Chapter 1 - Martín
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. From his mouth only sound that was not understandable came out and as such communicating with him was near impossible. At only 3 years old he was already a social outcast. A child without a future. As soon as he was born and he was excluded from the world but Martin’s situation wasn’t that grave. The problem was that no one has ever bothered to take proper care of him. No one has ever taken interest in his situation. As if his destiny was already written down and there was no possibility of improvement. Instead only little help was needed. In the space of a year Martin was born again. First the intervention of a pediatrician who diagnosed his problem, then the donation of a good Samaritan to purchase the acoustic apparatus and finally the help of a logaoedic to teach him to speak. Three phases that would be the norm for any child born in a rich country but not for someone born in a place that has nothing to offer, where even the most basic of hygiene and alimentary standards are inexistent.
Martin is one of the over 550 children that every afternoon we take in at the Pupi Foundation. They all come from Traza, one of the locations of Remedios de Escalada in the district of Lanus, a favela formed by 5 villas, 5 poor neighborhoods, where everything is missing. The Traza counts 5 thousand habitants, of which the large majority of the families live under the poverty margins. Drugs, violence, teenage pregnancies are an everyday occurrence. Drinking water and electricity represent a sort of luxury. There are no kindergartens or assistance centers, there are no emergency services. You live just at the limit of survival. Héctor, Jonatan, Micaela, Ezequiel, Augustina, Jimena, Emiliano, Santiago, Nazarena, Karen and the others all come from there. Every time I go to visit them there is a party like atmosphere. And every time my heart pangs, because now their future is no longer so dark even though the journey will be long and hard. As every day new challenges and difficulties will present themselves, new mountains to climb. With everyone’s help I believe there is still a possibility to improve this world. Even though our help is a drop in the ocean, it also true the ocean is made of lots of drops of water.
My encouragement is the everyday progress of the children. Even today I hear the echo in my ears of that “Javier!”, shouted with lots purity, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Martin now speaks. Martin has made it. His story is one of the many small successes that the foundation realizes every day. It is perfect example to show how we can achieve great results with constant effort and sacrifices. Start flying low to end up high. This is the philosophy of the foundation. Concepts I had the fortune of following and learning from since I was a child, during my time spent at Dock Sud (South Dock), an outskirt of Buenos Aires. I too was born in a poor family but my parents never let me miss anything. My biggest wish now is that my children from the foundation now receive the same love and affection which I had and are allowed the opportunity to chase their dreams.
Just like when it happened to me, when I was a kid chasing a ball, when everything was ready to be discovered and invented.
Chapter 2 - Inter: Early Signs
My story with Inter has distant origins.
I was only a kid and for me, at the time football meant Kempes, Passarella, Fillol, Bertoni, Tarantini and Ardiles. The heroes of World Cup ’78. It's Diego Maradona, obviously, the new talent of the Argentinean football but Luis Menotti, the coach of that national side, believes Maradona is still too green to wear la camiseta albiceleste.
Football, in those times, for me identified itself especially with Independiente, the team for which my family all supported madly. A question of DNA. We lived at Dock South, one of the suburbs of Avellaneda in the province of Buenos Aires and for us, people of the docks, football was one of our only times of leisure to get away from the misery and sadness of daily life. The choice was almost forced on you, it was either being a fan of Racing or you would go crazy for Los Diabolos Rojos, the red devils of Independiente. It’s true some sided with the bigger teams from the city, Boca or River, but they were few. I fell in love with Independiente almost without noticing, almost as if I was born with those colors in my DNA. You don’t choose a team, you love it from the start, unconditionally, no ifs or buts. So before really being able to understand why, I found myself supporting Ricardo Bochini, Antonio Alzamendi and Jorge Burrucha.
I was born in the 70’s and in that decade Independiente won everything there was to win. Championships, Libertadores, Intercontinental. Yet even though the team had many trophies successively the hardcore supporters still had 2 games they couldn’t get over that were played a few years earlier, 2 games that no one could forget, for 2 consecutive times, between 1964 and 1965, Independiente managed to get to the final of the Intercontinental Cup, the trophy that assigned the title of world’s best club. Both times against Inter, La Grande Inter of Herrera, Facchetti, Corso and Mazzola. And both times it was Inter that triumphed, at the end of games that were intense and legendary (at the time the final was over 2 legs, home and away and in case of a draw it went to toss of a coin).
Even though I did not see those games, they were spoken about for many years, through the memories of dads and granddads. The blow of losing twice in a row with an Italian side and what’s more with a traveling Argentine, Helenio Herrera, it was difficult to stomach. My first encounter with was therefore pretty traumatic, the Nerazzurri at the time represented the enemy, the team which destroyed our first international dream. However the animosity and at times hate also left space for respect. Inter, after all, was the team which was capable of beating for 2 times in a row Independiente. A rare thing in those times.
For a long time Inter was only a name, kind of like a ghost, that just floated in our minds as children. At the time the TV didn’t show games from the Italian championship and so it was a game of fantasy. I knew little or nothing of Inter. I had seen a few photos here or there and I remember I was shocked thunderstruck by San Siro, a stadium so imposing to in still fear only by looking at it. To think it’s now almost another home for me.
It was only half way through the 80’s, when finally on TV they started showing a few games of the Italian championship. It was all thanks to Diego Armando Maradona and his transfer to Napoli. Thanks to El Pibe de Oro Serie A became one of the most followed championships in Argentina. Many of us went as far as dividing our loyalties between the team you have always loved and Napoli, a team already well loved, as in previous years they had already bought another great Argentine and idol of Independiente, Daniel Bertoni. Inter also had some success, seeing how Daniel Passarella, the captain of the Seleccion that was World Champion in 1978, went to play there. In this way at South Dock, home of the hardcore fans of Los Diablos Rojos, Inter became even more annoying. Passarella was the leader Argentina Mundial but was also an idol of River Plate, kind of like an Argentinean Juventus, a team that in our neck of the woods wasn’t exactly well liked. Yet, even though past encounters and the presence of Passarella, Inter made a nice impression on me straight away. I’m not saying because now I’m an Interista down to the bone. It’s a question of feeling. Listening to the old Independiente fans, Inter was the classic arrogant, presumptuous and powerful team. However I realized quickly that these were just rash judgments. Wrong judgments. I found a few affinities with the club I have always loved. The story of Inter and Independiente go hand in hand together. They are both clubs which were formed in the early 1900s. Independiente was formed by shop assistants in Buenos Aires, angry at not being included as representative’s traders, hence why “Independiente”. Inter was formed in 1908, 3 years after Independiente, by 40 or so nonconformist members of Milan, who contested the rule of not allowing foreign players to play. It’s this spirit, somehow never broken and always historically present in the philosophy of the 2 clubs. They are 2 clubs that are aligned: strong, winners and with a pinch of craziness and unpredictability.
With the passing of time, the initial sympathy I had for the black and blue colors when I was young became more intense (but it wasn’t yet love). When football was close to becoming a fundamental part of my life not just a simple leisurely activity, at Inter a player who I still class my one and only true model arrived, Lothar Mattaues, a rock solid German, capable of changing the outcome and flow of the game at his will. A leader, someone who never gave up. Bergomi my friend said this about him “If Lothar wanted to win the game, that game we would win”. His name started circulating in Argentina back in 1986, it was him in fact who marked Maradona at the Mexico ‘86 world cup, which gave us our 2nd trophy, but it wasn’t enough to stop the class and skill del Pibe, who nonetheless was not as influential during the course of the game. Later on the confrontation with Dieguito was renewed in the Italian championship. At the end of the 80’s, when I was still a youngster dreaming of becoming a professional footballer, Matthaues and Maradona where the main representatives of Inter and Napoli, teams that were often in the hunt for the Scudetto. In my area everyone rooted for Diego, obviously. For us Argentines he is still a God to this day, never mind back then, just coming off the triumphant victory at the World championships. Me too, like everyone else was mad about Maradona and yet I could not hide my liking for Mattaues. In him I could see myself or better yet he represented the player that I wanted to be when I was older, a leader of a team
Thanks to him, in secret, I started becoming a bit Interista too.
Chapter 3 - ¡Viva el fútbol!
¡Genio! ¡Genio! ¡Genio! ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta… Goooooool… Gooooool… ¡Quiero llorar! ¡Dios Santo, viva el fútbol! ¡Golaaaaaaazooooooo! ¡Diegooooooool! ¡Maradona! Es para llorar, perdónenme…
Victor Hugo Morales
Buenos Aires, 22 June, 1986. The Zanetti house is in full uproar. My mother, Violeta, doesn't know how to hold off half-a-dozen pawing kids, all with the Argentine scarf around his neck. We were in front of the television lined like a football team. In back, sitting on the couch, my own mother (who despite the severity of her appearance is the most excited of all), my father Rodolfo Ignacio, who for some time has been like in a trance (he is always like that before an important match) and my brother Sergio (as the big brother he has rights to a place on the couch). In front, squatting or lying on the floor, were us young shoots, childhood friends who grew together in football and as friends: Cacho, Luis, and Zurdo (on the left), Cristian and I, dressed from head to foot in biancazzurro.
This is about to go on air on mondovisione and it is not an ordinary game. It will be talked about for days, everywhere: in the bars, in the squares, in the courtyards, at the market.
Everyone had one thing in mind: to beat the English. The rest is boring and does not count anymore. Because Argentina-England is not a simple challenge of football: it is the day of reckoning, it the rematch on the football field of the disgrace that had happened only four years before. Memories of the War of the Malvinas Islands (or of the Falkland Islands, as the English call them), with its load of dead and grotesque anachronisms, it is still very vivid to all of us. The English portray enemy, but today we can count on a stocky, curly haired general, with the number 10 on the balls.* Al Pibe de Oro [the golden boy], Diego Armando Maradona, carries all our hopes.
“¡Vamos Argentina, vamos!” is the chorus that strongly rises from every house once the referee whistles for the start. You are anxious, you scream, you cheer. It is as if at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City there were millions of Argentines. We follow the commentary glued to the TV, the words of Hugh Victor Morales, the official announcer of the Selección, articulate all the action from the meeting. The first half ended 0-0, but the balance is broken a few minutes into the second half.
Those who say that football is nothing more than 22 athletic young men in shorts kicking a ball around probably has never seen a moments like that afternoon in June. In for minutes, from 51 to 55, Argentina was in heaven. It was our revenge; it was the catharsis of an entire country. When Diego faked the English goalkeeper Peter Shilton, a legend of "Her Majesty's Lions," touching the ball with his hand, we were freed ourselves from a nightmare. The hand of God: a terrible insult to the English, for us the cold and ruthless revenge for violation of the Malvinas. One to zero, ball in the center. No time to sit ourselves down again on the floor after the wild celebrations and the "man who thought with his feet", as defined by the writer Osvaldo Soriano, enters definitively into myth. He starts from the midfield, dribbles past the entire English defense, goes around Shilton and scores the 2-0. In my house everyone goes crazy, ecstatic. Some of the amazed, to appreciate it, need silence. And that goal of Maradona, the most beautiful goal in the history of football, deserves contemplation, as one must a piece or art or a breathtaking view. I don’t know how many times I watched that play, or even know how many times I dreamed of being a part of something similar: dodge all the players, leap the goalkeeper and put the ball into the bottom of the bag. "¿De qué planeta viniste? ¡Para dejar en el ingles fireplace so! ¡Para que sea el país a apretado Puno, integrity por Argentina! ... Argentina 2 - Inglaterra 0." What planet did you come from to stop the progression of the English? Because the country is a clenched fist shouting for Argentina: Argentina 2, England 0! The comment Morales became the soundtrack of those years.
After the dark times of the Generals, when it was complicated to even leave the house, Argentina was finding the way to a new happiness. The return to democracy with the accession of President Raul Alfonsin in 1983, had restored confidence in the country. And the football played a key role in reconstruction following the difficult years of the dictatorship. Already in 1978, during the totalitarian regime, winning the World Cup was a blessing for the whole population. I was small, but I remember that in those days everyone was happier: thanks to football you could forget for a while the many problems that strangled us. The victory in 1986 was instead a kind of regeneration, the peak of joy. Democracy had returned after three years, but it was Maradona who really cemented the country from one end to the other. Dieguito became the symbol of liveliness and refound harmony, the emblem of a nation that for years had to endure suffering and persecution, and was now able to redeem itself and recover the freedom it had lost.
The celebrations for the victory against the English lasted entire weeks. When Argentina won, the next day no one went to work. It was a national holiday: even el País [the biggest newspaper in Argentina] shut down. We Argentines are like that, we are passionate and temperamental, and we would be willing to do anything for our country. After the success against England, Buenos Aires was transformed into a mob: a river of people united for the same cause, and all thanks to a boy with black curls who had scored two of the most memorable goals in the history of football. But the best memory, the one that really made Argentina a new country was the final victory, a 3-2*against the Germany of "my" Matthaus, with a decisive goal from Jorge Burruchaga, an idol from Independiente. That evening we went to celebrate beneath the Obelisk [a monument in Buenos Aires]: all of Buenos Aires was there. Children, adults, grandparents, housewives. Millions of people in a frenzy, cars adorned with biancazzurro, T-shirts with the number 10 sprouted up like mushrooms, fireworks, carousels. It was more than just a national holiday: it was the tango of liberation, the beginning of a new era in Argentina.
For weeks radios, televisions, newspapers continued to speak only of that, as if time had stopped. The power of football. I still remember that anyone in the street was greeted by shouting "¡Campeones!"on a wave of collective enthusiasm that had infected everyone, rich and poor, workers and teachers, and port workers and laborers.
And I, at night, I dreamed. I dreamed of being Diego, of dribbling past all the opposing defense, to jump over the keeper and score, then I launch myself into unrestrained exultation and collect the embrace and the roar of the crowd. I dreamed for two years, and then my career came to a crossroads. Or rather, to a standstill. At just fifteen years old, after managing to get into the youth team for Independiente, my favorite team, I found myself walking. Cut. Turned out. Eliminated. No future for me among the stars of the Argentina Primera Division. The reason? "The guy is too skinny, too weak, too small. He has no hope of breaking into football." I stopped for a year. Without even touching the ball for fun. Even with my football friends.
Chapter 4 - Building a house, Constructing a future
I started playing as all children do in the house, smashing lamps and ornaments, to the despair of my mother who tried every way to stop me, without success. I was infected by my brother Sergio: he was already a small prodigy and with the ball between his feet he did wonders for one of his age. The problem is that we did not have a fixed and secure place to play. We needed to content ourselves with this and make the best of things: you either stayed home hanging around the maternal prohibitions, or you went into the street. Every place was good to draw two kicks of the ball, even if it was not the best time to hang around. With the beginning of the dictatorship in 1976, there was little to be cheerful about. I grew up in that gloomy climate, between fears and concerns. Of course I was too young to understand, but I watched the world around me, and I sensed that something was not right. It was unlikely that a mother would allow their children to go out freely. They were days of anxiety, including fear of attacks and to fail to reach the end of the month. I saw my parents scramble to provide all the basic necessities for a decent life. We were never rich, but we never missed anything. My father got up every day at five in the morning to go to work on construction sites. Profession: mason, work that probably I would have dedicated myself to if I had listened to those who had predicted for me a distant future in football. And for a brief period, I truly was a mason. When I was twelve years old I began to help my father. Little jobs: mixing the lime, lending a hand to carry bricks, making touch-ups here and there.
I liked my father's work, I especially liked the idea of doing something practical and useful. Building homes, when it is not just an affectation, also means a future for many people. The building of a house has always remained the basis of my philosophy of life: start from the bottom to make it to the top. We start from the ground, then switch to stack the bricks, putting up walls, up to the roof. It is the ideology upon which the Pupi Foundation, the Foundation which, years later, I created with my wife Paula for providing support and shelter to poor children of Lanús, one of the most miserable and tortured areas in Buenos Aires. Children are our foundation, and if you want a solid house you need to start with them.
The first lesson my father gave me. When we were schoolboys, under the dictatorship, there was not a field to play football in our area to South Dock. We arranged ourselves any way we could, but the dream was to have a space all our own in which us little ones hungry for football could give vent to our imagination. Why, then, not exploit that vacant lot near the house and build a playground with a football field. The idea came to my father and soon the project became a reality. With a lot of patience and determination, strong with his experience as a mason, papa, with the help of the other parents, realized our dream. A brand-new football fires, just two steps from home. Finally, we children had found our home of choice.
And on that pitch halfway between grass and sand it all began.
We spent most of our childhood there. Every day, all day. Infinite matches at breakneck speed. We created our first team, the line-up of the little ones of Dock Sud: The Disneyland. A name, a program. Maradona grew up with Los Cebollitas [a youth team in Argentina], the little onions, I, in the team of comic strip heroes. We Argentines have a good imagination for names. Thanks to this competition, many children stayed off the streets, and our neighborhood began to feel more united. Each game became an excuse to celebrate: the mothers came to watch, bringing alfajores, a typical Argentinian pastry, and fur us the world revolved around this field, the launch pad for our dreams.
Of that period there is one memory preserved above the others, one of the best of my life. It sounds like a story from the book Cuore [this is a famous children's book but he could also mean a genre of book that I don't know about], but it is all true. One day, just a week before the final that would have then given us victory in the league, my football shoes broke. It was not just a simple cut, or a little hole: it was truly a rip from the toe to the heel. Through the effort of kicking and clashing with other players, the shoes had become a kind of slipper with studs. It was impossible to refit them like new. Needless to say, at home we did not have the money to buy another pair. I was desperate. For me, that game, long anticipated, meant everything. But without shoes, what was I to do? I had already resigned myself to the idea of not being able to play. Nobody had a pair of shoes they could lend me, because at the time they were precious goods, and who would have the good fortune of having a pair and not be using them himself? Then, a miracle. One day I cam home and my father appeared before me with a pair of shoes in his hand. The same that had always used, but with a small but important difference, the hole was completely sewn up. He had repaired them, with needle and thread, loosing sight of some hours good for work.
The adventure with Disneyland did not last long. We were good with the ball between our feet, and so one day an official from Independiente came knocking at my door. "You want to come and play for us?" Imagine the party. I would become one of the red devils, a dream come true. For seven years I ardently defended that shirt, always giving all of myself. I played football, studied, sometimes helped my father. But everything was always done with heart. It was at that time, in 1983, that my baptism was consummated at the Doble Visera, Independiente's stadium is situated opposite to that of Racing: a divide of only a hundred meters, but to go one way or the other is to enter two different worlds. My first match was a Copa Libertadores challenge. The tie was against the Paraguayans of Olimpia. It was a beautiful match, won by us. On the field was also El Bocha, Ricardo Bochini, my absolute idol, I was filled with pride. The dream of emulating his feats lasted only for a little while. One day, despite my commitment and maximum dedication to the cause, I received one of the biggest setbacks of my career. The managers and technicians felt that in fact I was too small to continue the adventure. I was 15 years old. Broken were my dreams of glory, all hope had collapsed, I stopped playing for a year, and in that period it was as if football had ceased to exist for me. I was disappointed, saddened, almost inconsolable.
For a year I studied and worked, period. But inside me, deep down, I continued to harbor the desire to challenge on the football field, although I could not admit it. It was once again my father that got me out of trouble. On day I went with to work, During the lunch break we began to talk about this and that, like we used to. He point blank asked me: "Javi, but what do you want to be? Have you truly decided that you are finished with football? Look around at the people who say you are good, that you can do it. It has gone wrong at Independiente, but why not try somewhere else?"
The words bounced around my head for weeks. And in the end I was convinced. Buenos Aires is a huge city, there was not only Independiente. I would find another team.
Chapter 5 - The Tractor
Although I was away from the football pitch for a year, I had not lost the desire to play nor I had forgotten how to do it. From the physical point of view, paradoxically, the stop had done me well. Through the efforts of working in the yard with my father I had put a little muscle, and also acquired a few centimeters in height.
In spite of the small crises and the continuous rethinking I decided to get back into the game. We must always stand up, even in the most difficult moments. It is a lesson I learned in that period, and since then I've never forgotten. My bother Sergio, who at that time was an emerging player, gave me a good opportunity to get back in the game. He played with Talleres, a small team from southern Buenos Aires, Remedios de Escalada, not far from Lanús, where Diego Armando Maradona grew up and, many years later, would become the epicenter of the Foundation Pupi.
I did not want to get in, though, as the "brother of" or on the word of someone: so when Sergio was sold to another team, I immediately caught the ball, I presented myself armed with shoes, a lot of willpower, and a stool specimen. Everything went well, I passed. Football, perhaps, I would offer a second chance.* I spent the first season in the youth sector, Fourth Division, where in practice began my career as a wild card. At Independie I had played almost always as an outside striker, a role which was married perfectly with my characteristics: I was a "leggerino" [little nimble one] and darting, I liked to dribble, to go in front of goal and make a cross.* Hand and Hand I pulled back my range of action: first midfielder, I was both central bands, then, sometimes, also in defense. The consecration of the new role came the following season, when I was promoted to first team. The year in the Nacional B, essentially the equivalent of the Italian Serie B, opened the doors of professional football to me.
My main problem, however, was that at the time, other than football, I also had to think of bringing home the bread. I always helped my family, and the fact that I started to play soccer could not "exempt" me from continuing to help out at home. So I found a new job. From mason/football player I became a working boy/football player. From four until eight in the morning I would dress in the uniform of a "milk boy:" going from house to house to bring the bottles and then, once I had finished my rounds, I went to school. And in the afternoon I trained. In the evening I shook with fatigue. A terrible life, but I did it willingly because I knew that, probably, it would be my last chance to be able to break through in football. The trains usually pass once, and if you are really lucky twice, and I already wasted my first shot.
This great sacrifice lasted only for a year while I played in youth. Once promoted to the first team, the managers told me that I could not continue that way. Either play or work. I told them immediately, however, that I needed money to help my family. They told me not to worry, and thus came the first professional contract, or almost. The first season among the greats went quite well. In all I totaled 17 appearances, highlighted by a goal, distinguishing myself among the best youngsters in the league. It was at that time that my nickname, Pupi, was born. It is all my brother's "fault," I was named during his stay at Talleres. As when I went to the club there were five Javiers, besides me, it was almost automatic to tie me to this nickname in order to distinguish me from my namesakes. There is no translation for Pupi: it is just a nickname, that can be said quickly, which is particularly useful on the field when speed is everything.
Things began to turn the right way in other areas. While playing at Talleres I became acquainted with Paula, she would become the lady love of my life. As in every fairy tale there was a happy ending, to win her I was helped by an accomplice, a common fried, Roberto, who attended the same school as she. One day he asked me to go out and have a coffee, when we left I saw her and I was thunderstruck. I began to ask my friend about her, until, after much insistence, I saw her again while she was playing basket ball, a sport that in those days Paula practiced with passion, always defending the colors of the sports club Talleres. Who knows, perhaps athletes understand each other better. Galeotta stood out with the ball at the game. After the match, helped by Robert, I took courage and, finally, I managed to meet her. From then on it was a crescendo of emotion and a succession of ambushes, any excuse was a good one to meet and talk with her. All this enthusiasm was eventually rewarded. Shortly after we began dating, I was eighteen and she fourteen, we were always together.
I had returned to being a footballer, I did not have work any more to support my family and I even found love. I had now finally left behind the darkness into which I had sunk two years ago. The experience at Talleres was one of the most important of my life: and at the dawn of twenty years, finally, for me it opened the doors of the Argentine first division. In the summer of 1993 I received various offers. Many clubs were interested in me, including Banfield, one of the teams most supported teams in the district of Lomas de Zamora, another southern area of Buenos Aires. At the moment they acquired me, something rather strange occurred: to pay the price of my card, equal to 160,000 dollars, 10 members got together. Everyone contributed a share, and so, within a few days, I found myself in the top flight of Argentina, ready to go with all my passion in true football, that for long years I could only dream of.
Of course, I would not wear the shirt of Independiente nor that of another historical club, but already wearing the shirt of the 'humble' Banfield (a team that will always have a place in my heart) was an immense joy, especially recalling the tribulations that had passed. In the wake of a renewed enthusiasm, it was easy for me to win esteem, even in a new environment. The two coaches, Oscar Lopez and Oscar Cavallero, put me on the shoulder in jersey number 4, and from that first to the last day I have never given it up. My debut among the big names of Argentina was at the Monumental, the mythical stadium of River Plate. It was the beginning of a big climb. In November 1994, Daniel Passarella, then coach of the National Assembly, included my name in the squad of the Selección for the first time. It seems like a mirage: after half a season among professionals I had the opportunity and honor to wear the Albiceleste jersey. My debut was not all bad: 3-0 against Chile in Santiago on November 16 of that year. I finished that the season with 37 appearances and a goal under my belt in the first division. The following year I continued along on the same path, or rather, in the same furrow of the previous season, seeing that for all I had by now become el Tractor, the tractor. In Argentina, almost all players have a nickname: el Cuchu, El Cholo, El Jardinero, El Pocho, El Piojo. It was Victor Hugo Morales, the legendary announcer of Maradona's feats, stuck this new nickname to me: based on my strong legs (thanks to all the training the weak boy had been considerably strengthened) and my low center of gravity, and especially for my galloping up the bands. In fact the way I play is based a little on the idea of the tractor: I may be being immodest, but it is difficult to stop or take me, which is the idea of the tractor, a characteristic the imagination of Morales jumped at.
The second season at Banfield was that of definitive consecration. I played again all year in the starting lineup while by now I was almost permanently in the rotation for the National team. That year I found myself playing together with a certain Julio Cruz, at the time a promising young striker just starting out as a professional football player. Who would have thought that, several years later, we would meet as soldiers at the same club – but across the ocean, wearing a vertically striped black and blue shirt.
Chapter 6 - To Milan with l'Avioncito
One evening while we were on tour in South Africa with the Argentine National Team, Daniel Passarella knocked at my door. "Javi, Inter wants to buy you," he said in one breath, without even time to let me know if he was joking or not. "Inter? Inter Milan? The team where you played too? The team that defeated Independiente twice? The team where Matthaus played?"
Yes, precisely that. Not a lie, no one was playing a bad joke. The person who noticed me, and then reported to the company, was another ex great of the Glorious Argentina: Antonio Valentin Angelillo, striker for Inter at the turn of the fifties and sixties who is still renowned for his goalscoring record (33) in one Serie A season. He saw me play at Banfield; I knew that Inter was "hunting" in Argentina, but at the time had turned to the names of more talented players, like Daniel Ortega and Sebastián Rambert, so when Passarella gave me the announcement, it came out of nowhere. I immediately called my agent. It was all true, Inter wanted me. All that was left was my signature and the road to to Italy was opened.
Then the torture began. On the one hand was the happiness to be so close to one of the most prestigious clubs in the world, on the other, the fear of leaving my home, my family and especially Paula. She was still very young, still in school, and certainly would not have followed me to Italy, at least not immediately. They were difficult days for me, but I was well aware that a similar offer, perhaps, would not come again. So I took the ball and leapt, forcefully chasing my destiny.
Luckily I had two months to prepare, and I would not be alone on my new adventure: with me Inter also acquired Sebastian Rambert, called l'Avioncito, the airplane, because of his way of celebrating after a goal, already my teammate in the national team. That said, however, we must dispel a myth. It is often said that I arrived at Inter as a "two-for-one" in sale of Rambert. Things did not happen that way. First, Sebastian did not play on my team, Banfield, but for Independiente (lucky him). Secondly, Inter did not buy us 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. I was in fact the very first purchase of Massimo Moratti, who had recently become the president of Inter, in February 1995. 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 many strengths: after all, I was a little-known player, one that, as they say in Milan, still had many michette [a local bread roll] to eat before becoming a player at the highest level. Moratti, however, strongly wanted me, and although I was not a tightrope walker nor was my name exotic enough to stir the imagination of fans.
During that acquisitions campaign, Inter bet on promising young players and players of proven reliability. Besides Rambert and I, Roberto Carlos, also known at the time, and Paul Ince, one of the strongest centerfielders in Europe, arrived at the nerazzurra house. That created a difficult situation, since at the time, the Bosman Law was not yet in place, and virtually every team could field a maximum of three foreigners. And we were four. For this, at the start, 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, oh yes); Ince was known by all for his time at Manchester United. And Zanetti? A complete unknown. Despite everything, though, I remained. And I played. The company immediately said flatly that it had no intention to "turn" my card to another team. They believed in me and my potential. Maradona also came to my aid when in an interview he declared that "the best purchase Inter made was buying Zanetti." And then I began to really believe it myself.
Accustomed to the chaos of the immense Buenos Aires, the impact of Milan was not so traumatic. Maybe because we Argentinians were all half Italian, and then even thousands of miles away from our homeland we felt at home. My great-grandparents were from Friuli, specifically from Sacile in province of Pordenone. I discovered it a few years ago, after months of research. I am proud of my Italian roots, and especially Friuli. I think I have many things in common with the Friulani: a strong temperament, reliability, moderation; qualities that I have always sought to also bring to the playing field.
Therefore, perhaps because of my origins, I was immediately well in Italy. Although I was alone, although my family and Paula were still in Argentina, I did not feel too great a detachment from my homeland. It is a matter of culture and mentality. Italy and Argentina are two very similar places, and for that probably we "oriundi" acclimatize so well and with ease into the football of the Serie A. The only major difference between the two countries is on temperament. We Argentinians are composed, calm; in short, we enjoy each other a little more; but in Italy everyone is always in a hurry. Meet for coffee in Buenos Aires, it means being together for half an hour to chat about this and that, in Milan, however, everything is resolved in five minutes, and then goodbye, everyone returns to busying themselves with their own commitments.
But the beginning of my Italian adventure the most complicated thing, even more than the lightening-fast cafes and the new language (also if Italian and Spanish are sister languages, a hint is enough to understand), was plumbing the mentality of football, or rather adapting to everything that revolves around football. Not that in Argentina we were not pressed by the press and fans, but at Banfield I was used to simply some reporter with notebook at the end of matches, a few autographs and routine photos and little more. The day of my official presentation at Inter, June 5, 1995, at Terrazza Martini, instead I found a crowd of photographers, cameramen, journalists (with a notebook, microphone and tape recorder, but only because at the time, cell phones were not so common), parading Inter fans chanted my name. Not even the rain could stop their passion. For me and Rampert, my companion that almost summer afternoon, it was the first taste of the reality that awaited us. And the first real encounter with Inter, the most beautiful and craziest creature in Italian football.
Chapter 7 - Giacinto
The fans of these colors will tell you it is not enough to play for many years in a team. It is not enough to kiss the jersey after a goal, not enough to say things in order to send the fans over the moon. The fans, above all in Italy (but also in all the other Latin Countries), it is a question that borders on philosophy. Often, to use a definition that has been a bit abused, it is said that being a fan is a faith. I think that it is more of a style of living, a way to be. For this, I fell instantly in love with Inter; because in this way it was like me and it is like me, because in this club there are values and ideas that do not exist elsewhere.
Inter is different. It is not rhetoric. Inter always goes against the current, never involving itself in subtle power games. Inter is transparent, because what happens here is on the up and up and does not need screens or guards, since there is nothing to hide. I understood from the first day I set foot in Appiano Gentile. And I realized thanks to an enlightened teacher: Giacinto Facchetti, the captain of captains, the example, the symbol, the entire par excellence.
Having him as a mentor, guide and friend was a blessing for me. He taught me what it means to wear the Inter jersey, and that to be an Interista is something that goes beyond being simply a fan; he taught me that in football yes, results count, but there are more important values: loyalty, fair play, honesty, respect towards supporters and opponents. Essential qualities for an Inter player, and that Giacinto, every day, tried to convey to us, even in times when everything seemed to turn against us and in which the goddess Eupalla seemed to have hatched a conspiracy against the Nerazzurri. [Eupalla is the goddess of calcio, invented by the journalist Gianni Brera]
"Sweet, smart, courageous, reserved, far from vulgar reaction. Thanks again for having honored Inter, and with her all of us." So, with these moving and sincere words, Massimo Moratti recalled him after his death. It was a sad day, that bloody September 4, 2006. It was the day when Inter lost its flag-bearer, its spiritual leader. And when all football, not just the Italian, lost a man who was not only a giant on the field, but also in everyday life.
The values, the passion, the dedication that for many years he put to the service of the nerazzurra cause, however, has remained intact. And even today, for all of us Interisti, Giacinto is a constant presence though no longer with us physically. It is no coincidence that after every victory the first dedication is always for him. It is no coincidence that towards him, still, reins an almost sacred respect. It is no coincidence that he has always been considered the model and an example to follow. Because Giacinto has been and always will be the image of Inter.
Giacinto was a "hombre vertical", as we say in Argentina, a gentle giant who commanded respect. One who did not waste his breath with the words, because he did not take much to make himself understood, and he did not like the spotlight. A brave man, a champion of honesty and clarity. One that never had to lower his head in front of the powerful, to him it is sufficient to be respectful of the rules, it is the the same as what he learned at oratory as a child. He had a diary, and on the first page he wrote a sentence from Tolstoy: "The more we believe our existence depends solely on our actions, the more this becomes possible.
I am proud and take pride in wearing the captain's armband of Inter, especially knowing that the armband was worn for years by a person like Giacinto. The greatest satisfaction is to be considered his heir. There is no higher compliment that can be made to me. Being Facchetti's heir does not only mean asserting oneself in the field, it means leaving a mark outside as well, showing that the career of a player is not only measured by cups and championships, but above all fairness, courage, charisma.
A strong relationship was established between us immediately. We understood each other on the fly, without much explanation. He often told me of the epic challenges between Inter and Independiente in the sixties. He had lived on the pitch, a protagonist. "What battles, especially in Argentina," he said remembering the boiling climate at the Doble Visera. Those were years when the cameras had not yet monopolized the pitch, when almost everything was "permissible" in order to stop opponents. And, at the time, the Argentinian players were famous for being a bit rough, so to speak. The fans were no better: oranges on the field, insults, threats,. In the wake of those memorable stories of triumph, I began to understand the true Inter, particularly what it meant to be an Interisti. The badge, the history, the pride, but especially feelings, love and passion.
For years Giacinto was an essential support for all Inter players. He had a good word for everyone, he always knew how to resolve difficult situations and the right buttons to push to spur one on to give more. He always took up the side of the players, he helped us in every circumstance: he taught us to not give up in difficult times and , I help us in every circumstance has taught us not to give up in difficult times, and not get big-headed when things went well.
The news of his illness was a blow, a bolt from the blue. It came just when Inter was recovering all that, in the years before, had been removed. It was in full "Calciocas", and finally justice would give us reason. But Giacinto it was not a question of revenge. Was the simply respect for the rules. He lived his last months with the usual great dignity, asking only to be left in peace, that the news of his illness not be heralded by newspapers and television. I visited him in the hospital many times, hoping until the end for a miracle. Everyone, from the players to the warehouse workers gathered around him. At that time, our only thought was to do something for Giacinto. The occasion arrived on the 27th of August, 2006, the Italian Super Cup against Rome. The disease had consumed him by now, but until the end he was seized with the events of his Inter. The day before the match I went to see him at the hospital and I made him a promise: "Giacinto, I swear that I will return here tomorrow with the cup." I kept my word. This challenge with Rome was not simply just a game of football; something miraculous occurred during those 120 minutes of play. We went down 3-0, and then in the second half, everything changed. We transformed ourselves, we became a true team, and we fought for every ball. Two times Vieira and Crespo brought us to 3-3, and then an additional from Figo sealed it up and gave us the cup. I cannot say what strange mechanism took over us all after that terrible first half: I only know that each of us on the pitch that evening played not only to win the cup, but to bring that cup to Giacinto.
The next day I went to the hospital with the trophy. "It's for you" I said. He smiled with the little strength that remained to him. That smile has kept me going, unforgettable. It still lights me up and stays with me, always and wherever.
Chapter 8 - Flight to victory: the first years in black and blue
Ever since I was a child, before the games, I always tell myself a slogan that I need to keep high concentration. My father invented it and it still spurs me today. “Ponga huevos, hombre, que hoy tienes que ganar.” In Italian it is something like this: “Put in your attributes, boy, now you have to win!” It is a rule that holds true for any footballer. When leaving for the field, they must always give their best for their team, but never forget that, first of all, the respect for the rules and the opponents.
That is what I tried to do when I arrived at Inter. I couldn’t immediately adapt to the new football mentality, new patterns of training and new schemes. However, my first Italian coach, Ottavio Bianchi, immediately have all the confidence to me. Despite four strong foreigners he was pointing at me, and so, on August 27 1995, I debuted in an Inter shirt in an official match. The opponent was Vicenza and it took place at the legendary Giuseppe Meazza in San Siro, a stadium, until then I had only seen on television. There is always an extraordinary emotion playing on that field: it is true that footballers cannot be defined by it if, at least one time, they haven’t set foot on that green grass. The debut went well: 1-0 with the goal by Roberto Carlos, who was also in his debut just like me. It seemed like the beginning of a promising season, but instead things gradually, little by little, went downhill. My compatriot Rambert, who arrived with so much expectations, failed to withstand the pressure and after a couple of months left Milan. For a striker, it is always difficult to establish himself in Serie A, especially if he is very young. Among other things, Avioncito had several physical problems that certainly shaped him a lot. For me, his farewell was a hard blow as we had a couple of similarities: both Argentinians, and both were called to immerse ourselves in a hard football environment. Now Sebastian is now the past and on the other side of the fence: after hanging up his boots he became a coach. He was also the assistant of Ramón Diaz, another former Inter great, on the bench of América, in Mexico. Before Rambert left, Ottavio Bianchi, our coach, was sacked in late September after some disappointing results. In his place, after a brief spell with Luis Suárez on the bench, was the Englishman Roy Hodgson. I had to start over. With Hodgson, everything changed from the type of training to the module of play, but the new coach also demonstrated from the beginning that he believed in me. And with him I began my long and joyous career: with Bianchi, I played as a right-back in a 5-3-2, with Hodgson I was a right midfielder of a diamond formation, pretty much he same role that I played in recent seasons. With him on the bench I also scored my first goal at Inter, against Cremonese at the San Siro on December 3 1995. A goal, among other things, was aesthetically valuable and that I always remember with great pleasure (I’m not a striker and those few goals that I’ve scored are like children to me). “La Gazzetta dello Sport”, the day after, rewarded me an 8 in rating. And so my name finally became popular or better, to start out from anonymity.
The environment, for me, got better with every passing month, and even with the fans of Inter, things started to go for the best. I was never a leading man (for the strikers and in the imagination of people, there are always goals and assists), but slowly I think I had won the hearts of the people of Inter thanks to my determination, abnegation and steadfastness. And, why not, thanks to my dribbling down on my right wing. A very beautiful moment in my honor was when the Curva Nord guys invented a chorus that is still true today: “Tra i nerazzurri c’è / un giocatore che / dribbla come Pelé / daì Zanetti alè!” (“Among the nerazzurri there’s / a player that / dribbles like Pelé / go Zanetti”) Perhaps the comparison with Pelé is a bit excessive (to any Argentinian, Maradona is always a cut above any Brazilian), but I must admit that that chorus is in my heart and that whenever the Curva Nord sings it, it makes me shiver.
If from a personal point of view, the first year as an Interista wasn’t bad at all. But in terms of a group, however, things did not go very well. We were in the seventh place in the standings, a very disappointing result for a team that, historically, always aims to win the Scudetto. However, that was the first year at the helm of Inter for Moratti, and we all knew that the president was planning to build a great team which capable to fight on all fronts.
Just one year later, things went much better. The team was reinforced and stayed long at the top in the league even if the tittle did not come. In Europe, however, we took off a lot of satisfaction. With Hodgson, a coach whom I admire very much in spite of false rumors that have long linked him as my personal “enemy”, we played good football with his modern and innovative training. In fact, we got to the double challenge in the UEFA Cup final against the Germans of Schalke 04, a game that remains one of my biggest regrets. Losing 1-0 in Germany, but we won by the same score at the San Siro. There were many shots in the two extra periods but the result stayed the same so came the penalty kicks which concluded with the triumph of the Germans, an ice shower in front of our fans. In addition to the damage of losing, from me, arrived an outburst. That was, and I apologize if I seemed arrogant, the only game that really gave the outbursts, the only game in which my behavior was a bit over the top. There were only a few minutes left in extra time, penalty kicks were coming in just a few seconds. The ball left and the referee ordered a substitution: and on the slate of the linesman, the number 4 appeared. At that point, I couldn’t stop the anger. Left, infuriated, and I bickered heavily with Roy Hodgson. An argument that links to the “history” that many saw as the tip of the iceberg of a trouble relationship. Far from it. I was just tired with high adrenaline and at a young age (consequently with the lack of experience), I did not understand that the coach decided to replace only to put in Nicola Berti (better at penalty kick), because he saw that shooting from 11 meters was imminent. Eventually, in the dressing room, I apologized and everything was resolved with a simple handshake given between us like civilized people.
The loss in the final, however, was a bitter pill to swallow. The dreams of glory on the European stage at Inter had vanished just at the climax from 11 meters away from goal. That final made us more convinced and it helped us to understand that Inter, in later years, can have its say in both Italy and Europe. And Moratti, the following summer, spared no expense, bringing to Milan who at the time was considered the strongest player in the world: Ronaldo.
Chapter 9 - Intersolidarity
I was certainly not the one who discovered that Inter are a special club. Massimo Moratti, its president, is mainly to thank for that, he is a character really rare in the football world. If I became a flag of Inter, it was also because of him. He always made me feel at home, he always encouraged me and above all, together with Giacinto Facchetti, he taught me values that go way beyond the football environment. Moratti is humble, available: when people say that he is like a father to most of the players, it's not just a rhetorical statement.
Between us, there is a strong relationship. Sometimes I talk to him in a familiar way and some other times in a more formal way, it depends on the circumstances: after almost 15 years that we've known each other, I still get moved when I talk to him. The fact that he put me in the list of the greatest Inter captains makes me feel very satisfied and proud. It means that I have left something to remember and I hope it's not only on the field.
Thanks to Moratti, several humanitarian projects have been set up. Inter are always the first one when asked to help those who really need it. It is an attitude also seen in a lot of players. When I arrived at the black and blue home, my captain was Beppe Bergomi, another person who beyond the undisputed sports values taught me that, through football, I can achieve a lot using our popularity and fame. Lo Zio has immediately involved me in his project born a few years before: I Bindun, an association, or let's say a group of friends, that has been fighting for years to offer a smile to those who haven't received anything or so little from life. Its principal goal is to raise funds to build welcoming houses for unlucky kids. The idea of a house is to give a future to people in need brings back old memories to me. I didn't hesitate one second and started collaborating even though I was the last arrived and didn't know what the Italian reality of life was. From there, I guess, I had what I needed to create some years later the PUPI Foundation. For sure, being with Inter helped me a lot to become more sensitive to particular themes, especially the ones related to childhood.
The experience with I Bindun was only the first step. The Inter family has fought for so many other causes and us, players, are proud to represent a club that outside of the football field, is always amongst the first in solidarity. A solidarity never bragged about, but made by small and simple gestures that can really contribute to improve the lives of those who are facing day-to-day difficulties. And I believe this is only fair as it is. With our popularity and fame, our success and, why not, our money, we as players have the duty to be available to help others. The duty but also the pleasure: because there's nothing more beautiful, without rhetorical meaning, than to be able to offer a smile.
I am proud to be the captain of the team that has been supporting for year Emergency, and that its president who's also my friend Gino Strada, is a doctor who goes in the more lost places around the world that have been destroyed by war to help. I am proud that Inter are present in every part of the world with its campuses, an instrument that allows more than 20,000 children between eight and thirteen years old to play football and more importantly to grow with not only sports values but also values that will enrich their lives.
And I am flattered to have recently been chosen as testimonial for the Special Olympics, an international training program for mentally challenged people that allows more than 1,000,000 of them to play sports and take part in competitions. This was another wonderful and touching experience. For a lot of people, we, football players, are models, examples; and the fact that only by being present we can bring a ray of sunshine in people's lives is not to be forgotten.
Amongst the many caritative initiatives brought to light by Inter, the most original one is certainly the one relating to the zapatista cause and the subcommandante Marcos. Many people have seen this project, born in 2004, in a negative way, thinking that Moratti and Inter were OK with the guerrilla. The idea actually was much more simple and noble: raise funds in order to build an aqueduct for the village of Zinacantán that had been destroyed by paramilitarian groups as well as sending medicine and buying an ambulance for the communities that live at the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It seemed fair to us helping the population of Chiapas: solidarity knows no color, no religion and no political side. These communities fight to make their culture recognized as well as a different way of economical and political organization, of surviving and of identity. I believe, as we wrote in our first letter to Marcos, in a better world, non globalized but rich with the traditions of different population. He is fighting to give back life and dignity to the pre-Colombian populations of Mexico; he's the soldier of the losers of the Earth, of the forgotten, of the non recognized ones though they learned to never give up, under no condition. This initiative involves everyone. Every fine we got when we arrive late for training or for disciplinary motives was going to a fund that then was designed to help people from Chiapas. I have moving memories of the letters that subcommandante Marcos had sent to Inter. Especially the picture of him wearing his same old passamontagna and holding my #4 jersey in his hands. I have never had the chance to know him personally but his words show how cultivated, ironic and smart he is. «*Brothers players*» he wrote in the first letter in which he thanked Inter for its support «*we invite you on our land to share ideas and experiences*». A couple weeks later Marcos wrote again, asking Moratti to come and challenge the National team of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). «*We are thinking of organizing the Coppa Pozol de Barro: seven games to raise funds for indigenous people, for illegal immigrants and other causes. The games would be played at the Olympic stadium of the City of Mexico, in Guadalajara, in Los Angeles, near the American military base of Guantanamo, in Milan, in Rome and in the basque lands. If it's OK with you, the EZLN would like the games in City of Mexico to be refereed by Diego Armando Maradona. The linesmen would be Javier Aguirre and Jorge Valdano. The fourth official would be Socrates. The live commentary for the Sistema Zapatista di Televisione Interglattica (the only TV to be read, not watched) could be done by the Uruguayan writers Eduardo Galeano and Mario Benedetti*». Words full if irony that in the end proved to become serious. «*The real motive for which I'm writing is different. I would like to thank Inter once again as well as its fans for the affection and support towards us*». The game, useless to say, was never played. But if one day it had to, I would have no problem playing. It it can help in doing good, I would be pleased to go play in Chiapas: in the end, kicking a ball has never done any harm to anyone but it has given birth to celebrations and new alliances and brotherhoods.
The black and blue colors also have supported the fight against the tse-tse fly, the insect that in Africa, mainly in Congo, diffuses the disease of sleeping. At the beginning we thought it was a joke when, in 2007, the club received a letter from a doctor explaining how these two colors could hypnotize the fly. But with scientific evidence, the club accepted to help with great enthusiasm. This is how, in collaboration with the Atalanta that shares the same colors, 213 black and blue traps able to exterminate 50 flies per day. Yet another victory for our great Intersolidarity, la más digna as subcommandante Marcos defined it.
There nothing more beautiful than helping, anywhere, in any possible way, with any mean available.
Chapter 10 - Paris, 6 May 1998
My third season at Inter started with great expectations. With Ronaldo's arrival, then at the beginning of his short and unfortunate career, the media and fans' attention was focused on us. And after the hard defeat in the double-game final of UEFA Cup against Schalke 04, I was also thinking that this would be the season of the great rebirth of the black and blue. Moratti's dream to bring Inter back on top of Italian and European football was still intact. Our president, despite so many bitter hits, has never lacked enthusiasm and passion for these colors; and his love, in the end, has been rewarded.
In addition to Ronnie, other great players arrived at the dawn of this season: El Cholo Simeone, El Chino Recoba, Zé Elias, Taribo West, Ciccio Colonnese, Francesco Moriero. The South American colony was getting bigger: the year before, together with Frenchman Yuri Djorkaeff, Ivan Zamorano signed with Inter, he was destined to become one of my dearest friends. At Inter, as I said, I've had the confirmation that it was important to have South American players from different countries, that were in conflict with each other. With Ivàn, a Chilean from Santiago, it was friendship at first sight. Back then, and I'm talking 1996, Inter had not yet had a Spanish speaking nucleus as it has became over the years so it was first for a linguistics reason (beware, between Argentinian, Chilean, Colombian and Uruguayan language, there are many differences) that we started hanging out outside of the football field. I was trying to un-stabilize him despite the fact that I was 6 years younger, to help him adjust to his new football reality. We're very similar even though our looks might say the opposite . We believe in the same principles. Ivàn was a fighter on the field, one that never gave up, a warrior (it didn't become his nickname by chance). But he put the same energy he had on the field at disposal of many humanitarian causes. He's a UNICEF ambassador and now, in Chile, he opened a football school to help children in need.
This season, the coach changed as well: Roy Hodgson resigned after our loss to Schalke 04 (but let me repeat that our fight had nothing to do with his decision: we always agreed) and to replace him was Gigi Simoni. A lot of reporters, at first, held reserves towards his abilities as a coach. Until coming at Inter he had only coached second plan teams and now he was the chief of a great club. Gigi has immediately destroyed all concerns making himself likeable through his strategical skills but above all, through his sensitivity and way to deal with things. His greatest achievement was that he built a solid and harmonious group, a really special team in and out of the field. With him, I changed role again: from right back, I started playing on the left side, one of many changes that made me as complete as I am today and allows me to help in any area of the field . I only have to be a goalkeeper once and then I'd have played everywhere.
Ronaldo was our diamond striker. I've never seen a player that great: perhaps only Leo Messi has reached that level. In the team though no one was ever envious of Ronnie. His strength, his class, his quickness were in front of everyone's eyes: he was the added value to the group, the man that could've made us win, finally.
Of this championship, however, remains still today a bitter trace in my mind. I'm convinced that we deserved this title but some strange, very strange, too strange things happened. It's only after a few years, with the Calciopoli revolution, that we realized all our efforts were vain. Too many mistakes against us, too many in favor of Juventus that was a strong team that didn't need this kind of help to try and win the championship. What happened this season, everyone remembers it. The epilogue was the penalty kick not given to Ronaldo in the now famous foul committed by Iuliano, against this Juventus, during the game that could've cleared our way to the title. However, in addition to our opponents on the field, we had to fight external agents: at that time, it was only suspicions, simple "psychological subjection"; then, in the hot summer of 2006, everything was revealed. Finally.
Between two suspicions, we ranked second in that championship. A deceiving result because that Inter had everything it needed to win the title and so it had demonstrated all season long. Fortunately, the bitterness of the championship has been reduced by the sweet taste of my first great victory in black and blue. One of my most beautiful memories: in fact, my most beautiful memory with the team. If one's first love is never forgotten, the same goes for the first trophy. I always keep in my heart the night of 6 May 1998, Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, UEFA Cup final against Lazio. A success would have repaid us from the previous year loss but mostly from the championship's frustrations. We arrived at the rendez-vous with the right dose of energy and determination, wanting to show the world that this Inter had nothing to envy to Juventus that, only a couple days before, had won the championship that I still believe had been unfairly stolen from us.
Before the game, Simoni had motivated us 100%. Ending a season of this kind without having a trophy to lift would be the top of malasuerte (bad luck). This is how all of our rage, our willingness to win, to bring back Inter at the top, came out on the field. During this game, everything worked out wonderful, from the first to the last minute. I think it was the perfect game, the anthem to team playing. And it wasn't easy because in front of us there was a valuable opponent as Lazio, for which was still playing Roberto Mancini: a few years later he would become my coach and we would have celebrated, finally, winning the Italian championship.
There was such an expectation around that final. Thousands of Inter fans arrived in Paris to support us, to take back, at least part of, what had been stolen from us during the season. A wonderful atmosphere with the two Serie A fans twinned. My father was also attending, surrounded by family and friends. For me, it was another motivation. And indeed, things started immediately well. After a few minutes, we were already ahead: goal scored by Ivàn Zamorano, the same old cobra in the penalty area. 1-0 at half time. After the break arrived the safety goal, 2-0. I was the one who scored, one of my rare appearance on the scorers table. Zamorano at the 60th minute passed with the head towards the 16m line and I arrived running and kicked the ball with the outside of my right foot, sending it right between the post and the bar where Marcheggiani couldn't get. When I saw it in the net I burst into joy, starting to run nowhere with all my teammates trying to catch me. In the stands, my father was submerged by our friends, everyone celebrating him as he had been the one scoring that goal. I think that it was (for now) the most important goal of my career. It was the goal that made us safe from any willingness from Lazio to draw, the goal that has matado (killed) the game. And to confirm the success, a third goal scored by Ronaldo as well: triple dribble in front of Marcheggiani and ball into the net.
This game was our ransom after a year of disappointments. It seemed that it was the beginning of the black and blue rebirth, the start of a new, great Inter.
Instead, it has been the beginning of an always rising street. The better, euphemism, was yet to come.
Chapter 11 - Muscles of the captain
The following season he left again between thousand of expectations. Once again, Moratti tried in every way to prepare a team capable of competing on all fronts. More great players coming including Roberto Baggio who was destined to become one of my dearest friends.
With Roby, there was an instant feeling. He had lost his love in Argentina, a country where he often spends his holidays in his estate: that is why we established a sympathy between us immediately, partly due to an affinity of character. Both are pretty timid in appearance, but in reality we are people who love to laugh and joke when we are with friends. Football wise, for me it was a great honor to play with a genius like Baggio. Too bad he came to Inter a bit too late and with several physical problems. His mere presence, combined with his immortal class, however, was very important for us in the two years he spent in Milan. Together with Ivan Zamorano, Roby was one of my teammates that I miss the most. And certainly, in an Inter of my dream, he would always find a space, with his number 10 stuck on the back.
Our friendship was not limited to the playing field. We spent many holidays together, in Argentina, and he gave me one of the best gifts that I have ever gotten. One night while we were in retreat, he showed me a videotape of him hunting and several dogs. Between them, there was a young labrador, very beautiful and it had struck me very much. A few days later we went out to dinner. At one point, Roby told me to go with him to his car to help him about something for just a moment. He opened the door, and sprang from the cockpit with the tail wagging, the same dog that I saw in the video. “It’s a gift for you,” he said. Since that day, Simba has always been an integral part of my family.
Meanwhile, back to football, at the helm of the team was Gigi Simoni, but after a few days another reversal in the coaching position was confirmed. Despite the good results of the previous year, and although the team was still competing in the Champions League, the management decided to fire Gigi, the person that all the players were very fond of, but more importantly, a true Interista. That is why the fans still remember him with great affection. The successor was Mircea Lucescu, a globetrotter Romanian who is very knowledgeable but also very friendly with the players. With him, in a friendly against Lugano, I played like a second striker. The beginning with the new coach was promising: goals in bunches in the league, especially at the San Siro, where almost all the opponents had to pay heavily. Things gradually got complicated. The undeserved elimination in the Champions League at the hands of Manchester United (goal by Simeone was unjustly cancelled) and the changing fortunes in the league led to another sacking. The situation at that time was deteriorated, the team was at the mercy of the events and the climate was not the best. It was definitely the most troubled season since I came to Inter. The continuous changes did not make the players happy. The team then gave Luciano Castellini, who until then was the goalkeeping coach, a shot. He was valued by management and the players for his great human qualities as well as technical. But things did not improve. So we were even in more disarray and nervousness. The adventure of Giaguaro, the nickname by which everyone called Castellini, lasted just four games. Another round, another sacking. So Roy Hodgson returned for the last four matchdays. He was the coach that brought us to the UEFA Cup final. We closed that season poorly at the eighth place, 24 points behind Milan, the Italian champion. But we couldn’t even enter the European Cup because we even lost to Bologna in a play-off round. That was a year with four coaches and it was one of my darkness moments at Inter. It was only our faults: no bad refereeing nor was there bad luck. It was just a combination of things. Maybe because there was too much pressure, or maybe the team was too large or it could be the frequent changes at the coaching position. The fact is that no one could have imagined such a bad season. Least of all Moratti, who loves his Inter greatly and did not give up. And the following season, he brought to Milan the most successful coach in recent years: Marcello Lippi, the former “helmsman” of our traditional rival Juventus.
For me, the new year started with a pleasant news. After years and years in his honorable career which he devoted entirely to Inter, Beppe Bergomi decided to hang up his boots on a fateful nail. Along with the boots, lo Zio left his legendary captaincy which he rightly and deservedly worn for several season. Leaving with Bergomi was also Gianluca Pagliuca, the goalkeeper and another great love of Inter, who until that time served as vice-captain. So we were without our historical leaders, without the two players with the most experience, without the two columns on and off the field, and without two great people and players. The team that year was quite young, or rather, there were very few players who had played for Inter for a long time. The honor of being the new captain of Inter touched me. At only 26 years old, I found myself with the armband, the heir to the legendary group which includes Bergomi, Beppe Baresi, Altobelli, Bini and before the recent times, Mazzola, Facchetti, Picchi and Meazza. An Argentinian in command at Inter was never seen before. For me, needless today, it was an enormous satisfaction. Even today, ten years later, wearing the armband of Inter is a boundless pride: the knowledge of having been, for so long, the point of reference for the team, fans and organization makes me inflate the chest. From the beginning, since I landed in Milan, I had a feeling of an Interista. A feeling that over the years has grown enormously: I am now a Nerazzurro from head to toe. Just to give you an idea, I bought a black car, to which I add a blue stripe that runs all around the body, with an embedded circle which has the number 4. I also did something familiar at home: my bathroom is all tiled with the colors of the Nerazzurri, and there is obviously a mosaic forming the number 4. But these things are just an idea that these colors are rooted deep in my heart and soul which I could not live without.
The promotion to captain led to many changes in my role: wearing the armband actually means more responsibility. it means to guide as a leader and an example to my teammates, especially to the younger ones. It means that flexing the muscles to make my voice heard, both to my teammates and the opponents. I then got more used to it little by little, more and more convinced. I was in the right place and this was my ideal situation.
The first season with Lippi started, like usual, with a lot of fanfare. To them, we were the favorites for the Scudetto, we had the best coach around, and the squad was one of the best. In addition, since there was no Europe, we only had the league to think about. For me personally, I once again changed my role, a constant in my career: I got to play right, in the midfield and in a 4-4-2. The first match went wonderfully. The 5-1 victory at the San Siro against Parma of Buffon and Cannavaro with a brace by Zamorano and a stratospheric goal by Vieri. Bobo is a very nice person (on many occasions he was quite helpful for my foundation), and despite rumors about him, he came to thicken a nuclear attack: with him there were Ronaldo, Zamorano, Baggio and Recoba. Few teams in the world that could boast a similar “platoon”. Yet, slowly, things started to go wrong. The team was decimated by injury cases: Ronaldo, unfortunately, was seriously injured in the 10th matchday against Lecce (which ended 6-0 where I also scored a goal) and only returned at the end of the season. Many other players that year also got physical problems. The fact was that within a few months we were cut off from the race for the Scudetto, then Lazio became champions. In January, new players came to strengthen the team, all of the highest level: Clarence Seedorf, Adrian Mutu and Ivan Cordoba. With the latter, as already happened with Baggio and Zamorano, an immediate understanding was taken. I remember that I went to the airport with my wife to greet him and his pregnant wife to host them at our home in Como for a few days. Ivan is still today one of my best friends. He is a person that there are few like him: serious, honest, sincere, hard worker. And an Interista. I think that he, among the current players, has the biggest heart for our Beneamata. Not a coincidence that he is a vice-captain, but for his charisma, his character, his tranquility it was like as if he is wearing the armband too. Cordoba, not only involved on many battles on the field, was also my partner in various humanitarian initiatives. We share similar principles and same values: from that idea, Foundation Colombia was born. It is a project created for the benefit of underprivileged children in Colombia that we lead together with his wife Maria.
In spite of new signings, the situation did not improve much. With Marcello Lippi, while fully respecting the roles, I also had some discussions, rather than on some verbal confrontation. He is a great coach (his resume speaks for itself), but perhaps, when he arrived at Inter, he did not drop completely into a new reality. Perhaps he was still too attached to his old team and its players whom, we see as the enemy, the opponent to beat. The bottom line was that at the end of the season, we too fourth place with the same amount of points as Parma. The tiebreaker was resolved in our favor with a goal by Zamorano and two magic spells by Baggio.
Chapter 12 - There is only Inter
And we remember the lawyer Prisco / he said that Serie A is in our DNA / we don’t buy the league / and in Serie B we have never been seen.
Elio “There’s only Inter”
Inter are always alone in the sense of solitary, disconnected from everything else; and always alone in the sense of unique, way of thinking, acting, relating with the world.
I will never be tired of repeating, at the risk of sounding trite: Inter are a different creature from all other teams. In our DNA, perhaps there is a small dose of good and bad. Inter are genius and reckless. Inter are suffering. Inter are pain and ecstasy. From Inter, you can expect everything and all of its opposite. Impossible victories and resounding defeats with crossings of matches of a lifetime and unimaginable emptiness. This Inter fan was accustomed to suffering, but never gave up, never jumped the ship in time of need. This Inter fan was and is a loved chronic, a passionate one. He had the character of an Argentine. He was loyal, passionate, for better or for worse. He was also bright, intelligent and ironic. Just read many blogs around the Internet and many books created to talk about the misery and splendor of our beloved team. yeah, because it takes a little bit of irony to cheer for Inter. We all know this great Interista, without a doubt, he was the most embodied in the role of a Nerazzurri fan: Peppino Prisco.
He was one of the most beloved of this great Inter family.
For him, there is only Inter. “In Milan, there are only two teams: Inter and Inter Primavera,” he said. His another motto is: “"Inter were born by the defecting associates from AC Milan. That shows you how far you can go starting from nothing.” Or: “When I shake with a Milanista, I wash my hands. And when I shake hands with a Juventino, then I count my fingers.” Peppino Prisco was like that: an integral part of Inter, a man (also a skier, his other great passion) who lived his life in the shades of Inter. He knew how to do it thanks to his innate wit, but for this he was respected and loved even by the opponents that he made fun of. I had the good fortune to know him: he was always very friendly, sarcastic, available to all, a fine person with unparalleled intelligence and charisma. I remember him when I met him and he always said: “You’re my man, I trust you.”
Following his death, his irony, manner and competence were lacking especially in difficulty times. Peppino would surely have found a way to defuse the most difficult situations. When we lost the derby 6-0 against Milan in 2001, few had the courage to face the cameras. Among those he, himself, waited for the entire year for the derby, could only accept the defeat against anyone, but not against Milan. At the end of the season, despite that horrific game, we managed to overcome the Rossoneri in the standings: we were fifth and they were sixth. The lawyer took the ball and said: “Now I understand why the Milan fans greeted me by six fingers from both hands, because they arrived in sixth place.”
He died in December of that year. It was another sad day, like the day when Giacinto left us. With the disappearance of Prisco, Inter have lost another great figure in its history, another important point of reference. We miss him a lot. People like him are only good for football. He knew how to lighten any situation, to get around opponents without ever falling into vulgarity. He had a unique class of unmatched wit. He left behind a great track for Inter. Perhaps more often, we should remember that Inter used to have people like him. We must be proud and proud of our history, our coat of arms, the integrity that has always characterized Inter. After all, we are the only team that has never relegated to Serie B. And when someone reminds us of our failures, our dark moments, it might be worth recalling that we have not bent at dark and devious power plays, and that what we have built in our history is only the fruit of our efforts, no outside help or anything. “Serie A is in our DNA,” Prisco said. It has became the key of the anthem of Inter, it was written by Elio and sung by Graziano Romani. It is the song that sums up what Inter really mean to its fans, because there is no team like Inter, capable of everything and all of its opposite. Others, we let them talk. They can discredit us by any means to diminish our value, to criticize our coaches and players, but they will never tarnish our love. Because for us, for better or for worse, there is only Inter.
Chapter 13 - One step from a dream
The claims of retaliation and the desire for redemption were not met. The year 2000-2001 began under an unlucky star which would accompany us throughout the season. A left adductor muscle injury kept me on the bench during the pre-season. Forty days without football and it was the first time such thing had happened to me. Everything turned awry from the start, the qualifying round of the Champions League, when the unthinkable happened: we were eliminated from the little known Swedish team of Helsingborg, not exactly the cream of European football. One of the biggest disappointments since I was at Inter: we struggled to achieve our goal by winning the tie against Parma, and then, at the time our efforts were thrown away into the wind. A little of bad luck, a little due to the absences. But the dark period was just beginning. On the first day of the championship (league) at the Granillo stadium against Reggina, another and new defeat took place here. Heavy, very heavy defeat because it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Marcello Lippi, having already vented toughly against the players, suggested that he was no longer able to handle the cabin. A few hours after, the divorce was consummated. After a little bit more than a year, his “romance” with the black and blue colors was at the terminus. In his place, there was another former Juventus player who, at the same time, had Inter in his resume: Marco Tardelli. Meanwhile, I was still struggling with my rehabilitation work, trying to speed up the return to the field as soon as possible to give my contribution. Once I’d healed, in any case, things continued to go badly. I am convinced that this was the most miserable season of my fifteen years at Inter. The elimination in the Champions League, the sudden change of coach: we were all in disarray, and the boat was sinking. The understandings between the players and this new coach were never born. And there was no getting around it. I, myself, had several problems with Tardeli: many discussions, many arguments. We had different ways of conceiving football. It happens: you just can not get along with everyone. In this climate, we were not certainly at peace and got sucked into a vortex, thus exposing different figures. The 6-1 against Parma in the Italian Cup, the 6-0 against Milan in the derby, the elimination in the UEFA Cup against Alaves, and to complete that, strong protests by the fans. Now the pieces were broken, and putting them together would have been useless. The blow suffered in the derby was almost logical, as unjustifiable as that might sound, for this true annus horribilis (horrible year in Latin). Almost full circle, we were also victims of an unfortunate episode of violence: a Molotov cocktail was thrown at our bus when we were on our way to the San Siro before the second leg in the Italian Cup against Parma. It was the lowest point of the season, the apex of the darkness. Losses, blunders and eliminations were nothing compared to that unfortunate gesture. Our lives were really at risk because of a mindless thug, a criminal masquerading as a pseudo fan. The floor of the bus caught on fire, and we were followed by endless minutes of genuine panic. We were seriously at risk because we were all dry and had that fire caught the gas thank and it would have been the end. A similar incident happened a few years later, in 2006. We were coming back from the trip to Ascoli on Saturday after being eliminated by Villareal in the Champions League. Once we arrived at Malpensa airport, we were assaulted by a group of imbeciles who pretended to be fans. A real ambush. Fifteen minutes of madness. Our cars were kicked, the players were pushed, all kinds of threats. Cristiano Zanetti was struck in the back. Only the intervention of the police officers was able to calm everyone down. Only a few times in my life had I felt so afraid. Gesture like that have nothing to do with football. I think the fans have everything to boo, even insults if they just can not help it when things don’t turn the right way. However, when dispute leads to acts of barbarity, then it has nothing to do with sports anymore. It becomes a pretext to vent their bestial instincts, to hide behind frustration or even more serious diseases.
Between bombs and defeats, we ended that season in fifth place, with the only consolation of having overcome Milan in the table. But the torments, personally, lasted throughout the summer. For a long time someone insinuated that I wanted to leave Inter, flattered by the offers of Real Madrid and Manchester United. Far from it. In fifteen years of my career at Inter, I never thought of changing the atmosphere. Probably someone - certainly not the president nor the directors - that did not see me eye to eye. Everything returned to normal when the new coach was officially announced. Hector Cuper, Argentine of Chabas, leaped to the headlines for having achieved, in years, as many trips to the Champions League Final with Valencia.
The meeting with Hector immediately clarified the situation. At the beginning of the summer, he called me aside for a chat. He asked if it was true that I wanted to leave Inter and at the same time, he told me that I was an indispensable element in the project, the team, that he had in mind. The reassurance was enough to throw my worries last year and all the rumors about me behind. And I began the season more determined than ever. Cuper demonstrated right away that he was a very knowledgeable coach with great personalities. His training methods were like “sergeant of iron”: on the field, he was inflexible and required a lot of discipline by imposing rules to be followed scrupulously. However, with that type of discipline, passion was also involved: every time, before going down to the field, he patted on the chest of each player and said: “Yo soy contigo” or “I am with you”, a phrase that showed how much he cared about the cause. With Cuper, my role was once again changed as I returned to play purely as a right-back, the same position that I had in my debut game with Banfield. It was, from my point of view personally, one of my best seasons. In this new role, I found myself marvelous, the mechanisms of the team were improving little by little and everything seemed to go for the best. In a long time, we remained anchored at the top of the standings, and as the days gone by, the dream of conquering, finally, the agnostic Scudetto became more real. Then we came to the finish that everybody knows and still remembers, with that incredible finale “pazza Inter” style. At this point, however, more explanations of the “mysteries” of May 5 are need. Or we need to search for the psychological reasons of our defeat, I think it is proper to make some clarifications. The 2001-2002 season was the great illusion. That year, full force of the pride of all Interisti emerged. The conquest of the Scudetto seemed to be a mere formality. It would be enough to win on the last day in Rome against Lazio, a team that had little to ask for more in this championship. The gap between us and our competitors, Juventus and Roma, had been thinned the previous matchday. We reached the epilogue with one one point over the Bianconeri and two on the Giallorossi. And this is precisely the issue I think. Probably that one point lead we had could had been more. We could be in the game in Rome with the title already in our pocket, in some occasions, if things had not happened rather strangely, to say the least. I am referring to the game against in Verona against Chievo, the third from last in the league. The final result was 2-2, but the game had a sharp impact on a glaring error of the referee, who did not award a clear penalty kick to Ronaldo. At that time, there was talk of a simple oversight (even referees can make mistakes just like the players), but when, five years later, the scandalous Calciopoli exploded and so our suspicions were confirmed. The referee of that game was Massimo De Santis, one of the more involved in the “system” which for years had ruled Italian football.
This is not to hind behind a finger or justify our defeat against Lazio that costs us the title. But the episode, along with many others from previous season, was yet another hint of something that as undermining the world of football. We had to wait years to finally rid of that cancer that, for such a long time, had crept in the stadiums of the Peninsula.
On that May 5, everything was written and said. I, who experienced this firsthand, can say that we arrived at that game with too much pressure on us and a little tired from the physical point of view. A foggy period happens to each team during the season and we got that misfortune at the end just when we could reap the benefits of the whole year. For the entire week, we did not talk about that game. Each of us was convinced that we could do it but perhaps, unconsciously, there was too much pressure and we played a bad joke. To cut our legs was the second goal of Lazio, which made it 2-2 at the end of the first half. In the second, everything was cracked beyond repair. Head and body were turned over, and there was little to do. Football is like that. And defeats just like victories, are part of the game, whose beauty lies in its unpredictability. Losing games when they seemed to be won. And this time, it was our turn.
Throughout the Inter world, May 5 corresponds to the collapse of a long cherished dream. What happened next you can imagine. It was like we were an inch from the sky and we could not touch it. A boundless delusion. At the end of the game in the dressing room we did not feel a fly. There was too much pain in all of us. Tears and anger. Being angry, arguing and blaming someone would have been useless. From first to last, without exception, we were all the architects of our defeat.
To regroup was hard, very hard, but in these situations that character shows. It is in difficult times that shows the making of a champion and the strength of the group. “Never give up,” sung by our fans has always been my motto. Throwing in the towel after a defeat would have been cowardly. The big dream had vanished but the hope of grabbing it again was not yet dead. Football, fortunately, always offers a second chance.
We expected more hard times but we could make it.
Chapter 14 - Captain of Pupi
If on the field, things were not good, in Argentina the situation was much worse. The terrible economic crisis of 2001 was a tremendous blow to my country. The serious debt and the consequent devaluation of the peso caused a wave of problems, bringing hundreds of thousands of families on the brink abyss. Paula and I watched helplessly, and saw the harrowing images on the television passing by. It was a total collapse, a point of no return. I remember that, at that time, every day, I phoned by parents to know, to understand what was really happening across the ocean, where a dramatic event was taking place light years away in the golden world that we were living in Italy. Losses, eliminations, and small football hysteria was really nothing compared to the pain I felt during this disaster, while watching from a privileged position.
Daily through the Internet, I followed closely the shattering of my country. Paying the consequences were mostly children of the poorest districts of the metropolis. There was talk of over a dozen children died each day because of starvation, infected water, poor hygiene, lack of medicines and care.
I am from a humble background, but in my childhood I never missed the necessities of life. Even at time of the dictatorship that we had seen, it was not as bad as in 2001. The roll-ups/shutters of shops were down, social unrest, bank accounts frozen, misery and despair everywhere. In addition to the helplessness of not knowing how to help my country, I felt a sense of anger. Argentina has many resources, both human and material, and it is historically one of the major foot exporting countries in the world. Yet this crisis sent all to ruins, crumble every hope.
In this sad and dark time that Paula and I decided to roll up our sleeves and contribute our small parts to improve things. The experience with Bindun, Beppe Bergomi’s association, gave us the first input. It was time that we had to do something for our country, to be put at the service of our people, and especially our children. That crisis was only served to accelerate the process. To tear the heart during that martyrdom, in particular, was in fact the images of the children. It was time to build something concrete as we watching children’s future without spring. The support of my wife was instrumental in making a decision, and especially to figure out which direction to move forward. The fact that I was a famous footballer in the world make it a little bit easier. I believe that everyone, especially when they can count on a strong popularity, has a social responsibility within the community in which they live or grew up.
It didn’t take much to go from thoughts to actions, because we found many friends and relatives that willing to lend a hand. The name was chosen early, without even the need to race one’s brains: Fundación Pupi, Pupi Foundation. Pupi is my football nickname and it is an acronym for “Por un por integrado” or “Build for a childhood”.
From the very beginning our concepts were clear: The Foundation’s purpose was to satisfy the basic needs of children, to give them food, education, hygiene, and thus help their families. The problems we were facing that time were not only related to the economic crisis. The discomfort of some neighborhoods, especially in the poorest suburbs of Buenos Aires, was still a reality. In the urban areas of Argentina, more than two and a half million children from zero to nine yeas old, 48 percent of whom live in absolute poverty. The district of Lanus was one of the areas where this discomfort reached its peak. For this reason, we decided to focus our attention on that area, specially on the villa of Traza in the suburb of Remedios de Escalada, where the bulk of the population was forced to live in dilapidated shacks, without the slightest hope of being able to aspire to a better future. For miles and miles, a wasteland stretches. Just beyond Villa Fiorito, another slum dominated by degradation, which has become famous for being the birthplace of Maradona. The majority of children who grew up in these villas de emergencia was forced to live on their wits. Unfortunately not everyone has the good fortune of being born with the chromosomes and the talent of Maradona. Since children are left in the lurch, to survive, they are after forced to exploitation by adults to sell drugs on the street or begging. To resist the pangs of hunger, they often rummage through the garbage, or in some landfill. Unacceptable situations, like from the Middle Ages. Our Foundation has started from there, between the folds of misery. We started with 23 children, the needy, reported on social assistance. Today, Paula and I are adoptive parents of more than 150 children. In total, however, the Foundation is responsible for more than 1000 people, including relatives of the children.
All of this was made possible by the help of my father-in-law, Andres de la Fuente, a former University professor, who is in charge as the president. My mother-in-law, Monica Giacoletto, however, is a psychologist and has played a key role in the organization of educational programs. For many children now, the Foundation has become the first home, a safe place to spend the afternoons and grow in harmony, respecting those fundamental rights that were previously denied.
The idea of a home is for it to serve as a refuge, a protection and as a healthy environment. Going back to my past as a bricklayer, when I was a little I used to work alongside my father in construction sites. And I always see a house as the main right of every person. And the Foundation is now the home for many children, the starting point for a better future.
Initially, the programs were only for the guests, but soon we realized that the children were living in a virtual reality: from Monday to Friday, we found a padded and safe world, but by the weekend, they returned to their family with a sad reality. What emerged was the idea of extending the network, even to family members, in order to combat ignorance and poverty through a full grogram.
Many children we have have no knowledge of hygiene, they did not know what a shower is and had never had lunch or dinner at a table set. The first step was to teach them basic hygiene rules, and meet for 75 percent of their daily food needs, through a midday meal, a snack in the afternoon, and a large snack later, since for many, dinner is a chimera.
The Foundation’s programs are and have been studied in details by a team of professionals. In the morning, each child is taken from his home to kindergarten or school by bus. At the end of the lessons which are accompanied to the Foundation, where, after lunch, they will start with complementary activities. Children are followed by professionals in many different activities including music, gymnastics, dance, design, theater, swimming, rugby and football of course, thanks to Inter Campus and in the summer, it will make its facilities available for the older brothers of our guests. Rugby is another sport which is very useful in terms of behavior. In Argentina, it is considered a scheme or the reach, and the fact that our children, who have nothing, are playing it means that they are on equal footing with others, and shows that their exclusion is not absolute. Whoever needs special care and attention then they can count on a group of educational psychologists who can offer assistance in oral motor assessment, psychomotor, and psychological.
Today, in addition to the parent homes, we have added three more homes closer to Traza, where other activities take place which directed mostly to family members. In one of these, a micro-enterprise has risen for women where women to set up a sewing workshop after being trained by the Foundation. Now they are real full-scale tailors and workers: they learned to operate a regular salary, to meet schedules, to take care of the machinery and to relate to colleagues. The job placement is another of our objectives. By partnering with some companies, we have been offering some courses to the parents of the children of the Foundation. Carpentry, courses to learn how to grow vegetables, technical advice to improve their homes by hand. The other house serves as a warehouse while the latter hosts a project called “Mama Amor” which deals with pregnant women and newborns. The goal is to teach mothers, or future mothers, how to take care of their children through workshops for hygiene and cooking. And others, in which one learns to interact with children and play with them. Every woman can also count on the medical care due to the presence of gynecologists and obstetricians.
The greatest joy in these seven years of life of our project was to see the progress of some of the children. Many arrived with thousands of problems and then completely revived thanks to the care and love they received day after day at the Foundation. I often return to Argentina to spend some time with my children. When Paula and I arrived, it is always a party. Warmth, affection, the joy that children bring us have no bounds. I like to spend my free time with them, to inform them of their progress, you know, just by my presence, I can be their source of happiness and serenity. When they see me, they run towards me, hug me and jump in my arms: I feel kind of like their captain.
In recent years, I have witnessed many wonderful stories. I will never forget that Martin ran to meet me and spoke my name, but not many other children who could manage to turn around a tragedy. Another wonderful story is that of Gisela. She joined the Foundation at four years old, reported on social assistance because of mental retardation, the same disorder affecting the mother and siblings. In two years of patient and consistent with children psychologists, Gisela was able to catch up, enrolling in primary school with an IQ within the norm. She was a child destined to illiteracy and social exclusion as a result. With a full program of recovery, she has become a little girl with the same possibilities and hopes just like others. She is now nearing the end of elementary school within ever having repeated a year.
And then there is the story of Nazarena, for years a victim of a violent and alcoholic father. She came to us when she was five, with very serious problems in relating to others. Thanks to the intervention of the Foundation, the father was ousted from his home. Now the girl lives with her grandmother and seven years later, she is another person. She laughs, plays and jokes. She has so much in need of affection from those who understand her, play with her and those who can make her smile.
Finally, there is Denise. She joined the Foundation at four years old. She could not walk because of a slight physical deformity. The real problem, however, was that no one had ever encouraged her to walk, no one had ever been near her. For twelve months, twice a week, she was advised by a physiotherapist. Long exercises, tests and then she started showing big improvements. Now at nine years old, she is walking perfectly.
The ideas of the Foundation immediately took root also among my teammates. I have to thank once against Inter and many friends in the years I have always been given a hand by participating enthusiastically in all our charities.
One of the first to understand the important and social value of the project was my friend Ivan Zamorano. Even in Chile, at that time, wasn’t doing very well because the country was caught between economic crisis and misery. Thanks also to his support, the first step which was raising fund was completed. The cost for managing the Foundation like this is huge, more than three hundred thousand euros per year, but despite the difficulties, we have continued to believe and to enlarge our way because we have found wonderful people, always willing to support us. For self-financing, many ideas have been put in place and many of them ran by my wife. She is in constant touch with the Foundation over the Internet. Spending all day to organize charity events, finding new ideas to involved people from world of sport and entertainment. Her passion for photography was very important. We have been producing calendars, the last of them with the special participation of Paolo Maldini, captain of Milan and a person of quite exquisite sensibility.
It is often said that football is a sport populated by spoiled children, greedy people who only think about money and success. For myself, I can say just the opposite because I have found many teammates who are ready to help in any way. One of the successful initiatives raising funds was to auction football shirts through the web portal e-bay, from those of my teammates or from the shirts we exchanged for at the end of games. The generosity of the Italian has been a pleasant surprise: if today, one hundred and fifty children and their families can hope for a better future, much is due to them. Children can be sponsored or “adopted” with a contribution of less than one euro per day. With that, children are promised to be provided food, education, health, and clothing. At the Foundation we have a motto: “There is no one strong enough to go alone, no one is so weak that they cannot help.”
The support of fellow players is not limited to the exchange of shirts. Many have participated in the events that we present during the year. During the Christmas season, when Argentina is hot, it has become a tradition to organize a charity match in Buenos Aires at the mythical Bombonera, the stadium of Boca Juniors. Champions of yesterday and today, teammates and former comrades continue helping me out so generously. And it’s always a celebration: playing football, knowing that it can produce only good is a fantastic feeling, knowing that our presence on the field will bring some benefits to a single child is something priceless. I repeat: nothing is more beautiful than to be helpful to others. Also a concept dear to many entertainers. The prime example was the publication of Stelle and Pupi, a DVD that contains several sketches made by me with the people like Ligabue (one of my musical legends), Aldo, Giovanni, and Giacomo, Ale and Franz, the band of Gialappa and with a special appearance by a friend as Roberto Baggio.
Thanks to them, and the affection of many fans who support the Foundation (not only Interisti), today, the children in Lanus can actually believe in a more peaceful tomorrow. I feel responsible for their future, and I want to continue with the collaboration of the people, especially my wife who is the head of the Foundation, and everyday she is by my side, to pursue this dream. When the City of Milan, in 2005, gave me of the Ambrogino d’oro, one of the city’s most important award, for my activity with the Foundation, for me, it was like winning the Golden Ball. It was more a spur to continue, and the recognition to the many efforts made in recent years. But we are not at the beginning of the journey: our children are our future, and their hope of a better future is mainly dependent on us.
Chapter 15 - I am Interista
Picking up the pieces after May 5 was simple. Not even the World Cup in South Korea and Japan in the summer of 2002 could remove the memory of our defeat in the league. And in August, at the start of a new season, many things changed. Ronaldo, the most loved player by the fans of Inter, decided to marry elsewhere, preferring to pursue a career in Spain with Real Madrid shirt. I never shared his choice nor agreed to the motivations that led him to leave Milan, a separation, it was said, due to alleged conflicts with Hector Cuper. I said then and I repeat today: Ronie was one of the greatest footballers in the history, probably the best player with whom, I had the honor of playing, but at that moment Massimo Moratti and the millions of Inter fans, who had chosen him as the undisputed idol, were waiting and suffering with him during his two long injuries. For him, after his ordeal, I gave up the captaincy to let him know that the team supported him and how much he was important for us all. It was not enough. But football is like a wheel: players, directors, presidents and coaches will go by, the club’s colors remain.
During the second year with Cuper as coach, the colony of Argentina began to grow. Besides me, Nelson Vivas, Matias Almeyda and Andres Guglielminpietro, also came were Killy Gonzalez, Hernan Crespo and then, during the season, there was another great striker Gabriel Batistuta. Even without Ronaldo, our most representative player, Inter were the protagonist of a good season, but again, another tremendous disappointments came in the Champions League. The memory still hurts me now. After twenty-five years, Inter managed to reach the semifinals in he most prestigious cup in Europe. The urn of the draw was, however, very evil: Inter-Milan, the challenge that everyone, on both sides, wanted to avoid in anyway. For days, we did not talk much about it. On the other hand there was the first Euro-Derby in the history, the first time that these two teams clashed in Europe. Easy to imagine the pressure and anxiety that engulfed the days prior to the game. The derby already in itself is an unusual game, the most feared and the same time the most fascinating. Inter and Milan are not just the two Milanese teams, there are two contrasting styles and two philosophies. But I have always had a sincere respect for the “cousins” and for many players of the Rossoneri. First and foremost, Paolo Maldini, in my opinion is one of the greatest of all time. Until then, the derby was always seen as a challenge for supremacy in the city, but in May 2003, it was turned into something much more important. Europe was at stake, and Milan became the capital of continental football: it was not just any derby, it was the Euro-Derby.
The first leg ended 0-0. Few chances for both sides, and a result that substantially good for us because, on paper, we were playing away. It was not, however, enough to rest easy in the view of the second leg. It was another week of passion. Everyone on the streets was talking about the game as well as the radio, newspaper and television. It would have been enough for us to win 1-0 for a dream to come true after five cultivated decades, and fly to Manchester to play for the final. I remember that night the San Siro was a bedlam. There was no half a seat in the stands and every corner and of course the Curva Nord, the colors black and blue were seen. And just like the first leg, the game was very balanced, but at the end of first half came the cold shower: Shevchenko slipped away from Cordo and beat Toldo. At that point, to qualify, we had to score two goals. In the second half, we put on our souls and maybe something more. And thanks to the thrust of our fans, with eight minutes left in the game, we equalized with a goal by Martins. The last few minutes, the game was played with a high level of adrenaline. The draw bent Milan at which point the situation was reversed to our favor, except now that the time was running out. I will never forget the final attacks, with the entire stadium standing to incite a tide that Inter wanted to push the ball in the net. One good occasion happened to Kallon in injury time but Abbiati, Milan goalkeeper, with a miracle that shattered our dreams of glory. The final whistle of the refereed was the rock on our hopes. At the end of the game, we were destroyed. Physically and psychologically. I had so much anger inside and so much frustration that I could not hold back the tears. I cried like a baby. I got discouraged. Eliminated without losing, against Milan in the semifinals of the CHampions League. I don’t know if that was harder to digest than the defeat of May 5. In terms of my football sorrows, that deserves the top sport on an equal footing.
The following year was a transition year. After six league games Cuper, the man who had brought us to the brink of league title and the Champions League final, was relieved. We didn’t a good start in that season, and Moratti thought that it would be right to change to give a jolt to the team. Alberto Zaccheroni arrived: a declared Interista and the former coach of Milan which on the Scudetto in 1999. The coach had little time to inculcate his tactical ideas. The fact was that that season was not memorable because we got eliminated in the Champions League and then in the UEFA Cup. We got the fourth spot in the league so it was worth Europe with other great teams.
In the 2004-2005 season, a new cycle opened that would, in short, win us the coveted title. Roberto Mancini came on the bench, a former great player who I had met a few times on the field, including the 1998 UEFA Cup final. The colony of Argentina, despite the loss of certain “pieces”, meanwhile, continued to thicken. First came Cruz, my teammate at Banfield, and Gonzalez, then Veron, Burdisso and finally El Cuchu Esteban Cambiasso.
The first two years with Mancini served as apprenticeship. The team was revolutionized in both in the formation and our module of play. We started with mixed results, but the conquest of the Italian Cup against Roma, the team that in subsequent seasons would be our biggest rival, marked the first step to forge a winning team. In Europe, however, things went less well. The fate in store for us was another Euro-Derby against Milan. The chance of revenge after the bitterness of 2003. Unfortunately, things immediately began badly and we went down 2-0, then the return game was suspended a few minutes after some smoke canisters were launched by our fans. I do not condone the incident, but their patience had reached its limit. However, they only needed a few months to recombine the pieces of the puzzle.
The following year was in fact one of turning point. Not only for Inter, but for the entire Italian football. The wind changed forever. Still with Mancini at the helm, came another victory in the Italian Cup, also against Roma. But while important, it was not the signal that confines the past. In the summer of 2006, all nodes were solved. In my first twelve years, the Nerazzuri had won a UEFA Cup and two Italian Cups. Not much, but I felt that I missed a couple of Scudetti, and that if everything was done according to the rules, those titles would have ended up at Inter.
That summer was very hot, and not just because of the temperature and the Italian national team won the World Cup. It was the watershed between the past and present. When I hear that Calciopoli was all a fabrication, a plot hatched by Inter makes me laugh. The people involved know every well that it is not. The hind behind a finger. There are tests, there are facts and there are interceptions that reveal everything.
It was tough for us, for the Inter fans to endure for years the scams, power games and the teasing of opposing fans who usually sing the chant: “You never win.” The change was consumed within a couple of months. And the truth, what some still hard to accept finally came up. The “system” as defined, for years played us out. This is not to say that there were errors on our part, however, those errors were certainly magnified by the context.
Football, as I wrote, is like a spinning wheel. I have always believed strongly that, sooner or later, our time would come. The 2006 Scudetto was assigned to us as compensation for all those that were stolen in previous years. Nothing more. We only did our duty. It was certainly not our fault if the two teams that preceded us in the standings were punished, and then penalized. Many critics and journalists, also authoritative, condemned the decision of Moratti to accept the title arriving in the mail. Sure, it was not the same thing to win a title like that without being able to celebrate on the field with the embrace of the supporters. But why would we give it up? We had nothing to hide, we were clean. Above all, we were proud Interisti. And adjective is worth more than a thousand words.
Chapter 16 - Italians of Argentina, Argentinians of Italy
I consider myself as an emigrant of return. In Italy, I found a second home, that my ancestors left so many years ago. Maybe because of this reason I would never move and right now I have no intention of doing so. Italy is a country that has given me so much, that welcomed me when I was a stranger and allowed me to become a true footballer. I could never forget my roots and my home country, but after fifteen years, I feel like an Italian. My children, Sol and Ignacio were born in Italy and my love affair with Paula grew up in this country. I'm also in love with Como and its lake. I love Italian foot and I am often called me Saverio (Xavier) instead of Javier a little bit because my name is not easy to pronounce (and many have mangled it) and a little because, probably, by now, I am considered Italian in all intents and purposes. Honorary I'd say.
Inter have frequently been criticized for having too many foreigners in the team. But one could see that these last names of the recent players in the last few years like Zanetti, Cambiasso, Burdisso, Crespo, Solari... were born in Argentina but with clear Italian roots. Natives, we used to say. It is because of our chromosomes that we adapt more easily to life in Italy and Serie A. Being in Italy for us is like being at home, even if we miss our country very much. At Inter, I have had good fortune to play with so many countrymen. The "Argentinian colony", as many call it, has been a strong point of the last few seasons. But we have never been a clan. People sometimes talk about the dressing room of Inter being divided into "small groups": nothing further from the truth. It's a little bit like the story of the rivalry between Brazilian and Argentinians. The rivalry exists, it's true, but only when the two national teams meet. With fellow Brazilian teammates I've always had great relationship with. I was a good friend with Roberto Carlos, among other things, he was a very nice and simple guy. He was outgoing and always cheerful. I notice the same thing everyday with the likes of Maicon and Julio Cesar: other than the rivalry, with them, there is always fun.
We Argentinians often make common cause, but for a simple cultural identity. In retreat, we always have a great time playing guitar as Burdisso, Walter Samuel and I, alternating, strumming it. It is a way to ease the tension before matches, and also to the group. I really enjoy playing and signing songs by Ligabue, one of my favorite musicians together with Laura Pausini, Eros Ramazzotti and Los Piojos, literally "lice", one of the most important Argentinian rock bands. Music has always been part of my life. Luckily, I also sing so when it comes to signing I don't hold back. Like Pazza Inter for instance, it is the song which has became the anthem of this team at the San Siro and that resonates every time we enter and exit the field. Singing it is a wonderful experience. However I will never forget the duet with Mina, the Queen of Italian music. I was chosen as the male voice of "Parole Parole" over other prominent candidates including a certain Antonia Bandera. Unfortunately we did not record simultaneously but it will certainly be among my best memories.
Another ritual for us Argentinians is drinking mate in the team. This is an infusion prepared with the so-called yerba mate, an herb that grows in South America, in a container and then you drink it after adding hot water and sugar. In Argentina, it is a ritual just like grilling meat. The pork, barbecued beef, is our specialty. Usually we grill together with our families and as well our teammates all night. We have often held barbecues inviting the whole team, including the president. Masters of the grills are Samuel and Nicolas Burdisso, grim defenders on the field but also refined chefs. A barbecue can be used to pull the group together, to celebrate a victory or to forget a defeat. The strength of a team can be seen in these little things. It's all part of the group. It is the harmony between players, technical staff and directors that can make good results. And in recent years, at Inter have formed a real group where the individualism is placed at the center of the team, the only thing that matters.
They say that in football, there are no more symbols. Perhaps it is partly true, there are fewer players who really become attached to the shirt. But if you look at the great teams, all can count on a leader, a captain who gives his soul for these colors for so many years. Paulo Maldini for Milan, Allessandro Del Piero for Juventus, two great players and two extraordinary people and beyond the football rivalry, I have always respected them. I never like to celebrate these things but, unfortunately the age gives me no escape, I am the bandiera (flag or symbol) of Inter. Also Massimo Moratti has defined me as so and for him saying it is a great satisfaction. Perhaps only when I pass Giancinto Facheeti in the number of appearances at Inter and become the second in the player in the history of Inter after Beppe Bergomi, I will really understand what it means to be a flag. Passing a legend like Giancinto, the player who best and most than anybody embodied the spirit of Inter, is something incredible. No one wanted to bet half a cent on this when I arrived in Italy, and I think that no one did. However, although I've got so high I certainly will not stop.
I am often asked the secret of my longevity in football. My answer has always been the same: there is no secret. I have to thank mother nature for giving me this body, although someone said the boy was too small to play... And then I've been making my living as an athlete, healthy, free from injuries. I never stray. I always train with the utmost seriousness and great obstinacy so I never suffer serious injury. For me, after so many years on the football field, it is still a pleasure to play. I enjoy it just like the beginning. I think this is another key factor. With time, then, of course, I learn to manage better, to estimate the forces with more caution than when I was 20. At 35 years old, i still play every game non-stop, even when I have to travel across oceans to play with my national team. I am now so familiar with flying that I fall asleep before takeoff. It is a way to optimize time. And then with small children who are always moving, so in the summer I keep on training by chasing after them all day: a beautiful grind. Many call me a "robot", I simply believe that I know how to use my gifts and cultivate them well.
I hope in particular that I can become an example for younger ones. With only talent one is not going anywhere, if there is no also added perseverance and application. I like being around my kids and I am pleased that my younger teammates can sometimes ask me for some tips like I am their big brother. At Inter, there are many players who have picked up my inheritance. My friend Esteban Cambiasso is seen by all as the captain of the future: he has all the qualities, he is a great player and a person of value. I also hope that Davide Santon can do the same. I don't want to put on the pressure but if he continues with the same commitment and with the same humility, he will do great things.
Hoever, at least until 2011, my successors will have their hearts in peace. I have no intention of letting up now that Inter have started winning. And I do not feel at all satisfied, despite the many records that I have achieved in recent years. I feel I can still give a lot to this shirt. When a reporter asked if Cambiasso in 2014, the year in which the contract expires with Inter, will be the captain; between seriousness and facetious, Cuchu replied: "No because in 2014 Javier Zanetti will still be on the field." Who knows if he isn't right.
Chapter 17 - La Seleccion
I have never felt the weight traveling around the world wearing the shirt of my national team. I have been in Italy for fifteen years but the charm of the Seleccion, I have never been able to resist: so I will continue flying overseas to make my contribution. It is an action that does not make me feel tired even though that I am no longer a little kid. My love and passion for Albiceleste in the early days have remained the same. Nothing has changed: for any player, it is a huge gratification to defend the colors of his country no matter if he’s in his 20s or 30s.
I was lucky enough to get into the national team early. When I was in 20s, I made my debut: Daniel Passarella gave me a call-up for a friendly against Chile, in Santiago, a few months after my debut in Argentina’s Primera Division with the shirt of Banfield. The team needed to rebuild after the disappointment of the ’94 World Cup in the USA, the tournament that practically marked the end of the line for Diego Armando Maradona. It was a great start: 3-0 for us. Who would have thought that my adventure would last for over fifteen years. In fact, I believe that the beauty is yet to come. I want to go all out and realize one of final dreams as a footballer: to play in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I will be almost 37 years old but if everything goes smoothly, I think I can be useful to the cause. After all I have to heal some wounds. So far I have not won a title with the national team. I have almost touched it a few times but haven’t been able to reach the highest step of a podium yet.
On the other hand, I was awarded much satisfaction with the shirt of Argentina. For years, I’ve been the captain of the team and for some time, I am holding the record for appearances, 129 at the moment (but I hope this number is growing even more). If I look at this special list, I almost get chills. Behind me there are real superstars in our football: Ayala, Simeone, Ruggeri, Maradona, Ortega, Batistuta, Passarella... I am very proud of this record, to be entered in the history of my national team. Just for this, although I played very little in the Argentinian league, I am becoming a symbol of football in my homeland. Anyway, I hope that not only my positive influence can be found on the field but off of it as well. I was never interested in idolatry strictly related to sports: I wish that my countrymen can see this as well and understand that I am attached to my country despite leaving far away.
My first great adventure with the Seleccion, after the debut in Santiago, was dated back to July and August of 1996 when the Olympics were held in Sydney. With the U-23 team, coached by Passarella, we took much satisfaction although the gold metal escaped away from us. But that adventure has remained in my heart. It was my only participation in the Olympics, a competition that is distinct from all others. Athletes from all over the world come together in an atmosphere of celebration and brotherhood, it is a special feeling. For many years, Argentina was unable to win a medal, precisely since 1928 when the Seleccion went to the second step of the podium. So much expectation was on us because we were a team that can really go all the way. Passarella organized a young team, according to the regulations, however, which consists of players who had some experience already on their shoulders. They were the one that destined to become the backbone of the national team of the future. Among my teammates, there were those who followed me to Inter like Diego Simeone, Hernan Crespo, and Matias Almeyda but also many others who had tasted the proscenium of Serie A like el Piojo Lopez, Sensini, Ayala, Chamot and Ortega.
All would have bet on a final between Argentina and Brazil, a team that had Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto and Juninho. But to everyone’s amazement, the Selecao was eliminated in the semifinals by Nigeria. For us, in the semifinals, we beat Portugal 2-0 thanks to two goals from Crespo. So the final was set: Argentina and Nigeria. There was a lot of Inter’s future in this game. Other than myself, Almeyda, Simeone and Crespo, on the other side were Nwankwo Kanu and Taribo West: the first came to Milan right away after the game, the second also came as reinforcement for the defense (also brought a lot of cheerfulness, Taribo was a mythical figure) during the era of Gigi Simoni. It was a very exciting game. We took the lead thanks to Lopez then they equalized with Babayaro. They scored again with Crespo then again equal. The tied game lasted up to a handful of seconds before the end when the specter of extra time seems inevitable. But at the end, the goal of Amuneke condemned us to second place. The silver medal has a historic achievement because a medal was missing for sixty eight years.
We were not successful even in 2004, in the Copa America in Lima, Peru against our arch-rival Brazil. Once again, it was a game of Nerazzurri colors. And in this one occasion, it was my Inter teammate that made a joke once again at the end. I’m talking about Adriano, the author of Brazi’s second goal to equalize the game at 2-2 in the 93rd minute but which time we were looking forward to the sweet taste of victory. That goal turned over every perspective: for us it was a tremendous blow, a panacea for Brazil. The lottery of penalty kicks once again brought me the bad. Like in 1997, at the time of UEFA Cup Final against Schalke 04. Moral of this story was that the Brazilians did not miss a shot and Julio Cesar, Brazilian goalkeeper and my future Inter teammate, saved the first shot from D’Alessandro and condemned us to failure. Another dream vanished when least expected.
Coppa America and Olympics are two prestigious moments but for any player, the biggest is obviously the World Cup. No competition has the same appeal The Olympics are unique to the atmosphere because it is a hymn to the true value of sports. Copa America is a very sensitive local tournament that usually fires up all the participating teams but the World Cup is another matter. Playing in a World Cup is a culmination of a dream from childhood, the apex of the career of a footballer. The occasion came in 1998 in France. I was pretty pumped up after winning the UEFA Cup with Inter a few months before. It was the first World Cup after Maradona. We were presented among the favorites to win the tournament. This group was more or less the same with one that won the silver medal at the Olympics with the addition of other stars like Gabriel Batistuta and Veron (two footballers also played for Inter). The beginning of this adventure was immediately positive. Int the three matches of the group stage we had as many wins against Japan, Jamaica and Croatia. But in the round of 16, we got to play an opponent that we all wished we could have avoided: England. Twelve years after the hand of God, one of the most memorable matches in the history of football, here we were, facing the British enemy. Of course time had changed, the memory of the Malvinas war became more nuanced. But the rivalry was still the same, and for many of us, who were kids in 1986, this game with England is the Game with the capital “G”. For days, there were talks of great revenge, the British wanted to avenge the result suffered in Mexico, for our part we wanted to prove that what happened twelve years ago was not due to chance and luck. On the field, it was a real battle. We went in front with the goal from the penalty spot by Batistuta, then Shearer, again from the penalty spot, and Owen completed the comeback for England. Then a dream was realized. In the 45th minute, a free-kick for us almost on the edge of the penalty area. Instead of shooting straight at goal, Veron surprised everyone finding myself turning. I controlled the ball with the right foot, shot the ball with the outside of the left foot to the goal of Seaman. The ball ended up near the top corner where the English goalkeeper just could not get. It was one of the most important goals in my career, certainly you can not compare to those of Maradona but it was the goal that allowed us to get back on track to win the game. I remember the followed celebration. I didn’t understand what was going on while all jumped on me. I ended up lying on the ground, buried. My teammates started to embrace me while in the stands, the blue and white flags of Argentina were waving and the commentators must be going crazy with the ritual cry of joy: “Gooooooooool.” In the second half, the result stayed the same at 2-2. Despite the famous red card for Beckham because of his reaction after the foul by Simeon, England managed to hold up the tie to get to penalties. Once again, the Seleccion and my destiny was decided by just eleven meters. But this time, after so much bad luck, luck turned to our side. Twelve years later, Argentina managed to beat England at the World Cup again, just like that day in June 1986. With this momentum, we thought that we could really get to the final. Instead, we presented ourselves to the game with the Netherlands a little exhausted physically for such a long battle with the British. At that time we were once again unlucky because the goal was scored right at the end: beautiful goal for Dennis Bergkamp (many will remember him also at Inter) and 2-1 final for them.
Four years later, in Korea and Japan, we were once again among the favorites. But as it turned out, it could not have been worse. Eliminated in the group stage, this time, with a defeat by the British. The fate in store for us was a very tough group and many did not hesitate to define it as “the group of death.” Other than us there were England, Sweden and Nigeria. We started out well by beating Nigeria thus taking revenge for the Olympics but in the second game with the British came a stringing defeat by the goal from Beckham. In the last match against Sweden, a decisive one, we can only snatch a draw. Too little to qualify, so back home, it was the feeling of disappointment mixed with despair.
So I waited for another four years. But waiting for me was another backhanded slap although, to be honest, it was not really a big surprise. For some time, I knew that I was not in good graces of Jose Pekerman, the coach that the time. The fact is that my name was not there on the player list. Personally, that summer was bittersweet: on one hand there was my Inter who was taking back what had been stolen years earlier, my other disappointment was of course the exclusion of the Seleccion. My patience was rewarded because Pekerman resigned after that tournament, and with the return of Alfio Basile, my adventure started again.
Now my goal is to play (at least) another World Cup and try to win it so I can forget the disappointments of the past. Now there is Diego Armando Maradona, an absolute idol, leading us. For us Argentinians he will always remain a mythical figure but he has already demonstrated very well as a coach. I found him to be a very affable and quiet person, a coach with clear ideas and knows what he wants.
With him on the bench and the genius of Leo Messi on the field, we have that it takes to go far.
Chapter 18 - Captain of the centenary
“They chose for us the colors of the sky and night. One hundred years have passed and we thank them again for having founded Internazionale Football Club. It was the evening on March 9, 1908 with more than forty: today we are millions. They gather in the heart of Milan at Orologio restaurant. They were rebellious and had a dream: to give equal opportunity to all Italians and foreigners to play football for the same flag of Nerazzurri. One hundred years have passed since that evening, one hundred years of passion and beauty, one hundred years of expectations, fantasy, on hundred years of challenges, victories and much pride: a lot of pride. This is the night of memory, the night of future that unites the champions of yesterday, today and tomorrow. This is the night where we will dream of that far away March 9 and gift it to our children. This is the night for all Inter fans: young and old, near and far. For one hundred years more, for one hundred years of emotions, and for always solo Inter!”
I still get chills when I listen to those words that Gianfelice Facchetti, son of the great Giacinto, spoke at the San Siro during the centennial celebration of Inter. I was lucky enough to experience first hand the celebrations, and especially as a captain to enjoy this memorable event. That evening will never be forgotten. It will remain forever etched in my heart, one of my dearest memories.
When I entered the field to greet the fans, along with other big Inter greats what accomplished much glory at Inter, I felt like a lost bullet in the Inter galaxy like I was submerged in the sea of people waiting to share with us this unique and irreplaceable moment. More than eighty thousand people came from every corner of Italy (and perhaps even abroad) to shout to the world their faith, to be embraced by everyone in this great Inter family, and thus to enter in its legendary history. It was during those moments that I really realized what it means to wear the armband, what it means to be the captain of one of the most important clubs in the world. A serious responsibility, but above all, a great honor and a privilege granted only a few chosen ones. If fate has its own logic, I don’t think it was just a coincidence that I was the captain of the centenary, an Argentinian, a foreigner. In its full name, Internazionale, is written the philosophy of this team: a team that has no boundaries, a team that was founded to “allow all Italians and foreigners to play football under the same flag of Inter.”
That night was a real glimpse into the past. I saw history passing before my eyes. At the San Siro came dozens of former players and teammates, all mythical figures. Among them there was also Lothar Matthaus. I already had a chance to talk with him a few years before in a party organized by FIFA for the centenary of the association, but the meeting at the San Siro was something very special. Our roles were reversed: he was now the “spectator” and I was the protagonist. A strange and exciting feeling at the same time as I shook hands with the great players of the past making compliments and prompted us to give our best for Inter. That was also a great opportunity to reunite with old friends, many friends who over the years had contributed to the history of Inter then fate brought them elsewhere. The symbols of Grande Inter - Mazzola, Corso, Burgnich and all others - those who competed in the 60s against “my” Independiente, or the great Germans of the 80s and 90s like Rummenigge, Klinsmann and Brehme. I was lost in front of these legends. Obviously it was a huge pleasure for me to see Roberto Baggio, Ivan Zamorano but also all other former teammates from Nicola Berti to Gianluca Pagliuca. It was a great reunion for this marvelous family, all returned for one night to relive the same old passion.
With the centenary celebrations, I was able to achieve another dream of mine: to meet the Pope. Being a Catholic as I am, it was really a touching moment that I had been waiting for years and it came right in one of the happiest moments of my career and history with Inter. The opportunity came during a trop to Rome to play a match in the Italian Cup. As captain, I was honored to personally present the Pope an Inter shirt with Benedict XIV written on the back. This was a very emotional moment like no other.
The centennial year was also special because we were able to won our first Scudetto on the field compared to previous year. The Calciopoli scandal had redesigned the appearance of Italian football. With Juventus in Serie B and Milan penalized by eight points, everyone, inevitably, saw Inter as the great favorite. In fact, not only we had the advantage but we were obligated to win the Scudetto. In the summer, the team was also strengthened with champions such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Patrick Vieira, Maicon, Hernan Crespo (for him it was a return after two years elsewhere), Maxwell and the new world champion Fabio Grosso. We had no more excuses: our historical rivals were not there and we were the team at a highest level. All eyes, from the press and fans, were on us. But winning would not be enough, we needed to win big. And as always we were alone, alone against a good deal of criticism that the league was too easy, as if we were to blame for the penalties or relegation against other teams. We were call, mockingly, “the band of honest men”, as if the honesty from Inter was a fault rather than a merit. Also for these reasons, we played every game from beginning to end to the best of our potential without sparing anybody, always trying to improve and achieve a new record every time. Today, it is no coincidence that that team, together with the formation that won us the Scudetto i 1989, is remembered as an Inter team full of records. I should consult an almanac to remember all the shattered records during that season. The 97 points, 17 consecutive victories, 33 straight games without defeat. There was never any doubt on where the Scudetto would go: excuse my immodesty but that year, there was no team that could compete with us. Roma were an worthy opponent but our we proved that we were to superior. Even Milan, already penalized in the standings, could do little or nothing against us and we came out winners in both derbies. The first victory was spectacular: a 4-3 win which for us did not do complete justice. If Marco Materazzi, one of the protagonists of that season, had not been sent off when we were up 4-1, it could have been a bigger result for us. From a personal perspective, I think that year was a turning point in my career: after years of going up and down on the wing, I saw the midfield again under Mancini, a position that was already tested during the first year with Hodgson. A position that doesn’t required a lot physically but I have to be smarter and carefully reading the game and the situations. Now I feel like a midfielder to all intents and purposes. Also, if the team misses a left-back, I would play on the left same thing on the right. For me, it is not a problem, but rather a pleasure to know that coaches can always trust me and that I can make myself useful to the cause in several ways. The will to demonstrate throughout Italy that we were the strongest team which continued to break record penalized us in Europe. We were eliminated by the hands of Valencia: two fatal draws, the last of which, on the road, ended with a sad brawl triggered by the provocation of the Spanish Navarro against Burdisso. It was a disappointment, although our primary objective that year was to win the Scudetto. We really wanted to finally have a chance to celebrate on the field together with our fans. The first match-ball, at the San Siro against Roma went blank. It was a bad joke maybe because of too much tension, or the fact that the gap was so wide even a misstep would not affect anything. And in fact, a week later, April 22 2007, in Siena, the long-waited dream came true. Two penalties converted by Materazzi which gave us the victory and at the same time Roma lost in Bergamo against Atalanta. Italian Champions. Finally we are Italian Champions. On the field. It hadn’t happened for 18 years. Magical moment, we were ecstatic. All the waiting and suffering of the past were swept away in a flash. You can imagine what happened in the dressing room: a wild party, including bottles of champagne, jokes, songs, and the inevitable teases to our “cousin” Milan and rival Juventus. That afternoon, Siena was our catharsis. Our revenge. Our first great feast. The joy of that Scudetto lasted all night. Once we were back in Milan, the team provided us a double-decker bus to parade through the streets in the center part of the city. We were so revved up that after a few minutes the roof was torn into half due to crazy celebrations. In doing so we created a sort of terrace where you can lean over and look down the endless stream of people. I have never seen so many people at once. Not even during a derby or during a World Cup match. The center of Milan had become an Inter inferno, the bust moved in snail’s pace up in Piazza del Duomo where there was really no room even for a pin. After all, it was a victory that the organization, the team and fans waited for a long long time. Everywhere there was a chorus: “Inter, Inter!” Everywhere you can see the pride of this unique club. Everywhere, there were only two colors, black and blue.
Of course, to the critics and detractors, that was a Scudetto of “cardboard,” a tittle won because of lack of opponents. Very few, apart from Inter fans, recognized Inter as a superior force than any other team. I strongly believe that even with Serie A at full strength, the Scudetto would have been ours. From the physical point of view were were predominately devastating from Ibrahimovic to Stankovic, Figo to Crespo, Cruz to Maicon and from Materazzi to Cambiasso.
The following year, 2007-2008 season, was that of the consecration. The “owls” of Italy were waiting at the gate hoping for one of our sip up to assert their outlandish theories. Serie A was back at full force with the promotion of teams such as Juventus, Napoli and Genoa. We repeated all from scratch. This time, no favoritism, no shortcuts, no fast track. Yet the beginning was very similar the previous year: Inter were on the run and all others were trying to catch up. Until March, things had gone very well, after which an incredible series of injuries slowed us down a bit while Roma just did not give up. The decisive game was precisely the one with the Giallorossi at the San Siro on February 27. It was the turning point of a period of decline but still managed to even out the competition with our direct antagonists. One of my dearest memories was the equalizer (1-1) with a handful of seconds until the end. It was a right footed shot right the edge of the penalty area. The feeling was more or less the same as that of Paris ten years earlier. Pure joy: I ran all over the field like a madman in disbelief (I am not accustomed to hit the opponent’s goal) for my prowess. That goal was essential enough to hold off Roma. I became “Scudetto captain” although the road to the title was still long and tortuous. The the elimination from the Champions League against Liverpool arrived in the days of centenary celebrations. It was an elimination full of regrets and it dealt a severe blow to the dressing room. The outburst after the return leg of Roberto Mancini, who announced to the press that at the end of the season he would leave Inter, in fact marked the end of a cycle. What remained was a very difficult league because there was a Scudetto to win. It was not easy to find concentration after those events but in the last two months emerged the strength and character of this group. Instead of sinking, the ship became more and more robust. Between problems and injuries we were able to hold off the comeback attempt of Roma, even though that the last few matches we complicated our lives. First of it was a defeat in the derby then a draw at home with Siena in a game that could give us the Scudetto arithmetically. So everything was delayed until the final day at the Tardini stadium against Parma just like in 2002. Many had already summoned the ghost of May 5, ready to celebrate our new defeat. But fortunately the history does not always repeat itself. It was a rainy day in an afternoon in May and it all happened in the second half. We ended the first half at 0-0 while Roma were winning in Catania. So with 45 minutes left to play, we, for the first time, were in the second place in the table after dominating the league. Other clouds were facing us, other spectra began to hover over the stadium, but in the second half, the story changed. We did not face this half with either fear or anxiety. Stepping onto the field was Zlatan Ibramiovic and in just a few minutes, he wiped out the owls and ghosts surrounding us with a winning brace: 2-0, the Italian Champions were still us. Another round, another unrestrained joy, another Cup to heaven, another black and blue river from the Tardini to the San Siro where there was yet another celebration. I don’t know which Scudetto that we won on the field is my favorite. The first in 2007 was my first love, unforgettable and memorable. The second was heart-pounding, thrilling race until the last second. Two different stories but with the same sweet finish. And now that I have finally tasted the taste of victory, I do not want to stop.
Chapter 19 - Together we can
Paula and I are adoptive parents of more than one hundred and fifty children, but we are also very fortunate to have our own children: Sol, born in 2005 and her little brother, Ignacio, born in 2008. It is a just a mere coincidence but since they were born, Inter started to win. Their godfathers at baptism are Ivan Zamorano and Ivan Cordoba: two close friends and two great Interisti. Being a father is the most beautiful experience in the world and the love for our children is something immeasurable, beyond everything and everyone. My children have filled and changed my life for the better. Now, in addition to Inter, I am also their captain. It is one more responsibility but I gladly accepted. I hope to be a guide and an example which means, sometimes, I need to be able to say no. Affection and love cannot be measured only with gifts and caresses: I want my children to grow in a healthy environment and have every chance to choose, but also understand that in life you always have to struggle to reach your goals or objectives.
The experience at Inter has taught me a lot over the years. It is like living in a large extended family and as a big family, there are disagreements and tensions, but in the end what really matters is the common good. I’m proud of the respect that I have earned in these years, something that cannot be achieved overnight. When I did something wrong, it was done in good faith. I was never a computer. I have never put my own interests before those of the team. Because now Inter are my home. “When you came here, you were a child. Now we see that you have grown,” my friends Paolo Vedova, Claudio Rossi have always told me that. The best compliment that I can have is when the trust for me during these year has not changed. Despite the long militancy, I hope to be the same person who, 15 years ago, showed up with football boots tucked in a plastic bag. Even if one takes the armband, he must never forget the values that he grew up and started with. Of course, the role of a captain is one more responsibility: one must always be present when the team is in need, a guide in difficult times, a point of reference for younger teammates. It is a real pleasure to know that I am the starting example for others. The one thing that irks me about my role is the colors of the armband from time to time. I decide the design together with my friend Federico Enrichetti, president of Inter club Milano Centro. For each occurrence, we create a new one. They are very close to those that bear the logo of the Foundation and those which celebrated special records. Like the band designed for my 600 games at Inter: all the teams that I had faced, in small and large fonts, Italians as well as foreigners. And of course I will never forget the one dedicated to Giacinto, my teacher, that I worn after his death: “You are everything...,” read the sentence. Facchetti will always remain an example: even though that I had passed him in appearances, he remains the symbol of Inter, the emblem of football.
A captain must be a leader on and off the field. Honestly in my career, I don’t think I have ever argued or insulted any opponent or anyone. I don’t want to be a saint or anything but they are my characters. I play, I give my soul, but I don’t like provoking tricks or anything. Throughout my career, I only suffered one sent-off, a rather absurd one when referee Braschi gave three red cards at once to me, Beppe Bergomi and Francesco Colonnesse during a Italian Cup against Parma back in 1999. Too bad. But my fairness on the field was rewarded on several occasions. San Siro Gentleman is the award for those players who demonstrate fair play at its best and who play in Milan. I will never win the Golden Ball but for me, these awards are of equal value.
Being fair does not mean being submissive. Attitude is something else. You can be aggressive and fair at the same time. The motto that my father taught I have never forgotten. I still want to win a lot. After so much bad luck, the wheel seems to turn to our side. Football is a wheel. We must not fall when things go wrong and not too excited when you win.
I hope to open a new cycle with Jose Mourinho. He is a great coach, very well prepared technician. He explains concepts very clearly and when he says something, it is not in an uncertain term. I believe that Inter have much to give and that, sooner or later, after having conquered Italy, we will be able to do the same in Europe. And as always, I will try to make my contribution. I have no intention of becoming a coach - the work is too complicated - but I would continue my career as a director. I would like to build on the experience accumulated over the years in terms of organization. Working for Inter 360 degrees. We will see, but for the moment, I have no intention of hanging up my boots.
Overseas, in folds of poverty, there are always Gisela, Augustina, Martin, Narazena and all the others who are counting on me. On us. Becoming aware of the fact that with the help of everyone, without exception, is essential to improve things and make this a better world. If we really want, if we truly believe and come together on the same side, as a team, all together we can.
Chapter 20 - A year to remember
You never stop learning, and never stop being surprised by things. Not even at 36, when you think you've seen it all on a football pitch. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: luck comes and goes. This team who had not won anything, "the joke of Italy" as someone labeled us, in a few years, become one of the strongest teams in Europe and the world. I have always believed, even when everything had gone wrong, even when hovering over our colors seemed to be an insidious curse. The work will pay off, always. That is my motto. Since my arrival at Inter, I have tried to put it in practice: because you could have the talent of Maradona but you don't apply yourself, don't put in your passion and commitment, you are not going anywhere. My efforts, also those from management and my teammates have paid off this year, the season that every player dreams of: to arrive at the end of every competition, to be there and play until the last breath. Adrenaline running high, without a moment to catch your breath, always on the edge. But this is the beauty of football, these are the feelings and emotions that give a boost to continue fighting the give our best.
With Jose Mourinho, it was the beginning of a new cycle. After the Scudetto in 2009, my fourth consecutively, the team has become more mature. But everyone from the president to equipment manager wanted more. Being the strongest in Italy wasn't enough. We wanted to prove to the world - and especially ourselves - that this team had all the little things to become great at all latitudes. No obsession: simply a dream that we built on day by day, with the help of every single member in the group. Only like that in football, with the strengths of the team and self-sacrificing, that we can improve. Because besides the sacrifices, all the training, traveling, tensions, there is a prize waiting: to be written and to be remembered forever in the history.
For many of us - myself included - that would probably be the last chance. We're not getting any younger even if people think I am a bionic man, we must be realistic: two, three, or maybe four more years, I must resign myself to the idea of hanging up my boots. Dreams, however, do not age. And we dreamed, strongly believed in our dream. Already that summer, during training camp, we realized that this would be a memorable year. Despite the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, our best player, the club managed to set up a team even stronger. Many other champions arrived: Milito, Sneijder, Eto'o, Lucio, Thiago Motta, Pandev. Many new players but with one goal in mind: to get to the very end. In every competition, without a preference. Everyone, from first to last person, wanted to apply themselves for that common objective. Our style of play had also changed: more movement, more technical, with more offensive weapons. Soon arrived our first satisfactions. The 4-0 against Milan in the August derby gave us the knowledge that we were still the strongest, just the first victories in the Champions League. At some point in the season, we had reached a structure to feel almost invincible. That was the strongest Inter that I have ever played for I can say that without a doubt. There were champions who always prepared to sacrifice in the name of the group, to become fullbacks in a few occasions for the good of the team. I, as always and with a great pleasure, played everywhere: right back, left back, central midfielder, outside midfielder. Many different roles but with one purpose: to be helpful to the group. That year, I went over 500 appearances in Serie A but unfortunately my record of 137 consecutive games was interrupted due to a disqualification for getting too many yellow cards. A day of rest, I thought, was something that I much deserved.
The turning point of the season was the game against Chelsea in London, the second leg in the first knockout round in the Champions League. We only needed a 0-0 draw to qualify, but staying in defense for 90 minutes would be too dangerous. And so we played an open game, without fear, confident of our strength. And we succeeded: after four consecutive eliminations in the second round, we had dispelled the taboo by winning at home of one of the best teams in the continent. From then on, the fly towards the end continued. We didn't give anything up, and only those who are the players can understand how difficult it is to keep high concentration without the possibility of making mistakes. Everywhere, in every competition, only Inter remained: the thrilling duel with Roma in the league until the very last matchday, the Italian Cup victory over the same Giallorossi, and then the magical Champions League with the epic matches with Barcelona and then the final in Madrid against Bayern Munich, the game that hadn't happened for Inter in 38 years. The game that I always wanted to play as a child.
The rest was history.
And if between winning and losing is a big different, I think that the important thing is to always do your best until the very end, never give up.
I am sure that my children on the other side of the ocean think so.