Pitchside Europe

Beat serious injury at 39? If anyone can, Javier Zanetti can

Internazionale's Javier Zanetti shakes hands with his coach Andrea Stramaccioni

To Javier Zanetti, it's hopefully nothing more than a pit stop. "I had to change tyres after so many miles," he said upon leaving the San Matteo hospital in Pavia last night. The Inter captain had got 1,101 appearances out of them when he suffered a blowout on his left side in Palermo.

It'd happened in the 14th minute of the game. Already trailing by a goal to nil after some woeful defending by Matias Silvestre and Juan Jesus had allowed Josip Ilicic to strike what would ultimately prove the match-winner, Zanetti was motoring down the right and setting himself to make a cross into the box when his standing leg, the left, appeared to give way following a slight challenge from Salvatore Aronica.

The crowd at the Favorita heard a yelp of pain. As a look of concern materialised on their faces, an expression of “extremely serious” hurt transfigured poor Zanetti's.

Hobbling over to the sideline, he immediately signalled to the bench to make a change before putting his hands to his head in anguish and collapsing to the ground.

Inter's physios dashed over to provide assistance. What they needed couldn't be found in one of their Sixtus bags, though. They needed a stretcher. "When I saw that he didn't come back on, I knew it was bad," said Inter full-back Jonathan. Zanetti was carried off, his hands still covering his face.

No one could quite believe what they were seeing. Zanetti has established a reputation over the years for being indestructible. He's Inter's iron man.

At the very same ground two and a half years ago, he took a ball in the chest from Fabio Liverani that caused his lung to cave a little. He experienced breathing problems but insisted on playing on and finished the game only to then faint in the dressing room afterwards. For a time, it looked like Zanetti would need an operation, but he recovered and soldiered on, captaining Inter to ‘mini-treble’ that season comprising the Italian Super Cup, the Club World Cup and Coppa Italia.

He hardly ever gets injured. Since joining Inter in 1995, Zanetti has featured in 845 of their 938 games. That's an appearance rate of 90%. Quite astounding, isn't it? As is the fact that between October 25, 2006 and April 3, 2010 he played a record 137 consecutive games, only for his streak to end because he reached the yellow card limit.

No. Zanetti was supposed to be unbreakable. Still playing at 39, still performing at a high level, still among Inter's top players, many thought he'd stumbled upon the secret to eternal life. "It can't be" was the refrain as the news circulated and the news, unfortunately, was bad. Inter's doctor Franco Combi revealed they suspected Zanetti had torn his Achilles tendon.

Like the Greek hero of the Trojan War, "evidently this was his only weak point," wrote Andrea Sorrentino in La Repubblica.

There was a cruel, cruel irony to what happened on Sunday afternoon in Palermo. Earlier in the week, Zanetti and his family had been granted a private audience with Pope Francis, a fellow Argentine and therefore a source of great pride and inspiration, to discuss key issues and the hard work done by the Inter Campus and his P.U.P.I Foundation.

"It was an emotional occasion," Zanetti told the Inter Channel, "because when he was elected, the first thing I wanted to do was meet him. Today I had the opportunity to do so and it was a real privilege. I found him to be a straightforward man, with a big heart, who will do everything in his power to help believers."

Aware that the Pontifex is a football lover and a supporter of San Lorenzo back in their native Argentina, Zanetti presented him with a number of gifts, including a No.4 shirt and a captain's armband with the flags of Italy, Argentina and the Vatican City embroidered on it, along with Zanetti's and the Pope, Jorge Bergoglio's initials, JB.

Zanetti wore it when he took to the field on Sunday. Rather than a blessing, though, it seemed like a curse. “To have lost someone like him is an awful blow,” a visibly moved Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni explained, “because in such a difficult moment [for the club] the value of Zanetti to the team is incredible. Seeing him on the bed in pain was terrible for all of us.”

The X-Ray conducted at San Matteo that evening confirmed the worst: he’d ruptured his left Achilles tendon, an injury Inter have had plenty of experience in dealing with after Dejan Stankovic suffered one last season and Gabi Mudingayi this. Inflammation of Walter Samuel’s, incidentally, has kept him in the treatment room for much of the second half of this campaign.

Expected to be out for six to eight months, the question many were asking was as follows: Only four months shy of his 40th birthday, has Zanetti played his last game for Inter? His answer couldn’t have been any more unequivocal. “My career isn’t over,” Zanetti insisted. “My goal is to come back stronger than before, and I believe… I’ll overcome this too.”

Zanetti expressed none of the doubt that the Los Angeles’ Lakers guard Kobe Bryant had in a Facebook post after he succumbed to the same injury earlier in the month. “Why the hell did this happen?!? Makes no damn sense,” Bryant wrote. “Now I’m supposed to come back from this and be the same player Or better at 35?!? How in the world am I supposed to do that?!? Maybe this is how my book ends. Maybe Father Time has defeated me… Then again maybe not!”

Tough times await both in their rehabilitation. Aside from a few numbskull Milan fans in the Curva Sud at San Siro who sang: “Javier Zanetti, jump with us,” during Sunday night’s game between rivals Milan and Catania, a chant they also reserved for Diego Milito shortly after he suffered a season-ending and potentially career-threatening knee injury back in February, the support for Zanetti has been overwhelming.

Juventus coach Antonio Conte, club captain Gigi Buffon and Claudio Marchisio all wished him a speedy recovery, as did his former teammate, the Milan striker Mario Balotelli. “I want to see you on the pitch again soon,” he said. “In addition to being a great player, you’re a great man too.”

Get well soon Pupi.