In May 1960, after delivering the Inter Cities Fairs Cup and his second successive La Liga title, Argentine-born coach Helenio Herrera left Barcelona. Despite the impressive domestic success and the bonus of a European trophy, a failure to usurp Real Madrid from their status as the aristocrats of continental football, plus rumours of disputes with a number of players, including star performer Ladislao Kubala, created a rift between club and coach that proved too wide to bridge.
Herrera had created a Barça side that ironically, months later, would go on to eventually dethrone Los Blancos as champions of Europe in the First Round of the European Cup under new coach Enrique Orizaola, thanks to a brace of goals by midfield general Luis Suárez, nicknamed ‘El Arquitecto’ (The Architect). The Catalans would fall short of the ultimate prize though, losing the final in Bern’s Wankdorf Stadium. Barcelona’s wait to land the big trophy would go on for another 30 years. For Herrera, and indeed Suárez however, a period of continental domination was just a few short years away. That success would be achieved not in Catalunya, but the Lombardy region of Italy, where a club struggling to re-establish itself as a force in Serie A, and who had never won a European trophy, was about to become the continent’s dominant power. The era of Il Grande Inter was about to be born.
Angelo Moratti had amassed a fortune in the oil business and took over as president of the club officially known as Football Club Internazionale Milano – but forever recognised as ‘Inter’ – the year after their last Scudetto triumph in the 1953-54 season. Despite significant investment however, it was a time of stagnation rather than progress as Inter floundered domestically failing to secure any trophy in the next seasons until the turn of the decade and, indeed, hardly threatening to do so.
Moratti chopped and changed his coaches with dizzying regularity but without achieving any significant progress. Legendary former player Giuseppe Meazza served two brief tenures and English coach Jesse Carver also called the San Siro his home, albeit briefly. With the turnover of coaches in double figures by May 1960, the president decided to bring in the man who had delivered success in Spain and brought Herrera to the San Siro, paying a hefty financial cost to do so. Just days short of his fiftieth birthday the self-proclaimed champion and prophet of attacking football picked up the Nerazzurri banner, and Moratti finally had the right man for the job, although the road to success would be more than a little bumpy.
Football in Italy was a very different beast to that played in Spain and, despite arriving as the man who decried the stupefying play of defensive football that dominated Serie A, Herrera quickly learned to adapt to his new environment. The famous Italian sports writer Gianni Brera described the transformation. ‘As soon as he could open his mouth [Herrera] thundered against the ‘catenaccio’, but after a month he put in a libero; the following year he rediscovered Burgnich and placed Picchi behind Guarnieri’s back; After a few seasons of overwhelming victories with a calculating and even stingy game, solidly founded on defence, Herrera went out into the world to preach as his own the pragmatic verb of `Catenaccio a la Italiana.’
The system adopted had its origins with the Swiss coach Karl Rappen. Managing an amateur national team against the growing professionalism sweeping the global game in the thirties, Rappen devised as system of play that would rely more on the collective efforts of his team, rather than individual talents. Deploying a midfield player, to support his back line of dedicated man-to-man markers, who could fill in and cover when danger threatened but also be in the ideal position to promote attacks when possession was gained, allowed his team to flourish and became known as the “Verou” (French, for ‘door bolt’). Adapting this into the system that became known as ‘Catenaccio’ (Italian for ‘bolt’), Herrera discarded the idea of the free man, the ‘libero’ or ‘sweeper’, having any attacking responsibilities, with his concentration solely dedicated to defence.
That defence, with the ‘bolt’ firmly locking the back door, became the key, as Inter’s fortunes began to rise and, after a shaky start to his time in Italy – at one stage Moratti’s legendary trigger finger was twitching and about to move Herrera on – the new coach’s work began to deliver success as his team developed.
The recently deceased Tarsizio Burgnich was stationed on the right of the Inter defence. The defender had spent time with Juventus, picking up a Serie A winner’s medal in 1961, despite only appearing in 13 games for Turin’s Old Lady, but had been moved on by I Bianconeri as they considered his physical and uncompromising dedication to the task of defending as more of a liability than an asset. In Herrera’s Inter team though, the man who was arguably the most diligent man-to-marker in Europe found his spiritual home. If Burgnich was all fire and fury, with hints of sulphur emanating from his attitude on one flank, on the opposite side, Giacinto Facchetti lost nothing in defensive dedication, but also added a touch of flair, pace and creativity garnered from his earlier days playing as a forward.
In the centre, the underrated Aristide Guarnieri, who had been with the club since joining from Como in 1958 was the ideal man to play in the ‘stopper’ role, alongside Carlo Tagnin, winning aerial duels and crunching tackles. Behind them, providing the bolt, was the former wide player who came to define the role as the Italian libero, Armando Picchi. Before moving to Inter in 1960, Picchi had played as a full-back for SPAL, but Herrera quickly recognised that he had the qualities required to be the key man in his defence and, after experimenting with him in the role during the 1961-62 season, his suspicions were confirmed. Picchi’s dominating performances in front of goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti, who was brought in from Fiorentina in 1963, led to Herrera making him the team’s captain when former incumbent Bruno Bolchi moved to Verona.
Further forward on the left flank, Mario Corso, often referred to as “God’s Left Foot” for his ability to deliver pinpoint accuracy on his crosses into the box, had an uneasy relationship with Herrara. As is so often the case with elaborately skilled forwards Corso lacked in tactical discipline, a characteristic key in Herrera’s team but, despite the coach’s frustration and apparent personal dislike of Corso, his ability on the pitch stood him in good stead and ensured that the coach would consistently select him. The winger was probably the only ‘loose cannon’ in the Grande Inter arsenal. On the opposite flank the Brazilian forward Jair de Costa was equally effective going forward, if a little more attuned to his coach’s requirements going the other way.
In midfield Gianfranco Bedin was in place, but he wasn’t the perfect fit. Herrera wanted someone to control the midfield, a player who could build his attacks. In such circumstances, who better to turn to than ‘The Architect’. Herrera persuaded Moratti to sign Luis Suárez, recent winner of the Ballon d’Or, from Barcelona. It cost the club a world record fee of 250 million lire – around £200,000 in today’s money. Much as Herrera was required to change his tyle to succeed in Italy, so too was the case for Suárez. The man who had been the attacking midfielder fulcrum at the Camp Nou, was deployed a deep-lying playmaker and would become the key element in the success of the team, but success was less than instant.
A young Sandro Mazzola would also make his name with Herrera’s team. A one-club player across a 17-year career with the Nerazzurri, he was the son of the famous Valentino Mazzola who lost his life when the Gran Torino team was destroyed in the Superga air crash in 1949. He played alongside Angelo Domenghini, a former winger who would win the Golden Boot no less than five times. The pair rounded out Herrera’s 5-3-2 plan.
Herrera’s first term in charge brought little improvement as Inter finished third in Serie A, behind champions Juventus and stadium neighbours AC Milan. Inter’s record of conceding just 39 goals across the season though – the equal lowest in the league – suggested that the team was beginning to develop the hard-nosed reputation for defensive solidity that would become their watchword. The following season improved a little, but Inter still failed to top the league. This time finishing as runners-up to AC Milan. Their goals conceded figure continued to improve with just 31 goals breaching Herrera’s defence this term, as the pieces slowly dropped into place. The progress however was too slow for Moratti and, the coach who expensively arrived with a big reputation, and even bigger mouth lauding his own abilities, looked to be on the precipice.
With Moratti’s limited patience exhausted, former Inter player and coach at Mantova, Edmondo Fabri was lined up to take over. Fabri had been awarded the prestigious ‘Seminatore d’Oro’ award the previous season, but events in South America would thwart Moratti’s plans. Italy endured a difficult time in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, failing to progress from the group stages under the joint stewardship of coaches Paolo Mazza and Giovanni Ferrari, and being part of the infamous ‘Battle of Santiago’ game against the hosts. Mazza and Ferrari were moved on and Fabri was chosen to lead the Azzurri. If, at first, the chain of events frustrated the Inter Milan president, twelve months later it would seem like the most fortunate of serendipities.
After a less than auspicious start to the Serie A campaign, wherein they only won two of their opening seven games up to 28 October, Inter found their stride and wouldn’t lose again until early March when Atalanta became the only club to complete a league ‘double’ over Herrera’s team. The run set up a triumphant march to the title and at the end of the season they topped the Serie A table on 49 points, having conceded just 20 goals across the 34-match programme. The following season, Inter’s record would improve totalling 54 points and conceding a mere 18 goals. Unfortunately, a resurgent Bologna would match the points tally, and in a play-off for the Scudetto, Inter would lose out as a late own goal by Facchetti and then a second by Danish striker Harald Nielsen sent the trophy to Bologna. There would be significant compensation in Europe however to placate the loss of domestic silverware.
Entering the European Cup for the first time, as champions of Italy, Inter faced Everton in the Preliminary round, disposing of the Merseysiders with a 1-0 win at the San Siro after returning from Goodison Park with a goalless draw. It took Herrera’s team into a confrontation with French champions Monaco and another one goal victory at home looked to be scant cover for the return played in Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome. Inside 17 minutes though, a brace by Mazzola had trebled Inter’s advantage and despite Théodore Szkudlapski reducing the arrears approaching the hour mark, the French team were never really in the hunt and a late Suárez goal confirmed Inter’s progress to the last eight, and a date with Partizan Belgrade.
In late February a 0-2 victory in the Yugoslav capital virtually settled the tie before the return at the San Siro, where a 2-1 win sent Inter into the semi-finals, where they avoided Real Madrid, instead being paired with Borussia Dortmund. Again, a strong performance in the away leg put Inter into a strong position with goals from Mazzola and Corso earning a 2-2 draw. The path to the final was completed at the San Siro as goals from Mazzola again, and Jair were enough for a 2-1 win and progress to the final in Vienna’s Praterstadion, and a meeting with Real Madrid on 27 May 1964.
The Los Blancos domination of the competition’s early years had faded a little, but the Spanish champions were still a formidable unit, containing the potent attacking power of Di Stéfano, Puskas and Gento. It looked like a classic confrontation between the attacking flair of the Spanish club and the obdurate defence of Herrera’s team with the Nerazzurri looking to steal a one goal win. Against such expectations however, by the time Felo breached the Inter backline with 20 minutes to play, Mazzola – who was equal top-scorer in the tournament – and Milani already had the dominant Italians two goals clear and a second for Mazzola six minutes later confirmed Inter as champions of Europe. The fact that they displaced city and stadium rivals AC Milan to achieve that status only made the taste so much sweeter. The trophy stayed at the San Siro, but the red and black ribbons adorning it, were replaced by blue and black ones.
If there’s one thing better than winning the European Cup, it’s doing so in the same season as becoming champions of your own country as well. In the following season, with Herrera now lauded as a genius by all and sundry, not least by Angelo Moratti himself, the Grande Inter era was well and truly underway. Domestically, Inter returned to the top of the tree, reclaiming the Scudetto, finishing four points clear of AC Milan.
In the European Cup, a seven-goal aggregate romp past the Romanians of Dinamo București took the reigning champions into the quarter-finals and a tie against Glasgow Rangers. A brace from Suárez and another goal by Peiró put Inter three goals clear five minutes into the second period at the San Siro and apparently on course for a comfortable passage, but a goal by James Forrest kept the tie alive for the second leg at Ibrox. Back in Glasgow, a fortnight later, Forrest scored after just seven minutes, leaving the vast bulk of the game for the Scottish champions to net the all-important second goal. When resolute defence is required however, Inter were never going to come up short and they kept the eager Scottish attack at bay for the remainder of the game and advanced to the semi-finals where they would meet another British club, the English champions, Liverpool.
Bill Shankly had taken Liverpool to their first title since just after the Second World War and his team was now striding confidently into Europe, looking to build on that success. The first leg was played at Liverpool, and a 3-1 win for the Reds looked to have put them in a strong position. Back in Milan however, amid controversies over officials and Inter’s tactics, the Nerazzurri scored three times, without reply to reach their second successive final. The luck of the draw saw the game against Benfica played at the San Siro and a single strike by Jair ensured the trophy would remain in the stadium.
In between the two continental triumphs, Inter had also competed in the Intercontinental Cup against Argentina’s Independiente de Avellaneda, champions of South America. After both clubs had won their home legs, the play-off was decided at Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in the Spanish capital. In a game plagued by continuous rain and ill-feeling between the teams, Corso scored the decisive goal in the second period of extra-time. The Grande Inter were at their zenith. Champions of Italy, Champions of Europe, and Champions of the world.
A third successive Scudetto fell into Inter’s hands in the 1965-66 season and their period of dominance was showing few signs of ending. As so often is the case in football however, hindsight would identify that this was perhaps the last hurrah for a team where so many vital components were reaching the latter stages of their careers. A defeat to Real Madrid in the semi-final of the European Cup saw their continental dominance slip away, and yet they reached their third European Cup Final in 1967 and, after defeating the might of Real Madrid and Benfica on the previous two occasions, a game against the little-known Scottish club, Glasgow Celtic, looked a relatively comfortable trask.
Ahead of the game, there were warning signs for the Italians. Suárez was injured and missed the game, being replaced by Bicicli. It was hardly a like-for-like change, as Leo Turrini explained. “It was like substituting Leonardo da Vinci for a whitewash.” It was an opposite comment. Despite Mazzola giving Inter an early lead from a penalty, Inter wilted under intense pressure from the Scots and Celtic scored twice to become the first British club to be crowned as Champions of Europe.
The final had taken place on 25 May, and seven days later, a chance to secure the Scudetto title in a game against modest Mantova was squandered. The home team were in mid-table, with Inter leading the table on 48 points, one ahead of Juventus who faced Lazio at home. If Inter won, the title was theirs. The Nerazzurri attacked and were unfortunate when Mazzola struck the bar, with a young Dino Zoff in the Mantova goal well beaten, but at half-time there had been no breakthrough. Four mniutes after the restart though, came the vital moment. Inter lost possession as Di Giacomo stole the ball away, with only sweeper Pichi, and then goalkeeper Sarti to beat. The defender managed to usher the home player towards the sidelines and, Di Giacomo turned a seemingly innocuous looking cross hopefully into the box. Incredibly though, under no pressure, Sarti missed the ball and it flew unhindered into the net. Inter fell behind, and the Scudetto fell into Juve’s hands. In Turin, I Bianconeri went two goals clear and, despite conceding a late Di Pucchio goal, Juventus won and Inter lost. The title went to Turin. It closed out the majesty of Il Grande Inter.
In his time with the club, as well as the Intercontinental Cup, Herrera would deliver three Scudetti, two European Cups and three Supercups to Moratti and Inter. Had Italy performed in Chile, Herrera would probably have been fired in favour of Fabri and who knows how Inter’s future would have shaped up. In 1968 Herrera left Inter, moving to Roma, before briefly returning to Inter in 1973. By then however the magic had gone. The Nerazzurri would have to wait another 35 years, until the arrival of José Mourinho to once more ascend to the summit of European club football. Three and a half decades is plenty of time to appreciate the success of Helenio Herrera’s time at the San Siro and celebrate the glory of Il Grande Inter.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ Inter Milan magazine).