Monday, 12 December 2011


When mulling over potential candidates for the defence of a World XI, there are a few obvious places to start. Principally: Italy, and that fascination with the aesthetics of the 1-0 victory; the 1970s, when barbarism by and large bested beauty; the Defenders section in B&Q, maybe; and the ‘Southern Cone’ of South America, spiritual home of the escalation of cynical fouls into all-out brawls (see Rattin, Antonio) as well as the provenance of a certain Helenio Herrera, legendary manager of La Grande Inter and architect of ‘Italian’ catenaccio.  

Why is this? Why are Argentina and Uruguay, in particular, renowned for their adherence to rugged defensive zeal? Well, in a word, Italy. For it was from Italy that the largest influx of wide-eyed, opportunity-seeking, nation-building immigrants arrived, more even than from the motherland, Spain (in Argentina, the peak years were 1880 to 1914, during which time over two million disembarked from Italy and around 20% of Buenos Aires population were Italian immigrants). This transposition of Italian culture brought with it not only the anarchist ideologies that engulfed Buenos Aires in 1919’s semana trágica (a two-day general strike set upon by the police, leaving 700 dead, 4,000 injured, and 55,000 in prison); not only the speech patterns that merged with Spanish to form the lunfardo pidgin of proletarian Buenos Aires, and thus of so many tango ballads; but also an inherent defensive know-how and gusto, an appetite and aptitude for violence not so readily embraced in Iberia. And so it is that today the names of many of Argentina’s greatest defenders – and defensive midfielders, like Mascherano, Cambiasso, Giusti – express this Italian heritage: Daniel Passarella, Oscar Ruggeri, Alberto Tarantini, Néstor Sensini, and Javier Zanetti… 

Perhaps appositely for a man with a name that sounds like a washing machine company, Zanetti possesses the clean cut, clean shaven, square-jawed, precisely coiffeured look of some gallant 1930s throwback, a countenance seemingly lifted straight from a set of chromolithographic cigarette cards perhaps entitled Los héroes del tango (Heroes of Tango) – one of those kitschy, over-coloured images that you’d find in the locket of a pious old widow who had lost her husband forty years earlier in some pointless war and never gotten over it. For if ever there was a saintly football player, it was Javier Adelmar Zanetti: the very model of uncomplaining duty, a beacon of honest, virtuous endeavour. To see him playing for Inter or Argentina, putting out fires here, there and everywhere, you half expect him to nip into a phone booth and emerge with cape and the power of flight – not that he needed it. 

Notwithstanding his increasingly frequent auxiliary midfieldery, Zanetti is, to the core, a defender’s defender: there’s no jockey, block, block-off, block-tackle, slide tackle or header, no marking job or last-ditch clearance that is not carried out with diligence, courage, and a preternatural relish – a leader, yes, but by deed, not word; he is incredibly taciturn on the field, his expression scarcely anything other than one of engrossed concentration, a concentration as relentless as his industriousness. He just keeps going and going and going – so much a byword for stamina that his nickname in Italy is Il trattore (‘The Tractor’), thighs curved like some improbable stringed instrument of the Carpathians, driving and pumping until his opponent yields, whereupon, having dispossessed him, efficiently and without fuss, the ball is laid off to a creative player (or else, if playing as a carillero – the wide man in a narrow, Italian-style midfield – he might surge forward himself. Why not…?). 

Nothing better encapsulates Zanetti’s diligence and all-round fastidiousness than his hair, the very epitome of rectitude and the embodiment – if you will indulge a tangential hypothesis – of one of The Two Poles of Argentine Footballers’ Hair, themselves expressive of the two increasingly polarised and murderous political wings of an Argentine society that, by 1973, the year of Jay-Z’s birth, were in open warfare. On the one hand, there were leftist guerrillas of Peronist or Trotskyist persuasion; on the other, para-legal, state-sponsored death squads (such as the Triple ‘A’: the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance) that were paranoiacally ‘disappearing’ suspected ‘subversives’ at a rate of fifty per week: irreconcilable forces locked in the delirious death-spiral of the so-called ‘Dirty War’, bloody backdrop to Argentina’s dubiously won World Cup. (And it is doubtless photos of young men like Zanetti who would be borne in the lockets of the ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’, still congregating in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo each Sunday, demanding the State account for their lost kin.) 

To simplify somewhat, the first of these two poles is rigidly reactionary, ultra-Catholic, hierarchical and submissive, obsessed by order and expressed in footballing hair terms by the likes of Diego Simeone, Javier Saviola, Leo Messi and, especially, Zanetti. Such a rabidly conservative outlook was nowhere more evident than in the captain of that 1978 World Cup-winning side, the aforementioned Daniel Passerella, a strutting, bristling martinet of a man whose time as coach of the national team twenty years later was famously marred by a stand-off with players over the length of their hair and his prohibition of such degenerate fripperies as earrings (and we think Fabio is a disciplinarian!). At the other end of the psycho-political hair continuum, where the imagination frees itself from passivity and reflex subjugation, is a radical, liberal, progressive, maverick strain, tendencies underpinning the footballing ethos known as Menottismo (antithetical to the win-at-all costs approach of Bilardismo), which advocated both all-out attacking play and the formation of armed underground cadres, or Comandos, supported by a mass front of activists and saboteurs… Anyway, this second pole was expressed in Argentine football hair terms by…well, by pretty much everyone in the poodle-rock years of the mid-1980s, but during the Passarella era by Claudio Caniggia and Fernando Redondo in particular, their refusal to undergo a compulsory ‘rug rethink’ costing them both a place at the 1998 World Cup. 

Now, Zanetti has always been of immaculate coiffeuse, maybe in itself an index of his general compliance and pliability as a man (a pliability reflected in his versatility as a player, perhaps). Far from the virtuous 30s throwback, then, he is perhaps in fact a dutiful pawn for the capricious, tyrannical impulses of some authoritarian Gaffer or other, an uncomplaining, silent killer. “Boss, I don’t like having to cut off his head, but if that is your desire…” Listen closely to the cold-blooded automaton speaking in 2008: “My hair is very important to me. I want my hair to be in order – and that goes for when I am on the pitch as well. Even if we are playing in a storm. Even if I am running through gusts of wind. Everyone, from my wife to my team-mates, ask me how I manage to get through all the games with my hair in perfect order. The truth is that I care about my head. I spend some time in front of the mirror every morning but, I swear, I only use water. I don’t use gel and I don’t use any cream. It is a question of my image, yes, but also a question of character. If there is a strand of hair out of place then I don’t feel good. Yes, I admit, it is an obsession. One thing I can’t stand is when people put their fingers through my hair. I can’t stand it. Not even when my wife does it.” 

This unconscious hankering after order – to the point that its absence produces physiological effects: crawling skin – often betrays a right-wing sensibility (think of the army or the church, based as they are on stringently codified behaviours and comportment, the ‘right’ way to think, feel, move, desire). So then, is Zanetti, the tireless and hyper-disciplined team man, actually something of a paradox? Can someone so punctilious with his hair really be the antithesis of the modern, pampered, preening footballer? Well, regardless of whether his concern with his parting denotes right- or left-wing tendencies – and as we’ve seen, the supremely versatile Zanetti is equally adept at both full-back positions or on either side of midfield – the unobtrusive, can-do, workaholic attitude made him the manager’s dream and a bona fide legend for the Inter support. 

What a career it has been. Just as his hair hasn’t changed since 1995, neither has his club. He is as devoted as he is devout (he persuaded Wesley Sneijder to convert to Catholicism and is a formidable worker for charity), and while being thoroughly sensible and injury-free are the two traits at the heart of his remarkable longevity, those alone cannot account for a career comprising over one thousand professional matches, three-quarters of which have been in the famous nerazzurri livery. So long has he been there, in fact, that he has gone through 18 coaches en route to winning 16 trophies – no less than 15 of those as captain (three more than the number of league goals he’s scored, incidentally), having taken over the armband from Giuseppe Bergomi in 1999, the man whose record number of Inter appearances he would also go on to break. Indeed, among outfield players, only Paolo Maldini and Pietro Vierchowod have ever played more Serie A games than Zanetti. 

Of course, his medal haul owes a great deal to the calciopoli scandal, which opened the way for Inter to lord it over Italian football, but it took the arrival of José Mourinho – for whom the obedient, disciplined Argentine must have been the ideal player – to bring about the undisputed zenith of his club career: hoisting aloft the European Cup in his 700th match for the club, restoring some battered black-and-blue pride by returning that famous trophy to the black-and-blue side of the San Siro for the first time in 45 years (during which time flatmates AC Milan had won it no less than 6 times). 

In addition to this stellar club career, the curtain of which is not set to come down until at least the end of next season, there has been an equally illustrious stint in international football and, unsurprisingly, Zanetti is the most capped player in Argentine football history, donning that famous albiceleste shirt no fewer than 145 times, scoring just the 5 goals, including quite a famous one in Saint Etienne in 1998… There would no doubt have been more caps still had he not endured an enforced 14-month sabbatical under José Pekerman that kept him out of the 2006 World Cup, much as Maradona would eschew his and his Inter compadre Esteban Cambiasso’s services in 2010. Absurdly, the game of Beckham’s redemptive penalty in Sapporo was his last-but-one World Cup outing for Argentina, about which there has been scarcely a peep from this unassuming, dignified colossus of the game. 

Zanetti: the appliance of science. Testimony to clean living. Just don’t ruffle his hair…

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