Monday, January 23, 2012

"Il Mago" Helenio Herrera : Inter Milan Season Review 1966 1967

  The dominant personality in the Italian football world of the 1960s was a coach of uncertain origins, who took Inter to glory and provoked debate, love and hatred in the same measure. The son of a Spanish anarchist trade-unionist, he was born in Argentina, brought up in poverty in Casablanca, and became a professional footballer in France. He spoke a bizarre mixture of Italian and Spanish full of colourful phrases. Gianni Brera, who had a love-hate relationship with Herrera, described him as 'a clown and a genius, vulgar and ascetic, voracious and a good father, sultan and believer ... boorish and competent, megalomaniac and health-freak ... he is all this and more .. , Helenio Herrera was an authoritarian man-manager, a dictator, a man who could not abide dissent, and who tried to control the private lives of his players. If they did not conform to his view of the world, they were out (with a few notable exceptions). Juan Antonio Valentin Angelillo, the brilliant Argentinian forward, scored 33 goals in as many games for Inter in 1958-9, a figure which is still a record for Serie A. His scandalous (for the times) private life did not endear him to Herrera, and he was sold on. Armando Picchi was the captain of the Great Inter, a battling sweeper who could also pass the ball. Picchi paid the price for daring to argue with Herrera. At the height of his career, he was transferred to lowly Varese. One of the few players to survive Herrera's wrath was Mario Corso, he of 'God's left foot', a lazy, meandering left-winger capable of touches of genius. Corso was the favourite son of Inter president Angelo Moratti, who refused to sell him despite Herrera's constant pleas. Corso played more than 400 times for Inter, secure in his protection from on high. Herrera took charge of Inter in 1960 after success with Atletico and Barcelona - and at a time of crisis for the great Milanese club. 

After two championships in the early 1950s, Inter had been unable to win another scudetto, and had only those two trophies to satisfy their many fans since 1939. Moratti, an oil baron with unlimited resources (the Abramovich of his day), had become president of Inter in 1955, and in the five years since he had employed numerous managers.8 In seven years in charge, Herrera was to win three championships (including the 'star' scudetto - the tenth championship), two European Cups and two Inter-Contintental Cups (an important trophy for Italians). In addition, Inter finished third once, second twice - losing only in a playoff in 1964 and on the last day in 1966-7 - as well as reaching the European Cup final again in the same year, where they lost to Celtic. This was the Great Inter, and Inter were never to be as great again.Psychology was a key part of Herrera's strategy. His teams, he boasted, would 'win without getting out of the bus' and he preached something called 'deep concentration' during games. Herrera's ideas were elaborated in bizarre notes written in black, blue and red ink, samples of which were reproduced in the small book Tacalabala, published by his third wife Fiora Gandolfi after his death. These slogans were vital to Herrera's psychological preparation of his players. Some were written on the dressing room walls, others were repeated mantra-like by him or by the players. 

 Much of this was laughed at, at the time, or dismissed as 'Mussolini-like' (Ghirelli), but it seemed to work. The Grande Inter were a team like no other, a unit that played with unheard-of unity. Cynics argued that the massive win bonuses negotiated with the players also helped.  "Taca la bala Attack the ball" this was a motto that epitomized Herrera's ideas about pressing and the use of space on the field. You 'was a bit too black'. Like an ageing film-star nobody really knew how old Herrera was. His wife later said that he had changed his documents by making the 0 (from 1910) into a 6, giving him six years more 'life' at a stroke. It was also claimed that his own father had falsified his son's birth documents in order to avoid a fine for late registration of a birth. After a Yoga session every morning Herrera would pronounce this sentence: 'I am strong, calm, I fear nothing, I am beautiful'. His philosophy of life was built around a bizarre combination of sergeant major and Buddha. In 1969 Herrera suffered a heart attack during his second spell with Inter. Typically, he said, 'How lucky I have been ... think what would have happened if the heart attack had taken place in the mountains, and not in Milan where there are good doctors.' Later, another miracle occurred. After crashing his car in the 1970s, he fractured his spinal cord. His response was typically bullish: I'm alive. He claimed to have his own, personal, fan-base, and that these fans had changed team -from Inter to Roma - when he left Milan in 1967. He argued that he had invented many aspects of the modern game, and would often say: 'What would football be without me?'

Controversy dogged Herrera's career. In a famous gesture in 1961, he put out Inter's youth team against Juventus in protest against a federation ruling that had cost Inter the championship. The youngsters lost, 9-1, but the point had been made. Inter received far better treatment from the football authorities after that game. He was frequently criticized for his over-the-top training methods and what Brian Glanville called his 'hooded authoritarianisms'. The double defeats at the end of the 1967 championship - which cost Herrera his job and Inter a scudetto and a European Cup - are usually attributed to the exhaustion of the players. In Herrera's first two seasons in charge, Inter fizzled out after stunning starts. Doping and 'vitamin' rumours dogged the performances of the Great Inter sides. Mystery also surrounds the death of young striker Giuliano Taccola in a dressing room in Cagliari in March 1969, when Herrera was in charge of Rome." He also often fell out with big stars - Angclillo, Kubala in Spain, Corso, Picchi. In Herrera's teams, he was the real star. He was the first super-manager of the modern age, and the first to command wages and bonuses that rivalled those of his players. The Great Inter of Herrera and Moratti was intimately related to the economic miracle of the late 1950s and 1960s, which propelled Italy from the ravages of the war into a major industrial power. The capital of this miracle was - without doubt - Milan, and hundreds of thousands of Italians poured into the city from all over the peninsula to look for, and find, work. This multitude of ex-peasants manned the assembly lines of the factories that covered the city's flat, grey and foggy urban fringe. Herrera and Moratti - a self-made man and a self-made immigrant - were the architects of the Great Inter team. 'Inter', Brera wrote, 'is the symbol of hardworking, rich and flashy Milan."2 The double collapse of the team in 1967 and the departure of Herrera were sure signs that the miracle was over. 

 Herrera was unable to win much with Roma, where he took over after leaving Inter the first time. Herrera had his own theories about the lack of success in the capital: 'It was very strange. We lost matches in incredible ways. My players committed strange handballs in the area without reason, we let in some strange goals. It was science-fiction. At the end of games I would ask myself: why did we lose?' He hinted that some of the players in that team were being bribed to lose matches and were in thrall to betting rings. Much later, in 1980, a full-scale betting scandal exploded with its epicentre in Rome. After the demise of the Grande Inter, Herrera's career fizzled out. With Roma he only managed to win one Italian Cup, and his return to Inter in 1973 ended in farce as the old guard refused to bow to the methods of old. He never properly retired and was tempted back by lowly Rimini in 1975 to save them from relegation, and again by Barcelona in the early 1980s. Later he became a TV pundit and, rather sadly, a figure of fun on the satirical-trash programme, Striscia la notizia. He spent his semi-retirement in Venice, at first on an island and later in a house near the Rialto. Herrera's death in 1997 was almost as unusual as his life. Four of his seven children from his three marriages came to the funeral, where former Inter defender Facchetti made a speech. Herrera had wanted a non-religious ceremony, not an easy thing to obtain in Italy, even nowadays. After an embarrassing interlude when his ashes lay behind an unmarked little stone, he was finally given a proper space after - it was said - the British royal family, who controlled some of the spaces in the non-Catholic part of Venice's beautiful island cemetery, had intervened on his behalf. His tomb now displays his controversial 'date of birth' and all his clubs, as well as an urn in the shape of the European Cup.

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