A man whose influence stretches deep into Italian football and you could argue football as a whole. Helenio Herrera changed the face of the game as we know it; he was authoritarian, dictatorial, eccentric, a genius and a winner.
Helenio Herrera was born, well no one knows exactly when, his father who wished to avoid late registration fees apparently doctored his date of birth, and Herrera himself is reported to have changed the zero to a six on his own documents to give himself six years more ‘life’. Nonetheless, we will say he was born sometime in mid April between 1910 and 1916, in Buenos Aries, Argentina.
He moved to Casablanca in Morocco as a four year old with his Spanish parents, and during his time here he gained French citizenship but also a love of the beautiful game.
Playing as a defender between 1931 and 1945 for a number of teams in France, though to no great standing, it his final playing side, Puteaux that gave him the chance to flex his coaching muscles.
After a year at Puteaux, he then moved to Stade Français where he stayed for three years, while also becoming a coach of the French national side.
Finally, he found his way to Atlético Madrid, via Real Valladolid. It was his time at the Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid where his reputation started to grow. By winning two consecutive La Liga titles with Los Colchoneros in 1950 and 1951, he earned praise throughout the continent.
But after four years in Madrid he spent a nomadic period managing the likes of Málaga, Deportivo La Coruña, Sevilla and Os Belenenses, until, in 1958, he was given the manager’s job at Barcelona.
A club with a group of extremely talented players, Sándor Kocsis, Luis Suárez and László Kubala, but a club who were in the shadow of Real Madrid after their early dominance of the European Cup. It must be remembered this was the era for Francoist repression of the Catalonian state as well.
It was here he first set out some of the framework he would become even better known for at Inter. He used psychological techniques to instill a greater self-confidence in his players, but also a greater sense of discipline, while also making more comfortable with each other off the field, resulting in greater understanding on it.
Here he won consecutive titles in 1959 and 1960, scoring a mammoth 182 goals in two seasons. But he was sacked from Barcelona after defeat to hated rivals in the 1960 European Cup semi-final, however this defeat was attributed to disagreements between some of the star players at the club, two of whom, Czibor and Kubala were dropped before the tie.
As one of the most sought after managers in world football, Internazionale snapped him up immediately after his departure from Barca. Inter owner Angelo Moratti was desperate to find success for his club after a barren run that lasted almost a decade. He appointed Herrera on a salary of €40,000 per year, a record for a manager at the time.
Discipline was the language of ‘Il Mago’ – The Wizard. He wanted complete control over his players lives, their diet, sleeping patterns, their social activities and would not tolerate any dissention.
He invented the ritiro, a kind of training camp where players would go to prepare for the weekends match, free from any distractions, but also under the watchful eye of Il Mago, who could control everything the players did in the lead up to the game.
In 1963 Inter won their first Scudetto for nine years, and the following year won the European Cup after triumphing 3-1 over a Real Madrid side that contained Puskás and Di Stéfano. In 1965 he completed the double of Scudetto and European Cup, before another domestic title followed in 1966.
Even with these successes, Inter were always in the running for silverware come the end of the season. Finishing second twice, third once and in 1967 losing in the European Cup final to Celtic without two key players that were incredibly valuable to Herrera’s catenaccio system.
Herrera adapted the verrou (blot) system of Swiss coach Karl Rappan that essentially employed a libero or sweeper alongside four man-marking defenders. Il Mago adapted the system to his own style and made the tactic acceptable in the peninsula, though he claimed to invent catenaccio he merely adapted it and made it mainstream, but he adapted it in a way never seen before.
Indeed he set up with four man-marking defenders and a libero, but he also allowed the full-backs to bomb forward to then give his side an extra man in attack. Giacinto Facchetti was the fulcrum of this side, completely owning the left side of every pitch he played on.
Using psychology at Barcelona, he continued this at Inter, but ramped up its use. The training ground was littered with his motivating slogans such as ‘Class + Preparation. Athleticism + Intelligence = Scudetto’ or more famously ‘Taca la bala’ – Attack the ball, which was about the use of spaces in football, a philosophy that was prevalent in his tactics and was later used by total football tacticians in the 70’s.
Indirectly, he can claim credit to the invention of the ultra, as he called on the support of the ‘twelfth man’, which then led to the first supporter movements.
Moving to Roma in 1968, he had little success, only a solitary Coppa Italia victory, then moved back to Inter in 1973 but the old guard did not take to his methods and out refused to bow to the managers will.
A short stint at Rimini followed, then a second spell at Barcelona but he could not recreate the atmosphere of his earlier successful sides. Later he went on to be a TV pundit and spent his later years in Venice. He died on 9th November 1997.
At various times during his career, Herrera managed the national sides of France, Italy and Spain. He coached the Spanish team in the 1962 World Cup, but he had to do without probably the greatest player on the planet at the time, Alfredo di Stefano, who had fallen out with Herrera. As a result, Spain finished bottom of their first round group.
Success never came everywhere but his impact on the game can be felt everywhere, even today. He was the first superstar manager, psychological tactics, training methods and footballing systems; he was the godfather of it all. Something he wasn’t shy to admit.
He once said, “What would football be without me?”