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While Internazionale are credited with being the arch-exponents of catenaccio, the nerazzurri were not the first Italian team to adopt the defence-minded approach that squeezed the life out of Italian and European football. Inter’s stable-mates, AC Milan, were the forerunners.
Nereo Rocco, from Trieste, first used the system at Padova, where he led a modest team from Veneto to third place in Serie A. After success with Triestina, Treviso and Padova, Rocco got the chance to step up to the big time and was appointed coach of AC Milan in 1961.
As a player, Rocco’s time came just as Italy became world champions. He was capped just once in 1934, but the competition was fierce for a place in the national team. He played just 45 minutes of a 4-0 win against Greece, just enough to win the necessary accreditation to become a coach.
He got the call from Milan in bizarre circumstances. Gipo Viani, who had won the scudetto twice with Milan, in 1956-57 and 1958-59, suffered a heart attack and had to hand over the job to Rocco. During the next few years, Rocco competed head-to-head with Inter’s Helenio Herrera. Both were advocates of catenaccio, but they were very different characters. Both were certainly eccentric in their own way, but while Herrera was obsessive about discipline, both professionally and personally, Rocco was something of a bon viveur and would spend time drinking with journalists and other football people. He was almost a caricature, wide, stubby and ebullient.
He expected his players to adopt a strict approach and installed a near-totalitarian regime around his team. One player who fell foul of this was prolific goalscorer Jimmy Greaves, who was signed from Chelsea in 1961 by Viani and lasted just a few months. Rocco didn’t rate Greaves as a professional, although his goalscoring record couldn’t be faulted.
Greaves, and some of his contemporaries, found it hard to adapt to Rocco’s style, which included “retreats” that took players away from view before games. Rightly or wrongly, it worked for Rocco’s Milan and they became the first Italian club to win the European Cup. By then, Greaves was back in London with Spurs. El Paròn (the master) had got his way.
The 1950s had been kind to AC Milan. They won Serie A four times and reached the final of the European Cup in 1957-58, losing to Real Madrid. The Milan side that lost in Brussels included Nils Liedholm, the Swedish forward and Uruguayan World Cup hero Juan Alberto Schiaffino, who had joined the club for a world record fee of 52 million Italian Lire.
When Rocco took over, he inherited a team that included some legendary names from Italian football. In defence was Giovanni Trapattoni, who would go on to enjoy a highly successful managerial career. He was considered to be the most loyal and consistent disciple of the Rocco way. He was never a creative force, but “Il Trap” as he was often known, had the task of winning the ball and delivering it to Milan’s play-makers. And then there was defender Cesare Maldini, father of Paulo, and like Rocco, a native of Trieste.
The star of the show and later to become the most talked-about player in Italian football was Gianni Rivera, dubbed the “golden boy” by Viani. Everyone had a view on Rivera, whether he was a luxury item, or whether he could play alongside this player or that player. He was signed from his home town club, Alessandria, in 1960 and by 1962 he had been capped by Italy. For the next 15 years, he was a pivotal figure at AC Milan.
While Greaves weighed in with his share of the goals in the early weeks of 1961-62, Milan’s main striker was Jose Altafini. The Brazilian had been bought by the club in 1958 just before the World Cup in Sweden, costing 135 million Lire. He was barely 20 years of age.
Milan started the 1961-62 season with an emphatic 3-0 win at Vicenza, Altafini netting the first two of his 22 Serie A goals and Greaves also getting on the scoresheet. But then came two defeats, a 1-0 loss at Bologna and a home loss against Sampdoria. Rocco was livid with Greaves, who despite scoring Milan’s two goals, got involved in a fracas.
By the end of October, Milan were trailing the leaders by six points. Greaves was sold to Tottenham for £ 99,999 and Rocco signed Brazilian Dino Sani of Boca Juniors as his replacement. Milan seemed to gain fresh impetus and at the turn of the year, they were in third place, five points behind leaders Inter. Within a month, Fiorentina, Inter and Milan were all on 34 points. March 4 was a vital round of matches as Inter were beaten at Palermo and Milan beat Fiorentina 5-2. Milan were now a point clear at the top. Both Inter and Fiorentina started to stutter and Milan stayed focused and consistent. On April 8, they clinched the title with a 4-2 win against Torino.
Victory gave Milan the chance to make amends for their 1958 defeat in the European Cup final. Real Madrid were not the force of old and the big noise across Europe was Benfica, spearheaded by Eusebio, who had netted twice when the Lisbon eagles had beaten Puskas and co. in the 1962 final. Real went out early in the 1962-63 competition, so Milan and Benfica were seen as favourites to meet in the final.
Milan beat Union Luxembourg 14-0 on aggregate in the preliminary round, with Altafini scoring no fewer than eight. Ipswich Town, Galatasaray and Dundee were all beaten on the way to the final, where – true to form – Milan lined-up against Eusebio.
At Wembley, Rivera dictated the show while Maldini, Mario David and Trapattoni stifled the Benfica’s forwards. Against the run of play Eusebio gave Benfica the lead and Torres should have extended that advantage. But Rivera sprung to life in the second half and created two goals for Altafini. It was enough to give Milan the trophy. Benfica, meanwhile, were so distraught that they almost forgot to collect their runners-up medals.
Rocco departed Milan in 1963 but had two further spells with the club. In 1962-63, Inter won Serie A and embarked on a three year period where they took catenaccio to a new level. Some say Rocco was the inventor of the Italian version of catenaccio, but he had one burning desire – to win at all costs. His approach set the theme for an era, one that would not end until the start of the 1970s.