee success. The desire to be offensive exists, although any team needs to defend well not to be exposed when attacking.”
Rambert’s fledgling managerial career began with a victory, but an overhaul of the squad in the summer—14 new players arrived—seemed to disrupt the team’s rhythm, with results taking such a downturn that, by September, Rambert was promising to leave if the club did not beat Brown de Adrogue, having picked up just three points from the opening six games of the season.
The Sharks drew, and Rambert was as good as his word.
A month later, Zanetti returned to action for Inter. But what the future holds for 39-year-old Rambert remains uncertain.
"I’d like to manage in Europe and the Argentina national team," Rambert suggested in one interview, while at Aldovisi—perhaps inspired by memories of what might have been. But those now look like distant ambitions.
Of Inter’s two Argentine signings in 1995, one is still playing. Yet the other might have already sped to the conclusion of two careers—as a player and a manager.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
"My best memories are of Independiente," Rambert told El Grafico, "because I trained at the club I loved. I won the title... today I realise how hard it is to get something [like that], and I did it very young."
As he subsequently added at his retirement: "I’ve been thinking about it, in my head, for a while. For a long time I haven't enjoyed continuing playing... the word 'work' ruins it all."
During his spell with Zaragoza, almost by default his most successful period in Europe, Rambert showed glimpses of his goalscoring touch—even netting twice on his debut, a 5-3 win against Valladolid.
This sparked a run of three goals in just five games—one of them a smart finish from close range against Real Madrid.
Within a few years, Madrid would embark on a policy of buying “Galacticos” to stock their illustrious side, complemented by youth products where necessary. It was initially known as the “Zidanes y Pavones” policy, after world record signing Zinedine Zidane and Valdebebas trainee Francisco Pavon.
In opposition Rambert, whose rate of return declined the longer his Zaragoza stay continued (7), unintentionally illustrated the inherently hit-and-miss nature of the transfer market. As Zanetti’s career, like his playing style, continued to move forward inexorably, Rambert’s was only continuing to fade, to crumble like his unreliable knee.
They came from the same country. At the same time. Under the same circumstances.
Yet one has played over 800 games in all competitions for Inter, staying for 18 years and counting. The other barely lasted six months and did not even play a minute.
“Zidanes y Pavones." Not every player can be a star.
“Zanettis e Ramberts."
Not every signing can be a successful one.
Additional research: Karl Matchett
1 Overtaking AC Milan's Paolo Maldini, who made his club debut at 16 and retired just shy of his 41st birthday—an indication of both Zanetti's longevity and his remarkable fitness record.
2 Serie A regulations on the matter have been relaxed (and tightened) on more than one occasion. By the summer of 1996, following the Bosman ruling, they were (for a time) effectively quashed. It is also perhaps interesting to note that had Rambert's father played in Italy rather than France, he may have qualified for Italian citizenship and circumvented the quota issue entirely.
3 Inter reportedly offered Rambert's loan services to French club FC Metz, as a sweetener in their pursuit of a young attacking midfielder at the club by the name of Robert Pires. But Metz were seemingly more interested in Zanetti, and Pires eventually moved to Marseille for £5 million in 1998.
5 Rambert played in one of Diego Maradona's final games for Boca in 1997, scoring the opener in a 3-2 win over Racing Club. "He gave me a lesson in greatness," Rambert later said.
6 "He did well in training and it is obvious he can play a bit," Levein said in 2002, having taken Rambert on trial. "His pedigree is excellent, you only have to look at the clubs he has been with. But he is more of a striker and we are looking to strengthen midfield. If we had plenty of money I would have gone for him but we don't so I have to look elsewhere."
7 This could, in fact, be said of almost every spell of his playing career—bar Independiente, whom he perhaps left too soon, and Inter, where he did not get a chance.