Europe’s Champions: AC Milan 1962-63

WHILE Internazionale are credited with being the arch-exponents of catenaccio, the nerazzurri were not the first Italian side 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 José 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 Hotspur 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 at San Siro.

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.

Meanwhile, Milan’s grasp on the scudetto was slipping. As 1962 became 1963, Milan were five points behind Inter and four short of second-placed Juventus. It got worse, largely due to Milan’s penchant for drawing games – by the end of the campaign, they had drawn 13 of their 34 league fixtures. They recovered some ground towards the end of the season, but ended in third place, six points short of Inter.

But they had the European Cup in their sights. Milan beat Union Luxembourg 14-0 on aggregate in the preliminary round, with Altafini scoring no fewer than eight. Ipswich Town, Turkey’s Galatasaray and Scottish champions Dundee were all beaten on the way to the final, where – true to form – Milan lined-up against Eusebio and Benfica. The holders, Benfica, had a stress-free road to Wembley, beating Sweden’s Norrköping, Dukla Prague of Czechoslavakia and the Dutch side from Rotterdam, Feyenoord.

Only 46,000 turned up at Wembley to see the final, leading some commentators to complain about the lack of interest among English fans. But the press sang the praises of the two teams, who displayed excellent footwork and ball control, which was a far cry from the clumsiness of the game in Britain. One of the reasons that the crowd was lower than expected was the kick-off time, 3pm on a midweek afternoon.

Although Milan seemed nervous at first, Rivera dictated the game at the Empire Stadium, creating several chances for his team-mates, while Maldini, Mario David and Trapattoni stifled the Benfica’s forwards. Against the run of play Eusebio, demonstrating speed and power, accelerated past two defenders and gave Benfica the lead. Torres should have extended that advantage. Milan struggled for a while, but the game really swung their way when Benfica’s Mario Coluna was fouled by Gino Pivatelli and left the field with what turned out to be a broken foot. This was the turning point of the game.

Rivera sprung to life and set-up two goals for Altafini, who had endured a disappointing afternoon up until then. The goals were 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.

Great Reputations: Grande Inter – a harsh legacy?


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.

Helenio Herrera, Coach, Inter-Milan on the bench with his assistants. Photos: PA

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.

Into Europe

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.

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