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There was an air of menace about them: Black and blue stripes; dark, matinee idol looks; oiled hair; and a dictatorial manager who had a slightly sinister appearance. And they were “foreign”. English football managers, among other folk in Britain, were deeply suspicious of Italian football teams. They were, after all, ultra-defensive, sly, tricky and “dirty” – that was the narrative if you believed the xenophobes and critics. The dreaded word was catenaccio, the defensive system that was not actually invented in Italy, but was certainly adapted for the very “industrial” art form that was Italian football.
The British public was told that the game in Italy, for all its perceived glamour, was boring. One magazine printed the results of a week’s Serie A games: 0-0, 0-1, 1-0, 1-1, 0-0, 1-0, 0-0, 1-1, 1-1. “That’s not football, that’s computer programming,” said one cynic. “Binary numbers”.
The epitome of the defence-oriented, gamesmanship approach of Italy’s top clubs was Internazionale of Milan. Inter. The Nerazzurri. And the manager was one Helenio Herrera.
The midwife of modern football?
Inter and Herrera came together in 1960. Argentinian by birth, Herrera’s formative years were spent in Casablanca and Paris before he moved to Spain. After a successful spell as manager of Atletico Madrid (two La Liga titles), he joined Barcelona where he managed to outdo Real Madrid in their pomp with two league championships in 1959 and 1960. He also won two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups with Barca. But he left the club in 1960 after a dispute involving the legendary forward Laszlo Kubala, whom he felt was past his best and ready to leave the Nou Camp.
Herrera had changed Barca from an under-performing club to one that could look the all-conquering Real Madrid in the eye. He gave them a different mindset and some innovations that would provide the blueprint for modern football management, employing bizarre motivational tactics, psychology and the odd cup of herbal tea (his own secret blend). Herrera’s Barcelona scored 96 goals in 1958-59 and almost as many in 1959-60. There was little hint of what was to come in Italy.
He wasn’t out of work for long after leaving Spain, for almost straight away, he was snapped-up by Inter, where he once more took football management to a different level.
Grande Inter takes shape
In his first season at Inter, Herrera achieved third place, just five points behind champions Juventus. In 1961-62, Herrera went back to Barcelona to sign Luis Suarez, the 26 year-old Spanish midfielder, for a world record fee of £142,000 (ITL 250m). Suarez was a graceful player who had been named European Footballer of the Year in 1960. Also arriving at the San Siro was England international forward Gerry Hitchens, who cost Inter £85,000. The two new signings scored 27 goals between them and Inter ended the campaign as runners-up to AC Milan.
Another player making his way in the Inter side was Sandro Mazzola, who had made an inauspicious start to his career in April 1961 when Inter were humiliated 9-1 by Juventus. The 1961-62 season also saw the rise of Giancinto Facchetti, a young forward who was converted to defence by Herrera. He would become a pivotal figure in the Inter story for the next 18 years.
Herrera skifully adapted players to positions he felt more suited to their ability. Like Facchetti, Armando Picchi was cast in an unfamiliar role, the Inter coach switching him from right back to sweeper.
Herrera brought new ideas around diet, training, opposition analysis and tactics to Inter. In many ways, he was the orchestrator of the so-called ritiro, training camps in remote locations to completely focus his players. This didn’t go down well with everyone and Gerry Hitchens likened the Herrera way to being in the army. It is not difficult to imagine that footballers would find some of Herrera’s antics difficult to adapt to. But then Herrera was no ordinary, one-dimensional football manager. He spent hours immersed in yoga, studied Buddhism and adopted a very strict diet.
Herrera would bombard his players with slogans and watchwords. If you were a forward, you were under pressure from the off. Herrera demanded more than 100 goals from his attack and insisted on less than 30 goals conceded.
After two seasons preparing, Inter would win Serie A in 1962-63. Herrera had strengthened his team in the summer, the most notable signing the Brazilian, Jair da Costa, a fleet-footed winger from Sao Paulo. Jair, as he was better known, won just one cap for Brazil, largely due to the presence of Garrincha. Another arrival was Tarcisio Burgnich, a rugged full-back from Palermo. Burgnich was a versatile player and ideally suited to the demands of catenaccio. Beniamino Di Giacomo, a diminutive striker, was signed from Torino and Argentinian front-man Humberto Maschio joined from Atalanta.
Inter won the scudetto by a four-point margin, virtually clinching the title at the end of April in Turin, when Sandro Mazzola’s 27th minute goal gave them a 1-0 win against Juventus. That put Herrera’s well-drilled team six points clear with three games to go. Inter failed to win any of their last three, but Juventus couldn’t take advantage. Inter only scored 56 goals, but their cast-iron defence only conceded 20 – at least ticked the box.
Herrera pulled off a coup when he signed Guiliano Sarti, one of the greatest of all Italian goalkeepers, in the summer of 1963 from Fiorentina. Sarti’s understanding with Burgnich and Facchetti became the rock on which Inter’s European Cup campaign was built in 1963-64.
In Serie A, Inter led in the early months, but were always matched by Bologna in the closing stages. In fact, both clubs ended on 54 points, meaning that the scudetto would be decided by a play-off. In Rome, an own goal by Facchetti and another from Dane Harald Nielsen, both late on, settled the game – 2-0 to Bologna.
But in Europe, it was a different story. Inter squeezed past English champions Everton in the first round, a single goal in the San Siro from Jair over the two legs. Monaco and Partizan Belgrade were beaten next, both by 4-1 aggregate scores.
The semi-final paired Inter with German champions Borussia Dortmund. This was a tough hurdle for Herrera’s side, the first leg ending 2-2 in Germany and Inter winning 2-0 in Milan. In more recent times, this game has been the subject of rumours concerning match-fixing.
Inter won few friends on their way to the final, but nobody could beat them. They would face Real Madrid, everyone’s darlings at the time with their fast-flowing football and artistry, notably from Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.
The game, in Vienna’s Prater Stadium, witnessed the first real trans-continental movement of football fans as the Austrian capital was filled with Italians. This birth of the travelling supporter was encouraged by Herrera and partially-funded by Inter’s president, Angelo Moratti.
On the pitch, Herrera assigned Carlo Tagnin, the former Bari midfielder, to neutralise the effect of the 37 year-old Di Stefano. Tagnin had the game of his life and by taking care of Di Stefano, Inter were able to reap the benefits of a free-to-roam Luis Suarez and Mario Corso.
Inter won 3-1, with Mazzola scoring twice and Aurelio Milani, the striker signed by Herrera in the summer from Fiorentina, netting the other goal. Real were bitterly disappointed and the media gave little credit to Inter, claiming they had merely capitalised on a below-par performance from Real. Hugh McIlvanney, one of the finest football writers to come out of Britain, said Inter lacked the panache of Real Madrid and cared little for their scientific approach.
If the defeat of Real Madrid failed to win recognition, the following season’s European campaign would do nothing for Inter’s reputation with the cognoscenti.
Inter regained their Serie A title in 1964-65, finishing three points ahead of Milan. If anything, they played a more expansive game, scoring 68 goals in 34 games. Although Italian football was considered to be defensive by the public, Inter’s goalscoring certainly bettered the champions of Germany (Werder Bremen 54 in 30 games) and France (66 in 34) and compared favourably with England’s Manchester United, Spain’s Real Madrid and Scotland’s Kilmarnock.
Inter had scored well in Europe, too. They overcame Dinamo Bucharest 7-0 on aggregate, Glasgow Rangers 3-2 and then, somewhat controversially, Liverpool by 4-3 in the semi-finals. The first leg at Anfield shocked Inter and the Italian media. Inter had not been beaten in two campaigns in Europe. Corriere Della Sera said that they left Liverpool “dazed”- “for the first time, our world champions felt the earth tremble under their feet”. The score was 3-1 to Liverpool, but such was the reputation of Inter, the English press assumed Liverpool only had a 50-50 chance of reaching the final.
The second leg was played against a hostile backdrop – many Italians claimed the reception was similar at Anfield – and Inter scored twice in the first 10 minutes to wipe-out Liverpool’s lead. Bill Shankly felt that both goals should not have been allowed, the second from Joaquim Peiro, the Spaniard signed from Torino before the start of 1964-65, especially galling given the Inter man had flicked the ball out of the arms of Tommy Lawrence, the Liverpool keeper. Facchetti scored the third goal in the 62nd minute to give Inter a 3-0 win and send them through to the final. “I was told before the game that we could not win,” recalled Shankly, who always remained bitter about the way his team had been intimidated in Milan.
It was possibly this tie, more than any other, that cemented Inter’s reputation as exponents of the dark arts of football. But the English newspapers also recognised that Inter had some genuine talent. “World class Inter end the English challenge,” said the Daily Telegraph. “This fine defence and magnificent forward line, so fluid and fast, with Spaniards Suarez and Peiro and Italians Mazzola and Corso slipping gracefully through with plenty of room to use the ball, had to triumph in the end.”
Inter had the dubious benefit of playing the 1965 final at the San Siro. Their opponents were Benfica, including the great Eusebio. They had beaten a declining Real Madrid in the quarter-final, thrashing them 5-1 in Lisbon. They were prolific in front of goal and Eusebio was one of Europe’s top strikers.
But Inter won 1-0, thanks to a first-half goal from Jair that owed much to the rain and mud of the San Siro pitch. The victory didn’t impress many people as Inter had sat back on their lead, seemingly reluctant to attack Benfica, but there was no doubt that Herrera’s intense methods had reaped rewards.
Invincible no longer
In 1965-66, Inter won Serie A once more. By now, players like Gianfranco Bedin and Angelo Domenghini had bedded into the Herrera system. Bedin had broken through in 1964-65 and Domenghini was signed from Atalanta. They clinched the title with one game to go, beating Lazio 4-1 and shrugging off the challenge of Bologna.
Although still top in Italy, Inter lost their European crown at the semi-final stage, Real Madrid gaining some revenge on them for that 1964 European Cup final.
Herrera took Inter to the final again in 1966-67, but if ever a game signalled the end of an era it was the meeting between a liberated Celtic side and the Milanese princes of catenaccio. Celtic won 2-1 and there was Shankly, still smarting over May 1965, enjoying Jock Stein’s triumph. Shankly and members of the Celtic squad apparently taunted Herrera after the game.
Devastated by their loss in Lisbon, Inter blew-up in their final league game a few days later. They were top of the table on the morning of the last Serie A matchday, but were surprisingly beaten 1-0 at Mantova. Juventus won against Lazio and snatched the title. Herrera did not take it well, blaming his players for the capitulation. It was, effectively the end of the golden age of Inter.
The magician’s legacy
For all Herrera’s innovation, intensity and success, there have always been rumours and theories behind his methods. In recent years, talk of doping, coffee laced with drugs, bribery and hard-line behaviour have left some shadows over Herrera’s legacy. The “win or bust” ethos that flies in the face of traditional sporting ideals. Herrera and Inter teamed-up at a particular moment in time and neither enjoyed the same level of pre-eminence again. Yes, they may have adopted the infamous catenaccio system, but Inter were also capable of superb football, conducted by extremely skilful, fit and brilliant players. There is no denying that Internazionale between 1962 and 1966 had few equals in terms of efficiency. And after a prolonged period of consistency, it fell apart – such prolonged pressure could not be sustained forever. If you want a modern day comparison to Herrera, look no further than Jose Mourinho.