By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (September 7, 2006) — The 1964 European Cup final between Real Madrid and Inter Milan is generally thought to represent the end of the Golden Era of European soccer.
Part of the reason is that Inter’s 3-1 triumph emphatically suggested that they had replaced the Spanish giants, who had won the first five European Cups, as the best club side in Europe. But the biggest reason is that the style of Inter’s play, and the way the club conducted itself off the field, is thought to have ushered in an era characterized by caution and cynicism. There is a lot of truth to these allegations, but the reality is that the transition that occurred was a good deal more nuanced.
Real had actually not won the Cup since 1960 and the club’s biggest stars — Alfredo di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskas — were now in their late-thirties. The club had appeared in the ’62 final, losing 5-3 to Benfica, and captured its fourth consecutive Spanish league title, but their orientation was becoming increasingly defensive. Inter, under the management of the charismatic, some might say egomaniacal, Hellenio Hererra, employed catenaccio, the system most Italian sides adopted, but they were not wholly committed to playing negatively.
Inter employed three forwards and only three defenders, including tenacious sweeper Armando Picchi, were assigned entirely defensive responsibilities. As he explained to Simon Kuper in his book Football Against the Enemy, Hererra hoped that the others would sometimes join the attack.
“Catenaccio is much criticized because it is wrongly used. In my system these two’ — the centerbacks in front of the sweeper — “were markers, but the fullbacks had to attack…. But the managers who imitated me did not let their backs attack, and used catenaccio as a defensive system’. He shook his head in grief.”
Hererra did not actually invent this system, but he is justified in claiming credit for not confining his fullbacks to running up and down the sideline, as is the narrow orthodoxy these days. They had to mark their opponent wherever he went, but they were also free to attack from any part of the field. This approach was perfectly suited to his left fullback, the recently-deceased Giacinto Facchetti, a rangy player who preferred to shoot with his right foot. “Facchetti could attack at Inter because of me,” Hererra said. “When I put Facchetti in the team he was a teenager, and everyone said, ‘Ohohoh’. I said, ‘This man will play for Italy!’ and he was captain of Italy 70 times!”
Hererra was also all too happy to take credit for inventing modern motivational techniques. He made his teams go into seclusion before matches and eat at the same table, so that cliques would not form. He asked them how their respective families were doing and tried to foster a strong sense of family unity among them. Before matches he would give the players exotic teas, which he alleged would calm their nerves and give them strength, and key them up by throwing a ball at each of them while shouting questions. “What do think of the match? Why are we going to win?” The players would respond, “We’ll win because we want to win.” Finally, he would make them all touch the ball at the same time and shout, “It’s the European Cup! We must have it! We shall have it! Ah ah ah!” And then he made the players hug each other — “Not kiss, just hug!” — and tell them, “We are all in the same boat.”
“HH,” as he was known, was not above going outside the limits of the law to win. Inter had signed a Portuguese player named Humberto, but HH somehow secured fake but notarized documents in an attempt to convince the authorities that his “real” father was actually Italian. Humberto is said to have been not best pleased.
The club’s route to the European Cup final in ’64 was similarly suspect. They won the second leg of the semifinal against Borussia Dortmund 2-0, but only after Luis Suárez, perhaps the greatest Spanish player ever, had ruthlessly kicked one of Dortmund’s halfbacks out of the match. The mystery of why Suárez was not sent off by Tesamic, the Yugoslavia referee, was solved when he and a linesman were caught vacationing in Italy that summer. Confronted, he confessed that Inter had footed the bill.
Real Madrid’s path to the final had been far less controversial. Only their 4-3 aggregate win over AC Milan in the quarterfinals was close, but they did have to resist some unusual temptations during a second round match against Dynamo Bucharest. When the players arrived at their hotel rooms in Romania, they were greeted by women offering free sex. According to di Stéfano., “The players got together and discussed the situation. ‘We’ve come to play football, and after the game, whoever wants to go out somewhere, let him to do so (sic). But before the game, let’s stick to thinking about playing’. They were beautiful girls, 22 and 23-year-olds. We didn’t fall into the trap.” Some of the players could not wait to get back to their hotel rooms after Real’s 3-1 win, but they sadly discovered that “the doves had flown.”
On a more serious note, di Stéfano sharply disagreed with manager Miguel Muñoz about Real Madrid’s tactics for the Inter match. Muñoz had decided to man-mark Facchetti and di Stefano feared that this would leave Real too flat at the back and expose them to Inter’s lightning quick counter-attacks. Muñoz’s decision was odd, and Inter took full advantage of the fact that Real’s defense was flat, and undermanned. The first two goals, by Sandro Mazzola from a rasping shot from outside the area and Arelio Milani, could have been prevented by a less-stretched defense. What’s more, the decision also left Madrid short of attacking options. Inter closely marked and Puskas and Real’s other main threat Paco Gento, a left winger so fleet that he was nicknamed “El Supersonico,” and this meant that di Stéfano desperately needed more options.
After the match, the fallout between di Stéfano and Muñoz was so bitter that di Stéfano was forced to leave the club he, more than any player, had transformed into the greatest in the history of soccer. As he explained in his memoirs, “We played the game minus one player, but Muñoz told me to go to hell and they threw me out of the club because I told him to go to hell!”
Di Stéfano went on to play for Espnayol, but this match effectively ended the best part of his brilliant career. Even Hererra, who despised the idea that players should be the stars, thought that di Stéfano had no equal. “Di Stéfano was the greatest player of all time and I’ll tell you why. People used to say to me, ‘Pelé is the first violinist in the orchestra’, and I would answer, ‘Yes, but di Stéfano is the whole orchestra’. He was in defense, in midfield, in attack, he never stopped running, and he shouted at the other players to run too. He’d say, ‘You’re playing with my money’.”
Di Stéfano, Real, and attacking spectacle was replaced by Inter, who became more cautious at the years went by. The next year they beat Benfica 1-0 to win the European Cup again, but only after they had bribed another official to help them get past Liverpool in the semifinal. Before the second leg, an Italian journalist told Liverpool manager Bob Shankly, “You have no chance. They will never let you win.” So it proved. The referee allowed Inter to score after one of their players kicked the ball away from the Liverpool’s keeper, who was bouncing it by way of preparing to clear it, and directly from an indirect free kick.
Sadly, there was no going back, especially in Italy. As Brian Glanville explains, caution and catenaccio would rule the roost. “The Italian footballer is naturally a creative, enterprising, adventurous player, but by sheer overcompensation, he learned to be something else. More and more was the emphasis placed on somber defensive, containing play.”
Helenio Hererra may not have intended catenaccio to be used defensively, but the way his team’s style evolved and the lengths they would go to win, launched Italian soccer down a dark path for at least the next quarter century.