Giuseppe Meazza: Champion of the world
For those who saw him in his pomp, Giuseppe Meazza was the greatest player the football world had seen.
The leading star in the Italy side that twice won the World Cup in the 1930s, coach Vittorio Pozzo suggested his presence was akin to starting "every game 1-0 up", while goalkeeper Aldo Olivieri said it was "like having 12 men", as he would always occupy two defenders. "Opposing teams often assign two or three people to mark me," Meazza said. "I never yearn for solitude more than in these matches, so I act like I'm not interested in the game. And then I pounce."
He was described in Paris' Match newspaper as "the master of finishing" in 1931, while The Times of England wrote in 1933: "His dash, intelligence and rapid and powerful shooting, coupled with his peculiar capacity for enticing the goalkeeper out of his goal, have won for him many admirers, who declare that he is unrivalled." He had several signature techniques, not least la foglia morta - the dead leaf - in which a shot would appear destined to sail over the crossbar before suddenly dropping down, like a leaf from a tree, into the goal.
With his slick, Brylcreemed hair and designer suits, he was a legendary womaniser with a Champagne lifestyle yet, during an era in which Benito Mussolini would spend vast sums encouraging Italians to settle down and procreate, he was still able to establish himself as a national hero for the propaganda machine. "I have only two loves: my mother and goals," he wrote in a column for La Stampa. "There is no room for a third at the moment. I believe I have contributed to the demographic drive, but I do not remember how many bundles of joy I have presented to opposing goalkeepers. I have lost count."
Meazza, born in Milan in August 1910, had a difficult childhood: his father was killed in 1917 while serving his country in World War I. By that stage, the youngster had decided his destiny. "I was already obsessed with football," he said. "My poor dad, just before I lost him, tried to give me a rifle for San Giuseppe day, but I rebelled. I was rolling around on the floor and screaming - I wanted a ball."
Meazza had to fight for his dream. He had grown up playing with rolled up rags in lieu of a ball, and his mother - who took against her son's dream - hid his shoes in a bid to stop him playing. "I had to wrap bits of cloth around my feet, but it actually served me much better than boots, although my feet would often end up bleeding after a frantic football session in the fields."
When he was 12, he said, "my mother made me swear, absolutely swear, that I would never kick a ball". In rebellion, this already undernourished youngster decided to undertake a hunger strike - "which has given glory to many people, prisoners among them" - for around three days. "I won the battle when I was allowed to go join up with a team. From there, I signed for the Internazionale youth side." Inter, spotting potential that AC Milan's scouts had overlooked, fed up the 14-year-old self-professed "skinny kid" to improve his physique.
He got his break ahead of the 1927-28 season, when Inter played in a tournament that involved both morning and afternoon games. The coaches used the occasion to test out some new players, but Meazza was not on the team-sheet for either game because he was considered too lightweight. "Thinking I wouldn't play, I'd eaten a huge breakfast on the morning of the game, but then Internazionale lost the early game quite badly and decided to make some changes for the afternoon game. When [coach Arpad] Weisz called me to tell me I had to make my first-team debut, I told him I was too full. He laughed and advised me that I ought to take the chance. I obeyed him, and the debut of the Balilla looked good enough at least for Avanguardista." He had, in other words, put in a performance beyond his years.
So it was that on September 12, 1927, the 17-year-old was given his official debut in a Coppa Volta game against US Milanese. Meazza scored a brace in a 6-2 win, and was recognised in the Milan press as a future star. He became a key part of the team that season, playing 33 games in the Divisione Nazionale and scoring 12 goals. "I go to the cinema a lot and I've seen a lot of great adventures on the screen," Meazza recalled, "but my lightning-fast passage to the first team seems to me an incredible story."
In his second season, in which Inter merged with US Milanese and were renamed Ambrosiana, he helped the club qualify for a place in the newly formed Serie A. In 1929-30, Ambrosiana won the first ever Serie A title and Meazza finished top scorer with 31 goals in 33 games. On April 27 of that season, he had scored a hat-trick inside the opening four minutes, and a fourth goal before half-time, in a 6-0 win over Roma.
It was during that campaign that he made his international debut, scoring twice in a 4-2 win over Switzerland in February. The following month, after the appointment of Vittorio Pozzo, he made his second appearance, scoring the second in a 2-0 win away to Germany. The 19-year-old struggled in the following match, a 1-1 draw with Netherlands, but in May scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 win over Hungary in the final of the Central European International Cup, which Italy had played in preference to the inaugural World Cup. Truly, a star was born.
The following season, he netted 24 goals for his club and continued to deliver at international level. He hit a first-half hat-trick to help Italy to a 5-0 win over France in January 1931, and the following month, playing against Hugo Meisl's Austrian Wunderteam, he scored what he would later describe as the finest goal of his career. Picking up the ball on the halfway line, he had embarked on a solo run into the penalty area. Pausing in front of goalkeeper Rodolphe Hiden, he drew him off his line - "like the bullfighter calls the beast," as the great journalist Gianni Brera put it - before evading a challenge, flicking the ball from right foot to left and placing it into the empty net. The goal helped Italy to their first ever victory over Austria.
There were many such legendary strikes. While training with the national team in 1933, he scored with a bicycle kick against the Juventus goalkeeper Gianpiero Combi. When Ambrosiana-Inter met Juve on May 25 that year, Combi had put money on the fact Meazza could not repeat the trick; within 15 minutes, he'd been proved wrong. "Combi had bet that I couldn't do it, and all the Bianconeri defenders tried to stop me," the forward recalled in 1950. "Happily predicting the trajectory of the ball, at the right moment I flipped onto my back and was able to make a good connection to fire the ball through a forest of legs."
Meazza was inevitably Italy's great hope ahead of the 1934 World Cup. With the event taking place on home soil, Mussolini had recognised the opportunity to showcase the rebirth of the nation through sporting prowess, and indeed the country had done all it could to eliminate the possibility of failure. Several foreigners, or oriundi, were called up, and there have been various conspiracy theories - though unproven - over the refereeing of the tournament.
The pressure was intense on the players and, unfortunately for Meazza, the World Cup had arrived at a particularly poor time. He had been suffering with a number of leg injuries that had badly affected his form, and he failed to score in his club's final eight games of the season as they surrendered the title to Juventus. Pozzo revealed after the tournament that Meazza had implored him: "Let me stay at home. I'm depressed. I can't play."
The weight of responsibility on Meazza had been eased, though, by virtue of the fact Pozzo had moved him to inside forward the previous year so that he could play in support of the prolific Bologna striker Angelo Schiavio. It was a move that suited him. "I'm not selfish on the field," he had said. "I like that my team-mates score goals too, to the point I even get rebuked: 'You were supposed to shoot!' There is nothing worse than individualism."
Nonetheless, he ended a two-month goal drought with a last-minute strike in the 7-1 victory over USA that opened the tournament and, in the next match, the quarter-final against Spain, he made a significant difference. The teams drew 1-1 in the first meeting, with Italy struggling against a Spain side boasting the world's finest goalkeeper, Ricardo Zamora, in inspired form. For Italy's equaliser, scored by Giovanni Ferrari, Meazza was accused of fouling Zamora, who took such heavy punishment in the match that he was unable to play in the replay the following day. Without Zamora - a man whom Meazza later said appeared to have "a pile of rocks in his goalmouth" - Italy progressed after a 1-0 win, with Meazza heading the winner from a corner.
In the semi-final, against Austria, Meazza created the only goal of the game, running towards goal before colliding with the 'keeper to allow Enrique Guaita a simple finish.
Unfortunately, he had sustained yet another injury, and he was to be severely hindered in the final against Czechoslovakia. He took further punishment that day from the Czechs - there are even claims he aimed a punch at Rudolf Krcil in retaliation for a tackle - and would end the final with a pronounced limp. Even so, he was able to make an impact.
The Czechs had taken the lead through Antonin Puc in the 71st minute and looked to have taken charge, with goalkeeper Frantisek Planicka excelling, but Raimundo Orsi equalised with an incredible chip shot to force extra time. Meazza, lame through injury, was allowed space in the 97th minute to cross to Guaita, who found Angelo Schiavio for the winning goal. Italy thus clinched the 1934 World Cup, and the injury-hit Meazza was awarded the Golden Ball as its finest player.
In November that year, the world champions would take on England in a match that, for some, carried similar gravitas to the World Cup final, given the standing of British football at that time. However, the clash would go down as one of the most infamous of all time, billed the "Battle of Highbury" as Italy lost Luis Monti to a broken foot shortly after the kick-off and, after finding themselves 3-0 down inside 12 minutes, responded to the hosts' early show of strong-arm tactics with a sustained display of hacking. In the second-half, Meazza pulled a goal back with what The Guardian labelled "a fine rocket shot" before making it 3-2 with a glorious back-header that went in off the crossbar. He may have completed the comeback near the end, but his team-mate failed to pass to him; he would later describe it as the greatest regret of his life.
He cemented his legend with Inter in the years that followed, finishing top scorer in 1935-36 with 25 goals in 29 games, and again in 1937-38, with 20 goals in 26 games, as he won his second Scudetto with Ambrosiana-Inter. A quarter of his tally that season came in a single game as he netted five in a 9-2 victory over Bari in January.
Ahead of the 1938 World Cup, then, Meazza's importance to Italy could not be overstated. He remained the country's poster boy, and Pozzo had acknowledged his status within the Azzurri set-up by handing him the captaincy in March 1937, but he was - as at the 1934 tournament - employed in a deeper role than at his club, with the prolific Lazio striker Silvio Piola leading the line.
That much explains the fact that Meazza scored only once in the tournament, but his goal was typically memorable. Italy had seen off Norway and France, the hosts, to book their place in the semi-finals against Brazil and, leading 1-0 against the South Americans, Meazza was given the chance to double the lead from the penalty spot. It was at that point that the elastic in his shorts broke. "Anyone else would have changed them before taking the penalty," Italy's left-back that day, Pietro Rava, recalled in 1986. "'Peppino' [Meazza] just held his shorts with his left hand and, with his mastery, sent the ball into the corner and left Walter, the goalkeeper, miles from it." Italy won the match 2-1 to reach the final.
The pressure was on ahead of the meeting with Hungary, with Mussolini sending his famous "Vincere o morire!" ("Win or die!") telegram to the players in Paris. The phrase, used commonly in the Fascist era, was designed to instil a sense of pride rather than to imply a mortal threat, but he had made clear his expectations. Italy did indeed deliver Il Duce's desire, retaining the trophy courtesy of a 4-2 win in which Meazza had provided assists for both Piola and Gino Colaussi, who netted a brace apiece. Afterwards, Mussolini was reported to have told Meazza he had done more for the country than any of its ambassadors.
However, the player had been suffering injury problems during the tournament, and his fitness would become an increasing concern as he made only 16 appearances in the 1938-39 season. This was not solely down to injury: in March, Ambrosiana-Inter handed him a one-month suspension after he had refused to play in a 0-0 draw at home to Triestina. The reasons for his refusal to play remained unclear, but he appealed - unsuccessfully - against his punishment. He was back in the fold before the close of the season, though, and in May represented the club in their first Coppa Italia success as they beat Novara 2-1. In July, he won his 53rd, and final, cap for Italy in a 3-2 friendly victory in Finland.
His club reclaimed the Scudetto in the 1939-40 season, but Meazza made no contribution. He was suffering badly with a foot problem - described as a "foot of ice" - that saw spasms in his arteries limit blood circulation. It was with some surprise, then, that in November 1940 he signed for AC Milan.
It was several weeks before he was able to make his return to action and, when he did play, he was clearly past his best. There were odd glimpses of the Meazza of old, and his football brain was as sharp as ever, but his body could no longer keep up. Gianni Brera later wrote that, during his time with the Rossoneri, he had looked as though he were "on the verge of dropping dead any minute".
In October 1942, he moved on to another Italian giant, with Juventus this time taking a chance on a revival. "I will do my best to show I can still be useful," Meazza said. He made his debut that month in the Turin derby, but the game passed him by as Torino claimed a 5-2 win, and while he would score ten goals in 27 appearances for Juve, his time there was summed up by a caricature in Tuttosport that showed a portly Meazza beseeching his team-mates: "Try not to make me run."
He left for Varese in 1944, playing for the club in the wartime Alta Italia competition, and then had a spell as player-coach with Atalanta before returning to Inter in the same capacity in 1946, seeing the club to a tenth-placed finish. His career as a coach continued for another decade, notably including a spell in charge of the Italian national team in the early 1950s, but never with any sustained success.
As his life wore on, he retreated from the spotlight. After having acted as caretaker coach for Inter on several occasions, he eventually settled into a role looking after the youth players, notably discovering and mentoring the young Sandro Mazzola.
In August 1979, at the age of 69, he died of lung cancer. Knowing his death would inevitably attract great interest, he had asked for a small, private funeral and requested that his death not be publicised until after the service had taken place.
"I was Meazza," he had said the year before his death. "Everyone knows me. In 10, 20 years, people attending football matches will still talk about Meazza, will know who Meazza was."
However, he would not have realised how strongly his name would come to be associated with the future of Italian football. When, the month after his death, Inter had hosted Pescara in their season opener at the San Siro, there was a minute's silence in his honour. When the minute was up, the stadium announcer exclaimed: "We must remember the greatest Italian footballer of all time by dedicating this stadium to him!"
By that stage, the wheels were already in motion. In March 1980, this legendary temple of football was officially renamed the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.