Category Archives: La Liga

Ronaldo – A season with Barcelona.

When setting out on a path of a nascent career, it’s often sage advice to listen to the sage counsel offered by elders, those who have travelled that journey before you, meaning that following in their footsteps can become a less tortuous trek. The 1994 Brazil squad that travelled to compete in, and ultimately, lift the World Cup in the USA contained two of the finest strikers the South American country has ever produced. Carlos Alberto Parreira’s squad had the established star quality of Romário de Souza Faria, known merely as Romário, and the, as yet untapped, talent of a 17-year-old forward who would grow to outshine the squad’s star striker. His name was Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, known to the footballing world simply as Ronaldo, or O Fenômeno (“The Phenomenon”).

Six years earlier, a 19-year-old Romário had left his native country, and moved to PSV Eindhoven, enjoying five successful years in the Netherlands before Barcelona took him to Catalunya to join the Johan Cruyff ‘Dream Team’ in exchange for a £2million cheque. Now in the middle of his two-season term at the Camp Nou, legend has it that Romário advised the tyro forward, who was being courted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe to take a step into the relatively shallow end of the big pool and join PSV for a couple of seasons to establish himself before considering a dive into the deep end with one of the continent’s behemoth cubs.
The teenager followed the advice and, in the footsteps of Romário, joined the Dutch club, building a fearsome reputation in two seasons full of pulsating performances and goals galore. Despite suffering the first of what would become a series of knee injuries, a tally of 54 goals in just 58 games was evidence of a burgeoning talent.
At the end of the 1996 season, it was clear that Ronaldo’s reputation had outgrown the relatively restrictive environments of the Eredivisie. It was time to hold his nose and jump into the deep end, and there were plenty of suitors seeking his services. Leaked rumours from agents to newspapers fed the feeding frenzy as the giants of the European game circled around, and seductive whispers to the player hinted at the riches that could be garnered by this or that move. For some, the concern over that knee injury cautioned at discretion, but the incandescent light of the teenager’s talent glared brightly. Both Milan clubs and Juventus were interested, as were Manchester United, but they would be disappointed.
After leaving England following the 1990 World Cup, Bobby Robson had coached Romário for two years at PSV before moving to Portugal for a successful four-year period first with Sporting CP and then Porto, collecting trophies and developing his own reputation as an experienced and successful coach. When Cruyff’s notoriously short fuse caused a divorce between coach and club that made Kramer v Kramer appear like a love-in, Barcelona decided that they wanted fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal, to take over. The problem was that Van Gaal’s contract with Ajax prevented him taking up the post until the summer of 1997. Barça needed someone to step in for a season and keep things on the straight and narrow until Van Gaal could take over, and approached the Englishman.
Seduced by the opportunity to coach one of the greatest cubs in the world, Robson swopped Porto for Barcelona, and became the man who convinced the Blaugrana hierarchy to break the transfer world record with a £19.5million move to ensure that Ronaldo would continue to track the moves of Romário and exchange the quieter backwaters of Dutch football for the goldfish bowl experience of playing for Barcelona. With Cruyff now gone, and what was considered by many to be a low-key appointment to replace him, Barcelona were keenly aware that they needed to reassure their fans, as Robson recalled. ‘The President [Josep Lluís Núñez] said to me “’we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?”’ Robson recalled. ‘I said yes, I know there’s a young kid at PSV that I like very much. I think he’s terrific, but he’s a risk.’ Still a teenager and with just two seasons of European club football behind him – and suffering an injury that meant he missed all but 20 games of his second season, that risk was clear, but so was the talent, and Robson’s assessment delivered great dividends.
On 17 July 1996, in Miami, where the Brazilian squad were preparing for the Atlanta Olympic Games, accompanied by Barcelona vice President Joan Gaspart, a beaming Ronaldo with the toothy smile that would become his trademark together with the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ arms outspread goal celebration, held up a Blaugrana shirt and was presented to the Barcelona fans as their latest acquisition. Robson was delighted. As he later recalled, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player at that age have so much’. Under the Englishman, still only 19 at the time of entering the Camp Nou, Ronaldo would deliver a legendary season that no Cule, who experienced his time there, would ever forget.
Om 20 August 1996, Ronaldo first trotted into action on the Camp Nou pitch in a Trofeu Joan Gamper game against the Argentine club San Lorenzo, for a 30-minute introduction to the fans from the substitutes’ bench. The following day, another brief cameo saw him play for 20-odd minutes against Internazionale – twelve months later Ronaldo would be wearing the Nerazzurri colours of the Italian club. Barça would win both games, but the Brazilian failed to find the net in either appearance. When the at least semi-serious stuff got under way on 25 August however, and Atlético Madrid visited the Camp Nou for the first leg of the Supercopa de España, it took him just five minutes to open his goalscoring account. A second goal a minute before time ensured the club had a healthy 5-2 lead to take back to the capital for the return.
Had it been a bit of a false dawn though? Before the return, Barcelona played their first two La Liga games, away to Oviedo and then in the ‘Derby’ game at the Camp Nou against Espanyol. Again, Ronaldo drew blanks, and then missed the return game at the Vicente Calderón, where Barça locked out the aggregate win to collect their first trophy of the season. Some fans began to wonder if the hype around the new arrival had been mere promotional hubris. If goals were needed to dismiss such concerns, Ronaldo would deliver.
Across the next nine games, the first a Cup Winners Cup encounter against the Cypriots of AEK Larnaca and then eight La Liga fixtures, the Brazilian would find the back of the net 14 times, only failing to score in the home game against Tenerife and on the visit to Andalusia to face Sevilla.
In the first game following the draw with Tenerife, Ronaldo would score what was surely the goal of the season, and for many, one of the greatest goals ever seen in Spanish domestic football when the Blaugrana travelled to Galicia to face Sociedad Deportiva Compostela on 12 October. The home club is based in the city of Santiago de Compostela, where the reported tomb of Saint James provides the culmination of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James), a testing journey for Catholic pilgrims stretching from France. In this game, Ronaldo would lead the home defence on a Camino of their own, burying them with a goal worthy of adulation.
Barcelona were already two goals clear when the Brazilian bullied one of the home players out of possession around the halfway line and, despite having his shirt pulled, set off towards goal. From there, with a combination of power, determination and no little skill, he beat six more players before placing the ball into the net. As he rolled the ball home, Robson rose from the bench holding his arms in the air, then placed his hands on his head in sheer disbelief at what he had just been privileged to witness.
It was one of the Ronaldo’s two goals in that game, but a strike of rare quality and Nike, the player’s sponsors, took full advantage. Interspersed with flashes and dramatic backing track of clashing noises, the American sportswear giant produced an advert opening with the words, ‘What if you asked God to make you the best soccer player in the world? And he was listening?’ the film of Ronaldo’s goal then runs and ends simply with his name. It’s unknown how many more of the company’s items were sold on the back of the promotion, but it left an indelible mark on football, promoting the Brazilian as the image of Nike and a star of the game.
A further two goals were added the following week in the eight-goal romp against Logroñés and, on 25 October, a 3-2 win against Valencia saw Ronaldo net his first hat-trick for the club. The first goal was a herald of what so many of the striker’s goals would look like. Pace and power bursting through the Valencia back line, he closed on former Barça goalkeeper Zubizarreta ‘giving him the eyes’ left, before clipping the ball past him into the opposite corner with nonchalant confidence. Peeling away to receive the adulation of the crowd, the outstretched arms celebration was now becoming a regular feature of Barcelona games.
His second strike followed a counterattack from a Valencia corner. A headed clearance fell to Figo who controlled before drilling a 50-metre pass that found Ronaldo sprinting clear. Exquisite control, and a driving run. that denied any meaningful challenge. was finished by a drilled left-foot shot into the corner of the net. Ten minutes later, the Camp Nou rose to applaud their team and star striker from the field with a 2-0 lead and the game surely won.
Within a dozen minutes of the restart however, the scores were all square again as Valencia plundered two early goals. It was left to Ronaldo to win the game again for his team, with the best goal of the game. Barcelona had pressed for the third goal, but returning to the Camp Nou, with a combination of agility, good fortune and belligerent defiance, Zubizarreta had denied them. With 15 minutes to play, Valencia looked likely to escape with a draw, but as Ronaldo gained possession on the edge of the centre circle, such aspirations were about to be cast aside. There were four defenders between the Brazilian and Zubizarreta as he advanced with the ball at his feet. It was nowhere near enough. Striding forward, he dismissed a couple of challenges as swotting away a fly, entered the penalty area, he then opened his body and coolly slotted the winner home. Great players score great goals. Great players score important goals. Great players win games for their club. Ronaldo was, without doubt a great player. Barcelona were top of the league and numbered among their squad, La Liga’s nearest thing to a nuclear deterrent. Ronaldo’s season in Catalunya was going like a bomb.
Injury had denied Ronaldo the chance to play against Red Star in the first leg of next round of the Cup Winners Cup, but a 3-1 win had set things up nicely for the return leg six days after the victory over Valencia. A visit to Belgrade’s Rajko Mitic Stadium with a lead to protect is hardly the sort of game for an all action attacking display, and Robson would have been well content with a 1-1 draw to see the club through to the last of the competition, even with Ronaldo drawing a rare blank.
Across the next nine La Liga games though, what had looked like a mere blip, perhaps caused by sensibly defensive orientation for a difficult away leg, seemed to develop into something more serious. Ronaldo was absent for drawn games at home to Sporting de Gijón, and then away to Atleti, before returning against Real Valladolid and scoring in a 6-1 win. It would be his last goal for half-a-dozen games, including the first Clásico of the season where Robson’s team lost out 2-0 Real Madrid in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. The result would carry great significance at the end of the season, as would the game when Ronaldo finally found his shooting boots again in the home game against Hércules CF on 13 January 1997.
The Alicante-based club would be relegated at the end of the season, with a goal difference of -52, far and away the worst in the entire division, and yet were the only club to beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the entire season. Ronaldo got back on the goal trail after 15 minutes, adding to Luis Enrique’s opening goal. Defeat over one of the weakest clubs in the division looked assured with plenty more goal to come. Remarkably however, Barcelona conceded three times without reply and were beaten. Hércules were far from finished with raining on Barcelona’s parade though and would inflict even more damage later in the season. By then though, the dream of Ronaldo at Barcelona was turning into something entirely different. The defeats had damaged Barça’s league standing and they were now in third place, their lowest mark of the season. The club needed their Brazilian to start firing again. Fortunately, the goal against Hércules breached the dam.
A goal in the 2-4 win away to Real Betis was followed up by a brace in the six-goal triumph over Rayo Vallecano. It set things up nicely for a Copa del Rey tie against Real Madrid. On 30 January, the Camp Nou was packed with more than 95,000 fans as the cup competition offered an opportunity for a quick riposte to the reverse suffered against Los Blancos a few weeks earlier.
Ronaldo had already seen one shot evade visiting German goalkeeper Illgner’s stretching right hand but also slide past the far post after a driving run, when he opened the scoring on 13 minutes. A delicately placed through ball caught the Real Madrid defence square and, once clear of the back line, there was no catching the Brazilian as he easily converted to give Barcelona the lead, turning away with arms outstretched and sending the Cules into raptures of delight. After that, the game would swing this way and that as the teams struggled for the advantage. At the full-time whistle however, a tenuous 3-2 lead was all the Catalans had to take to the capital.
Before the return, a 2-2 draw against Real Oviedo saw Ronaldo score again, but the result did little to eat into the lead that Los Blancos had created at the top of the league. At least there was the satisfaction however, of completing the Copa del Rey elimination of Barcelona’s bitter rivals with a 1-1 draw at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on 6 February. That month however would prove to be a decisive period in the league season for the club.
Beginning with the draw with Oviedo on 2 February, Barcelona would play seven games up to including a shocking 4-0 defeat away to Tenerife on 1 March. In that time, they would only win twice and lose three times. Ronaldo would only score in one of those, netting a hat-trick in the 4-1 trouncing of Real Zaragoza.
The Cup Winners Cup returned after that defeat in the Canary Islands, and Ronaldo netted in the 3-1 home first leg win over the Swedish club AIK Solna. The victory heralded an uplift in for the club that would see them only lose two more games until the end of the season. It also saw the beginning of a rich vein of goals from Ronaldo.
A 3-0 victory over Compostela, victims of his ‘wonder goal’ earlier in the season, saw him score again, topping out a 3-0 win in the next La Liga game. Ronaldo had missed the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final but a 2-2 draw, away to Atlético Madrid had left Barcelona with every chance of passage to the last four of the competition. The return leg however would be one of the games of the season, and the Brazilian striker would figure prominently.
Any confidence garnered from the draw in the capital had evaporated by the 30 minutes mark, with Atléti scoring three times without reply and apparently coasting to victory. With Ronaldo in your team however, the cause is hardly ever lost. Robson took off two defenders, gambling with extra forwards and following a half-time rallying call, the comeback of the season was on track. Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored the first goal and, four minutes later the visitors’ lead was hanging by a thread when he netted again.
Milinko Pantić had scored all three of Atléti’s first-half goals and he restored a measure of the advantage just past the hour mark, to make the score 2-4. Barcelona and Ronaldo were far from done though. Figo scored their third goal on 67 minutes and the Brazilian completed his hat-trick, four minutes later to square the tie before Pizzi scored the decisive goal inside the final ten minutes to send Barcelona into the semi-finals and the Camp Nou into delirium. Robson’s substitutions and inspiring half-time talk was doubtless a key factor, but it’s doubtful if such a resurrection could have been achieved without the stunning play of Ronaldo. Any team who decided to stand toe-to-toe in a goals slugfest against a side featuring Ronaldo were always likely to end up on the wrong end of the result.
Four days after the pulsating victory, Barcelona travelled to UD Logroñés for a La Liga fixture. They would win 0-1 but, despite playing the 90 minutes of the game, Ronaldo wouldn’t score. The next run of games would show that to be a particularly unusual statistic. A Ronaldo goal on 12 minutes in the return leg against Solna in the club’s next game was enough to ease Barcelona into the semi-finals of the Cup Winners Cup, where they would face the Serie A club Fiorentina the following month.
Back in domestic matters another goal contributed to a 4-0 victory over Sevilla on 23 March to keep the club’s league title aspirations alive and, three days later, a brace in the 0-4 demolition of Las Palmas in the first leg of the last four encounter of the Cops del Rey all but rendered the return leg redundant. Impressively, in one of Europe’s top leagues, Ronaldo was now almost guaranteeing at least one goal per game at this crucial stage of the season. At the end of the month another strike earned a 1-1 draw in Valencia as Ronaldo’s 69th minute goal equalised Machado’s first-half goal.
Moving into April, Sporting de Gijón were given short shrift at the Camp Nou as Barcelona rattled in another four goals without reply. Ronaldo, of course, getting his regular goal per game strike. Three days later, the forward was rested as Barcelona cruised into the Copa del Rey Final firing a further three goals past a hapless Las Palmas team. The ‘rest’ was understandable as the key fixtures of the season were on the horizon. The final wouldn’t happen until the end of June. Although few suspected it at as the teams left the field after the semi-final, when the destination of the trophy was decided, Ronaldo wouldn’t be there.
The home leg against Fiorentina was closely contested and the Italians’ defence became one of the very few to deny Ronaldo a goal in a 1-1 draw. The return leg in Italy would be a severe test for the team in pursuit of European glory, with a win likely to be needed if progression to the final was to be achieved. Before the return leg though, Barcelona played out another three league fixtures. A 2-5 win over Atléti at the at the Vicente Calderón confirmed not only Barcelona’s apparent superiority over the home team, but also Ronaldo’s propensity to score against them at will as he rattled in another hat-trick. A 3-2 defeat away to Real Valladolid, the club that Ronaldo would later take over many years later, seriously dented Barcelona’s drive towards the league title, as Ronaldo scored the only goal in the 3-2 reverse. Finally, the second goal in a 2-0 home victory over Sporting de Gijón set the team up for the visit to Italy. In a game where defence was key for the Catalan club, it was of little surprise that the Brazilian’s chances to add to his fearsome tally were few and far between, but a tactical masterclass by Robson masterclass saw Barcelona over the line with a 0-2 win and passage to the Cup Winners Cup Final.
Success, of course, especially of the level that Ronaldo was delivering, can be a two-edged sword and, despite a reportedly long-term contract being agreed after the move from PSV, those clubs who had hesitated twelve months ago, where now casting envious eyes at the most valuable property in world football. Understandably, Barcelona sought to agree a new deal with the player that would tie him to the club. Negotiations began but, following the triumph in Florence, the striker would play just five more games for the club. Barcelona would win them all and, of course, he scored in a goal in each one.
A 1-3 victory over CD Extremadura began May’s fixtures, but the next game, the return Clásico was much more important, especially given the club’s league defeat in the capital earlier in the season. In a closely contested game that may have eliminated Barcelona’s title hopes had they been defeated, Ronaldo was the man to deliver at the decisive moment. Just ahead of the break, a run into the box from Figo was halted by Roberto Carlos’ crude challenge. Ronaldo’s low shot from the spot was blocked by Illgner, but when the rebound was squared back to the Brazilian, he tapped the ball into the unguarded net, before delivering his customary celebration. Surely there was no way that the cub would allow him to leave now.
Four days later, a confident Barcelona team travelled to Rotterdam to face Paris Saint-Germain in the Cup Winners Cup Final. As with so many European finals, the game was disappointing as a spectacle but, on this occasion, when presented with an opportunity from 12 yards, Ronaldo despatched the penalty and the trophy went to Catalunya.
There would be just two games remaining in Ronaldo’s season with Barça, although the club had a greater number to complete. Goals in each of a 1-3 win away to Celta Vigo and then at home to Deportivo La Coruna saw his Camp Nou race run. Contract talks that originally looked on the way to a happy conclusion had broken down and for the following season, Ronaldo would take his goals to Intetrnazionale.
Another record transfer fee, making Ronaldo only the second player in history to twice break the world transfer record, alongside Maradona, boosted Barcelona’s bank balance, but that was scant compensation to the Cules and coach Robson who also would only serve one season before Van Gaal moved in, and the Englishman was promoted upstairs.
Reflecting on his time with Ronaldo, Robson would remark that he “was marvellous …. out of this world. He was a god, absolutely fantastic. He had amazing ability, was a great young athlete … The year he had with us you could see he was going to be phenomenal. He was so strong, would go past people, come deep to get the ball, turn and whatever you put in front of him there was a chance he could always go through you. Power and skill.” From someone who knew the player better than most, it’s an apt summary of Ronaldo’s season at Barcelona.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times – Ronaldo’ magazine).

Helenio Herrera and ‘Il Grande Inter’

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).

Bobby Robson and the almost perfect season at Barcelona.

In May 1996, Robson was enjoying the fruits of his work at Porto when he took a phone call the president of FC Barcelona. Ostensibly it was to discuss a potential transfer target from the Portuguese club, but the conversation moved on to another target that the Catalans had focused on.

At the time, the Blaugrana were a club in turmoil. A messy divorce from Johan Cruyff had left the club rudderless. The board had decided on Louis van Gaal as the man they wanted to put all the pieces back together again. At the time however, the coach was contracted to Ajax, and wouldn’t be available for another twelve months. Barcelona, a ship perilously holed and taking in water needed an experienced hand at the tiller to guide the club into safer and calmer waters before handing over to Van Gaal. They had settled on Robson as the ideal candidate. As things transpired though, the Englishman would deliver a season that bordered on being the very best in the club’s history, and convinced them to maintain his services, even after Van Gaal’s appointment, as a lifebelt that the club could use if the Dutch coach came up short.

Robson was content at Porto and, with the club’s future looking bright, there were very few jobs that could tempt him away. One would be a return to his beloved north-east and Newcastle United. That chance would arrive later. The other was to take charge of one of the continent’s iconic clubs, FC Barcelona. It was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities that he simply could not ignore. He would also take José Mourinho with him.

Many coaches, even the most experienced, would have blanched had been offered such a poisoned chalice to quench their ambitious thirst. Cruyff had achieved legendary status at the Camp Nou and was worshipped by the Cules, delivering four La Liga titles, three Supercopa de España successes, and a Copa del Rey, domestically. In Europe, he had added a Cup Winners Cup and led the club to achieve their Holy Grail of a European Cup win as well as lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup. It was the hardest of acts to follow.

Robson had no doubts however and, in his first press conference was in no mood to apologise for sitting in the seat previously occupied by the Dutchman. In firm tones, he insisted that there would be no shadow of Cruyff haunting his time as coach. ‘I am not afraid to follow him,’ he confirmed. ‘When the President of the United States leaves, they have to get another President of the United States.’ It was typical Robson, calm, honest and reassuring, but sustained by the confident belief that he would deliver.

Cruyff’s final season had been a disappointment, and one that convinced the Dutchman that the time to leave had arrived. Rows with the club’s hierarchy may have been the trigger causing the split, but the deterioration of the teams’ performances were a strong underlying cause. Third place in the league, seven points adrift of champions Atlético Madrid was hugely disappointing, although it did offer a place in the upcoming season’s Cup Winners Cup competition, an opening that Robson would seize upon. It had followed a season where second place to Real Madrid had felt so much worse. Barcelona had also fared poorly in cup competitions, losing out in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey to Radomir Antić’s Atléti as Los Colchoneros completed the domestic double, and in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. The club’s squad was packed with talented players but needed a renaissance. Robson would deliver that, and bring in a player who would achieve a God-like adoration at the club.

Despite only being seen as a stop-gap appointment, Robson was not shy in venturing his opinion when the president asked about how the squad could be improved. ‘The President said to me “we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?”’ Robson recalled. ‘I said yes, I know there’s a young kid at PSV that I like very much. I think he’s terrific, but he’s a risk.’ He was, but it was a risk worth taking. Barcelona sent $19.5million to PSV Eindhoven and, in return, received the services of the player who earned the nickname of “El Fenomeno” – Ronaldo.  Eight months, and 47 goals in 49 games later, when Van Gaal took over from Robson, the Brazilian would also move on, joining Inter Milan. The fee of $27million also delivered a handsome profit on the club’s investment.

With the services of the Brazilian prodigy added to the Blaugrana squad, Robson got to work rebuilding the belief in the squad he inherited that had fallen short across the previous two seasons. Early evidence of the transformative effect of Robson was illustrated in August of the same year when his team hammered the previous season’s double winners 5-2 in the first leg of the Supercopa de España with the goals coming from Giovani, Pizzi, plus El Pequeño Buda, Iván de la Peña and, inevitably setting the tone for the coming season, a brace from Ronaldo. Atléti would fightback in the home leg, but their 3-1 victory was short of hauling back the deficit and Robson had his first trophy.

Cruyff had bequeathed Robson a European qualification and, in September, Barcelona set off in pursuit of the Cup Winners Cup. A hesitant opening encounter with AEK Larnaca was safely, if less than wildly convincingly, passed thanks to another two goals from Ronaldo. It took the Catalans into a meeting with Red Stat Belgrade. By now the club were delivering convincing performances and a 4-2 home win followed by a goalless draw in Belgrade was encouraging, sending the club into the last eight and a tie with Swedish club AIK.

The home leg came first and, when the visitors took an early lead inside two minutes, a test was looming for Robson’s charges. With assured serenity however, they struck back through Popescu to equalise and further strikes by Ronaldo and Pizzi meant that the goalless draw achieved in Stockholm was more than enough for a place in the semi-finals.

Alongside Barcelona, Liverpool, Fiorentina and Paris Saint-Germain made up the final four. Robson’s team were paired with the Italians, the first leg again being played at the Camp Nou. This was a much sterner test, and despite Nadal giving the Blaugrana the lead, a goal from Batistuta squared things up and gave I Viola the advantage heading to the Stadio Artemio Franchi for the return leg. To turn matters in Barcelona’s favour, facing such an uphill struggle, would require a coaching and tactical masterclass. Robson delivered one.

On 24 April, the Blaugrana produced the perfect disciplined performance to return with a 0-2 victory and progress to the final in in Rotterdam’s Feyenoord Stadion against PSG who had defeated Liverpool 3-2 on aggregate. As so often is the case in showpiece finals, the game itself failed to live up to the billing, but a penalty from Ronaldo was sufficient to take the trophy to Catalunya. Robson had two trophies out of two. After the fallow period of the last days of Cruyff’s tenure, Robson had turned Barcelona back into a strutting powerhouse of a team hungry for trophies.  

At the same time, as well as improving their league performances, things were developing nicely in the Copa del Rey. A round of Sixteen encounter had brought the club an extra El Clásico meeting with Real Madrid. The ties are played over two legs and the first game, at the Camp Nou promised success when Ronaldo gave the Blaugrana the lead. Goals by Šuker and Hierro though put a different complexion on the game before Nadal and Giovanni gave Robson’s team a fig leaf of cover to take to the Spanish capital for the return leg. It demanded another ‘Fiorentina’ performance and Robson’s team delivered with a 1-1 draw.

The next round saw a titanic battle with cup holders and reigning Spanish champions Atlético Madrid. A 2-2 draw at the Estadio Vicente Calderón appeared to give the Barcelona the edge, but the return game would go down in history as a goal glut decided the tie. With 30 minutes on the clock, the Camp Nou was subdued into stunned silence as a hat-trick from Milinko Pantić had Atléti three goals clear and apparently coasting to victory, but Robson had drilled his team well and given them an almost unshakeable belief in themselves. At the break he delivered his words of wisdom and the team responded with vigour. Five minutes before half-time, Robson had made his intentions clear. Laurent Blanc and Popescu were taken off with forwards Pizzi and Stoickov replacing them. The response was immediate.

Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored and then repeated the feat three minutes later. Inside the opening five minutes of the second period, a declaration of intent had been made. Atléti were hardly happy to roll over though and, a minute after the Brazilin had cut the gap to a single goal, Pantić hit his fourth of the night to double it again. Figo struck back on 67 minutes, and the Catalan cauldron of a stadium was at fever pitch with 20 minutes to play, as Ronaldo squared things on the night. In a basketball -like game inside the final ten minutes it was Pizzi who notched the winner. As well as his team being able to deliver disciplined away performances, Robson had shown that they could also indulge in a slug-fest with the best that Spain had to offer and still prevail.

Having defeated the previous two seasons’ champions, the Copa del Rey was now surely there for the taking, and so it proved. Las Palmas were buried under a seven-goal aggregate thumping and, in the final, 83,000 fans would see the Blaugrana twice fight back from falling behind against Real Betis with Figo hitting the winner in extra-time. It was a third trophy garnered by Robson. Strangely however, it would have been somewhat of cold comfort for the Cules. Weeks earlier, their dream of a complete whitewash of all available trophies had disappeared with a freak league defeat against a club who were already relegated at the time.

With three games left to play, Barcelona had been in pole position to become league champions and put the club in position for a clean sweep of titles. A visit to the Costa Blanca and Alicante-based club Hércules looked a fairly straightforward task. There was however a measure of discontent in the club with rumours of Ronaldo moving on to Inter becoming increasingly difficult to ignore and, the Brazilian was unavailable to Robson for the game, along with Pizzi and Giovanni. Even then though, with depleted forces, there seemed little danger – or was there?

Despite their troubled season, Hércules had already upset the Bluagrana, being the only club to visit the Camp Nou and come away with a victory. Robson was also reading the runes as despite his tremendous success the possibility of him being retained instead of Van Gaal was seemingly a lost cause. The dark clouds were gathering, although few people outside of the club recognised it.

The game itself was a bewildering occasion. After just three minutes, it seemed that form was playing out as Guardiola put Barcelona ahead and, although they couldn’t add to the lead, there seemed little danger from a team with nothing to play for. Perhaps that freedom from the weight of relegation, now a mathematical certainty however, released the Hércules players to perform and offer one last moment of glory. Shortly before the break Paquito Escudero equalised and six minutes after the restart, the unthinkable happened as Hércules went ahead, with Serbian defender Dubravko Pavlicic sliding in to divert the ball past Vítor Baía.

Robson’s team now needed two goals to maintain their advantage in the league over Real Madrid. In the following 40 minutes they laid siege to the home goal but, despite dominating the game and firing shots in from all angles and distances, the goals that had come so easily to them throughout the season – they would score 102 times in 42 league games, by far the best in the division – were now beyond their reach. At the end of the game, the club that would finish one spot from the foot of the table had completed a league double over Barcelona, and destroyed their hopes of league glory.

Real Madrid overcame Extremadura by five goals in their corresponding fixture. Barcelona’s doom was set, as Robson recognised. ‘Mathematically, we’ve still got a chance, but realistically it’s very difficult now.,’ he lamented. It was. Los Blancos efficiently wrapped up the required points and a season that offered a clean sweep of trophies had been scuppered by a relegated club whose wins over Barcelona had denied them the best season in their history.

At the end of the season, Van Gaal arrived and, in gratitude – with a thought as to whether his services may be needed again – Robson was offered an emeritus post as ‘Technical Director’. Van Gaal did well in the early years of his tenure at the Camp Nou, delivering successive league titles, but was it any better than Robson would have done? Statistics can be made to support any argument, but by the time Van Gaal left the Camp Nou, his win percentage was 55%. Robson’s had been 65%.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).

Fernando Torres – Atlético Madrid’s El Niño

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 As with most football clubs honouring their outstanding players when the curtain is finally drawn down on a glittering career, atleticodemadrid.com, probably provide the most succinct reflection on the high regard in which Fernando Torres is viewed by all Atleti fans. In just six words, they capture the essence of his contribution to the cause. “Fernando Torres Atlético de Madrid legend.” Continue reading →

Dancing shoes and explosive goals – The varied career of ‘Dinamita!’ Joffre Guerrón.

Dinamita

If asked to suggest the greatest players to emerge from South America this century, very few, if any, would raise a hand to make a case for Joffre Guerrón. Perhaps however such lack of recognition would be inappropriate. Despite often being regarded as merely one of the better, rather than greats, of his era, he was twice lauded as the MVP of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club tournament. Such rare accolades that fall to very few once, let alone twice. Continue reading →

Xabi Alonso – Liverpool’s Pass Master.

On 1 June 2018, the man who, less than a week later, would be appointed as manager of Segunda División B club Real Sociedad B, quietly settled into his seat at Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. He was there to watch former club, at which he collected a Champions League winner’s medal, and the words inevitably playing through his mind were of a different song, one that asserted no-one who was part of that footballing family – one he felt strongly that he belonged to – should ever feel alone.  Xabi Alonso, was there to watch Liverpool win their sixth title as Champions of Europe. Continue reading →

Bobby Robson and the almost perfect season.

In May 1996, Barcelona were a club in turmoil. Having experienced the delirious heights of success with Johann Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ delivering no less than eleven trophies in eight seasons, including the Holy Grail of the European Cup, the relationship between Catalan club and revered Dutchman had been torn asunder. Any divorce between an employer and the emotional, impulsive, and often combustive Cruyff would always be messy, but this split would make ‘Kramer versus Kramer’ look tame in comparison. Continue reading →

The Lament of Stade de Reims – So nearly the first champions of Europe.

When Olympique de Marseille defeated AC Milan in 1993 – regardless of how tainted that victory may, or may not, have been – it ended decades of enforced patience for French football. It had taken almost 40 years for a French club to win the European Cup. Had fortunes taken a slightly different course in 1956 however, the history of European football’s premier club competition could have been so very different. Instead of Los Blancos of Real Madrid becoming the dominant force of continental football, their place in history may well have been taken by Les Rouge et Blanc of Stade de Reims. A club finishing in a mid-table position in Ligue 1 at the end of the 2018-19 season, newly returned to the top tier of French domestic football after a period of relative inconsequence, drifting around the lower leagues, could have been the swaggering aristocrats of the nascent European competition, rather than one of the sans-culottes lamenting over what might have been. Continue reading →

Un-be-liev-able!

There are many reasons why certain goals are memorable. They can come in big matches, be part of an ongoing rivalry between the goalscorer and the team he nets against. Perhaps it’s the type of goal where the player runs the length of the pitch before rounding then goalkeeper and scoring, something especially difficult in an away game against a massive club in one of the biggest tournaments. Or, perhaps it’s the sort of goal that rewards a team for outstanding fortitude against the odds, when all seemed lost. Some goals have a few of these elements, but very few have them all, and this is the tale of one that does just that; a goal that Gary Neville described as “Un-bel-eive-able!” Continue reading →

The first Luis Suárez

Long before the Uruguayan version landed at the Camp Nou following his truncated and less than totally harmonious departure from Liverpool, a different Luis Suárez was wowing the Catalans in the famous Blaugrana colours of Barcelona. Rather than being part of a trident for the club, this Luis Suárez, became an integral part of a quartet, achieved hero status in Catalunya and then nationally, before being recognised as Spain’s first and, so far, only Ballon d’Or winner. He then took Serie A by storm and became a legendary figure for the Nerazzuri in Lombardy. His namesake, currently strutting his stuff alongside Lionel Messi in the Barcelona front line has a bit of work to do if he is to become recognised as the best Luis Suárez of all time. Continue reading →