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Sep 17, 2010

Rewind: Grande Inter dominate Europe

This week, Inter Milan began their campaign to become the first team to retain the European Cup since their city rivals AC Milan in 1990. However, the model for the Nerazzurri is emphatically the Grande Inter side that secured back-to-back European Cup triumphs in 1964 and 1965, coached by the legendary, and somewhat mythical, Helenio Herrera - a man who would redefine the position of the coach and divide opinion amongst his supporters and enemies alike thanks to his association with the defensive system of catenaccio.

When Inter asphyxiated Barcelona and went on to smother Bayern Munich in the final of the Champions League last season, comparisons were immediately drawn between Jose Mourinho and his distant predecessor at the helm of the Nerazzurri, Helenio Herrera. The fact that president Massimo Moratti had followed in the footsteps of his father, Angelo, by overseeing victory in Europe only made those suggestions more legitimate. But for Moratti jnr, there was no comparison to one of the greatest sides in the history of Italian football: "I feel the responsibility of being [Angelo's] son, but his team will always be like the Beatles - peerless." Such legendary status was thanks in large part to one man - Herrera - and of course his Fab Five in defence.

Appropriately for a man nicknamed Il Mago (The Magician), Helenio Herrera appeared to materialise out of nowhere, with conflicting reports stating his birth date was either 1910 or 1916. His formative years were also unconventional, a peripatetic existence seeing him born in Argentina, move to Casablanca and then embark on a professional career as a footballer in France. This was not your typical boot-room boy made good.

After enjoying success in Spain with Atletico Madrid and Barcelona - before disagreements with high-profile players forced his departure from Catalunya, a portent of things to come - Herrera arrived at Inter in 1960 and set about revolutionising the club, the art of management and the execution of football itself.

As midfielder Mario Corso would later say of his boss: "Every coach in Italy nowadays should thank Herrera, they became more famous thanks to him. Coaches were part of the team and that was it. He really created the figure of the coach."

Under his protective tutelage, Inter became the pre-eminent force in Italian football, winning Scudetti in 1963, 1965 and 1966. Indeed, they did so in style, scoring 68 goals in 34 games in the 1964-65 season and 70 the following year.

Their attacking superiority was no surprise. In Sandro Mazzola - son of the great Valentino Mazzola who, along with the rest of the Grande Torino side, perished in the Superga disaster of 1949 - they had one of the greatest forwards Italian football has ever seen, with able support coming in the shape of the wonderfully talented Corso and foreigners Luis Suarez and Jair.

Still, though, this Inter side would not be remembered for their flair and invention. Instead it was Herrera's application and adaptation of the infamous catenaccio ('door-bolt') that would define the Nerazzurri in this period. Though Herrera did not conceive a system that was born in Switzerland in the 1930s and mutated until given its most vivid expression by former Milan coach Nereo Rocco, he did utilise the constricting approach that entailed using four man-marking defenders and a sweeper - a position filled in the Inter side by the accomplished Armando Picchi.

But a formidable defence also boasted Franz Beckenbauer's inspiration Giacinto Facchetti, who at left-back was encouraged to maraud forward and press opponents back into their own half. It was a revolutionary role - and one more in keeping with philosophies of Total Football than catenaccio. It was clear that Herrera was a coach who could not be easily categorised.

This combination of defensive rigidity and attacking intent, honed in the four years since his arrival at Inter, reaped rich rewards in 1964 as European Cup success was forthcoming. In their first season in the competition, Inter defeated Real Madrid, victors between 1955 and 1960, 3-1 in the final in Vienna. Mazzola scored twice, and although the great Ferenc Puskas struck the post and Felo would respond for Real, a goal from Aurelio Milani ensured the trophy would be heading to Inter for the first time.

Victory over the greats of Madrid was quickly interpreted as a success for tactical application and discipline. From England, the Daily Mirror reported: "[Inter supporters] waved in salute, not only of a team but also of a man... a tough, grey, grizzled character who masterminded this greatest moment in the lives of 20,000 Italian soccer fans. If anyone ever won a game without kicking a ball, it was Inter Milan trainer-coach Helenio Herrera... tonight soccer salutes a triumph of tactics, a display of discipline, determination and dedication."

There was quite the cult of personality building around Herrera, one given further momentum by his notoriously hard-line approach and unique interpretation of the role of a coach. It was Herrera who was credited with inventing the system of ritiro - whereby he would isolate his squad from the outside world prior to a game - which has become commonplace in Italian football culture.

The inner workings of one of football's great coaches were later exposed to the general public when his widow, Fiora Gandolfi, published his notebooks in a collection named 'Tacalabala' ('Attack the Ball') - a phrase which was one of Herrera's favourites and encapsulated his determination to restrict space and hassle opponents. The publication painted a picture of a man obsessed with detail, who would invoke mantras such as "He who plays for himself plays for the opposition. He who plays for the team plays for himself."

Facchetti later said: "I think his greatest quality was in how he prepared for a game - not just athletically and technically but also mentally. He was a psychologist and knew how to motivate players as much as possible. He liked to say things which could upset the opponents, but he was also a great worker and motivated players to give the best of their abilities. He had contacts around the world who would give him a report on opponents. When we played overseas he told us how tall each player was, his hairstyle and even the colour of his eyes - that is how professional he was about his work."

Herrera was clearly a deep thinker and strategist, and would not indulge egos or personalities, as even the great Picchi would discover when he was unceremoniously sold to Varese in 1967. A further glimpse into his approach was given in an interview to the Daily Express just days before Inter would face Benfica in their second successive European Cup final in 1965.

Herrera told the newspaper: "I try to put 30 hours work into every day. I never allow them [the players] to attend banquets, even after their greatest triumphs. They are professionals and they must always be at their best. There is no magic about success, you work at it. You must never be satisfied with success. He who stops to sit on a pedestal can they only move one way - downwards. I must always continue to go upwards."

However, in public at least, he appeared to admit that his strict, uncompromising approach was winning him few fans across Europe, even if it was the perfect way to bring the best out of Inter. Ahead of the final on home turf, he promised: "We will play a different game at San Siro. Here we will give more of a spectacle. We have our crowd and we have grown to an awareness of our own strength."

His promise was to prove a hollow one. Gifted a 1-0 lead when a shot from Jair squirmed past Costa Pereira, Inter refused to leave themselves open to the counter-attack, even when Benfica lost their goalkeeper to injury and replaced him with a half-fit defender. With the great Eusebio a bystander on a quagmire of a pitch, Inter fought their way to a 1-0 victory and their second European Cup victory in succession.

The foreign press was unforgiving. Under the provocative headline 'Kings With a Hollow Crown', The Observer's Hugh McIlvanney wrote: "Efficiency continues to flourish at the expense of art and entertainment in European football. [Real Madrid] had far more than immense skills. They had panache, the style of champions. The difference between the Real Madrid of 1960 and the Inter Milan of 1965 is the difference between a matador's cape and a laboratory technician's smock."

The victory over Benfica laid bare the tensions pulling at the legacy of Herrera, the contradictions that were to inform interpretations of the coaching colossus. Successful, but at what price? Was he a doyen of defensive football, or a man who used whatever weapons he had in his arsenal to bring European success to a club that had never tasted it before?

John Foot, in his excellent 'Calcio: A History of Italian Football', cites the coach's focus on pressing, the attacking elements of the Inter team and his innovative use of players such as Facchetti when concluding: "Far from what is usually seen as catenaccio, many of Herrera's theories about the use of space were similar to those used by 'total football' gurus in the 1970s... Herrera's enduring reputation as the 'controversial missionary of catenaccio' is built more on what was seen as the cynical will-to-win of his teams - their attitude - than on the way they actually played football."

Clearly some potent myths surround Herrera and his team, and their achievements are enveloped in a strong narrative which has proved hard to shake. One thing is clear though: catenaccio or no catenaccio, Il Mago and his Grande Inter left an indelible mark on football and the history of the club, and a legacy that would not be seriously challenged until Jose Mourinho arrived in Milan.

What Happened Next? Inter won the Scudetto in 1966 and returned to the European Cup final to face Celtic in 1967. But Herrera was denied a hat-trick of wins as Jock Stein's Lisbon Lions won the Treble. Catenaccio was in decline, and Herrera left to join Roma in 1968. Though he returned to Inter in 1973, he could not recapture former glories and Inter would have to wait until 2010 to once again reign supreme in Europe.

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