Helenio Herrera was one of the most original managers football has seen, in most ways imaginable. He ruled his teams with a combination of dictatorial discipline, gruesome training regimes, bizarre psychological habits, military-style training camps, and strict dietary plans. Nobody possessed a fiercer will to win—and nobody went further in order to achieve it. His methods could be cruel and heartless, his teams ruthless and cynical. Throughout his two most successful spells, with Barcelona from 1958 to 1960, and with Internazionale from 1960 to 1968, his eccentric persona infiltrated the press. The colourful phrases and affronts attributed to him—correctly or not—merited their own dictionary. An egocentric, he revelled in the attention. When he published his memoirs, according to Sid Lowe’s book Fear and Loathing in La Liga, the blurb read: “This Herrera is the devil! Now he’s writing memoirs! May God forgive us! As if he hasn’t made enough noise already! As if the papers don’t dedicate him enough attention already! As if his words weren’t already invading every home, every office, every workshop and every public space! As if he wasn’t admired enough already! As if he wasn’t hated enough already!”
Herrera claimed to have invented several aspects of modern football. Some assertions were false, but most were not. They include training camps and the allegedly destructive catenaccio system synonymous with Italian defensive football. He was the first modern manager. He elevated the coach from a peripheral figure to one of fame, power and influence. He was the first tactician to take credit for victories, and to command salaries in a similar bracket to his star players. He applied shrewd motivational techniques, and monitored his players’ private lives. Critics often felt he went too far in pursuit of victory. More than once, these included his own players. “I’ve been accused of being tyrannical and completely ruthless with my players,” he said, according to Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid. “But I merely implemented things that were later copied by every single club: hard work, perfectionism, physical training, diets, and three days of concentration before every game.”
The demands of abstention were modelled on Herrera’s own private life. He never smoked and rarely drank. According to his daughter, Luna, his pasta dishes contained only olive oil and parmesan. He did yoga every morning. When awaking, he would tell himself: “I am strong, calm, I fear nothing, I am beautiful.” He was even wary of drinking too much water, hiding the bottle on the floor and guarding it with his feet when dining with his children. A relentless notion of discipline drove a fervent personality that could have no credible imitator. “Go ahead and judge him as the mood takes you,” Gianni Brera, the influential Italian football columnist, wrote in 1966. “Clown and genius, buffoon and ascetic, rogue and model father, sultan and faithful husband, swaggering fool and quiet achiever, delinquent and competent, megalomaniac and health fanatic. Herrera is all of the above and more.”
Herrera was born in Buenos Aires to Spanish parents. His father, Francisco, was an exiled anarchist from Andalusia, and a carpenter by trade. His mother, Maria Gavilán Martínez, was a cleaner. Doubts surrounded Herrera’s date of birth. His French, Spanish and Argentine passports claimed he had been born in 1916, but his official website says he falsified the date to give himself six extra years. The date on the original document had apparently been 10 April 1910.
In 1920, Herrera’s family—impoverished, seeking a better life—left Argentina for Casablanca, then a French colonial city. Herrera enrolled in French schools and befriended Jews, French, Italians and Spaniards. He started playing football. After joining Roches Noires, and Racing Casablanca, he left for Paris in the early 1930s to play for Club Athlétique des Sports Généraux, Stade Français (twice), Charleville, Excelsior Roubaix, Red Star Olympique, and CSM Puteaux. He was an imposing defender, but of limited ability. According to his website, he took alternative jobs to get by. He went door to door selling brass polish to housewives. He taught physical education. He gained a diploma in physiotherapy to work as a masseur. In 1939, when he was called up for military service, he was working as a specialist in fibreglass, a material used both for insulation and in warfare, and managed to avoid duty.
A knee injury in his mid-20s hampered Herrera’s ambitions. After a season with Puteaux, in 1944/45, he ended an undistinguished career. “As a player, I was a very sad thing,” he said, according to Wilson. “My advantage is that big-star players are monuments of presumptuousness when they become managers. They do not know how to teach someone what they naturally did with so much grace. Not in my case.”
Such physical impediments had given Herrera an attentive tactical brain. When he retired, concepts and theories had matured in his mind. In 1945, he rejoined Stade Français, as head coach. Three years later he joined Real Valladolid, before a stint with Atlético Madrid from 1949 to 1953 brought him two La Liga titles. He proceeded to coach Málaga, Deportivo de La Coruña, and Sevilla, before managing Portuguese club Belenenses in 1957/58. By that time, his methods were known on the Iberian peninsula. “Before away games, he would go on to the pitch first to make the crowd yell at him, so that they were already tired by the time we came out,” Adrián Escudero, a member of the Atlético squad, recalled. Alfonso Aparicio, another Atlético player, told FIFA.com: “He used to make us train like crazy for up to three hours every day. But it meant that, when Sunday came, we could demolish anyone.”
‘He who doesn’t give it all, gives nothing’
In 1958, Barcelona hired Herrera on a mission to dethrone Real Madrid. The Catalans had won the league in 1952 and 1953, but the balance of power had shifted when Madrid signed Alfredo Di Stéfano after a long and bitter political struggle with Barça that involved government intervention. The feud is discussed to this day. Some Catalans claim Franco intervened, in order to make Madrid the best team in Spain. This is rejected in the capital. In July 2014, Alfredo Relaño, editor of Diario AS, one of the two Madrid-based sports newspapers in Spain, published a 4,000-word article aimed at unraveling the saga’s bureaucratic tangle. The story signed off with a five-point annex ticking in at 6,000 words. Relaño concluded—perhaps not surprisingly—that Franco’s role had been exaggerated, and that the outcome of the case relied on the dealings of Madrid; particularly Santiago Bernabéu, the temperamental president, who controlled the club from 1943 to 1978.
Either way, the arrival of Di Stéfano, in 1953, had changed everything. Madrid took the title in 1954, 1955, 1957 and 1958, and won the first three editions of the European Cup, from 1955 to 1957. Barça had not qualified; they had not won the league. (In 1956, the La Liga title had gone to Athletic Club.) The situation was desperate. Barça had an extraordinary side, with players such as Luis Suárez, the Spanish playmaker, and Hungarian trio László Kubala, Sandor Kocsis, Zoltán Czibor. But a mentality of inferiority and victimisation had pervaded the club. And Di Stéfano was good. “He’s the greatest player in history,” Herrera would later say. “Di Stéfano plays in defence, midfield and as a forward, all in the same game. Pelé only plays upfront. Di Stéfano does it all, plus what Pelé does. If Pelé is a lead violin, then Di Stefano is an entire orchestra.”
Once at work, Herrera recognised Barça’s psychological frailty and sought to rectify it. Convinced by his arcane methods, he installed his regime. According to Lowe, he started out with three training sessions per day. During the first one, players vomited. “There was always great intensity, conviction, and concentration,” Suárez told Lowe. “He was extremely professional—and totally different from anyone else. The work was harder, stronger, quicker, more aggressive; the approach direct. There was no joking—it was very serious.” Perceived weaknesses got no sympathy. One player complained he was sick, only to be sent back into training. When another appeared with a plaster cast, Herrera broke it off. Nothing that could destabilise the players went unchecked. On one occasion, according to Lowe, the club’s directors suspected a player was being led astray by his girlfriend. Worse, she might have met other men while he was away. The club had tried to break up the couple, even hiring private detectives, but to no avail. When told of the situation, Herrera suggested that they hire someone to sleep with her.
Herrera possessed an intuitive understanding of his players’ psyche. During one tour, according to Lowe, when Czibor bemoaned having to stay away from home for so long, Herrera promised he could go back if he scored thrice. He hit a hat-trick in the first match. “To the Catalans, I talked: ‘Colours of Catalonia, play for your nation.’ And to the foreigners, I talked money,” Herrera told Simon Kuper in Football Against the Enemy. “I talked about their wives and kids. You have twenty-five players, you don’t say the same thing to everyone.” Antoni Ramallets, the goalkeeper, told Lowe: “He had files on everything. He could tell you about the parents of some Italian or German, what day he was born, everything.”
The pre-match routines could border on the bizarre. Herrera served herbal tea and coffee with aspirin. Wilson writes that he gathered his team in a circle, threw the ball to each player, then stared deep into their eyes and asked: “How are we going to win? Why are we going to win?” Afterwards, the players would gather, put their arms over each others’ shoulders, and shout: “We are going to win! We are going to do this together!” Also according to Wilson, Suárez, one of the key players, held a belief that if wine was spilled during a meal, he would score in the next game. Prior to crucial matches, Herrera would knock over a glass deliberately.
Barça started well. In the league, they beat Madrid 4-0. But tension between Herrera and certain players emerged. The most tempestuous relationship was that with Kubala, the idolised forward, who had inspired the title wins in 1952 and 1953. Having escaped Budapest in the back of a truck with false Russian number plates, Kubala had toured Spain in the summer of 1950 with an unofficial team of fellow Eastern refugees. When they played Madrid and Barça, both club presidents had wanted to sign him. He opted for Barça. (One story claims that Kubala turned up inebriated at a train station intent on signing for Madrid, only for a Barça representative to lure him onto a service to Catalonia.) His athleticism and balletic playmaking transformed the team. It is said Kubala drew such crowds that Barça’s stadium, the 60,000-capacity Les Corts, became too small, convincing the board to build Camp Nou.
The conflict centred on image as well as tactics. Some suspected the self-obsessed Herrera envied Kubala’s status in the city. Off the pitch, Kubala’s lifestyle went down badly. A heavy drinker, he would revel until the early hours, with a designated taxi driver chauffeuring him to matches and trainings. Sometimes, he turned up drunk. On the pitch, his playful and innocent style contrasted with Herrera’s vision of fast and direct football. Before long, Herrera looked for excuses to drop Kubala. Once, according to Lowe, he requested that the board issue a statement alleging that Kubala had missed trainings and refused to play, citing “illnesses that are hard to demonstrate”. Seven directors resigned out of sympathy for Kubala.
In La Liga, Herrera delivered the title in his first season. That meant qualification to the European Cup. In 1959/60, Barça reached the semi-finals and met Madrid, who were yet to lose in the competition. For the first leg, in the capital, Herrera dropped Kubala, and Barça lost 3-1. The return leg ended with the same score, meaning a 6-2 aggregate loss. The following day, Herrera became embroiled in a heated argument with supporters on La Rambla, the city’s famed pedestrian street. Things got physical and Herrera backed off into a hotel that, Lowe writes, happened to be where Madrid were staying. The press portrayed the incident as an assault. Barça later won La Liga for a second time, but Herrera left the club. They would not win another league title until 1974.
‘Think quickly, act quickly, play quickly’
In 1960, Herrera signed a lucrative contract with Internazionale. There was work to do. Under president Angelo Moratti, an oil baron of vast resources, Inter had not won Serie A since claiming back-to-back titles in 1953 and 1954. The previous season, they had finished fourth, fifteen points behind champions Juventus. “When I came to Inter, there was a terrible ambience,” Herrera told Kuper. “There were boards everywhere about past championships, very impressive you understand, but so distant.” Like in Spain, Herrera enlivened the scene with his charisma and amusing diction. Calcio soon knew his name. “When Herrera came to Italy, nobody really knew the names of the coaches,” Sandro Mazzola, the Inter playmaker, told UEFA.com. “Nobody cared about the coaches, they didn’t really appear in the press, they only worked in the dressing room and on the pitch. And he turned things around.”
A new sense of discipline was immediately installed. Players would cross Herrera at their peril. No individualistic quality trumped the value of obedience. The forward Antonio Angelillo, who in 1958/59 had scored thirty-three goals in thirty-three league games, was thrown out because of his unruly social life. Armando Picchi, a commanding sweeper, once challenge Herrera’s authority and was shipped out to AS Varese. The only idler to survive was Mario Corso, an ingenious left-footed winger, whom Herrera constantly tried to offload, but who enjoyed the admiration and decisive support of Moratti. A player who pleased Herrera more was Suárez. In 1960, the Ballon d’Or winner followed him from Barça to Inter.
At Inter, Herrera would record his ideas in notes written in black, blue and red ink, many which were included in the book Tacalabala, published by his wife Fiora Gandolfi after his death. Motivational slogans covered the dressing room walls. He emphasised the importance of crowd support, and participated in forming fan associations and networks. According to John Foot, in Calcio: A History of Italian Football, it could be said that Herrera invented the ultra. He embraced his players before kick-off, and held one-on-one meetings known as ‘confessions’. He hunted information that could strengthen his relationship with the squad, instructing his masseur to overhear football-related utterances aired when players were in for treatment. A hardline winning mentality soon infiltrated the club. Once, a squad member told the press that “we came to play in Rome”, instead of “we came to win in Rome”. The player got suspended.
Herrera cultivated what became known as the ritiro. They were no-nonsense training camps where players were locked up in hotels for days, surrounded by staff, pitches and equipment. The intention was to increase concentration before games. According to Herrera’s website, he conceived the idea in Barcelona; while in hospital for treatment of a fracture, he spotted a book about mysticism that contained spiritual exercises from the sixteenth century, and the concept evolved from that. The camps could be brutal. Inter would book up entire hotels, so no other people were in sight. The players swapped family and friends for running and tactical drilling. When English forward Gerry Hitchens left the club, he said it felt like “coming out of the bloody army”. Slackness rarely went unpunished. During a cross-country run, Wilson writes, Hitchens, Suárez and Corso fell behind the group and arrived late at the base. They discovered that the bus had left, and were forced to make the six-mile journey back to Milan on their own.
But for all his novelties, Herrera would become most famous for catenaccio, even if he did not invent it. Its origins hailed from Switzerland in the 1930s, when coach Karl Rappan put an extra defender behind the two centre-backs in case a forward broke through. The role was later named ‘sweeper’. Rappan achieved success domestically, before taking a poor Swiss side to the quarter-finals of the 1938 World Cup. The idea soon snuck across the southern border. Small teams would sit back, draw out the opposition, and strike on the counter. In 1947, Guiseppe Viani used the system to take Salernitana into Serie A. They were immediately relegated after failing to win a single match away from home, but, to other coaches, that did not make catenaccio unpalatable.
The man who took it into the elite of European football was Nereo Rocco. In the 1940s, he guided tiny Triestina to second place in Serie A, before lifting Padova to new heights in the second half of the 1950s. That landed him the job at Milan, whom he led to the scudetto in 1962, and the European Cup in 1963. After a sojourn at Torino, he returned to Milan, winning Serie A again, in 1968, and the Intercontinental Cup in 1969.
Rocco was a natural rival to Herrera throughout the 1960s. A formidable character, he was boisterous, charismatic, ill-tempered, high-handed, witty. Like Herrera, he obsessed about his players’ private lives; at Torino, the gifted Gigi Meroni had to pretend his girlfriend was his sister in order to escape scrutiny. Rocco did not exemplify the lifestyle he wanted his players to lead. He revelled in the company of players and journalists through wine-soaked evenings, especially with Brera, who shared his predilection for defensive football. Foot writes that Rocco effectively used a local restaurant as his office.
Rocco’s Milan contributed heavily to the myth of catenaccio. Its reputation suggests an ultra-defensive system where five defenders sit deep, protected by aggressive ball-winners; a gameplan designed to ruin football as a spectacle; to win at all costs. The reality was more complex. Milan fielded several technical players and scored a respectable number of goals. Yet the onus was always on winning, no matter how. The reputed defensive mentality and cynicism were rooted in truth. Prior to one game, in the Intercontinental Cup, against Estudiantes de La Plata, Rocco is said to have told his team: “Kick anything that moves; if it’s the ball, so much the better.” Several of his players would become prolific managers of the defensive kind, such as Enzo Bearzot, Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni.
‘Class + Preparation + Athleticism + Intelligence = Championship’
Herrera’s reign started slowly. Inter finished third in 1961, and second in 1962, behind Milan. For a hyped manager on such a salary, more was expected. That year, Herrera coached Spain at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, but La Roja crashed out in the group stage. (Herrera would also join Italy’s coaching staff for a short period a few years later.) Back in Italy, he masterminded Inter’s first league title in ten years. The Italian press nicknamed him Il Mago—’The Wizard’—for his ability to predict the weekend results. When Kuper interviewed him, in Venice, he noted artwork depicting Herrera as a wizard, though years earlier, Herrera had said he disliked the sobriquet. “The word ‘wizard’ doesn’t belong to football,” he said, according to Wilson. “’Passion’ and ‘strength’ are football words. The greatest compliment I’ve ever had was someone saying I worked thirty hours a day.”
The team also had a nickname: La Grande Inter. This was not undeserved. They were disciplined, durable, steely, skilful, spirited; fortified by Herrera’s fitness regime and team-building. The tactic was catenaccio, but with vital tweaks. Giacinto Facchetti, an athletic former centre-forward converted into an adventurous left-back, wreaked havoc down the flank. In 1965/66, he scored ten league goals. Centrally played an uncompromising sweeper with an excellent long pass—Picchi—and two centre-backs, Aristide Guarneri and Tarcisio Burgnich. The entire right flank was occupied by Jair, a hard-running Brazilian winger. In midfield, Suárez pulled the strings from deep. Corso loitered on the left, while Mazzola—son of the legendary Torino captain Valentino—played off the main striker. Herrera explained his style: “A small number of short, very quick passes to get to the opposition’s goal in as little time as possible. There is almost no place for dribbling. It’s a tool, not a system. The ball always moves further, and more quickly, when there isn’t a player behind it.”
In 1964, Inter lost the league in a play-off tie against Bologna. But they won their first European Cup, beating Real Madrid 3-1 in the final in Vienna thanks to Mazzola’s brace. It signalled the end for Ferenc Puskás and Di Stéfano. For Herrera, it also meant sweet revenge for the 6-2 defeat in 1960. Prior to the final, Miguel Muñoz, the Madrid coach, had obsessed about Facchetti. “He drove us mad with Facchetti, giving him an incredible importance,” Di Stéfano said, according to Lowe. “Anyone would think he was [Paco] Gento. So what happened? Facchetti never attacked us once.” In the final, a superior Inter demonstrated the advantages of catenaccio. The defence sat deep, marking man to man, with Picchi sweeping up loose balls. Di Stéfano described him to Lowe as “one of those sweepers who played so deep that, if there was a bit of fog and you thought you’d gone past all of them, another one would appear. ‘Where did that guy come from? Are they playing with twelve, or what?’”
‘Fight or play? Fight and play!’
Claims have surrounded the legacy of who invented catenaccio. Herrera said he devised it during his late playing career in France, when he got the idea of putting himself as a sweeper to protect a lead. But historical evidence suggests he merely made it more famous. (Not a few would say infamous.) Some even assert that others stood behind its introduction at Inter. According to Foot, it is often said that Moratti convinced him to use more defensive tactics. Brera wrote that Herrera turned to catenaccio in sheer desperation after a poor start in the early 1960s. That claim is supported by Arrigo Sacchi. “When he first arrived, he played attacking football,” Sacchi said, according to Wilson. “And then it changed. I remember a game against Rocco’s Padova. Inter dominated. Padova crossed the halfway line three times, scored twice and hit the post. And Herrera was crucified in the media. So what did he do? He started playing with a libero, told Suárez to sit deep and hit long balls, and started playing counter-attacking football. For me, La Grande Inter had great players, but it was a team that had just one objective: winning.”
The latter point was certainly true. Herrera’s desire to win knew no bounds. Damaging allegations marred his career—match fixing, bribing of referees, doping—but no evidence was presented that led to punishment. Certain acts were legal, if not necessarily moral. When the father of one of his players, Aristide Guarneri, died on the eve of a match against Milan, Herrera withheld the news so as not to distract the player. In 1965, Inter successfully defended the European Cup by beating Benfica 1-0 in a final held, controversially, at Guiseppe Meazza, on a muddy and waterlogged pitch. As UEFA’s official website diplomatically puts it, “this was not a win for the purist”. Disputes also surrounded the semi-finals. Herrera’s side had lost 3-1 away to Liverpool and, before the return leg, according to Wilson, Bill Shankly had claimed an Italian journalist had told him: “You will never be allowed to win.” Inter won 3-0 in a game riddled with controversy. Corso scored directly from an indirect free-kick, while striker Joaquín Peirò intercepted the ball from Tommy Lawrence as the goalkeeper tried to kick it out. Both goals stood.
Besides the issue of who invented it, debate has also enveloped the nature of catenaccio. Several contemporaries say it was more constructive than its reputation suggests. Herrera claimed his system was misunderstood, because others had copied it and left out several attacking principles. This is supported by Mazzola, who believes the misconception is rooted in the European campaigns that served to establish Inter’s notoriety. “When I hear about Inter playing catenaccio, I have to say we played about six matches with catenaccio and forty matches with attacking football,” Mazzola told FIFA.com. “I remember my team-mates Picchi and Guarneri, two centre-backs, who during San Siro home games could spend sixty minutes looking into the stands, trying to spot a girl to take out that evening, because the opposition only played in their half. But then, when we played abroad—and I guess this was a mistake—we didn’t feel very comfortable and secure, and stayed back more.” He added: “We had five attacking players in the side, six if you include Facchetti, who used to get forward a lot, something that no one else did at the time. It’s true that we sometimes employed a very defensive system away from home, but we regularly played 4-2-4, and everyone worked really hard.”
Domestically, the statistics paint a complex picture. In the beginning, there were few signs of circumspection. In 1960/61, Inter flew out of the blocks, winning 5-1 against Atalanta, 2-1 against Bari, 6-0 at Udinese, and 5-0 versus Vicenza. They ended the season with seventy-three goals in thirty-four games, only less than Juventus, who scored eighty. (Inter would probably have scored more had Herrera not fielded a team of juniors against Juventus in protest of a federation ruling. They lost the game 9-1.) The next season, Inter struck fifty-nine, but conceded three less; thirty-one. The year after, Inter reached their statistical pinnacle. They shipped twenty goals, and although they struck only fifty-six times, it was enough to win the league. In 1963/64, the defence held firm again, conceding twenty-one, while the attack hit fifty-four. The second league title under Herrera, in 1965, was more entertaining, with twenty-nine conceded and sixty-eight scored.
All in all, Inter enjoyed only two league campaigns of exceptional defending. They could be masterful defenders when they wanted, but Foot does not stand alone in writing that “Herrera’s enduring reputation as the ‘controversial missionary of catenaccio’ is built more on what was seen as the cynical will-to-win of his teams—their attitude—than on the way they actually played football”.
‘He who plays for himself plays for the opposition.
He who plays for the team, plays for himself.’
In 1966, Inter defended their Serie A title, with a near-identical for/against record. In Europe, they fell in the semi-final to Madrid, who went on to lift their sixth European Cup. The 1966/67 season ended in bitterness. Inter reached another European Cup final, this time in Lisbon, against Jock Stein’s Celtic. The Scots crushed the Italians in a 2-1 win, despite Mazzola’s early penalty. “It was inevitable,” wrote Portuguese newspaper Mundo Deportivo. “Sooner or later, the Inter of Herrera, the Inter of catenaccio, of marginal victories, had to pay for their refusal to play entertaining football.”
Some blamed the result on Herrera’s training, claiming the players were exhausted. Before the game, Inter had booked up a hotel on the seafront, close to Lisbon. “There was nobody there, except for the players and the coaches, even the club official stayed elsewhere,” said Burgnich, according to Wilson. “I’m not joking, from the minute our bus drove through the gates of the hotel to the moment we left for the stadium three days later, we did not see a single human being apart from the coaches and the hotel staff. A normal person would have gone crazy in those circumstances. After many years we were somehow used to it, but, by that stage, even we had reached our breaking point.”
The season would get worse. Back in Italy, Inter lost the scudetto to Juventus on the last day. In 1967/68, they slumped to fifth, and Herrera left for AS Roma.
Down in the capital, Herrera never reproduced the success he had had at Inter. In five years, he only won the Coppa Italia, in 1969. But the controversies endured. That year, one of his players, Giuliano Taccola, had suffered a heart murmur and was in ill health. For a fixture at Cagliari, Herrera made him travel with the squad anyway, and included him in training the morning before the match, in cold weather. Taccola watched the game from the stands. He collapsed in the dressing room afterwards, and died shortly after. Many blamed the coach who had made him travel.
In 1973, Herrera left Roma to rejoin Inter. He oversaw an unsuccessful season, before suffering a heart attack. He blamed stress, and opted to quit coaching. But he never disappeared entirely. In the late 1970s, he took up a role with Rimini; later, he spent two seasons back at Barça. After leaving the club, in 1981, he started writing for newspapers and press agencies. He moved with his wife to the island of Mazzorbo, just north of Venice. On 9 November 1997, he died. “In all honesty, I have no idea how he managed to show you all his faces, all his sides,” Brera had written, thirty-one years earlier. “The main thing for me is he is never fake, even when he forces himself. Helenio Herrera is always real, if not always to our liking.”