Javier Zanetti: Ascent of Soul

Srinwantu Dey writes on Javier Zanetti, humanity and life of a divine poet of the late Medieval period. The story traverses through the other life of Javier that often intersects with the lyrics of ‘Divine Comedy’.

Explaining Javier Zanetti requires a colossal effort. It is the life of a man, who came from a notorious harbour of Buenos Aires and went on to become a parable of Milan. Javier Zanetti doesn’t reflect the dazzling appearance of a diabolic guitarist; rather, he resembles a calm serene pianist. He is as soulful as Władysław Szpilman, as portrayed in Roman Polanski’s famous work, playing Chopin’s Ballade in G minor amidst an abandoned Nazi-infested city. Zanetti knows his keys and notes very well, but the omnipresent question remains unsolved—how much we know him? To know him, we must learn his philosophy, grace of character, and shades of life.

Milan was the Mecca of Futurist Movement in the 20th century and Javier Zanetti was the epitome of the anthem, “grande…tradizionale e futurista” (“grand…traditional and futuristic”). He personified surreal modesty, lyrical gamesmanship, and unrivalled credibility. For me, he is “grand”, “traditional”, yet “futuristic”. His political inclination and socialist activities are well known and often thought to be left-wing politics in disguise. However, as I have mentioned earlier, explaining Javier “Pupi” Zanetti is not so easy. His life and vision can only be compared to the vastness of an epic. He is a man of renaissance and his life simulates the depth of epic like Divina Commedia—the autobiographical allusion of Dante, the great Italian poet of the Middle Ages. The illustrious career of Zanetti that spanned over three decades saw different shades of life—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (Hell, Purification, and Heaven), as the poet illustrated. Dante’s Inferno is an allegorical work depicting his afterlife. Similarly, Zanetti’s life is also a story of travelling from rags to riches.

Figure 1: Zapatista rebels unveiling Zanetti's #4 shirt to show his support. Source: El Paso
Zapatista rebels unveiling Zanetti’s #4 shirt to show his support [Source: El Paso]

His vast life includes the glittering podium of Madrid as well as the rebellious lands of Chiapas, from the notorious Dock Sud district to the charity houses of Buenos Aires—truly a journey through the extremes of both the realms, hell and heaven. As Divine Comedy tells us, “Segui il tuo corso et lascia dir les genti (Follow your road and let the people say)”, Zanetti created his own legacy. For the Nerazzurri, their “Il Capitano” is more precious than Michelangelo’s last sculpture. The journey from Banfield to Inter was not easy; the journey from there to donning a club record of 815 caps was even more difficult. Inter was the love of his life, perhaps comparable to Dante’s love for Beatrice. Beatrice was Dante’s inspiration for his poetry, politics, and survival. Inter had similarities with Zanetti, who was not a born Interista, but described himself as half-Italian. Like the poet who fell in love at first sight at the age of nine, he donned the famous black and blue shirt in his early twenties and the imprint lasted forever—something that Italian literature celebrates as “Amore”.

Can we term him a communist? Considering his left-wing political leanings, the answer would probably be yes. His connection with the extreme left Zapatista Movement that fights for indigenous Mexican’s rights for their native land and resource is well known. The armed anti-globalization struggles for democracy on the valleys of Southern Mexico, surrounded by misty mountains and para-militants, drew the attention of multiple leftist groups. The state of indigenous people and their lack of resources moved Pupi intensely, and, being a politically conscious person, he was deeply involved with the crusade. He didn’t hesitate to participate actively, much like Dante. The latter’s life had been an intensely political one as well. He, being loyal to the Guelphs family, was involved in complex conflict with the Ghibellines, who were backed by the Great Roman Emperor—a situation that is very similar to the modern day left and right-wing conflicts.

Figure 2 Zanetti discussing with President Moratti [Source: L'Ultimo Uomo]
Zanetti discussing with President Moratti [Source: L’Ultimo Uomo]

Historically, Inter Milan was right-wing inclined and was then backed by Massimo Moratti’s oligarchy of oil money. It was really remarkable to convince such an establishment to support far left-wing activities in Mexico. Nerazzurri fans are often referred as “bauscia” (nouveau riche) as historically they have been composed mostly of upper-middle bourgeoisie people from Milanese societies. On the other hand, Milan fans are known as “casciavit” (screwdrivers) because of their proletarian origin. In Italy the difference is huge. Milanistas are mostly prone to support the Communist Party of Italy (PCI), a party that had once been outlawed by Mussolini in the pre-war era. Inter ultras are mostly dominated by far right-wing groups. Amidst this political conundrum, convincing the “bauscia” to support leftist ideologies was a herculean task. However, Javier Zanetti was a person from the future. He retained his smile, he retained his character, he retained his flat combed hairstyle that his mother introduced, and he listened to the 90s Argentine band Los Piojos or the soul music of blue musician Zucchero Fornaciari. Yet, he thought ahead of the modern society. When Moratti signed Zanetti and his Argentine compatriot, Independiente forward, Sebastián Rambert as his first two transfers, it was in the news that the Independiente star was far more talented than the quiet boy from Banfield. Not only Rambert, Zanetti had to fight with two other giant foreign recruits to earn his place—Roberto Carlos and Paul Ince (this was when the Italian league still had the policy of playing not more than three foreign players in the first eleven). Zanetti slowly and silently affirmed his credibility to play for 18 long years, while Rambert was loaned out without playing a single minute for Inter. Moratti and then captain Giuseppe Bergomi not only spotted the talent in this supremely gifted footballer, but also discovered an ambassador who wouldn’t give up his purity at any cost. He functioned silently, built the purest form of credibility, grew like a magnificent Centurion tree and became the biggest ambassador of Internazionale heritage and community. He changed their philosophy from inside. Inter ended up funding sports, water, and health projects in the area of operation in Chiapas to support the struggle of indigenous people.

Coming from a difficult childhood where he had to help his bricklayer father for a living and work as a milk delivery boy to support his wage-less stint for a local club, Pupi didn’t find it easy to cope with Massimo Moratti’s extraordinary expectation at the heart of the Milan city.

Zanetti, apart from being a proud Argentine, is a true Milanese—someone who savours traditional Milan cuisine, someone whose family religiously follows the Olimpia Milano basketball team, and someone who celebrates “Beneamata”[1] with fervour. In short, he is a true symbol of globalization. How is it, then, that he is a protagonist for an anti-globalization struggle? Well, Zanetti was never too fond of neo-globalization movements. His fondness towards Milanese culture was because of his loyalty to the Nerazzurri and due to inspiration from some special people around him. One of them was Giacinto Facchetti, who is referred as Captain of Captains at Inter and in Italy. Giacinto’s role in Pupi’s life was like a friend, philosopher, and guide in his “Inferno” state of life. Coming from a difficult childhood where he had to help his bricklayer father for a living and work as a milk delivery boy to support his wage-less stint for a local club, Pupi didn’t find it easy to cope with Massimo Moratti’s extraordinary expectation at the heart of the Milan city. Deep down his heart, he probably felt identified with the indigenous people who were waiting for a miracle. The miracle came as a gentle breeze while he was touring South Africa. Daniel Passarella himself knocked at his door with the news of Inter’s interest in him. His life changed from there, and then he met  Giacinto—one of Inter’s greatests. “Giacinto was a ‘hombre vertical’, as we say in Argentina”, he wrote in his autobiography, “a gentle giant who commanded respect”. Giacinto always used carry a diary where he had a quote of Leo Tolstoy written on the front page. The quote can be interpreted as: “The more we believe our existence depends solely on our actions, the more this becomes possible”. Pupi followed his ideology, and today his actions definitely speak for him. What Giacinto was to Pupi, the great scholar Brunetto Latini was to Dante. Giancinto’s influence on Zanetti can be explained appropriately by the verses of Inferno (Divine Comedy) where the poet hailed his guardian:

“A radiance among men and speaks with gratitude of that sweet image, gentle and paternal,
you were to me in the world when hour by hour
you taught me how man makes himself eternal”

Figure 3 Next Zanettis? Balaclava clad students from Inter Football campus of Chiapas. [Source: Inter.it]
Next Zanettis? Balaclava clad students from Inter Football campus of Chiapas. [Source: Inter.it]

Another person who inspired Pupi was his then-captain, Giuseppe “Beppe” Bergomi. Within a few days of joining Inter, Pupi participated in a charity program driven by his captain. He instantly understood that he was in the right place, with the right people, and with the right values to serve the people who need help. His encouragement for supporting the Guerrilla Revolution initially created much havoc among the right wing fans (created similar stir in the other half of Milan as well), but their beloved “Il Capitano”, the ambassador of the great game and humanity, convinced the fans with his immense integrity. Today, the fans are proud of these activities of the club. Calling Pupi a left-wing politician is an understatement and far from the fact. He led his life according to his own philosophy, and, for me, he was never a text-book communist. His Papal connection and affinity towards the Vatican City are well known. He was known for praying to Saint Rita in the hotel room before the Champions League final in Madrid. If you ask him about his idol footballer, he will probably mention Lothar Matthäus, not the Latin American legend and his fellow Argentine, Diego Maradona. He kept intact the old assurances of working class solidarity while being in a club mostly funded by conservative bourgeoisie society. He kept playing his piano, no matter how bad the fire was raging outside. Restricting Javier ‘Pupi’ Zanetti to just a “communist” is injustice, he stretches himself to the realm of “humanist”.

Today Inter runs a football campus in the villages of Chiapas, where more than a hundred Zapatista kids take education and football lessons. “There must always be values at the heart of sport, and this is what we have to teach children,” said Zanetti. Zanetti has great sportsman spirit, and is an eccentric loyalist, who takes his wife on his shoulder while enjoying a beach holiday to overcome the absence of a gymnasium. He never ditched Inter and kept his ideology upright even after situations like in the winter of 2000 when Inter fans threw a Molotov cocktail at the team bus before a Cup match against Parma, or in 2006 where he was punched by a few thug fans at Milan’s Malpensa airport after a shocking Champions League exit at Villarreal. He was a passive person, but fans loved him. They made a chant for him in his early days, which roughly translates to this: “Among the Nerazzurri there’s / A player that / Dribbles like Pelé / go Zanetti”

“Tra i Nerazzurri c’è
un giocatore che
dribbla come Pelé
daì Zanetti alè!”

Figure 4 The weeping beauty at Pupi's farewell match [Source: Daily Mail]
The weeping beauty at Pupi’s farewell match [Source: Daily Mail]

When Beppe Bergomi ended his glorious career in 1999, and senior goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca moved to Bologna, Zanetti was chosen to carry the flag and was given the captain’s arm-band. Till date, Zanetti remains their only foreign club captain apart from Inter’s first-ever captain Hernst Marktl (Swiss). Many thought he was not leader material. Initially, Laurent Blanc or Luigi Di Biagio played the role of the leader on the pitch. However, Pupi didn’t take much time to reincarnate as a real leader and that had been possible because his team mates had extraordinary faith in him. Iván Zamorano, Iván Córdoba, Esteban Cambiasso, Roberto Baggio, all were extremely close friends of Pupi and were inspired to contribute in multiple charitable works as well. Zanetti and his wife Paula founded the “Fundación PUPI” in 2001 to aid the deprived street children of Argentina. In his book, Capitano e Gentiluomo, he mentioned, “As soon as he saw us arriving, Martin shot up on his feet and started running madly. “Javier! Paula!” he shouted as he ran towards us, ready to embrace us. I was shocked and not for the immeasurable spontaneous love and affection but because up to a few months ago, Martin couldn’t speak; deaf and mute.” Zanetti, who is also a FIFA ambassador for the SOS Children’s Villages project in Argentina, established another charity organisation along with his Inter team mate Esteban Cambiasso called “Leoni di Potrero”, aimed at helping youngsters with social difficulties. The everlasting smile he has on his face embodies the satisfaction of humanist Javier Zanetti. He is a new age polymath, an exceptional Renaissance man who takes football surrealism beyond the degree of miracles. His honesty for his profession, his legacy, his unparalleled loyalty and, above all, his humanity eventually helped him to attain the Paradiso—where Dante allegorically travelled through the heaven guided by his love “Beatrice” to symbolize the ascent of soul.

“But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars”

There are very few characters in the football community who were applauded by opponent fans. Pupi is one among that rare breed. A family of Udinese fans once carried a banner with the line “Football without Zanetti is like the sun without stars. A bunch of Napoli fans once waved another banner saying Zanetti, you have entered in the history of our hearts. Zanetti’s career coincided with the increasing grip of commercialisation in football, and, especially, how the powers-that-be have capitalised on the advancements of globalisation. When he started his career in 1992, there was no Bosman Rule (or its implications for player-power), Rupert Murdoch was still flirting with the FA, the Champions League had only just evolved from the European Cup, and Nike were yet to involve themselves in the game. It’s safe to say football has changed before his eyes more radically in twenty years than it has done at any other point in its history. Throughout all this, however, the maestro has remained unchallenged like the “il Sommo Poeta” (“the Supreme Poet”) who witnessed the renaissance of mankind.

Explaining Javier Zanetti is a colossal task because the man himself imposes a colossal presence. His life is a learning curve, his acts are spreading love, and his immortal legacy will be there to inspire us, forever.


[1]: La Beneamata: the beloved one in Italy and another nickname for Internazionale

[2]: The quotes of Zanetti are taken from the translated version of his autobiography Giocare da uomo (Play like a man) and another version of biography ‘The Tractore (il Capitano)’.