Inter Milan, as usual making things just about as difficult as possible, captured the scudetto, the Italian league title, yesterday. It should have made sure last weekend, but that customary brewer of trouble, Marco Materazzi, pushed his way, quite literally, into the action -- shoving his teammates out of the way as he insisted on taking a crucial penalty kick, the one that should have given Inter a win over Siena, and decided the title.
No doubt Materazzi was overcome with memories of last season, when he had scored the two goals (also against Siena) that had decided the championship, with the winning goal coming from a penalty. But Materazzi's attempt to relive past glory turned to ashes as, to the consternation of all and the fury of his coach Roberto Mancini, he missed the PK.
So it came down to yesterday's must-win game at Parma. The hero of the afternoon, no doubt about that -- certainly the man who saved Materazzi from going down as one of the most vilified players in Inter's long history -- was the Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A serious knee injury had kept Ibrahimovic sidelined for some six weeks; the risk -- to the player -- of bringing him back on a rain-sodden field was dire. When Ibrahimovic entered the game, after 50 minutes, the score was 0-0, and Roma -- winning 1-0 at Catania -- was set to be the new champion. But Ibrahimovic did his job, scoring the two goals that ensured Inter the championship for the third year running.
Of those three, this was the one that really mattered. In 2006, Inter was awarded the title after the teams finishing ahead of it -- Juventus and Milan -- were stripped of points because of their involvement in the game-fixing scandal. The 2007 title might also be seen as suspect -- because Juventus had been moved down to Serie B, while Milan started the season with a penalty of minus eight points.
So this past season was the only one played under what might be termed "regular" conditions. At one point Inter was a massive 11 points ahead of second place Roma, but a string of poor Inter results -- coinciding with Ibrahimovic's absence -- saw Roma just one point behind before yesterday's games.
Watching the Inter players celebrating on Parma's field, it was good to see the attention being given to Javier Zanetti, the 34-year-old Argentine who is the club captain.
Zanetti joined Inter in 1995, from the Argentine club Banfield. He played his first game for Inter at age 22, and has since played over 500 times for the club. All his stats are impressive -- he is also the most-capped player for Argentina, with 118 appearances.
Nominally a defender -- usually a right back -- Zanetti has always played with an attacking edge to his game, rather in the style of his predecessor at Inter, the great Giacinto Facchetti, really the man who invented the attacking defender in modern soccer.
Zanetti scored a few goals in his time -- 12 for Inter, and 5 for Argentina, not a huge number, but they include that superb strike against England in the 1998 World Cup, a goal that, to many, is the best-ever example of a set-play goal.
But the stats of Zanetti's career give no hint of his outstanding personal qualities -- his one-club devotion to Inter for 13 years, his unswerving professionalism, his commitment to maintaining his physical fitness. Zanetti's name has never appeared in the tabloid headlines, indeed it has rarely been seen outside the sports pages.
Two years ago Zanetti suffered a huge blow when coach Jose Pekerman left him out of Argentina's World Cup team for Germany 2006. But, even though he was bitterly disappointed, Zanetti's response was anything but bitter, he took the news calmly, and never criticized Pekerman.
A quiet man from a humble background -- a Buenos Aires boyhood that involved helping his bricklayer father, and working in a cousin's produce market. During that boyhood, Zanetti became Pupi -- a childish little nickname that has stuck to him, and has come to have a proud meaning far beyond Zanetti's own hard childhood years. In 2001, with his wife Paula, Zanetti created the Fundacion Pupi, which helps poor children in Argentina by providing educational opportunities and ensuring that their dietary needs are met.
Zanetti's story is a refreshing antidote to the sordid tales of crass commercialism and blatant hedonism that too often disfigure the picture of modern soccer. He stands tall as a great player, a faithful club servant, a complete professional, and a modest man with a social conscience. Bravo Pupi!