The modern captain is much more than a leader of men. He has a responsibility to correspond to the public the general affairs of his players through weekly media interviews. He must tell the people what they want to hear, whether or not that is truth is trivial. In a sense, the modern captain is 50% inspirational talent and 50% politician.
This role was adopted and adapted by football’s perfect politician, Javier Zanetti. A model professional whose appreciation was not retained by Internazionale fans alone; indeed, he has spoken of the ‘buzz’ it would give him to be applauded by opposition ultras (A family of Udinese supporters produced a banner for Zanetti that read “football without Zanetti is like the sun without stars“). A level of neutrality, an appeal to all and a representation of what is ‘right’ is arguably essential to be successful in politics, with a strong backbone to identify and condemn groundless behaviour. In April 2010 Zanetti had to overcome euphoria after defeating FC Barcelona 3-1 to condone Mario Balotelli’s full-time tantrum
“[I am] disappointed that a celebration was ruined with something like this. If the fans whistle at him he’s got to understand that it could depend on a lot of different things. We’ve always stood by him.”
The fans and the public always come first, especially against an imagined scapegoat. Zanetti is the ideal symbolism for his fans. ‘Half-Italian’ as he describes himself, Javier owns two Milanese restaurants and is the idol of that great Italian figure, The Pope (perhaps because he converted Wesley Sneijder to Catholicism). But what in particular does this politician stand for?
Franklin Foer talks of his visit to Milan in his book – How Football Explains the World. One starry night he was taken to a bohemian, leftist culture club called Comuna Baires. Here, as he explains, sections of Inter’s inner-core host literary evenings with the teams foreign players. The following passage of Foer’s book is a gorgeous tribute to continental fandom (you should definitely invest in this, if you haven’t already) which inadvertently offers a real insight to Javier;
Tommaso whispered to me, “I have to warn you. These people really are communists.” We walked out and he nudged me, nodding towards a framed picture of Che Guevara that stared at us from a wooden beam. The reading had been organised in the round and a row of men and women in tiny spectacles surrounded Zanetti…The theatre’s director emceed the evening. He praised the club for its “anti-Bush”, “Anti-Berlusconi”, “Anti-American” worldview. To justify this claim he cited the club’s long record of falling short of winning championships. In contrast to the ethic of American capitalism, Inter fans know that “things are more important than winning.” A parade of journalists and poets followed him to the mic, each paying tribute to Inter and Zanetti…Between speakers, the director handed Zanetti oil paintings that had been created in his honour.
Zanetti is not a communist. Is he a socialist? Probably not. What Foer provides is an insight into his early politics. To appease the complex thinking of the Inter ultras he was seen to empathise and be showered with praise and paintings from these intellectuals. What is poignant however is the “Anti-America” stance shown by the Inter supporters. Zanetti, when he supported the Zapatista’s in 2004, sympathised with their ethos.
The Zapatista Army of National Liberation have been around since 1994 but it wasn’t until Zanetti pledged his allegiance to their cause that I’d heard of them. In 2001 the Easton Cowboys, a team that prides itself on sending amateur players to troubled communities, toured Mexico and visited the Zapatista’s to play a match, fielding an soon-to-be famous Banksy in goal who, whilst there, painted some social activism. The Zapatista’s alignment to football is understandable considering the wealth attached to the game. In Zanetti they found an ally. He drove Inter to donate money from fines and funded an ambulance, alongside pledging money for water and donating a #4 match shirt.
The Zapata’s believe that globalization has negatively affected the lives of indigenous Mexican’s and are fighting a non-violent war against the Mexican state. They’re undoubtedly socialist. If we think back to Zanetti sitting quietly and listening to the Inter Marxist’s we can excuse him from being one of them, he was just being a good modern captain. For him to answer the calls of the Zapatista plea goes well beyond his duties and demonstrates fidelity to anti-globalisation.
“We believe in a better world, in an unglobalised world, enriched by the cultural differences and customs of all the people. This is why we want to support you in this struggle to maintain your roots and fight for your ideals”.
Zanetti’s career has coincided with the strangled vine of commercialisation in football, and, especially, how the powers-that-be have capitalised on the advancements of globalisation. When Javier started his career in 1992 there was no Bosman Rule (or its implications for player-power), Rupert Murdoch was 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.
Upon his retirement this summer Zanetti stopped playing and became a board-member for a club whose owner is an Indonesian, who also owns an MLS team, who recently said to the Financial Times: (October 2014) “I want to use the US model, where sport is like the media business, with income from advertising and content, mixed with the consumer goods industry, selling jerseys and licensed products.” Thohir’s figures indicate that 60% of Inter’s 280 million strong fan-base are Asian – a clear indication of the consumer-driven relationship between football and globalisation. Heck, the last five Supercoppa Italiana’s have even been played in China, with this season’s final to be staged in Doha. It’s difficult to imagine how inward-thinking Italian’s have coped with this transition, having their game sold to the world.
Similarly Javier has previously spoken of his nostalgia for an unglobalised world. Perhaps this outlook comes from seeing the game he loves change beyond recognition. A humble man, when he was 16 he was released from Independiente and began working as an assistant bricklayer to his father. Through determination he fought to stay in the game, and it should surely be clear how much Zanetti genuinely loves football. Mourinho romantically waxed;
“To me Zanetti represents the joy of living, the joy of making football your job every morning. He is the smile, the life force, the passion for training, the good cheer for everyone who works with him.”
The professionalism, self-esteem and zest for football allowed for a long successful career. Life, nowadays however, begins at forty. It will be interesting to see what the youthful Javier goes on to do from here; perhaps after all he could become the perfect politician his playing days indicated he would become.