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Nov 12, 2007

Calcio bids farewell to its Swedish father

Most of those who penned obituaries and tributes to Nils Liedholm, the former player and manager who died last Sunday at 85, managed to squeeze in a personal memory of the Swede, an anecdote or sentence that evoked a special time or virtue of him.

My own memory of a personal meeting with Liedholm does not measure up to the tales of those who were lucky enough to see him play or exchange opinions with him, but here it is: since 1973, Liedholm had owned a farm in tiny Cuccaro, northern Italy, a village nestled among the vineyard-rich hills of Monferrato.

My grandparents happened to live in nearby Fubine, another village of 3,000 seated up on a hill whence you could actually see Cuccaro in the near distance.

On the morning of April, 1979, Easter Sunday, a time when we'd visit the grandparents, I was walking across the main square, who's not much bigger than a five-a-side pitch, when the sight of Liedholm sitting in his car, waiting - as it turned out - for his wife to leave Mass was enough to stop me in my tracks.

On their way to their tenth Scudetto, Milan had beaten Torino 3-0 away, which meant less than 80 miles away, on the Saturday, and obviously they now had a couple of days off but for some reason Liedholm's presence out there, sitting in his car caught me by surprise and I could only mutter something like 'buongiorno Mister Liedholm' before blushing - probably - and running away in embarassment - definitely.

As anecdotes go, it is probably one of the least meaningful readers, especially those who may make such encounters every week while loitering outside football grounds, may have come across but hey, that's what in the cupboard now.

But it highlights one of the traits people identified most with Liedholm: his ability to look superhuman, both as a player and as a coach, while at the same time retaining the charming approachability of a caring uncle, something which, for all his talent at coaching, winning and now commentating on football, someone like Fabio Capello - ironically, Liedholm's hand-picked successor at Milan midway through the 1986-87 season - hardly inspires in people nowadays.

And yet Liedholm had been royalty. He was nicknamed 'Il Barone', The Baron, by admirers in Italy, perhaps unaware that he had already been known as The Count in his native Sweden which he had left at 27, in the summer of 1949, telling his father 'don't worry, I will be back in a year or two'.

That he later married an actual member of the Italian nobility, Countess Maria Lucia Gabotto di San Giovanni, who died three years ago, is almost irrelevant, because the moniker had its roots in Liedholm's class and attitude, his elegance while running hard on the pitch from his position of inside forward blessed with a strong physique and a powerful, surgically sharp left foot, as rare footage from that era and the tales of those who saw him play have evoked.

No football fan from the mid-Fifties to perhaps the mid-Nineties grew up without witnessing or perhaps hearing mention of the Gre-No-Li, AC Milan's trio of Swedish stars Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and, of course, Nils. They managed to lift the Rossoneri from the long years of competitive torpor that had left them without a championship since 1907.

Together, they won the Scudetto in 1951, with Liedholm and Nordahl making it two in 1955 and Nils going on to win a couple more in 1957 and 1959 after his compatriots had left.

In 1958, nearing 36, Liedholm scored the opening goal in the World Cup final against Brazil, who recovered and went on to win 5-2, but his performance, coupled with another brilliant display only a few weeks earlier when Milan had taken heavily-favoured Real Madrid to extra time in the European Cup final, meant his place in history had been cemented, as a player, even before he became a legendary coach.

In which position do you want to play?
Liedholm to 16-year-old Paolo Maldini
While still playing, Liedholm had seen the coaching gene in him grow rapidly. Famously, he was in the full Milan side which faced the Rossoneri youth team on a day in which a young player named Gianni Rivera had been brought in on trial from Alessandria. To test his mettle, Rivera had been given a place along the stars of the full side, and when Milan signed him only a few weeks later it turned out Liedholm had talked the reluctant directors into giving him a contract.

Rivera and the Swede would play in the same side in 1960-61, Liedholm's last year as a player before becoming the first team's assistant manager, with a special talent at working with young players, then progressing to become first team coach from 1963.

It is no coincidence that most of the players who spoke after his death compared him to a surrogate father. His gift for smoothing even the hardest edges of life, which had seen him go through his entire playing career without receiving as much as a single yellow card, translated into a coaching style that encouraged his players to embrace freedom within the context of a philosophy that was new to Italy, the zone.

Not the total football version favoured by the Dutch, but what was seen as a 'Brazilian' zone, with zonal defending - a novelty for Italian defenders, who were used to man-to-man marking - and ball possession at its core.

'Opponents cannot score if we have the ball' was one of his explanations for this approach, and just one of the quirky sentences which he used to say tongue in cheek, testing the belief of his audience.

'I once hit a shot so hard that the ball rebounded off the crossbar, travelled back the length of the pitch and forced our keeper to make his best save of the day', he'd say, smiling. 'The biggest cheer I heard at the San Siro was on the day I mislaid a pass. You know why? That was the first time I had not made a precise pass in two years' was another favourite, with the length of the cheer growing in minutes every time he told the story.

'Set plays look beautiful in practice: there are no opponents there'. Once, comforting Roma playmaker Giancarlo De Sisti, who was struggling with an ankle injury, he told him 'play on. A lame horse is better than a healthy donkey', and when a player was sent off he'd shrug it off by saying 'sometimes it's better to play with ten men'.

This apparently naive approach to life and football, which also made him consult a fortune-teller and self-appointed medicine man who worked out of an office near Milan, served him well and contributed to his legacy as much as his skills as a player and coach.

When he felt 16-year old Paolo Maldini was ready to make his first team debut on January 20, 1986, replacing Sergio Battistini, he asked him 'in which position do you want to play?', at once easing the youngster's nerves and inspiring the sort of confidence that helped him enjoy a good match.

Tactically, his best feat, apart from leading Verona and Varese to promotion to the Serie A, was winning the Scudetto with Milan in 1978-79, the long-awaited tenth Italian title which meant the Rossoneri could now add the golden star to their shirt.

That season, with Rivera's career nearing the end and a side full of attacking midfielders but litle talent up front, he used his lone striker, Stefano Chiodi, a great penalty-taker but a wasteful finisher in open play, as a foil, opening the inside channels for Walter Novellino, Albertino Bigon and goalscoring fullback Aldo Maldera to run into and get into dangerous positions.

He then led Roma to the title in 1983, their first since 1942, applying the same approach to a very different side from Milan, as the Giallorossi had a typical and prolific centre-forward in Roberto Pruzzo.

That side also boasted Brazilian schemer Paulo Roberto Falcao, midfielder turned sweeper Agostino di Bartolomei, whom Liedholm had seen as a projection of himself on the pitch, and another young, energetic midfielder named Carlo Ancelotti, whom Liedholm had discovered in 1979.

That Ancelotti said the other day 'if people compare me to Nils I can only be grateful, football would be much better if more people were like him' is perhaps the fittest tribute to a man who left a mark on everyone that ever happened to meet him.

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