Manchester City great Pablo Zabaleta denied the grand send-off he deserves
Argentine refused a new short term deal at West Ham because he knew he was not 100 per cent fit
It ranks as an underwhelming, unsuitable ending for one of the great warriors of his generation. Tuesday is officially Pablo Zabaleta’s last day in English football. He leaves West Ham without having played in four months, with their fate undecided and with the possibility his legacy will be tarnished by relegation.
And yet even in anti-climax, there is something honourable and something fitting. Zabaleta turned down a contract extension because he would not be fit to give his trademark 100 per cent.
It means his last game came at the ground where he has a lifetime season ticket. He was serenaded by the Manchester City fans who adored him at the Etihad Stadium in February. Three years at West Ham seem a postscript to a nine-season stay further north. Few adopted Mancunians come from 7,000 miles away but the ultra-committed Argentine became regarded as one of their own.
Micah Richards has a unique perspective on the career of one of the Premier League’s most popular imports. For years, he was Zabaleta’s rival for the right-back spot: ultimately it was a battle the Englishman lost.
In his earlier days, a big-match player was often used at left-back by Roberto Mancini, especially against elite opponents. It was testament to Zabaleta’s can-do mentality.
“There were a lot of games where I played right-back and he played left-back,” Richards reflected. “I have always had respect for Zabaleta. At City, he came as a centre midfielder, a holding midfielder, he played a lot of games in midfield, then left-back, right-back, right wing, left wing, filling in for people.”
But the person most affected by his refusal to accept defeat was the right-back Richards. “It was my place to lose really because ability-wise I believe I had more than him,” he said. “But he had a great rapport with the fans.
"No matter how he played, he would always give 100 per cent. Some players work their backsides off every single week but to fans it might not look like they are working but when you had Zabaleta on the pitch, you just knew you were going to war with him.
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“I knew if he would get a head-start on me or if I got injured, it would be so hard to get back in the team because he was so consistent in the way he played. He was borderline impossible to dislodge because of the standards he set.”
So it proved. Richards was the regular for much of the 2011-12 title-winning campaign but was displaced for the final few weeks. Then, when he had an injury-hit campaign, Zabaleta deservedly won City’s Player of the Year award in 2012-13. A talismanic figure was a force of nature, forever defiant in a disappointing season.
Zabaleta joined City weeks before Sheikh Mansour’s 2008 takeover. As City upgraded their squad and expanded their ambitions, it was a question of who rose to the challenge. Zabaleta did.
“His attacking had improved because he was playing with better players,” Richards said. “With his defending, the timing of his challenges was spot on and he was a real leader, he would fill in for Vincent Kompany and he took his game to the next level. Every single week, he was seven or eight out of 10. After I got injured, I was never getting back into the team because he set the bar so high.”
The West Ham years have featured the same idiosyncratic brand of commitment, albeit with a gradual loss of pace, power and ultimately his place. But at his peak, Zabaleta was a buccaneering, indefatigable presence. As Richards recalled: “He became a Man City favourite and one of the best right-backs in the league.”
Updated: June 30, 2020 08:27 AM