“I don’t believe in good luck. When someone has won so much in twenty years, can it be luck?” – Helenio Herrera
A nomadic coach and a man of a cosmopolitan nature, Helenio Herrera was born in Buenos Aires around 1910 (the exact date was never recorded) to exiled Spanish anarchists and was granted French citizenship after moving to the Moroccan city of Casablanca aged just four. Constantly on the move, Herrera played football professionally as a full-back of some repute between 1931 and 1945, initially featuring for Racing de Casablanca before representing a number of clubs spread throughout the length and breadth of France.
In 1944, while still on the books as a player at Puteaux in the suburbs of Paris, Herrera was appointed coach at the club in the wake of liberation from Nazi rule and impressed with his leadership of the small amateur club. Less than a year later Herrera had called time on his playing career and joined Stade Français as manager, also taking a job on the coaching staff of the French national team.
When Stade Français passed into the hands of new owners in 1948 Herrera moved to the land of his parents, spending a brief time with Real Valladolid before joining Atlético Madrid in 1949. It was to be his time at the Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid that brought Herrera his first true recognition as a coach, winning consecutive domestic championships with Los Colchoneros in 1950 and 1951.With balletic Moroccan midfielder Larbi Benbarek the creative heart of his team, Herrera’s Atléti drew praise from around Europe and established his growing reputation as one of the continent’s most innovative coaches.
However, not being a man to spend too long in one place, Herrera left Madrid in 1952 and, after a particularly itinerant period which saw him take in Malaga, La Coruña, Seville and Lisbon, eventually arrived at Barcelona in 1958. He may have begun to construct his reputation in Castile, but it was to be in Catalonia – a region fighting against Francoist repression – that he and his methods achieved legendary status.
Believing that his phenomenally talented group of players (a group which included Sándor Kocsis, Luis Suárez and László Kubala) had been intimidated by the achievements of Real Madrid in the early years of the European Cup, Herrera set about instilling a great self-confidence and pride within FC Barcelona. Famed for his motivational slogans and rousing speeches, Barcelona’s eccentric genius of a coach instilled a greater discipline amongst the players and got them to be more comfortable and less nervous with each other off the field, something which was eventually reflected in their aesthetic style of play.
Although he is famed for being the master of catenaccio, something to which we will return shortly, it is important to recognise the entertaining attacking play Herrera’s Barcelona were known for. L’equip Blaugrana won consecutive titles in 1959 and 1960, scoring 182 goals over the course of the two seasons and establishing themselves as the most attractive team in Spain, if not in the whole of Europe. Herrera may get stereotyped as a destructive, negative tactician, but during his time in Spain he was nothing of the sort.
Indeed, when he was fired from Camp Nou in 1960 after defeat to Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the European Cup he was, according to Catalan folklore, carried down the Ramblas on the shoulders of adoring fans.
“His emphasis on fitness and psychology had never been seen before. Until then, the manager was unimportant.” – Luis Suárez
Now one of the most highly respected managers in world football, Herrera was immediately offered the job at Internazionale following his departure from Catalonia, one which he gratefully accepted. Inter, then owned by Angelo Moratti (the father of current owner, Massimo), had been through a turbulent period prior to Herrera’s arrival and had failed to win anything of significance for the best part of a decade. Promising success to Moratti, Herrera was signed on a then-record salary for a manager (£35,000 p/a) and began imposing his methods on the Nerazzurri.
A total disciplinarian and control-freak, Herrera demanded influence over many facets of his players’ lives, everything from their diets to their sleeping patterns was dictated by their well-travelled manager. Indeed, it was Herrera who invented the concept of the ritiro, taking players away days before their next game in order to focus on the coming match and exercise even greater control over the exercise they did, the hours they slept and the food they ate. The majority of the players, if reports are to be believed, hated the retreats, but they soon paid off handsomely for the San Siro club.
Inter won their first Serie A title for nine years in 1963, going on to claim their first ever European Cup in 1964 with an emphatic 3-1 victory over the Real Madrid of Puskás and Di Stéfano in the final. In 1965 Herrera’s team went one better, winning the domestic and European double before claiming yet another Scudetto in 1966 to cap a golden era for La grande Inter. Herrera had emphatically delivered on his promise of success, but it was Inter’s tactics rather than their accumulation of silverware that had got the footballing public of Europe talking most fervently.
What came to be known as catenaccio was a development of a tactical approach pioneered in Switzerland by a coach called Karl Rappan, a man who attempted to find a tactical system which allowed for both systemic discipline and individual freedom simultaneously. His quest led him to deploy a system known as verrou (bolt) which was essentially a more defensive interpretation of Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation. The most distinctive element of the verrou was its deployment of a spare man in defence, the verouller, what we would recognise today as a sweeper or libero.
Rappan’s theories were first used in Italy by Giuseppe Viani at Salernitana in the late 1940s, the strides the team made using the system that had become known as catenaccio making the system popular on the peninsula. However, it was not until it was adopted by Nereo Rocco at AC Milan and then Herrera’s Inter in the 1960s that it became a truly mainstream and acceptable tactical method.
Setting up his team with four man-marking defenders and a libero, Herrera’s Inter were extremely defensive on paper but the reality was not quite as simple. With captain Armando Picchi the free man in defence, legendary attacking full-back Giacinto Facchetti was afforded the freedom to get forward and added to the stellar forward line which included Suárez and Sandro Mazzola.
In fact, Herrera was known to be irritated at the reputation for negativity that became attached to catenaccio, believing it to be a result of less capable teams imitating the style rather poorly. That said, defensive security was undoubtedly the priority of the catenaccio philosophy, “conceding one less” rather than “scoring one more” being its central tenet.
Despite the debate which surrounds the ethos of catenaccio, what is absolutely beyond doubt is that the system worked superbly for Inter throughout the 1960s. However, towards the end of that particular decade the quasi-divine luminescence that the Nerazzurri had been basking in had begun to fade. Rumours of steroid abuse amongst Inter players were rife and, though the accusations were never proved and thus should not detract from the team’s achievements, dogged the club towards the end of Herrera’s reign in 1968.
The innovative, disciplinarian coach joined Roma shortly after leaving Inter, winning the Coppa Italia in 1969 but never being able to lift the Giallorossi to the heights he had achieved with the Milanese club. Brief and underwhelming returns to Inter and Barcelona as well as a short time at Rimini followed before his retirement in 1981, Herrera’s creative and organisational energies apparently expended during the halcyon days at San Siro.
Like many of the great coaches, his career may have fizzled out towards the end, but for his pioneering work in developing nutrition and psychology in football, not to mention the sustained success he achieved with the catenaccio philosophy he claimed to have invented, Helenio Herrera more than deserves to be recognised as one of the most influential managers of all time.