Javier Zanetti is ready for the future to begin. Announcing his decision to retire from playing football on Tuesday, the Internazionale captain told Argentinian newspaper La Nación that he was proud of what he had achieved but excited now to get on with his next role as a director and ambassador for the club. There was just one question that gave him pause. Would he need to wear a shirt and tie in his new day job? "I hope not," was his reply.
What else were they expecting from a man who ditched his suit on his own wedding day? After exchanging rings and vows with his childhood sweetheart, Paula, one December morning back in 1999, Zanetti famously decided that the moment was right to pop another question. Would she mind if he went for quick run, before the reception, "just for a little bit, eh?"
He had brought a change of clothes with him to the church, and a set of trainers just in case. Paula could only laugh and consent. "If I got angry every time Javier went training," she noted, "then I would have had a sour face on every day since I was 14 years old."
Besides, Paula has far more unlikely tales to tell about her husband's commitment to working out. In Zanetti's autobiography, Giocare da uomo (Play like a man), she recalls accidentally booking a hotel with no gym during a family holiday to Turkey. That story concludes with the player using his wife as an improvised barbell, hoisting her on to his shoulders along with a meticulously weighed bag of books before performing his squatting exercises on the beach.
If it is easy to poke fun at such antics, and Paula frequently does, then Zanetti's methods are nevertheless vindicated by his results. He has prolonged his career at the highest level in a manner that hardly seems plausible. Now 40 years old, he has played 1,112 games in his professional career – and 11 of those this season, after recovering in barely six months from the torn achilles he suffered in April.
As recently as last season he was an integral member of Inter's starting XI, playing 48 games in all competitions. For the most part, his performances have remained at a high level. It is only four years ago, at the age of 36, that he led the Nerazzurri to their historic treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League.
And it is not just on the pitch that he seems to have defied the ageing process. In 2012 a collage did the rounds in which Zanetti's Panini stickers from the past 18 seasons were placed side-by-side. Suffice to say, they made for a challenging game of spot the difference. Part of that has to do with Zanetti's unchanging hairstyle, the immaculate comb-over that he has worn ever since he was a child. The look was first designed by his mother, who used to add a little water to keep his hair in place as she brushed it before sending him off to school. Zanetti still does things the exact same way as an adult, refusing to indulge in gels or styling products when a simple bathroom tap will suffice.
His style has been the source of endless jokes over the course of his career, but Zanetti pays them no heed. "If I had a lock of hair out of place then I would not feel OK," Zanetti told OK Salute magazine in 2009. "I am a precise person in everything I do ... Feeling my hair in place gives me confidence. It's a question of image but also of character."
Only Zanetti's children are allowed to touch his hair, and even then he will quickly guide it back into place. Such neatness is a fundamental part of his identity, but he will also tell you that it is, in part, a facade. Behind that ordered exterior lies a mischievous streak that manifests itself in practical jokes and one-liners.
He is capable of explosions of rage, like the one that Roy Hodgson provoked when he replaced Zanetti with Nicola Berti in the 1997 Uefa Cup final, but usually quick to reconcile. For the most part, he leads by cool-headed example. Inter's captain for almost 15 years, his departure will certainly leave a void.
In two decades with Inter, Zanetti has collected five league titles, four Coppa Italias, and four preseason SuperCups. He has won the Champions League, Uefa Cup and the Club World Cup. Although he has not won any major trophies with Argentina in that spell, he did amass nearly 150 caps. That number could have been even higher, were it not for Diego Maradona's surprising decision to exclude the player from his World Cup plans in 2010.
Zanetti's legacy, though, might not lie in his trophies so much as in his simple longevity. By maintaining such high standards over such an extended period of time, he has raised the bar of what can be expected of an older outfield player. He has also proved just how far hard work can take you.
His, after all, was a career that almost never got started. Dropped from Indepentiente's academy in 1989, Zanetti was told by coaches that he was too slight and weak to succeed. At 16 he found himself out of football, and working as an assistant to his bricklayer father in Dock Sud, one of Buenos Aires' tougher neighbourhoods.
Rather than feel sorry for himself, he simply knuckled down. "I liked my father's work," Zanetti would recall many years later. "But above all I liked the idea of doing something concrete and useful. Building a house is a metaphor that I like, it's at the core of my life philosophy: starting from the bottom and reaching the top."
That is exactly what he did, building a career from the ground up as he earned a spot on Talleres's academy before moving on to Banfield and then Inter. By using hard work for his foundations, he made sure that it would stand the test of time.