The Etihad Stadium’s paying customers earn themselves a seat before one of football’s most expensively assembled, talented teams. Yet on a match day, when flags and banners are unfurled over the ground’s sweeping seated tiers, one of the largest is directed towards a £6 million right back. The banner in question, a sky blue tricolor, features the battle hewn visage of one Pablo Zabaleta, alongside the words “Corazon de León” - heart of a lion. Even such a portentous sentiment may not do Zabaleta justice - the unassuming Argentinian isn’t far from becoming the soul of this football club.
As Manchester City have collectively turned their backs on the once indulged Mario Balotelli, Zabaleta’s iron grip on a first team spot, and recent grasp of the captain’s armband, demonstrates the values of application and determination over petulance and precociousness. The well of good feeling towards Zabaleta runs so deep at City, he’s become a kind of anti Balotelli, leading a lifestyle so modest it borders on the mystical. Zabaleta, they say, lives with his girlfriend in the Manchester suburbs, frequents his local pub and drives a Mini Cooper. Among club staff, he’s hugely admired for his relentless community work. It’s a far cry from a camouflaged Bentley and a £14k a month rented pad.
In City’s new era of superstardom, the faithful love Pablo perhaps above all others because they feel that he’s one of them. Beneath the banners, he plays with the spirit of a fan thrown a shirt by a desperate manager. During last season’s run to the title, when filling in for the injured Micah Richards, the bustling full back gained a reputation for leaving it all out on the field. Throwing himself at bullet headers and flying boots, Zabaleta began to resemble a veteran bare knuckle boxer. His oft-bandaged bonce came to represent the club motto – ‘pride in battle’ – in physical form.
So far, so classic club legend. Grizzled determination, charity work and a fondness for a pint may be what fans are looking for in their heroes, but at such an outrageously ambitious club, it seemed there would be no place for a player like Zabaleta. Signed from Espanyol just days before Sheikh Mansour’s takeover, the Argentinean stood for a dying age of earnest yet limited City players. In the summer of 2011, reduced to bit part roles across defence and midfield, rumours swirled that Zabaleta was set to return to Spain. The outcry, and Zabaleta’s refusal to even contemplate departure, cemented his hero status at City - yet the versatile defender was in danger of becoming little more than a team mascot; a cheery face on a crowded bench.
Eighteen months on, the fact that Zabaleta is not only a guaranteed starter for City, but also a dark horse for PFA Player of the Year, tells us of the twist in Pablo’s story. Pablo Zabaleta may be a good man – but he’s an even better footballer. On the two occasions I’ve seen Zabaleta playing in the flesh, he has operated in his favoured right back position. He’s also been the best player on the park on both occasions. Watching a City attack build from behind Joe Hart’s goal, you can’t fail to notice his constant desire to get forward, laying the ball into midfield and setting off on a wide, arcing run beyond the opposing full back. The movement is akin to a freight train accelerating out of a station - not especially quick, still very dangerous.
City’s worrying lack of width has been addressed this season not by a fleet footed new arrival, but by pairing the buzzing physical powerhouses of Zabaleta and James Milner on the right flank. Zabaleta is making the lung-bursting run from the right touchline to the penalty spot his own – most recently in City’s FA Cup win at Stoke. After a tentative forward display, it was Zabaleta who showed the greatest poacher’s instinct in the dying moments. Pre-empting a loose ball and goal scoring chance by 80 yards and 30 seconds, Zabaleta prodded the ball inside the near post with the composure of a world-class striker. This vital breakthrough was capped by Clive Tyldesley warbling about Zabaleta’s “big heart”. Perhaps the magic of the Cup had got to Clive - his description was better suited to a part-time welder than arguably the best right back in the country.
I can count on one hand the times that Pablo Zabaleta has been caught out defensively in a sky blue shirt. His defensive tenacity has driven the likes of Paul Scholes, Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott to distraction. A key cog in one of the Premier League’s most imperious defences, the Argentinean is also a master of the more agricultural side of the game. In Zabaleta, Mancini has at his disposal a highly disciplined international full back and a vital pivot in his team’s attacking engine. In short, two multi-million pound footballers in one. This impressive versatility is a big part of the reason why there’s a groundswell of support for the no nonsense Argentinean to scoop a shock PFA Player of the Year award. It also partially explains why Balotelli has been summarily shipped off to Milan while Zabaleta becomes a club legend.
It isn’t, of course, the whole story. Zabaleta’s extraordinary impact on the field and in the stands depends on the sum of his many parts. What makes Zabaleta so remarkable, so loved and so important to any club, but particularly a much derided, nouveau riche club like Manchester City, is the marriage of an upstanding character and exceptional athletic ability. Alongside the equally affable Vincent Kompany, Zabaleta forms the moral heartbeat of a team bent on gaudy, glorious world domination. And he loves nothing more than a pint of bitter and a kickabout with local kids. He seems too good to be true. Thankfully for everyone at City, from the banner bearers in the South Stand to the power brokers in Abu Dhabi, he isn’t.
Niall is an experienced freelance football writer, and has previously written for the Guardian. He lives in South London and watches YouTube clips of Georgi Kinkladze in his spare time. Follow him on Twitter here.