Right and left-back/Midfielder - Argentina
Original 200 writeup:
Quite simply a force of nature. He plays every game every year. Has probably had one semi serious injury in the last fifteen and that was 10 years ago when he only played 29 of the league games...
He has missed just two league games in the last four seasons at an advanced age.
7 of the last 8 seasons he has played 50 games or more, rarely if ever as a substitute, and almost never badly. If ever at all. He is one of the most consistent players around. He is 36 years old. The oldest on the list.
He has great stamina and is seemingly never tired. When he plays fullback he still gets up and down the line and if he is midfielder, more common in recent years, he defends well and still makes those trademark (Il Trattore) tractor style runs forward with cannot be rocked balance, the ball glued to his feet. At 36 he is still somehow a dynamic player.
First time I saw him was early 1995, the first Confederations Cup being played (then actually less prestigious than it is these days) and the final between Argentina and Denmark.
Denmark had the Laudrups and Argentina still young ones such as Ariel Ortega, Batistuta, Ayala etc etc and then there was Zanetti who's class immediately stood out. He had made his debut late 1994 post the Argentina/Maradona World Cup collapse in America that year.
At this point he was an exciting right-winger who with pace and skill gave Denmark all kinds of problems and if I remember correctly one year later for the incredibly exciting and talented Argentina 1996 Olympic silver medalist team (but with respect to the gold medalists Nigeria by far the best, they had Ayala, Chamot, Ortega, Crespo, Simone, Sensini, Claudio Lopez, Delgardo, Almeyda and Gallardo,) it was similar though looking at those names it's possible he was right-wingback with Chamot, Sensini and Ayala the central defenders. He was very attacking I do remember that.
In the following years for Inter that was also his role. Under ever changing coaches they had many spells where they played 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 if you will and during those years, where they just could not win, whether he was a wing-back in one of the above systems or fullback in a back-four, in my mind it was always between him and Cafu for the title as the best right-back in the world.
Unfortunately for Zanetti he was "stuck" on both an underachieving club and national side, while Cafu even at Roma won a Scudetto and then there was his highly praised work, and the trophies to show for it, for Brazil and later AC Milan.
Cafu therefore understandably got the more attention and was of course an excellent, one of the best ever, right-backs, but was he a better player than Zanetti?
Personally I think it's up in the air but towards the end of Cafu which coincided with Zanetti starting to play other positions I do think Il Capitano as Inter fans call Zanetti, was the more complete and better player. And I won't rule out that he was in fact all along.
Of course Inter would later get the current best right-back in the world Maicon and as he came into his own (himself a former winger) Zanetti started to play most of his games in midfield, either as a defensive midfielder or right-central midfielder in a diamond during the Roberto Mancini years.
He was now at a point. A point he is still at where he could do a great job in several positions and as Jose Mourinho took the Inter seat, that is what he did, right, left, center, midfield or defense leading the team to great triumphs culminating of course this year with the European Cup and treble.
Mourinho who after his first season in charge said this:
"The player who surprised me the most was Zanetti. His passport cannot be telling the truth (claiming he's 35), it must be ten years out, he's incredible,"
He is indeed incredible and when I started this list I really didn't think I would rank him this high. But as the season went along he just kept proving again and again that he was still going strong, showing no signs of slowing down yet another season at an advanced age defying nature, and then his amazing physical ability, good technique, intelligence, leadership and not least unique versatility makes him one of the better players in the world.
The 300 update:
Not even the great Zanetti is unaffected by Inter's poor 2010/11 season so far, and there have been some lesser performances than what we're used to seeing from Mr Consistent himself.
I'm definitely not going to start talking about showing age when the man has defied just that countless of times before, and it could just be the team, the injuries, the new coach, tactics and well other younger player's advanced age behind all the trouble.
For everything involved with Inter a lot depend right now on Rafa Benitez going or staying, and him going (getting sacked or quitting) seems to depend on how president Moratti feels about pleas for strengthening the squad in January.
We'll see what happens.