By Neil Chappell
There’s no way I can ever confirm it, but I’m going to make this bold claim anyway! I’m the only person, well not including professional footballers, to have met Lionel Messi and not taken a selfie with him. In fact, I’ve met him twice, within the space of a couple of hours and didn’t ask for a photo either time.
It was 2014 and Argentina were playing against Portugal at Old Trafford. They were staying at a hotel in the centre of Manchester where I was a member of the gym. I’d returned from a holiday in Los Angeles that morning and after sleeping all day woke up around 5pm. With my body clock all over the place I decided to head to the gym. In the 10 years, I’d been a member there I’d got used to meeting celebrities of various stature. I’ve worked out with the squads of CSKA Moscow, Roma and numerous premier league teams, Robinho, Jesus Navas, Ozzy Ardiles, Justin Bieber, Sir Ian Mckellen and David Hasslehoff. However, seeing Messi, Di Maria, Demechelis and Mascherano stood in the gym reception dressed in their Argentina training kit came as a complete surprise. I said hello to them all, shook their hands and I got on with my workout as they went to the pool.
The rest of the squad continued to come into the gym in ones and twos, some of them worked out in the gym and others went to the spa to use the sauna, steam and jacuzzi. I thanked Demechelis for his contribution to City’s title win earlier in the year; I met Messi again in the changing rooms after my work out, he was in his boxer shorts this time and he said “Que Pasa?” as I stared at his left foot still not quite believing my eyes; I told Agüero how much I love him and I sat in a sauna begging Carlos Tevez to return to City while Di Maria, Mascherano and Lamela laughed at his response. There was millions of pounds worth of footballing talent sat in the sauna that day…and me — but I didn’t ask any of them for a selfie.
However, when I saw my favourite City player walking through the gym I asked him for a photo. I had too, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, as it may never happen again and I knew if I didn’t ask for a photo with him I would regret it for the rest of my life.
So, who was it? It wasn’t Messi, Higuain, Tevez, Aguero, Mascherano or Pastore. His name won’t be on the back of any FIFA fanboys’ Argentina shirts, however up until last season if you attended a City match you would see his name on back of thousands of shirts, you would see the banner saluting his “Corazon de leon” and heard the two songs that are dedicated to him one of which declares him as “The F*cking man!”
Yes, of all the superstars that play for Argentina I had a photo with right-back Pablo Zabaleta, something which my friends pointed out to me later. It’s simple, as much as I appreciated the opportunity to meet great players like Messi and Mascherano, I share no affinity with them, no matter how much I respect them as players.
Zabaleta though is a different kind of player, one that fans from all clubs can relate to. A player who will run through a brick wall for the shirt, the fans and his team mates. A player that genuinely hurts when he loses, feeling the same pain as the fans and a player that shares the emotions of victory with the fans unlike any other player I’ve seen play for City.
‘Cult Hero; may be the best way to describe a player like Zabaleta, but that does him a disservice. He was the first choice right back for one of the best international sides of this decade; played in both a World Cup and Copa America final (narrowly losing out on both occasions); has won every domestic honour in England, a Copa Sudamerica (with San Lorenzo), a Copa del Rey (with Espanyol) and an Olympic Gold medal with Argentina. Most players would be happy to retire after having half the career that Zabaleta has had.
City fans have a love for Zabaleta that runs very deep, perhaps deeper than for any other modern-day player and he’s now considered an honorary Mancunian. Signed the day before the Abu Dhabi takeover with very little fanfare, as a direct replacement for Vedran Corluka recently sold to Tottenham, his signing was never going to get the fans pulses racing the same way Robinho did post-takeover.
Zabaleta’s career at City started well enough if not spectacularly and although his tough tackling and commitment earned respect from supporters, on occasions it also resulted in some early disciplinary problems, his first red card came in only his fourth Premier League appearance a 3-2 home defeat to Liverpool which City had been winning.
However, as the standard of players around him improved each season so too did Zabaleta. Competing with Micah Richards, then regarded as one of the best young right backs in the country, Zabaleta knuckled down putting his body on the line for the club time and time again, getting patched up and back onto the pitch, often seen sporting a bandage or fresh stitches. This, along with his love of Status Quo endeared him to the fans and perhaps this invincibility compared to Richards, who Roberto Mancini once described as being made of glass, made him the first choice right back for Mancini and later Manuel Pellegrini. Zabaleta started the final game against QPR in the title winning season of 2011/12 and after that, when fit there was only really one choice.
But it takes a lot more than hard work in training and on the pitch to earn the sort of adoration Zabaleta has from City fans. Most supporters will cheer anyone who scores for their team regardless of past transgressions. Carlos Tevez is still regarded very highly by most City fans, including me regardless of his golfing holiday in Argentina. This is because of his commitment on the pitch and the goals he scored before and after that unauthorised absence.
However, this is where Zabaleta and Tevez differ. While Tevez, undoubtedly a much bigger star than Zabaleta, complained about the weather in England; his family’s inability to adapt and the lack of quality restaurants in Manchester. Zabaleta kept his head down and embraced the club, the supporters and the City. When he moved to Manchester he lived in Didsbury for the first couple of years. A very nice suburb, but not quite the same as the gated mansions of Cheshire that most City and United players live in. Furthermore, while living in Didsbury, Zabaleta went to the local fish and chip shop and even to the pub on occasions to watch football and play pool. He even embraced the weather going as far to state he misses the rain when he is on holiday away from Manchester for a few days.
This helped Zabaleta to understand City as a club, what it means to the fans and how important football is in Manchester to blues and reds. By choosing to live in the city rather than in seclusion he was surrounded by Mancunians and therefore exposed to fans from both clubs and possibly unlike any other foreign player, developed a true understanding of football in Manchester, this in turn created Pablo Zabaleta the City fan.
The day I met him we sat in the Jacuzzi talking about recent matches, title wins, the (then) new training complex, his goal against QPR and even my recent holiday to LA. What still stands out to me is that while all his fellow team mates were sat in the sauna, steam room or messing around in the pool he took the time and made the effort to talk to me. He could have easily avoided me, I’m sure most players find fans tiresome and irritating although they will never admit it, but with Zabaleta it felt as if I was chatting to a fellow blue.
Two images sum up what City means to Zabaleta and what he means to City, the fans, the players and the club. One is from the Manchester Derby at the Etihad in December 2012. United lead 2-0 at half time, City fought back to make it 2-2 with Zabaleta scoring the equaliser. Then, in injury time Robin Van Persie made it 3-2 with a deflection off Samir Nasri.
Zabaleta’s passion after scoring, running back to the halfway line franticly urging the team on to get the winner was expected but his reaction immediately after Van Persie’s winner is an image we can all relate to. It summed up how the City fans in the stadium felt at that moment. He stands dejected holding onto a post; his body drained after giving every ounce of energy for the cause, the pain visible in his eyes. Yes, the other City players were clearly devastated, having lost a game they dominated in the last minute, but within Zabaleta there’s something more, something that won’t disappear after a couple of days, a real pain that drives directly into the heart of a supporter.
The other image, that perhaps solidified Zabaleta’s connection with the fans is from a 2-0 win over Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in a Champions League Group game in December 2014. Zabaleta scored the winner in the 86th minute effectively sealing victory, allowing City to progress from a difficult position before the last two matches. It’s taken the moment after he runs over to the fans and kisses the badge. The emotion is again visible in his eyes, but now it’s the delight of scoring. It captures how every fan feels when their team scores. The look in Zabaleta’s eyes tell their own story, here is a supporter scoring for the team he loves and when he kisses the badge the fans know that he genuinely means it.
Zabaleta’s last game at the Etihad was an emotional night, the romantic inside me had hoped that his legs could give us one more season, ten years at the club and a testimonial, perhaps against San Lorenzo. However, the playing style and commitment that made him a hero to the fans has taken so much out of his body and it was time for us both to say goodbye to each other.
His final match for City at the Etihad against West Bromwich Albion did feel like a testimonial at times. The West Brom players were already on the beach and almost seemed to acknowledge it was Zabaleta’s night. Fans wore bloodied bandages, banners in Spanish and English declared their love for him; grown men cried and some even begged him to stay as he came out to warm up, even though deep down we all knew it was the right time for him to go. His touch line warm ups were cheered; the reaction he received when he came on as a second half substitute was rapturous and the send-off and guard of honour that he received after the match was almost as emotional as that first Premier League title win.