When the 22-year-old Javier Zanetti joined FC Internazionale Milano in 1995 from CA Banfield not many people could have predicted just what the Argentinian right-back would come to mean to the famous Italian club. Many great footballers have worn the Nerazzurri shirt in the 12 seasons since but after thousands of runs on the right flank and more than 500 games, Zanetti is still 'la bandiera' - the symbol - of the Inter side. The club captain is on the verge of reaching another prestigious landmark when Inter take on Sporting Clube de Portugal on Wednesday, as he currently stands on 99 European appearances for the Milan side.
"Inter means a lot to me," Zanetti, now 33, told uefa.com. "It was the first team to open the doors of European football. I was very young when I came here and I think not many teams could have had so much faith and patience with a boy in his early 20s from the very first day like Inter did with me. I will always be grateful for that. For some reason
I have always felt at home here at Inter and this is why I have never thought of leaving.
Zanetti's longevity at Inter is even more remarkable given the club's reputation in the transfer market. Seeing so many players come and go down the years can only have added to a sense of achievement. "Looking back at the years I have spent at Inter I feel very proud," Zanetti continued. "Playing for so long for a club with such a big tradition, so prestigious and known all over the world is a good reason for being proud, I think." His greatest memory of all? "The UEFA Cup final in 1998 in Paris. We won the trophy and I also scored a great goal. I will never forget that night."
Goal wait ends
Goals are not Zanetti's speciality, so when he does score it is something to remember. When he opened the scoring in the 2-0 defeat of Ascoli Calcio 1898 earlier this month, it was his first goal in four years. "I had been waiting for long time for a goal and finally I scored in a game that was not very easy for us as we were struggling to break the deadlock," he said. "I was very happy because I have gone close to scoring so many times in recent years."
A bit like Inter and the Scudetto in Zanetti's spell, a wait that ended with Juventus's disqualification last summer. Things are going well for the Nerazzurri. They are level on points with US Città di Palermo at the top of Serie A and a victory against Sporting at the Giuseppe Meazza would mean qualification for the UEFA Champions League knockout stage despite a poor start in the competition with two defeats in the first two Group B games. The Nerazzurri have won their last six games in all competitions, a record under Roberto Mancini.
"It's a great time for us and we are obviously very happy but we also know that we have to continue like this for a long time because we haven't achieved anything yet," Zanetti explained. "We are a very good side, with several different options in every positions and extremely strong in every sector of the pitch. I think this is the main strength of our team this season even if I cannot say if this is the best Inter side I have played for, because we have had other strong teams in the past."
Mancini has often used Zanetti further forward this season and he is enjoying the change. "I played in midfield several times in the past, especially with the Argentinian national team, and I knew I could cover that role," Zanetti said. "If the coach needs me in midfield, I don't have any problem playing there." Maintaining such a high level of performance for a decade makes his versatility even more impressive. "I always try to give my best and be useful to the team. And I take training very seriously every day. For me, however, it's a big advantage to play at a club like Inter. I have always felt the trust of everyone here and under those circumstances everything becomes much easier."
Giacinto Facchetti played a major part in eliciting such strong loyalty to the club and the former captain and president has been sorely missed since he passed away in September. Inter have not won the European Champion Clubs' Cup since Facchetti lifted the trophy in 1965. Should they succeed this season there is no doubt who the triumph would be dedicated to. "Winning trophies this year would be special especially to honour the memory of Giacinto and for his family," Zanetti said. "The whole club deserve to win trophies because everyone has been waiting for a long time, working always with great professionalism and never using excuses when we failed to achieve the results we wanted to achieve." Zanetti's performances ensure he rarely needs excuses.
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