World Soccer: When your Achilles tendon snapped last season did you think that was it?

Javier Zanetti: Not at all. I knew it was my tendon, but the first thing that went through my mind was the following calculation: if I go under the surgeon’s knife tomorrow, then by October I’ll be able to run again.

After the injury, you got loads of messages of support. Which was the one that surprised you most?

The one from David Beckham. I’ve played against him a lot of times, but he’s not a friend of mine. He wrote: “Don’t worry, I had the same injury. You’ll be back stronger than ever.” And then – but this is not a surprise – there was the one from Jose Mourinho. He was one of the very first people to call.

Is the fact that Mourinho still continues to stay in touch with you and other players not counter-productive for the team? Is it not better to make a clean break?

It’s impossible to be too far from him, he’s still part of us and he will be forever. Now he’s rejoined Chelsea, but I think that, sooner or later, he’ll be back here. I strongly doubt, though, that I’ll still be on the pitch when that happens!

So how long do you think you can play on for? One more year?

Maybe two years, or maybe even three, if my body allows me to. I’ve read Stanley Matthews won the Ballon d’Or at 41. If it wasn’t for Messi, I could think about it.

Speaking of Lionel Messi, who is better: him or Diego Maradona?

Based on what he has done, and above all for the consistency levels he has reached, Messi has surpassed Diego. Leo is the greatest.

Who has been the most difficult opponent to mark?

I have two names for you: Ryan Giggs and Kaka, when he was at Milan. Both of them were devastating. Ryan is a peer of mine and I admire him a lot.

Who has been the funniest team-mate you’ve had?

That’s an easy one: Taribo West.

Your young team-mate Mateo Kovacic is causing a lot of excitement at the moment. Is he the best youngster you’ve seen in your 18 years at Inter?

With the exception of Ronaldo, who arrived here when he was 21 [Kovacic is 19], yes. Mateo is the most promising. He “exploded” in what was a very difficult season for us. He has enormous skills; now he just has to confirm that potential, to grow up. But you should bear in mind that in my time here I’ve not seen that many youngsters. In the past, we used to buy fully formed players, whereas now we’re taking a gamble on the kids. I like this philosophy.

Which coach did you have the hardest relationship with?

Well, let’s say that I didn’t have a good relationship with Marco Tardelli.

What do you make of the booing directed at Mario Balotelli recently? Is it a case of racism, or is it a case of Mario paying for his own arrogance?

Mario has a very peculiar temperament and I can understand that the opposition fans don’t like him. To whistle him is OK, but those howls are pure racism and must be punished.

Which Milan player would you most like to have had at Inter?

Paolo Maldini. But he was a Rossoneri icon. He’s a friend of mine, but I wouldn’t even have bothered trying to convince him to join us.

If you follow the transfer market rumours, you’ll be reading that Inter are chasing players for your right-back position: Dusan Basta, Bacary Sagna, Juan Zuniga…are you ready to spend the next season on the substitutes’ bench?

If it means helping Inter, I’d happily sit on the bench. The most important thing is to get back to fitness so I can get back to playing again.

Is there any truth in the reports that there is a seat waiting for you as coach at Inter?

That’s bullshit. As is the talk of the “asado agreement”, which suggests that Argentinians rule the dressing room and the club. I am able to give my opinion if the club’s president, Massimo Moratti, calls me, but anyone who thinks that I influence his choices overestimates my role and underestimates him.

So what would you like to do once you finish your playing career?

I’d like to be the link between the squad and the president, the one you guys in the media like to call “the strong man”.

Interview by Dan Brennan