Friday, February 27 th, 2015
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Helenio Herrera, or Josè Mourinho 40 years before
Charismatic, winner and authoritarian. Helenio Herrera- who was born 104 years ago today- was the main architect of the 60's Great Inter. The similarities with the Special One are impressive
by Federico Formica
“What would football be without me?”. If one had to guess who pronounced this sentence, he would certainly say “Josè Mourinho”. But he'd be wrong. This is a quote from Helenio Herrera, and he said it out nearly 40 years before the Special One started collecting cups and leagues around Europe. Herrera was a French-Argentinian coach who led Inter, Roma and Rimini in Italy and Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla (among others) in Spain.

In Italy he was known as il Mago (the Wizard) and he was the first football coach to become a star. He was tyrannical with his players, and, like Josè Mourinho, he was very good at motivating his footballers - he usually wrote mottos on the walls of the changing rooms - as well as a gold mine for the press, with his (frequently self-celebrating) aphorisms and his stances.

Every Inter fan, still today, perfectly knows who Helenio Herrera was, because il Mago was the coach of La Grande Inter in the 60s. As coach of the Nerazzurrihe won 3 Scudetti (1962-63, 1965-65 and 1965-66), 2 European Cups in a row (1963-64 and 1964-65) and 2 Intercontinental Cups (1964 and 1965). In exactly the same way as Massimo Moratti fell in love with Josè Mourinho, his father Angelo fell under Helenio Herrera's spell.

The great Inter of the Sixties is generally famous for the Catenaccio, a very defensive tactical system with a sweeper behind the defensive line. The sweeper, or libero, didn’t have to mark any player: his role was to stop the forward which escaped from the grasp of the center-backs and restart the counter-attack with precise play-making. But Herrera's playing style was quite far from the out and out Catenaccio: his football was very dynamic, a pressing game in which everybody had to keep on moving.

Tacalabala” (attack the ball) was HH's motto. “In football, as in life, in art, in music, the empty and silence are as important as the full” he said.

In 1968 something unexpected happened: Helenio Herrera left Inter and joined Roma. He took Oronzo Pugliese's seat. Pugliese was dubbed as il Mago di Turi (the wizard from Turi, a town near Bari). Roma president, Evangelisti, spent 260 million Liras (€130 K) to bring Herrera to the city of the Vatican. But, despite the promise to win the title in three years, the best result in the five years he sat on the Giallorossi bench was the sixth place in the 1970-71 season. At least, he won one Italian Cup.

Had he not lost his magic touch, he would have probably had a Cup Winners’ Cup in his personal shelf. In 1970, in fact, his Roma, captained by the Spanish Peirò, who played for him at Inter and became famous for a goal against Liverpool in which he stole the ball from the keeper who was about to kick the ball away, reached the semifinal of the European competition.

Their opponents were Gornik Zabrze, from Poland. After a 1-1 draw in Italy, Roma led 1-0 in Poland thanks to Fabio Capello’s goal. One minute before the end, the wet blanket: Lubanski’s goal for the final 1-1. The teams had to play extra-times, and as the final score after 120 minutes was 2-2, Nando Martellini, the most famous voice in Italian sports’ journalism at the time, joyfully announced that Roma had won on away goals, causing people to start celebrating in the streets. The joy was short-lived though, because the rules had changed that year, and goals scored in extra-times did not count for the away goals rule. There had to be a third game to be played on neutral ground.

Well, guess how the game ended? With a 1-1 draw, again, and with goals by Lubanski and Capello, again. At the time there was no penalty shoot-out rule, and the only way to determine a winner after three draws was with a coin toss.  

Before such coin toss, however, the players of the two teams congratulated each other for the battle lasted 5 and half hours. They did so by exchanging their shirts: Roma players put on the white jerseys of Gornik, while the Polish players wore the red jerseys of Roma.

Peirò reached the referee and the Polish captain towards the midfield, for the deciding toss. He had decided for heads, but Herrera forced him to switch for tails, “I feel it’s going to be tails”, he said to his player.

And heads it was. The Polish players - in the red jerseys of Roma - cheerfully jumped around the pitch, celebrating an unexpected qualification to the final, as Nando Martellini would proudly - and mistakenly - announce that Roma players were celebrating the win. Once again, fans on the streets. But once again, a wet blanket.

The lowest point. One of Helenio Herrera's forwards at Roma was Giuliano Taccola. In the 1968-69 season, Taccola constantly had a strange fever and the Roma medical staff said he had a cardiac fault. Despite that, Helenio Herrera pressed for having the player at his disposal.

On march 2, 1969 Roma played an away game in Cagliari. Taccola had been absent a few weeks for an injury and he had just made his comeback with the first team.

The player, once again, had a bit of fever but Helenio Herrera sent him on the pitch anyway. At the end of the match, Taccola died in the changing room. Il Mago managed the affair in a very questionable way: he wanted the team to immediately return to Rome, but three players refused to leave alone their dead teammate. The reasons of Taccola's death were never clarified. 

But Ferruccio Mazzola, the brother of the famous Sandro, said that Herrera used to dope his players in order to enhance their performaces. Mazzola did not exclude that Taccola could have been victim of a pharmacological experiment. Such statements were never confirmed. And, maybe, we'll never know if Taccola's death was a fatal misfortune or one of the first poisoned fruits of doping.

The best moment. May 27th 1964 was the best day in Helenio Herrera's career. In that occasion, Inter beat 3-1 the glorious Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskás and Francisco Gento. The genius of Sandro Mazzola scored a double and the number 9 Aurelio Milani netted the other goal. Inter immediately balanced the European Cup won by the city rivals of Milan, which raised the trophy 12 months before.

Inter didn't beat one of the best teams of all times by chance: Helenio Herrera managed to convert a bunch of good players in an overwhelmingly efficient collective, a war-machine which was never satisfied and always looked for more trophies to conquer. The following year, Il Mago raised another European Cup at the expense of a glorious Benfica.

Thursday, April 10 th, 2014
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