Parking The Coach: Helenio Herrera

by | May 19, 2017

Everything that Italian football is, was encapsulated in Helenio Herrera. Stylish, cerebral, passionate, pragmatic, cynical, exasperating, inconsistent, unscrupulous, brilliant, corrupt… a smooth and intoxicating mixture of ascetic analysis, self-aggrandisement and suspiciously-too-black hair. In many ways, Herrera gave birth to football in the 21st Century. He is certainly its manager.

The first of the mass of contradictions that lay ahead is that Italian football’s avatar was not Italian at all, but a naturalised Frenchman from Argentina. Helenio Herrera was born in Buenos Aires on 10th April 1910. His father, a Spanish immigrant, worked as a carpenter – “like Jesus”, as Herrera noted (with typical self-deprecation) in his autobiography – as well as being a anarchist and a trade union agitator. Perhaps at the behest of the authorities, who generally don’t much care for anarchist trade unionists however much like Jesus they are, the Herrera family upped sticks and moved to Morocco when Helenio was 4. It was in Morocco that Helenio Herrera contracted a potentially fatal dose of diptheria, which he only narrowly survived. It was an early indication, in his mind at the very least, that he had been divinely blessed and earmarked for special purpose.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many people who could have otherwise saved the world, Herrera’s chief interest turned out to be Association Football. He began his playing career at Racing Club Casablanca but his promise was sufficient that, by his early twenties, he had been discovered by the scouts of the French league. Spells at CASG Paris, Stade Français, Charleville and Excelsior Roubaix followed. An old-fashioned full back – a role now more akin to the modern central defender – Herrera was also twice called up to play for the French national team.

Helenio Herrera was 29 years of age and playing for Excelsior Roubaix at the outbreak of the Second World War. He avoided seeing combat thanks to his job as a fibreglass fabricator, which at the time was a reserved occupation. As football chuntered back into life in occupied France, Herrera signed up to play for Red Star 93 before returning for a second spell at Stade Français. By the time Paris was liberated by the allies in the summer of 1944, he was the player-manager of Puteaux.

At Puteaux, Herrera had started to explore tactical systems and their derivations that would later propel him to great prominence in the European game. Quite how advanced these early experiments were is hard to gauge: highlights of French football matches from on the cusp of the end of the Vichy Government are notoriously hard to find on YouTube, meaning that our best primary source of information on this subject is Herrera himself and Helenio Herrera thought that the sun shone out of his arse. Maybe there is a kernel of truth in his contention that he was the first person to conceive of the idea of the sweeper, but the likelihood is that, even if it was an idea that had occurred to him spontaneously, he was most likely not the first person to formalise the concept.

It is impossible to consider the impact of Helenio Herrera without dwelling a little on tactics because he is utterly intertwined with the story of one of soccer’s most reviled (and perhaps misunderstood) systemic innovations: Catenaccio. Catenaccio, meaning “chain”, took its intellectual origins from post-war Swiss football, where the greatest Swiss coach of the mid-20th Century, Karl Rappan, found himself faced with a problem. His players were all semi-professional and were unable therefore to compete with the levels of fitness and preparation of their professional counterparts. Rappan arrived at the Verrou – or “door bolt” – a strategy that pulled an extra man back from the attacking lines to sit behind (what was then) the standard three-man defence of the W-M.

This player was the sweeper, a player with licence to roam freely throughout the back line, breaking up attacking threats. This idea first arrived in Italy, which would become its spiritual home, with Gipo Viani, coach of the unfancied Salernitana in the late 1940s. His team achieved moderate success with the system, winning promotion to Serie A before immediately being relegated back. Catenaccio, as Jonathan Wilson notes in Inverting The Pyramid, was quickly gathering a reputation as “the right of the weak”; a prop to be used when you have identified and acknowledged your team to be deficient in either skill or preparation compared to your opponent.

Where Catenaccio started to become the pantomime villain was when it was picked up by the big boys. At Inter, Alfredo Foni turned the right winger into a right wing-back, a position still endemic throughout Italian football to this day. These players, known as Tornanti, or “returners”, give rise to a kind of lop-sided 5-3-2 formation with a libero behind the centre backs and width provided by marauding wing backs – may still be seen every week wherever Italian football is played. Across town at AC Milan, Nereo Rocco had refined the system even further. By 1960, the year that Herrera first arrived in the Italian game, Rocco’s AC Milan were a benchmark of stylish, flowing and creative football.

The problem was not the way Catenaccio played out on the field per se – the great Italian teams of this era rank alongside any in terms of their brio and attacking intent – but from that disconnect that comes of the finest players in the league deriving their approach from a starting position of absolute pragmatism. For Rocco, all the romantic notions that the 1950s had produced – Gustav Sebes and his Magic Magyars, Bela Guttmann’s Benfica and the Brazilian World Champions of 1958 – were just that. Aesthetics and expression can and may win you a football match, but they are not a guarantee nor even a prerequisite. What interested Rocco was winning. Winning came first at all costs, with any style or entertainment arising from it merely being the cherry on the cake. Pragmatism, of course, quickly gives birth to cynicism and a side of Italian football that few find particularly endearing. The leading Italian football journalist of the era, Gianni Brera (a close friend of both Rocco and Herrera) once argued that the perfect game of football ends 0-0. He wasn’t kidding.

So, perhaps Helenio Herrera was the tactical mastermind he later suggested he was. It is quite possible for several people to independently conceive of the same idea at a similar time. Indeed, the comic book writer and magician Alan Moore suggests that such an eventuality is an inevitable part of life and the creative process: a concept he calls The Ideaspace. Nevertheless, every tactical innovation that would make Herrera’s tenure at Internazionale one for the ages was already in place by the time he arrived in Milan in the summer of 1960.

Herrera was already a coach of some distinction. He spent the majority of his first decade in football management in Spain, with Real Valladolid, Atletico Madrid, Malaga, Deportivo and Barcelona. In just under ten seasons in the Spanish game, he won four league titles – two with Atletico and two with Barcelona, on both occasions also managing to secure back-to-back triumphs – as well as a Copa del Rey and two Inter-City Fairs Cups with Barcelona. Herrera arrived at Barcelona in 1958 after a year managing Belenenses in Portugal. Upon flying from Portugal to Spain to assume his new duties, the plane he was in crashed. His survival was yet another indicator of divine provenance, as he saw it.

At Barcelona his tenure was marked more by his personality than by his tactical acumen. His two seasons at the club were relentlessly successful but anything but tranquil. Barcelona’s best player at the time was Laszlo Kubala, a Hungarian forward of such rare abilities that Herrera himself called him “the greatest player I have known”. However, Kubala had a drinking problem and by his second season with the club, Herrera had ostracised his star. It was a brutal act of hard-nosed expediency that would be played out again and again throughout Herrera’s career and in all the seasons that have followed it.

Herrera was a man of almost monastic asceticism and self-discipline. Every morning he practiced Yoga, repeating to himself the mantra “I am strong, I am calm, I fear nothing, I am beautiful”. He posted similar motivational messages all around the training ground. Once, he dropped a player after he told the press that he had come to Rome to play, rather than come to Rome to WIN. No coach before Herrera had taken anything like his kind of holistic approach: everything that a player did, thought or said was considered to be within the manager’s purview. His team would frequently attend meetings where words, phrases and mantras would be driven in to their minds to the extent that their messages would become second nature. Player diet was also of particular interest to Herrera. At Inter, he would gather the players’ wives around to be sure that they were all onside with his regime and able to serve as an additional set of eyes and ears for him. Typically enough, those whom he felt were not to be trusted soon found their husband jettisoned from the team, either frozen out completely or transferred elsewhere. Smoking, too, was strictly forbidden. Many of the things that we now assume to be basic tenets of the physical approach to being a professional footballer began with Herrera.

In spring 1960, Barcelona lost the European Cup semi-final 6-2 on aggregate to Real Madrid. It was sufficient, in combination with a still strong faction of Kubala supporters within the club, to see Herrera sacked. He was quickly offered the job at Inter, where the exhaustive Herreran approach would reach its zenith. Chief among his innovations was the Ritiro, a pre-game training retreat from Thursday to Sunday where he could be sure that his players were doing nothing but preparing themselves for the coming match. The Ritiro would usually take place at Inter’s secluded Appiano Gentile headquarters or, failing that, at a remote country hotel. Many players reported that they would see no other soul but for their teammates for the entirity of their stay. English striker Gerry Hitchens likened his transfer away from Inter to demobilisation from the army.

The Ritiro thrust Herrera’s own approach to living upon all of his charges. The team would train three times a day and when they were not doing that, they could usually be found either eating or sleeping. Herrera himself slept 12 hours a day – retiring to bed at 9 p.m – and would encourage his players to do the same. Many no doubt did, if only to kill a few extra hours and escape the encroaching boredom. During the time they were awake, they were prodded and probed, run like horses and psychologically broken and rebuilt like prisoners of war. Herrera would regularly belittle the best players on his team in order to anger them into a compensatory response on the field come match day. Team dinners became bizarre covens of ritual, mantra and psychological trickery. The rituals became more complex, layered and ingrained as time went on. When Luis Suarez, the brilliant Spanish playmaker who had followed Herrera from Barcelona, spilled his wine at dinner the evening before a match in which he scored, Herrera saw to it that Suarez should spill his wine at every dinner. From the outside looking in, Herrera’s Ritiro looks to have more in common with a religious cult than it does a football club.

However, the team he built was superb. The defence were anchored by Armando Picchi, the team’s libero and captain, sitting behind the impenetrable Tarcisco Burgnich. On the left was Giacinto Facchetti, a striker-turned-left back who was to become one of Italy’s greatest ever defenders as well as one of its most versatile: in 1965/66, he scored ten times from full back. The Brazilian Jair was the team’s Tornante, a flying winger who happily embraced the instruction to drop deeper as it afforded him a better run-up to complete his mazy dribbles. Luis Suarez sat in the centre of the park as a deep-lying playmaker, pulling the strings. And leading the line would have been the brilliant Antonio Angelillo, scorer of 33 goals in the season prior to Herrera’s arrival. Herrera, however, immediately sold him. His social life was judged simply insuitable for the demands that his coaching were to make. Happily for Herrera and Inter, Sandro Mazzola was a more than adequate replacement.

After a relatively slow start in Milan – in his first two seasons in charge of Inter the team finished 3rd and then 2nd – Herrera’s Inter hit their stride in 1962/63, winning Serie A in some style. Herrera would continually rail at Catenaccio’s critics, pointing out that while his team might have defensive solidity, they also often scored more goals than any other team in the league. Catenaccio’s problem, he said, was the fault of the copyists who failed to include its attacking principles when also adopting its defensive ones. The following season, Inter lost Serie A to Bologna in a tie-breaking playoff match but won the European Cup for the first time, earning themselves the title La Grande Inter. In 1964/65, the club did the Serie A-European Cup double and were national champions again in 1965/66.

The following season, 1966/67, was when it all went horribly, spectacularly wrong. Leading the Serie A table by 4 points from Juventus in April, by May they needed to beat Mantova in their final match in order to secure the crown. Before that was the European Cup Final against Celtic in Lisbon. The Portuguese hotel that Herrera picked for this most important Ritiro was remote to say the very least. It may even have served to finally break the cultish Herreran spell that had held the team together. Miles from anywhere and anyone, the players began to mentally disintegrate. Psychological weariness took hold. The old rituals and mantras took on the appearance of empty gestures; the geographical isolation and solitude serving as an echo chamber, amplifying the team’s fears and insecurities. All the while their coach and leader went, oblivious, through his old motions. By kick off, many Inter players later reported, the team were already beaten. Some decided that defeat was so inevitable that they should not needlessly expend energy trying to put it off. Celtic won a famous 2-1 victory in Lisbon that day and the following week, Inter lost their game at Mantova and Juventus stole the Scudetto away. It would be 4 years before Inter would win another.

Throughout his career, Herrera had been called “The Wizard”, both for his teams’ extravagant successes and also for his habit of correctly predicting the result of their next fixture. It was a sobriquet that Herrera himself disdained. He argued that magic, or worse still the idea of luck, had no place in thinking about football. Hard work and application were his touchstones and the reason for his success. However, by June 1967, even he could have been forgiven for thinking that a spell may have been broken. In the immediate aftermath of the traumas of Lisbon and Mantova, he summarily transferred his captain Armando Picchi to Varese for having the temerity to question if Herrera’s methods might have been responsible for their collapse. “When things go right it’s because of Herrera’s brilliant planning,” Picchi said, “When things go wrong, it is always the players that are to blame”. The following season, Inter finished 5th, 13 points adrift of champions AC Milan.

I suppose that it depends entirely on your own life, your philosophies and experiences, as to whether or not all of this makes Helenio Herrera a great visionary hero or a grotesque Machiavellian villain. There is no doubt that, by positioning himself at the absolute centre of affairs, by taking so much of the credit and plaudits for himself, that he made himself the first of the modern day superstar managers. But equally valid is the argument that if Herrera was the embodiment of Italian football, then there are also aspects of his career that have a tendency towards the unsettling and unsavoury.

Catenaccio being a strategy that is primarily based on defence is, as Herrera himself argued, something of a myth. However, it WAS undeniably a strategy based on getting results at any cost. Skullduggery inevitably rose from its strictures: no stone was ever left unturned in the pursuit of achievement and this meant that gamesmanship and cynical play quickly became the thin end of the wedge. At Inter, Herrera would routinely give his players herbal tea every morning. This soon gave way to pills to be put under the tongue of the reserve team players, guinea pigs before he did the same for the first team. When he became aware of players spitting their tablets out, Herrera ground them up and put them in the coffee. Quite what was in these preparations is not clear, but even if it wasn’t against the letter of the law it was certainly against its spirit; which is before one even considers the ethical implications of such treatment of people who are in your care.

Definitely against the rules of the game is match fixing, but Herrera undeniably did that too. The favoured method of the time was nobbling referees, many of whom wore crowns and lived in solid gold houses. Top officials in Italian and European football of the era were “influenced” by financial inducement to perhaps go easy on certain teams. Central to this culture was Italo Allodi, the club secretary of Inter during Herrera’s time. In 1964, Inter eliminated Dortmund from the European Cup semi-finals after Dieter Kurrat was injured by a brutal Luis Suarez tackle early in their 2-0 second leg victory that earned him no censure at all. The following year, Liverpool beat Inter 3-1 at Anfield in the first leg of the European Cup semi-final only to arrive in Milan to find their hotel was surrounded by rowdy locals making sure that the team couldn’t sleep the night before the game. During the match itself, Inter quickly scored two controversial goals before Facchetti added a third to eliminate the Liverpool from the competition. Not for nothing did Bill Shankly send Liverpool scouts to assist Jock Stein with his preparation for the 1967 European Cup final.

After his tumultuous, brilliant eight-year spell at Internazionale was over, Herrera moved to AS Roma for two seasons, winning the Copa Italia in 1969. He returned to Inter in 1973 for a further, unsuccessful, season at the helm. At its end, he suffered a heart attack and decided to retire from football management. However, both Rimini (in 1978/79) and then Barcelona (1979-1981) did manage to briefly lure him back to the front line. In his final season at Barcelona he won a second Copa del Rey title, before retiring from management for good and turning his attention to writing and journalism. Helenio Herrera died on 9th November 1997 in Venice, aged 87. What he created lives on all around us.

Edward Carter is the joint host of the Twohundredpercent and a cartoonist by trade. You can find him on Twitter @dotmund – he is available for commission work. If you enjoyed this article, there are further episodes of the Parking The Coach series available in the Twohundredpercent magazine which is available to subscribers through Patreon.