“I went to the internet and I was looking at the squad. I only knew a few players, probably Shaun Wright-Phillips who came from Chelsea, Martin Petrov because he was from Atletico Madrid, Elano and Dietmar Hamann.
Pablo Zabaleta arrived at Manchester City in August 2008 with a considerable pedigree.
After lifting the Copa Del Rey in his debut season in Europe with Espanyol, he was integral in Periquitos’ march to the 2007 UEFA Cup final where they were edged out on penalties by fellow La Liga side Sevilla in Glasgow.
A fully-fledged Argentina international, the right-back would surely have claimed more than the six international caps he had to his name at that point of his career had he not been locking horns for the spot with Albiceleste legend, Javier Zanetti.
Coming to the end of his third year in Spain, Zabaleta decided it was time for a new challenge but the decision to join City, while of his own volition, was one he certainly didn’t take lightly.
For while he arrived in England as a relative unknown, that feeling was – to an extent - reciprocated by Zabaleta himself.
A few of the more established members of the squad aside, he knew little about his new team-mates, while the bite of a cold, windy Manchester night certainly didn’t have the same appeal as a hazy Catalonian evening.
However, the lure of Premier League football was something the defender wasn’t about to pass up on.
“Going to Manchester, the weather wasn’t as good as Barcelona, (but) I wanted a Premier League experience and that was all for me,” he admits.
“When Manchester City came in for me, I was 23 and was going to a club that was mid-table at the time.
“I went to the internet, and I was looking at the squad. I only knew a few players, probably Shaun Wright-Phillips who came from Chelsea, Martin Petrov because he was from Atletico Madrid, Elano and Dietmar Hamann.
“I then went on YouTube to watch clips of the city of Manchester. For me it was all about the Premier League, then I ended up playing in it for 12 years!”
How times change. Nine of those years were spent at the Etihad Stadium, where Zabaleta’s commitment to the cause and willingness to stick his head where it hurts immediately endeared him to the City faithful.
To focus solely on his ‘no nonsense’ playing style belies the Argentine’s unwavering professionalism and leadership, but it would be fair to describe him as tailor made for the cut and thrust of Premier League football back in 2008.
“In winter it was dark at 4pm which was something new (and) I couldn’t speak a word of English (when I joined), so it was difficult to communicate. (But) I never complained about anything in Manchester.
But having the tools required for a new league doesn’t guarantee success nearly as much as an ability and willingness to settle in that new environment.
And for all of Zabaleta’s achievements during his time in England, that readiness to immerse himself in an alien culture was essential to that swift transition.
“I was a tough player, nasty, you know. That was always my style. My style of play was made for the Premier League,” he declares.
“These days the referees have changed a little bit, you can’t really make slide tackles, but it was great.
“I was at the Hilton hotel for three weeks (when I signed) and then I found an apartment.
“I was with a friend. We used to walk around Manchester almost every day, going to the Trafford Centre. For me it was great. I never complained about anything in Manchester.
“In winter it was dark at 4pm which was something new, I couldn’t speak a word of English (when I joined), so it was difficult to communicate, but I put a lot of effort in to at least learn the language and to talk to people, not just team-mates but to people from the Club as well.
“It made Manchester a great place, it was nine wonderful years to be honest.”
The relationship that Zabaleta forged with City remains as strong as ever, even after leaving the Club for West Ham United in 2017.
Hanging up his boots in 2020, the 37-year-old has continued his involvement with the beautiful game through punditry work, while more recently he visited the La Cava neighbourhood of Buenos Aires as part of Manchester City’s Cityzens Giving initiative.
The project aims to provide education on water, sanitation, hygiene and technology as well as clean water access for communities in need, with Zabaleta taking part in Q&A sessions with young leaders and local children alongside the Premier League trophy.
That passion to give something back to the community and to be a part of positive change is far from an alien concept to the defender. In some ways, it’s even something that harkens back to his early years at City.
Indeed, after initially being somewhat tentative to move to Manchester, Zabaleta was soon convinced that the ambitious Abu Dhabi United Group project was one that he must get behind.
That passion radiated whenever the full-back stepped across the white line, whether it be under the watchful eye of Mark Hughes, Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini or Pep Guardiola.
In short, that enthusiasm was backed up by Zabaleta’s performances, rendering him an instant fan favourite.
He reflects with a smile: “They saw a player that came who was unknown (but) I always played with my heart. I did that for all my clubs really.
“When the new owners came, I wanted to be a part of the Club. I wanted to change the history of the Club.
“Some of the players showed that commitment from the first days, some didn’t. I wanted to help the Club to the next level.
“(But) that’s not just on the field, that is off the field also. You have to be nice to the people as there is a lot of staff.
“The only way to take the Club to the next level is pushing everyone the same way. If you show respect to the people, that is what you get back.”
The basis of a squad which could consistently compete for the top prizes was beginning to take shape.
Alongside future Premier League title winners Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Micah Richards and Nigel De Jong, Zabaleta helped City to a UEFA Cup quarter-final in his debut season at the Etihad Stadium.
Reinforcements arrived that summer in the form of Kolo Toure, Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry and Carlos Tevez; all integral in helping City to break that glass ceiling.
Yet still Champions League qualification and silverware proved elusive, with agonising defeats to Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United consigning us to a fifth-placed finish in the Premier League and a League Cup semi-final exit.
Zabaleta’s second season ultimately represented one of near misses, but the gradual progression of the Club into the upper echelons of the English game continued apace.
Indeed, one particular signing midway through the 2009/10 campaign – in the Argentine’s eyes – was the boost needed to take City to the next level.
He explains: “(Mark) Hughes brought me into the club, so if it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be here talking. I always say thank you to him to give me the chance to come to Manchester.
“I don’t have any favourite (manager), they all did a wonderful job for the club… (But then Roberto) Mancini came.
“(He was) a manager that brought the winning mentality and those signings that were at the Club for a long time.
“That core of players was world class and took the club to another level. That was (down to) Mancini the manager at that time.”
David Silva and Yaya Toure were next through the door in the summer of 2010 - World Cup, European Championship and Champions League medals in tow - while the precocious young talent of Mario Balotelli also reunited with Mancini from former Club, Inter Milan.
The impact was instant, with only goal difference separating Zabaleta and co. from top spot as the Premier League season passed the halfway point.
And while City’s bid for the title would eventually falter in the new year, the opportunity to end a 35-year wait for silverware continued to gather momentum.
Victories against Leicester, Notts County, Aston Villa and Reading saw City progress to the semi-finals of the FA Cup for the first time since 1981, with a showpiece encounter against United beckoning.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, well on course to lift a fourth Premier League title in five seasons and reach a third Champions League final since 2008, presented a formidable obstacle if City were to end that drought.
But it was Yaya Toure, one of the world class players that the Argentine referenced, who was the hero on the day, sneaking home the only goal of the game under the onrushing Edwin van der Sar just after the half-time whistle.
Zabaleta, who featured in all but one of our FA Cup matches that season, was at his brilliant best at Wembley, demonstrating his commitment to the cause even after he was poleaxed by a knee-high lunge from United midfielder Paul Scholes with 20 minutes to play.
As was customary by now, the defender simply dusted himself down and helped to see out a victory that he still pinpoints as the pivotal moment of his City career.
Toure would again pounce in our 1-0 final victory over Stoke, but Zabaleta’s conviction in the significance of that United triumph, regardless of all the future accolades he would claim at the Club, is emphatic.
“That game (against Manchester United) is one of my greatest memories as a City player,” he declares.
“We got to the semi-final at Wembley against Manchester United, we won the game and then went on to win the FA Cup.
“I think mentally the final was against United, no disrespect to Stoke City. You could really see the atmosphere before the game.
“It took two years to build a strong team. You don’t do that only using the big names, but you need that winning mentality.”
The glint of a first major trophy since 1976 saw the bar of what constituted both success and progress well and truly raised leading into the 2011/12 campaign.
But Mancini’s men continued to hit those ever more ambitious targets; pipping United to the post in what remains the most dramatic title race in Premier League history.
“Sergio stole my moment! That was my only goal of the season!”
Zabaleta, as always, stepped up when it mattered, with his only goal of that historic season coming in its defining moment when Queens Park Rangers goalkeeper Paddy Kenny fumbled his effort into the net on the stroke of half-time.
City supporters are well versed in the rollercoaster of events that unfolded at the Etihad Stadium after the break, which perhaps explains why the defender’s vital contribution is often overlooked.
“Sergio (Aguero) stole my moment! That was my only goal of the season,” he jokes about his fellow Argentine’s iconic late winner, which earned City our first top-flight title since 1968.
“It was special because it was his first season at the Club. It was the right player at the right time and the right place. Only Sergio could score that goal.
“Some other players would have looked for a penalty there, but he just stayed on his feet and smashed it.
“Players like Sergio with that cold mind in moments like that can make that happen.”
City were unable to defend our Premier League crown twelve months later, with an additional FA Cup final defeat to Wigan signifying the end of Roberto Mancini’s tenure in the Etihad dugout.
But Zabaleta’s consistent displays at right-back remained the one constant across the entire campaign, earning him a spot in the PFA Team of the Year.
He would continue that rich vein of form under new City boss Manuel Pellegrini, as the Club once again reclaimed the Premier League crown on the final day of the season.
While less eventful than 2012, Pellegrini’s men would once again have to stave off a considerable challenge from a worthy adversary, this time in the form of a Luis Suarez-inspired Liverpool side.
Defeat away to Brendan Rodgers’ men, followed by a 2-2 home draw with Sunderland, left City six points off the pace with four matches remaining, with daunting trips to Crystal Palace and Everton next on the agenda.
Pellegrini’s men would come out on top in both encounters, with subsequent wins over Aston Villa and West Ham at the Etihad Stadium seeing us pounce on Liverpool’s late season collapse to finish two points clear.
Just 20 days prior, the title had looked destined for Anfield, but Zabaleta insists that the squad’s faith in our eventual title triumph never faltered.
He reflects: “I feel we always kept believing that we were going to win the Premier League (in 2014). We played great football that season.
“Liverpool were in a good moment and was a team that was a big contender, but I feel we always believed that the Premier League was for us.
“Even in 2012 with Mancini, we were the same but with Manchester United and we just kept pushing and believing until the end.
“That was one of the reasons we won the league. Those two seasons were fantastic.”
In the next three years, the Argentine would go on to lift another Carabao Cup before becoming a regular in Pep Guardiola’s first season as manager at the Etihad Stadium.
But by May 2017 and with a squad overhaul on the horizon, it was time for Zabaleta’s nine-year stay at the Club to come to an end.
The defender announced his departure three days prior to City’s final home game of the season against West Bromwich Albion and received a deservedly rapturous ovation when entering the fray just after the hour.
Celebrations of one of our greatest ever servants continued after the final whistle of that 3-1 triumph, with Zaba awarded an Etihad Stadium season card for life by captain Vincent Kompany.
It was a fitting tribute to the impact the Argentine had made on both the Club and its supporters – and one which lingered whenever he did return to the Etihad Stadium with West Ham over the following three seasons.
From having to search for his new team-mates on the internet and watch YouTube videos about Manchester back in August 2008 to a Club legend with over 300 appearances and every available domestic honour to his name, Zabaleta’s transformation over those nine years was undeniable.
Tough tackling, straight talking, fearless and unwaveringly committed to the cause, never has the term ‘adopted Mancunian’ fit the bill so seamlessly.