Herrera put the man on the bench at centre stage. Everything at Internazionale revolved around him
Words: Giancarlo Rinaldi
Thousands of people have played some small part in the Serie A story. Many of them have enjoyed glorious and illustrious careers, but only a handful have truly transformed the game. Helenio Herrera was one of them.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that his arrival at Inter was one of the watershed moments in Italian football. Nothing was quite the same from that day on. Imagine the seismic impact Arrigo Sacchi had when he took over at Milan, and then multiply it a few times. That was the effect of the man they called Il Mago – The Wizard.
The way he moved Serie A forward was as much about his personality as his methods. Prior to HH, the role of the Coach did not have the importance it carries now. Many of them were paternal characters, as much a figurehead for the club as anything else. Herrera put the man on the bench at centre stage. Everything at Internazionale revolved around him. In many ways he paved the way for the most egocentric managers of the modern era. Is it any wonder the Nerazzurri hierarchy was so keen to hire Jose Mourinho?
As a player, Herrera’s career was mediocre. Having left his native Argentina as a child, his family moved to North Africa, which opened the doors to French football. He enjoyed about 12 years as a decent defender, but nothing more than that. By the time he reached his 30s, however, he was ripe for the move into management.
There were hints in Spain of what the boy from Buenos Aires would achieve in Italy. Firstly, he steered Atletico Madrid to a couple of League titles in the early 1950s. Then, by the end of the decade, he looked set to take Barcelona on to major glory. He took them to two League titles and the Fairs Cup – the precursor to the UEFA Cup – but beneath the surface all was not well. Defeat to Real Madrid in the European Cup, combined with increasing interest from Inter, meant his relationship with the Blaugrana had come to the end of the road.
Football history is littered with these strange moments. The player or Coach discarded by one club who goes on to become a legend at another. Who knows what Herrera might have achieved had he remained at Barcelona? While Inter fans might never have enjoyed the greatest single spell of success in their history had he stayed put.
His mere trophy count over eight years at San Siro was astounding. All the honours came packed in an intense spell between 1963 and 1966. The Nerazzurri won three Scudetti, two European Cups and two Club World Cups. They had gone from being one of Italy’s biggest teams to being one of the top outfits on the planet.
At the very heart of this revolution was Herrera. Club owner and petrol magnate Angelo Moratti had already been in charge for five years when he eventually got the boss he wanted. He was convinced that he had found the man to break Milan and Juventus’ dominance of the League table. He was right.
“We changed a lot of Coaches, we changed a lot of players and we spent a lot of money,” admitted Moratti senior in one candid interview. However, eventually he found the winning formula, combining Herrera’s psychological edge with a young up-and-coming sporting director Italo Allodi, who shared his ambitions for the club.
At the time of Herrera’s appointment in 1960 Inter were an entertaining side, but one that had failed to win the Scudetto since 1954. He set about instilling the team spirit and work ethic that would lay the foundations for success. There was no place in that set-up for one of the Nerazzurri’s best-loved players of the day – the prolific Antonio Angelillo. It was a statement of intent about how the new Inter would be constructed.
“In football, anyone who doesn’t give his all gives nothing,” Herrera once opined. “If we leave players too much freedom they are tempted to eat too many of the wrong things and drink too much – and that can ruin them. It is better for them to rest and recuperate and then on Monday morning they are ready for the next challenge.”
Inter finished third in his first season in charge, but Herrera found it tough to continue the sparkling, attacking play that had characterised his Barcelona side. He was not the apostle of catenaccio that he is sometimes painted as, but he adapted to the more tactical waters of Serie A. In addition he spied some of the best young players coming through the ranks of the Nerazzurri set-up – Sandro Mazzola, Giacinto Facchetti and Mario Corso.
“He believed in getting the young players to train with the first team to let them learn straight away and as quickly as possible,” commented Facchetti. He also managed an audacious transfer coup, bringing in Luis Suarez from Barcelona in 1961. It was clear he had stepped up the ambition at the club and they were willing to provide lavish funds for the players he wanted.
“It was a big signing,” recalled Suarez many years later. “I had won the Ballon d’Or for the best player in Europe and I was coming from a prestigious side like Barcelona while Inter, in those years, were a big team but only in Italy.”
Suarez was exactly the kind of player Herrera liked – a consummate professional who led his teammates in practice and often undertook additional training sessions. He had the kind of footballing intelligence that the Coach was trying to transmit throughout the team. “He used to say – I first train your head and then your body,” recalled Sandro Mazzola. “I want you to think before your opponent.”
“I think his greatest quality was in how he prepared for a game – not just athletically and technically but also mentally,” echoed Facchetti. “He was a psychologist and knew how to motivate players as much as possible.”
Still, in that second season the title stubbornly refused to arrive, but Moratti dug deep to fuel the final push. In came Tarcisio Burgnich from Palermo and Jair from Brazil, while Armando Picchi was moved from full-back to the sweeper’s role allowing him to become a virtual Coach on the field of play. At last, in 1963, the first Scudetto of the Moratti era was secured.
From there on it was onwards and upwards for Il Mago. Nobody before had prepared his players with such psychological detail or studied his opponents with such precision. His message was one of the power of positive thinking before such philosophies held sway in the sport. And, of course, he was not averse to mind games. He plotted Inter’s path to European Cup glory in meticulous detail.
“He liked to say things which could upset the opponents, but he was also a great worker and motivated players to give the best of their abilities,” recalled Facchetti. “He had contacts around the world who would give him a report on opponents. When we played overseas he told us how tall each player was, his hairstyle and even the colour of his eyes – that is how professional he was about his work.”
Herrera’s magic spell was broken by Celtic in 1967, but his legacy remains to this day. It would be almost unthinkable for the modern Coach’s role to have evolved without him. “Every Coach in Italy nowadays should thank Herrera, they became more famous thanks to him,” claimed Corso. “Coaches were part of the team and that was it. He really created the figure of the Coach. He was good at talking to the Press and would put the blame on everything but the club and his players.”
Does that sound familiar at all? Countless modern-day Coaches have at least a dash of Herrera in their make-up. More than four decades after he shook up Italian and world football, his influence is being felt to this day.
Found this wonderful article about our greatest ever coach.