by Chris Shaw
When Inter Milan ended a 45-year wait to lift the European Cup at the Santiago Bernabéu in May 2010, their 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich was the culmination of a run which had been fundamentally based on organisation. José Mourinho, famed for his man-management and pragmatic tactics, had moulded a team in his own image: determined, ruthless and adaptable.
A 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge to knock out former club Chelsea in the last sixteen, which was thoroughly deserved after a sublime performance and winning goal, was an early sign of what was to come. In eliminating holders Barcelona with an historic defensive display at the Camp Nou in the second leg of the semi-final – during which their opponents had 86% possession – I Nerazurri had utilised tactics which could be traced back to a time long before Mourinho.
Angelo Moratti, a billionaire who made his fortune through oil, became president of Inter Milan in 1955 and cycled through various coaches – including club legend Giuseppe Meazza for two separate spells – in an attempt to deliver another Scudetto. Five years after his arrival, he finally found the right man. Helenio Herrera was handed the reins in 1960 and proceeded to lead Inter to three Serie A titles, two European Cups (and another final) as well as two Intercontinental Cups. His team, efficiently drilled in a catenaccio style, became known as Grande Inter and Herrera Il Mago (The Wizard).
Details of Herrera’s time and place of birth are shrouded in mystery – it is accepted that he was born on an island somewhere in the Rio de la Plata, on the border of Argentina and Uruguay. Uncertainty remains about his date of birth, however. Not only is it suggested that Herrera’s father purposely submitted incorrect birth documents, but later his wife also claimed Herrera himself changed his apparent year of birth from 1910 to 1916. The son of Spanish parents, his family moved to Morocco when he was four and he became a French citizen.
Like Mourinho, Herrera did not achieve success as a player. A professional defender, he turned out for various French clubs during the 1930s and 1940s, most notably with Stade Francais, but trophies eluded him. After retiring in 1945, Herrera immediately began a coaching career in France, taking charge of Puteaux and Stade Francais. By 1960, Herrera had built a tremendous reputation with his work at six clubs in Spain. Il Mago had spells at Real Valladolid, Malaga, Deportivo La Coruña and Sevilla, but it was at Atlético Madrid and then Barcelona where his mercurial management style bore its finest fruit.
Herrera took Atléti to back-to-back Spanish championships at the beginning of the 1950s before repeating the feat almost a decade later in Catalonia. Barcelona also won the Spanish Cup and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the precursor to the UEFA Cup) under his stewardship. Herrera left the Camp Nou after a continued spat with the team’s star player Laszlo Kubala, an event which foreshadowed his treatment of certain players at Inter, but a lasting impression had been left both in Spain and across Europe.
A disciplinarian with trailblazing ideas on diet, motivation and tactics, Herrera was truly ahead of his time. He strictly moderated what his players ate and was one of the first coaches to take his squad away before a match, restricting contact with family and friends during the build-up. A Buddhist who began each day with a yoga session, Herrera expected the same commitment from his players in all aspects of preparation. As motivational tools, he would instil mantras into the team’s psyche and write slogans on the walls of the dressing room.
Fans also played a significant part in Inter’s success under Herrera, a manager who was quick to recognise the importance of the crowd. The club funded travelling fan groups to ensure vociferous support at away games in Italy and Europe, while Herrera helped to create associations throughout the country. In many ways, the Inter support of the time could be described as the first ultras. His meticulous approach and visionary ideas, combined with a team of talented individuals, shortly came together to produce the finest period of success in Inter’s history.
In his first two seasons in charge, Inter played an expansive style of football and failed to win the Scudetto. By 1962/63, Herrera had adopted a more defensive formation, honing his 5-3-2 as Inter won the championship. Although Herrera claimed to have invented catenaccio, his team did not play an ultra-defensive version of the ideology. That did not stop him, again echoing Mourinho, playing up to the image in a pragmatic attempt to deflect pressure from his team. Their cynical behaviour and sheer determination to be victorious may have fitted the catenaccio template but their tactics had more subtlety. Taca la bal – attack the ball – was Herrera’s motto and his team’s style could often pre-empt Holland’s Total Football, which would be glorified a decade later at the 1974 World Cup.
Based on a rock-solid back five – typically Armando Picchi, Tarcisio Burgnich, Aristide Guarneri, Giacinto Facchetti and Gianfranco Bedin – Grande Inter were a mesmeric counter-attacking outfit. Facchetti, in particular, provided regular width from full-back, while Jair and Sandro Mazzola were the flair players who could provide goals. Picchi, too, was comfortable carrying the ball from the back despite being the designated sweeper. Herrera even found space in his side, though notoriously at the behest of Moratti, for a luxury player – Mario Corso. The winger made more than 400 appearances for Inter but eventually became renowned for his perceived lack of effort.
Winning the title in 1963 meant Inter qualified for the following season’s European Cup, which was still in its relative infancy but had a burgeoning reputation after the early exploits of Real Madrid and Benfica. City rivals AC Milan had won the competition the year before and Inter followed suit at the first attempt. Inter conceded just two goals in their opening six matches, knocking out Everton, Monaco and Partizan, to set up a semi-final with Borussia Dortmund. A 2-2 first-leg draw in Germany gave the Italians the advantage, and victory was completed with a 2-0 victory back in Milan. Around 30,000 Interisti travelled to Vienna for the final, Herrera’s side beating five-time winners Madrid, whose side was ageing by 1964, 3-1 to lift the trophy.
The next season, 1964/65, was very much Inter and Herrera’s zenith. Inter won both Serie A and the European Cup for a second time under the Argentine, achieving a remarkable double. Inter had again shown their worth in Europe, dismissing Dinamo Bucharest, Rangers and – controversially – Liverpool to reach a second consecutive final. Two-time winners Benfica, led by the imperious Eusebio, were their opponents and a solitary Jair goal proved enough to win the coveted trophy for a second season running. Another Scudetto followed in 1966 before a third European Cup final appearance a year later. Despite taking an early lead through Mazzola, Inter were beaten by Celtic’s ‘Lisbon Lions’ in one of the most famous finals in the tournament’s history.
Inter would never reach those heights under Herrera again, and indeed under any manager for a long time. He left the club in 1968 and though he returned for another campaign in the mid-1970s, the domination of Grande Inter was over. Allegations would surface in later years pertaining to doping and bribery at the club, but they did little to tarnish the sheer magnitude of Herrera’s achievements. The first of the modern-type manager, he revolutionised the club and his impact, so much of which can be seen in Mourinho, is still felt today.