Pablo Zabaleta is fast becoming a Manchester City legend. He’s ever dependable and hard as nails, never shirks a challenge, always gives 100%, loves City and loves the fans. Here we take a look back and assess the Argentine’s career.
Pablo was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 16 January 1985 and was raised in the Arrecifes province of the Argentinian capital. With his little brother, Pablo was raised by his father, Jorge Ruben, and his mother who tragically died when he was 15 years old. His parents played an important role in helping Pablo pursue his career in football by taking him to training and supporting him at matches.
My family were decisive in my career. My mother accompanied me to training sessions and her death had a massive impact on me. I have had some hard days that I will never forget. After that, my dad’s support was always important in helping to analyse my performances.
Despite now living in England, Pablo holds strong family values and appreciates anytime he can spend with them:
They [the family] always come to Manchester for Christmas and New Year. I always enjoy time with the family, especially at Christmas and New Year. It is the best moment of the season for me.
Back in 1997, Pablo drew the attention of San Lorenzo, a local Buenos Aires team, with the club sending their scout to watch a 12-year-old Pablo play for a small Buenos Aires team, Obras Sanitarias. After impressing, Pablo plied his trade in the San Lorenzo academy until he was 17, when, in 2002, he was offered his first professional contract; a remarkable achievement considering the difficulties he faced with losing his mother at such a young age.
Pablo made his debut for San Lorenzo against Argentinian giants, Boca Juniors, in January 2003 and won the man of the match award despite his team losing the game. Although Pablo started his career as a midfielder, something which lends to his versatility today, he was soon preferred as a defender and became recognised as a mainstay in the San Lorenzo defence. He went onto make 66 appearances in 3 years for the club, scoring 8 goals.
During his time in Argentina, Pablo established himself as a promising young international player. He has represented Argentina at various age groups at several youth tournaments including the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2003 and 2005, winning the latter, as team captain. Pablo, in that tournament, played alongside a young Lionel Messi who spoke highly of his influence on the squad:
He’s a great captain. He made sure everyone was OK, liaised with the coach and the doctor, and geed us up when we were losing. He’s a really positive leader, whose opinion we all respect.
Pablo went onto represent his country 75 times in a youth capacity and his performances for Argentina in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005 were influential in showcasing his talents to Spanish team, Espanyol, who signed him in 2005 for €3million.
At Espanyol, Pablo won the Copa Del Rey in 2006 after beating Zaragoza 4-1 in the final. The following year, Espanyol were runners-up in the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) after losing to fellow Spaniards Sevilla on penalties. Pablo’s reputation as a committed and industrious footballer who relishes a tackle was fully established during his time in La Liga. Despite his second season being blighted by injury he made 79 appearances for the club from 2005 to 2008. Pablo reflects positively on his time in Spain:
Playing in the UEFA Cup Final in Glasgow has to be my best experience and showed what it meant to be an Espanyol player. I have some unforgettable memories from the city of Barcelona and Espanyol. I went through so much there as it was my first European club and we had some great times. We had a great squad and we celebrated and suffered together.
Pablo’s fledgling international career also took off when in Spain. In 2005, he made his debut for the senior Argentina national team, in the same game that Lionel Messi debuted. Although tipped for a place in the squad for the 2006 World Cup, a 21 year old Pablo was not selected. He played down suggestions there was too much pressure of young Argentinian talent in the build-up to the World Cup:
There comes a time when you stop thinking of yourself as a youngster. In our case, we’ve already played a lot of games and we’ve made our debut for the full national side. We’re not boys anymore and we’re living in a grown-up environment.
Pablo did go onto represent his country in a star studded Argentina squad at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Playing alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria it is little wonder such a talented squad won the Gold medal. As with Pablo’s transfer to Espanyol, it was his performances on the international stage that were again influential in securing his next transfer.
In August 2008, former City manager, Mark Hughes signed Pablo for an undisclosed fee believed to be £6.45m to replace the outgoing Vedran Corluka, who joined Tottenham. Hughes said “He’s young and a winner, with an Olympic gold medal to prove that.” Pablo had realised a dream joining City:
Playing in England has been a lifelong dream which has finally come true by moving to City…after walking around the stadium I can’t wait to play in front of the City fans there. It is very impressive. The plan is very interesting, with real possibilities. I have come here to play for the title and to win things in Europe.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though: Espanyol bitterly accused Pablo of engineering a move away from the club whilst on international duty at the Olympics. In the same transfer window, Albert Riera left Espanyol to join Liverpool with many well-wishers, something which Pablo resents:
During the Olympic Games I did not want to receive offers but then City expressed an interest. The offer was just impossible for the two parties to reject. I wanted a different goodbye, with a press conference like in the case of [Albert] Riera but Argentina have called me up and I can’t return to Barcelona. I am hurt because some people have said it was an escape and that is not true. In three years I have done my best for Espanyol and I don’t merit these critics.
Pablo made his debut for City on 13th September 2008 in the home defeat against Chelsea. Initially, he struggled defensively, but Pablo’s tireless work ethic and versatility in defence and midfield was extremely useful in a wayward and disjointed City team. Pablo soon established himself as a fans’ favourite and scored his first goal for the club in a gritty 1-0 victory over Wigan in January 2009. His worth was proven as he made 39 starts for City in his first season at the club and was voted third in the fans’ Player of the Season award.
The next season City’s fortunes were beginning to improve. With Roberto Mancini replacing Mark Hughes in December 2009, City looked a more assured outfit and closely missed out on a Champions League qualification spot. Though not guaranteed to play every game Pablo was still a valuable asset to the club. His number of appearances has actually decreased each season since joining City (39 in 2008-09, 31 in 2009-10, 32 in 2010-11 and 26 in 2011-12) but Mancini is a big fan of Pablo:
It’s great for a manager to have a player like Pablo around. He can play in almost every position – maybe not striker, but I’m sure he would do it if I asked him. He has done very well in every position…but for me he is at his best in midfield. I prefer to play him there, but he has been good at left-back, right-back or anywhere across the midfield. It’s also important…I have players like Pablo who can change position when I ask them.
Despite Pablo’s improving and committed performances for City he was unfortunate enough to miss out on a call up for 2010 World Cup squad for Argentina. Clearly disappointed, Pablo lamented his misfortune:
What you do at club level is what brings you to the national team. But here with Argentina, you can’t fail. You have fewer matches and you have to always perform at the top of your level.
In the 2010-11 season City, armed with the likes of David Silva and Yaya Toure, genuinely looked like a force to be reckoned with for the first time since the takeover of Sheikh Mansour. The change in the club, on and off the pitch, was palpable not only for the fans but the players as well:
I remember the first time I came to the training ground, it was completely different to now. When I look at the change and, as a team, to see us starting to bring in top players, I’m so happy to be part of it. In England, you can smell football. City fans…are very passionate about the club and they are very excited because they know it is a different moment for the club than maybe it was 10 years ago. I think, for them, it’s special as there is a chance of seeing us win trophies.
In March 2011 Pablo’s father was involved in a serious car accident in Argentina. The club granted Pablo indefinite leave so that he could return to Argentina. In his absence, City were drawn in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Manchester United and were performing consistently well in the league. With a genuine chance of some silverware for the club so bereft of success in recent decades, Pablo vowed to fight to be in the FA Cup Final and dedicate a victory to his father, who to this date, is still recovering from his accident.
Pablo fulfilled that ambition as City won the FA Cup in 2011, defeating Stoke City in the final. City also went onto finish 3rd in the league and secured qualification for the Champions League for the first time. As City’s profile was increasing Pablo was beginning to be recognised as one of the best right-backs in England, alongside team mate Micah Richards. In November 2011, much to his and the City fans’ delight, Pablo signed a contract extension keeping him at City until 2015. Upon signing Pablo beamed:
I’m in a very good team, and I try to do my best for the club, the team and the fans. I didn’t think twice, I gave a quick answer because I was so happy to sign.
City started the 2011-12 season in blistering form. Despite several hiccups along the way, City went onto win the Premier League in dramatic fashion on the final day of the season. Not only did Pablo score one of the three vital goals in the final game of the season against QPR that clinched the title, he also started the final six games of the crucial end of season run-in, keeping a fully fit Micah Richards out of the team; no mean feat given Richards’ excellent form in recent seasons. Reflecting on the title victory Pablo said:
Before we played QPR I thought to myself: ‘This will be the 1st season I’ll end up scoring no goals’. Then I scored that goal. When they scored two I thought: ‘Crap, now my goal will count for nothing’. When they turned that game around we couldn’t believe it. Anxiety took over. QPR defended really well. We thought we’d lost it.
Since I was young I worked very hard for these moments so when you get them everybody is happy. We always believed we needed to win that game. I cried a little bit because we had been through all the season working really hard for that and I think we deserved to win that title. I didn’t watch that game after the match, just once…to watch the goals but in the holidays I didn’t because I get nervous inside.
One thing is for sure: Pablo deserves his success. His attitude on and off the pitch is exemplary and his performance levels for our club have been outstanding. He is a vastly underrated player and long may his association with City continue.