Throwback Thursday: The Only Expulsion of Captain Javier Zanetti

There are many champions in football, but only a few Legends. Legends are made by details, those small, subtle aspects of the game that go beyond a marvelous goal or a well-timed tackle.

Javier Zanetti needs no introduction. No one would dispute his legend status, at least in the Italian top-flight. A versatile prototype of a modern full-back / wing-back, the Inter stalwart graced the Serie A with his presence for 19 years, always remaining loyal to his beloved Nerazzurri shirt, becoming an icon of charisma, dedication, and respect.

On such premises, one would arguably struggle to picture how such a gentle character could turn into a ruthless defender – but what made Zanetti an authentic outlier was the fact that he managed to do so without ever losing his composure and honesty. So clean was his style of play and so respectful his attitude on the pitch that Javier Zanetti has only ONE Serie A expulsion to his name.

But yes, it did happen once.

It was on December 3, 2011, when Zanetti’s send-off added insult to injury in a colorless game that Inter lost 0-1 to Udinese.  

Times were tough at Appiano Gentile back then. Inter were coached by Claudio Ranieri and were living their worst post-Triplete days, still struggling to cope with the gap left on the bench by Josè Mourinho more than one year after his departure.

The Nerazzurri had put a young Gian Piero Gasperini in charge, but Gasp was far from his current Atalanta successes and was axed after two losses in four games, including a shocking 1-3 setback at Novara. And so, a pre-Leicester Claudio Ranieri was called to pick up the pieces and save a season that looked compromised in October already.

Spoiler alert: He wouldn’t manage to and would be eventually replaced with youth academy coach Andrea Stramaccioni in March.

The Nerazzurri had lost Samuel Eto’o in the summer market and many of their players – from El Principe Diego Milito to defender Walter Samuel and goalkeeper Julio Cesar – seemed past their prime.   

Not him, however. At 38 years of age, Javier Zanetti was still a calm, solid, and reassuring presence on the right side of Inter’s defense. One whom the Nerazzurri faithful could always count on when things went bad – and things were going bad.

Flash back to 16 years earlier, and few would have expected to see this quiet Argentine become a black-and-blue legend. Zanetti had landed in Milano in 1995, a year of refoundation under new President Massimo Moratti. His arrival was almost unnoticed, sandwiched among multiple other signings that were meant to make Inter great again after a few low-profile seasons.

Zanetti joined together with fellow countryman Sebastian Rambert and was the less noticeable of the pair. They were always mentioned together, “Zanetti and Rambert,” but all eyes were on the 21-year-old striker Rambert, who instead would end up packing after just four months.  

On that day in December 2011, Zanetti was covering the right back role, forming a somewhat experimental right chain with 20-year-old Davide Faraoni. Andrea Ranocchia – still at Inter nowadays – was one of the two center backs, while Diego Milito’s attacking partner was journeyman Giampaolo Pazzini. Let’s say that the Serie A had seen better versions of the Nerazzurri.  

Facing them, was a mighty Udinese side coached by Alberto Guidolin. The Zebrette came from a fourth place in the table the previous season and a Champions League Qualifiers bout lost to Arsenal. They would do even better than that, finishing the present campaign third and even holding the fist place for one, ephemeral, week.

Their goal was defended by future Inter shot-stopper Samir Handanovic and their front line led by the deadly Antonio Di Natale. But the hero of the day turned out to be Chilean midfielder Mauricio Isla, whose good performances in the season would eventually win him a two-year spell at Juventus.

On 73 minutes, Isla caught an Antonio Floro Flores pass and beat Julio Cesar to deliver the visitor Bianconeri all three points on offer.

But Udinese’s victory didn’t come without drama and controversy as the game at the San Siro caught fire during its final stages.

First, the episode that sent the match down in history: In an attempt to stop Kwadwo Asamoah, who was ready to go one-on-one with Julio Cesar, Zanetti sacrificed himself like a true Captain and slide-tacked him from the back. There were no doubts. It was a crystal-clear penalty foul, one worth a second yellow card for Inter’s captain.

But Zanetti’s reaction was a model as expected. He asked for an explanation to the referee, he got it and he accepted it. Then he removed his captain armband, apologized to Asamoah and to his supporters in the stands and quietly left the pitch while the fans chanted C’è solo un Capitano (“There is only one Captain”).

At 38 years of age and after 16 immaculate seasons with the Nerazzurri, Zanetti had received his marching orders for the first time in Serie A – though, if truth be told, he had also picked up a red card in a Coppa Italia Semi Final against Parma in 1999.

Julio Cesar pushed back Totò Di Natale’s conversion attempt and the game remained in doubt until its very end, when Giampaolo Pazzini also disgracefully missed a penalty, this time for Inter.

What remained of an average Serie A mid-season match-up was thus the unique occurrence of Javier Zanetti’s send-off and the celebration chants of his supporters. “There is only one Captain.” Which is very true still as of today, as Zanetti remained at Inter after his retirement, taking the role of vice-president to continue his endless love story with the Nerazzurri.

So that, whenever things go bad for Inter, the Beneamata faithful will at least always know one thing: Javier Zanetti will still be there.  



December 3, 2011 – Serie A 2011-12 Round 14

SCORERS: 73′ Isla

INTER (4-4-2): Julio Cesar; Zanetti, Samuel, Ranocchia, Chivu (80′ Stankovic); Faraoni (62′ Zarate), Thiago Motta, Cambiasso, R. Alvarez (46′ Nagatomo); Pazzini, D. Milito (Castellazzi, Cordoba, Poli, Castaignos) Coach: Ranieri

UDINESE (3-5-1-1): Handanovic; Benatia, Danilo, Ferronetti; Basta, Isla, Pinzi, Asamoah, Armero; Torje (62′ Floro Flores), Di Natale (Padelli, Ekstrand, Doubai, Badu, Pasquale, Fabbrini) Coach: Guidolin

REFEREE: Mr. Gervasoni from Mantova
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Thiago Motta (I), Armero, Pinzi (U); Red Cards: Zanetti (I), Ferronetti (U)