This article originally appeared in Issue 15 of The Football Pink

The legendary Argentine full-back was a hero to millions on the pitch, but away from the San Siro he showed he was a politically aware man of principles, as WILL MAGEE of VICE SPORTS explains.

In January 1994, Javier Zanetti was barely two years into his life as a professional footballer. Having made his debut with second-division Talleres, a small club situated in the sprawling urban partidos to the south of Buenos Aires, he had recently joined Banfield, where he was set to light up the Argentine First Division and draw covetous glances from clubs thousands of miles away. He was about to embark on one of the longest and most successful careers in the history of the game, one in which he would win 16 major trophies including Serie A, the Coppa Italia, the UEFA Cup and the Champions League, not to mention a silver medal at the Olympics and a whole host of individual accolades. He was about to become a stalwart of European football, a legend at Inter Milan, and arguably the best right-back on the continent, with a career defined by tenacity, durability and remarkable endurance. Meanwhile, off the pitch, he would show that he was that rarest of things in the world of football – a man of conviction, and a man of principle, too.

Though he might not have known it at the time, the events of January 1994 were later to inspire one of the most interesting chapters of Zanetti’s professional life. While his career was to be long and illustrious, the events in question made for an explosive flash in the pan. Far to the north of Banfield, on the other side of the Equator, trouble was stirring in a poor, neglected, rural part of Latin America. Just over 4,000 miles away from Zanetti’s home in Buenos Aires, a violent revolt had gripped the southernmost state of Mexico, Chiapas. This would soon become known as the Zapatista uprising, fought out between the Mexican government and a ragtag band of revolutionaries drawn from the people who lived and worked on the region’s land.

While the Zapatistas have since been defined, by turns, as anarchists, socialists, social anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, libertarian Marxists, communists and pretty much every other far-left label under the sun, their motivations for rising against the Mexican government were far more complex than can be rallied under the banner of any conventional ideology. Indeed, ever since the Zapatista uprising, they have essentially defied all such political classifications, remaining largely aloof from the academic politics which have come to characterise broadly comparable left-wing movements. Taking their name from Emiliano Zapata, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution and a martyr to the cause of agrarian emancipation, the group drew support from the indigenous, rural Mayan communities of Chiapas, as well as a smattering of leftists and former rebels from Mexico’s urban north. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation was formed in 1983, with the intention of fighting for indigenous rights to greater autonomy, control over local resources, land reform and increased protection under the law. Their guiding slogan was: “Para todos todo, para nosotros nada.” It translates as: “For everyone, everything, and for us, nothing at all.”

With a distinct identity born from the cause of the indigenous Mayan population, the Zapatistas’ political aims were inherently tied up with conditions in Chiapas. One of the most impoverished states in Mexico, poverty and inequality were rife, with Mayan people by and large the most deprived of all. Many in Chiapas felt that the central government had mismanaged the region, ruining much of its natural wealth while failing to improve living conditions for local people, while there were simmering social tensions between Chiapas’ subsistence farmers and the indigenous population, too. Meanwhile, the indigenous Mayans felt they had been marginalised, with their traditional manner of collective farm ownership, or ejido farming, increasingly jeopardised by government policies and the slow encroachment of globalisation. When ejido farms became open to privatisation by the terms of Mexico’s participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement, threatening the land rights of indigenous peoples as affirmed by the Mexican Constitution, the Zapatistas decided that armed rebellion was their only recourse.

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The Zapatista uprising began on New Year’s Day, the day on which the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force. The Zapatistas stated their aims in a declaration from Chiapas’ tropical heartland, before around 3,000 fighters seized urban centres across the state that very same morning. While their insurgency was successful at first, the Mexican army soon counter-attacked, driving the Zapatistas back with significant losses. The rebels were lightly armed and heavily outnumbered, and, in reality, stood little chance of consolidating their hold over Chiapas. Twelve days after the uprising began, a ceasefire was brokered, and the Zapatista revolution was over almost as soon as it had begun.

Still, while their revolution might have been crushed in a military sense, the Zapatistas were not about to go quietly. During ensuing negotiations with the government, they began a worldwide media campaign, drawing attention to the plight of Chiapas’ indigenous communities and their agrarian and social disenfranchisement. Fronted by their enigmatic leader, the pipe-smoking, balaclava-wearing Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatistas’ charismatic approach made them a cause célèbre across much of Latin America, and indeed the globe. Over the next few years, their movement would move away from revolution by force and towards peaceful means, garnering international support through shrewd use of online communications and an aptitude for reaching out to political movements sympathetic to their own.

Perhaps ironically, then, a localised movement set against globalisation ended up winning its greatest battles on the world stage. Similarly, at some point during the Zapatistas’ fight for international recognition, they won over one of their most famous allies in the form of Javier Zanetti. Only Zanetti himself could say when he first became acquainted with the Zapatistas’ struggle; perhaps it was as a youngster at Banfield watching breaking news of their rebellion; perhaps as a fresh-faced newcomer at Inter Milan in the mid-nineties; perhaps when the Zapatistas declared de facto autonomy at the turn of the millennium, or during one of their vocal periods of political agitation in the interim. Whenever it was that Zanetti came to identify with their cause, he would soon forge a bond with them that would draw headlines from all over the world. What a multimillionaire footballer had in common with a patchwork group of radicals from Chiapas, one could be forgiven for wondering incredulously aloud.

To understand why Zanetti might have felt an affinity with the Zapatistas, one must look to his own background. Born to working-class parents of Italian origin, he grew up in the Dock Sud district of Buenos Aires, an area afflicted by entrenched poverty and, at times, endemic crime. While his experiences of hardship were definitively urban, it is possible that he saw in the Zapatistas a rural movement which was reacting to much the same standard of deprivation. Despite his vastly improved financial situation as a professional footballer, Zanetti never shut his eyes to destitution back in Argentina. He worked on various charitable initiatives over the course of his career, most notably in the aftermath of the Argentine economic crisis at the turn of the millennium, when he and his wife set up the Fundación PUPI, a not-for-profit organisation aimed at providing aid to children living below the poverty line in and around Buenos Aires.

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If Zanetti retained an acute awareness of the crippling effects of poverty on his own community, then, he had other reasons to be concerned with the plight of the neglected and oppressed. As a devout Catholic growing up in Latin America in the seventies and eighties, he would no doubt have come into contact with ideas of equality, egality and social justice in the context of faith. Whether or not he was overtly familiar with the tenets of liberation theology, a movement within Catholicism with a focus on the emancipation of the poor, similar ideas were prevalent throughout the South American church, which was something of a philosophical outlier when it came to the Catholic hierarchy as a whole. Liberation theology was certainly tied up closely with the Zapatista movement, which had a close relationship with the radical clergy of Chiapas. Indeed, their ceasefire with the Mexican government was brokered by the Catholic diocese in San Cristóbal de las Casas, as headed up by bishop and well known liberation theologian Samuel Ruiz.

Whatever the exact reasons behind Zanetti’s sympathy with the Zapatistas – whether it was down to his upbringing, his political inclinations, his faith, or some combination of the three – he was hardly clandestine in his support for their cause. With so few modern footballers willing to associate themselves with a political movement for sake of risking their brand or alienating their fanbase, the fellow feeling between Zanetti and a group of balaclava-clad rebels was always going to make waves. In 2004, at a time when the Zapatistas were at perhaps their most active in terms of their media activities, their budding friendship with Zanetti went public. He had convinced the powers that be at Inter Milan to donate €5,000 in changing room fines to Zapatista communities in Chiapas, as well as an ambulance, football gear and a Nerazzurri shirt bearing his iconic No. 4 on the back.

Along with the financial support, there was a telling exchange between Zanetti and the Zapatistas which was widely reported in the European press. In a note which accompanied the aid sent to the rebels, he wrote: “We believe in a better world, an unglobalised world, enriched by the cultural differences and customs of all the people. This is why we want to support you in this struggle to maintain your roots and fight for your ideals.” This wasn’t merely a token undertaking for Zanetti, nor a de rigeur cause of which he had a cursory comprehension. In brief and measured fashion, he had shown that he understood the grievances of a regional movement seeking to preserve a way of life. “We know that we are not alone on the path of this struggle,” came the Zapatistas’ concise reply.

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While Inter Milan’s donation to the Zapatistas did not go unnoticed, it was the prospect of a football match against the rebels which really captured the popular imagination. Several months after their first exchange, the Zapatistas got in contact with the club through Subcomandante Marcos. By now a bona fide folk hero on the left and an international symbol of rebellion, he sent a letter to the San Siro side challenging them to a friendly fixture “against a team from the Zapatista national liberation army.” Though the invitation was intended in all seriousness, his words were marked by characteristic dry humour. “Given the affection we have for you,” the letter read, “we are not planning to submerge you in goals.”

Zanetti was all for making a piece of football folklore, and said as much to the Italian media. “It is not a problem for me to accept the challenge, I’d be willing to go,” he declared. While the Zapatistas had not stipulated either a time or a place for the mooted fixture, it looked as if a rebel football match was in the offing for Inter. Unfortunately for any left-wing romantics amongst the supporters hoping for a timeless gesture of solidarity from the club, it was a match which would never actually take place.

Whether there were diplomatic reservations about the game or issues regarding logistics and organisation, the friendly between one of Italy’s most storied football clubs and a team of Mexican revolutionaries never materialised. The Zapatistas were operating an unofficial system of self-governance at this point, which set them at odds with Mexico’s central administration even if hostilities remained largely suspended. The Inter hierarchy may have decided that they were in danger of antagonising the Mexican authorities, or the players may have decided that they were not all of Zanetti’s disposition towards the Zapatista movement. Meanwhile, the Zapatistas may themselves have changed their minds on the matter for reasons of safety and security. Fiercely protective of their true identities, local sides were known to play football in balaclavas when facing even small teams touring Chiapas. In the end, the realities of the Zapatistas travelling to Milan – or Inter visiting Mexico, vice versa – proved one way or another to be too much to handle, and so the opportunity lapsed.

Though the unusual relationship between Inter and the Zapatistas failed to produce a match for the ages, theirs remains a fascinating friendship. Over a decade on, it is almost impossible to imagine a major European side risking their corporate image in aid of a foreign political cause. While Zanetti may not have been able to convince Inter to organise a match against the Zapatistas, the money that he elicited from the club still benefitted communities in Chiapas, and left a legacy of mutual goodwill between the rebels and their somewhat unlikely patrons. In that alone, he did more for the impoverished in Latin America than many other footballers who grew up in similar circumstances. Meanwhile, perhaps it’s best that the Zapatistas never took on the Nerazzurri. Judging by the confidence of Subcomandante Marcos, the otherwise magnanimous Zanetti might have been quietly embarrassed by the final score.

WILL MAGEE – @W_F_Magee

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