Mens Team

On this day: Zabaleta signs for City

On this day: Zabaleta signs for City
Twelve years ago today, City completed a deal for arguably one of the best pound-for-pound signings the Club has ever made.

Though relatively unknown at the time, Pablo Zabaleta was destined for great things with City and when offered a chance to play in the Premier League over Serie A, he had a gut feeling that Manchester and not Turin was the right move.

The then 23 year-old right-back turned down Juventus with his heart instead set on Manchester and City agreed a fee in the region of £6.5m with La Liga side Espanyol to sign the Argentine.

Rarely had a player and a set of supporters been better matched.


It was poignant to say the least that Zabaleta joined a day before Sheikh Mansour was announced the Club’s new owner.

Manager Mark Hughes was about to be given a huge transfer budget as a result of the takeover, but the transfer window was also about to close making Zabaleta’s capture, plus the resigning of Shaun Wright-Phillips all the more important.

And just nine days earlier, Vincent Kompany had also been signed for a modest fee as the shrewd Hughes slowly reshaped his defence.

While Zabaleta and Kompany were welcome additions, their arrival didn’t capture the imagination of the football world or, it’s fair to say, most City fans at the time.

However, the dramatic arrival of Real Madrid superstar Robinho, just minutes before the 2008 summer transfer window deadline passed, did.

Both Zaba and Robinho made their debut against Chelsea with a wave of optimism washing over the Club as never before.

All eyes were on Robinho, while Zaba just got on with it, with wholehearted, committed defending.

City were beaten 3-1 by Chelsea at the Etihad that day, dampening those flames of enthusiasm somewhat, but not extinguishing them.

It was, of course, very early days - but what quickly caught the eye of City fans was Zaba’s total disregard for self-preservation each time he played.

'In the line of duty' was a phrase that could have been invented for the fearless full-back, such was his 100% dedication.

Years later, he would reveal that he treated every challenge as though it were his last – a footballer’s career, of course, can be ended with one bad tackle, so Zaba made sure every challenge was full-blooded, fair, but always one for the team.

It wasn’t long before he became a cult figure among City fans – the one who gave everything each and every time he played and was completely committed to the cause. He wasn’t alone, of course, but even among such warriors as Kompany and Nigel de Jong, Zaba stood out.

City supporters resonated with his passion, heart and willingness to put his body on the line time and time again.

They felt he played as they would, given the chance to represent their club.

In some ways, he was a defender from years gone by and he could probably have played in any era, in any country – he took the art of defending to a different level and in his world, there were no quarters asked and no quarters given - what you saw was what you got.

It didn’t take long for the mutual admiration to take hold – this was where Pablo Zabaleta was meant to be, playing, in front of supporters who appreciated everything he did in his adopted home city.

By that point, he had already cemented his place in the fans’ hearts and would remain a huge crowd favourite throughout his time at the Etihad.

And when tragedy struck, it was City and his adoring fans he drew strength from.

His father Jorge was involved in a serious car crash not long before the City reached the 2011 FA Cup final and Zaba flew back to Argentina to be by his bedside.

He returned in time for the Wembley final and came on as an 88th-minute sub for Carlos Tevez as City ended our 35-year wait for silverware with a 1-0 win over Tony Pulis’ Stoke. It was absolutely fitting that he be a part of that triumph and a demonstration of his commitment to the Club at an unbelievably difficult time.

He also wanted to be able to tell his dad he had helped win the trophy for him.

He shared right-back duties with Micah Richards during the 2011/12 campaign but it was Zaba’s goal that broke the deadlock against QPR as City went on to clinch a dramatic last-day title triumph.

He was voted the Club’s Player of the Year for 2012/13 and captained City many times during Kompany’s absence with injury.

At the end of the campaign he was also voted into the PFA Team of the Year – the only City player to be nominated by fellow professionals that season - validation from some of the best players in the world that perhaps he was their least favourite right-back!

He would add another Premier League title in 2013/14 as well as a Capital One Cup victory over Sunderland in his best season yet in terms of silverware, making 48 appearances in all competitions.

The next year – and for the first time in his City career – injuries, cuts, bumps and bruises took their toll and he made just 22 appearances after missing most of the first half of the season - it was surprising he hadn’t missed more games due to injury given his full throttle style.

His battered body was perhaps sending him a message - one that would, of course, go unheeded. 

It’s hard to think of a player who suffered more gashed heads, broken noses and other wounds playing for City or anyone else for that matter - and nobody’s name had echoed around the Etihad like Zaba’s – it still does to this day.

But no matter what the injury was or when it was during a game, he always wanted to come straight back on the pitch and carry on, so the image of him playing with a bandaged head became synonymous City’s No.5.

He would enjoy one full season under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, and the fact he made 32 appearances shows his final campaign at the Etihad was productive and committed to the end.

Then, the moment every City fan knew would come one day, as Zaba announced the 2016/17 campaign would be his last at City and the home game with West Brom in May 2017 proved to be just as emotional as everyone had predicted it would be.

It was hard to imagine Pablo Zabaleta not being part of Manchester City, and the reception he received as he came on after 62 minutes, replacing another irreplaceable crowd idol in David Silva, was deafening.

Nine years, 333 appearances and endless rolls of bandages and plasters, the ‘Farewell Zaba’ evening was capped with a 3-1 win over the Baggies.

He came back to the Club in the colours of West Ham United in the seasons that followed and on each occasion, received a rousing ovation – the sort that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

He left the Hammers this summer and is currently considering what happens next.

One thing is for certain, he will always be welcome at a Club and city he still considers home.

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