Throwback Thursday: Helenio Herrera, The Wizard of Grande Inter

Inter’s history is filled with a special affiliation to controversial, charismatic managers.

Last summer, the club signed Antonio Conte, the ex-captain and manager of one of their long-lasting rivals in Italy – Juventus.

Backtrack 10 years ago, and you would find then Inter President Massimo Moratti celebrating with manager José Mourinho, one of the most divisive figures in football after Inter had won a historic treble under the Portuguese’s stewardship.

Fifty years earlier from that joyful Madrid evening, Massimo’s father, Angelo (who was the President of Inter himself), was preparing to recruit perhaps the man who would kick off Inter’s association with polemical managers.

That person was called Helenio Herrera, and every die-hard Nerazzurri fan would be forever grateful to that man, who would later become referred to as Il Mago – The Wizard.

Life Before Management

Even something as simple as a birthdate is a disputable fact in Herrera’s biography. According to his Argentinian, French, and Spanish passports, Herrera was born in 1916. However, his original birth certificate shows that he was in fact born in 1910. Rumor has it that he falsified the date to give himself six extra years. In any case, that constituted the first Herrera action of controversy.

Born to Spanish parents in Buenos Aires, Herrera’s father, a carpenter by trade, was an anarchist who was exiled to Argentina, while the mother was a cleaning lady. The Herreras struggled to provide food on the table.

“I think that I had to fight [poverty] ever since I was a kid,” Herrera described his childhood. “I started working when I was 10, and many times we went hungry… My father was a carpenter, and when he didn’t work on a certain day, we didn’t have much to eat.”

Seeking a better life, the Herreras decided to move to Casablanca in Morocco, which was then a French colony. Helenio enrolled in French schools and played football with kids from all over the world – Italy, France, Morocco, Spain, you name it. He then embarked on a journey in football, playing as a defender in numerous French squads. He kept playing until 1945 when an injury forced him to retire.

By retirement, Herrera knew what his next step in life was going to be: management.

Spanish Success

Herrera credited his managerial success by acknowledging his humble career as a player, which enabled him to transmit his ideas and philosophies easier to his squad members. Jonathan Wilson writes in his book “Inverting The Pyramid” that Herrera said:

“As a player, I was a very sad thing. 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.”

Perhaps a few ex-superstars who would disagree with Herrera as they went on to become successful managers are Franz Beckenbauer, Kenny Dalglish, the late Johan Cruyff, and most recently, Zinedine Zidane. Nevertheless, Herrera’s presumption is a reasonable one. These previous examples are the exception to the rule. World-class players don’t normally become successful managers. But that is a topic for another day.

Helenio’s career in management began in France, when he started coaching teams like Puteaux and Stade Français. His next move was down south in Spain, where he took the helm at Atletico Madrid. There, he won two league titles in 1950 and 1951, and with those successes, the world began to notice him.

After bouncing around with several other clubs, from Malaga to Deportivo de La Coruña to Sevilla in Spain and Belenenses in Portugal, Herrera landed the manager’s job at Barcelona. In his only two seasons at the club, Herrera won the league and cup double in 1959 followed by another league title the following year, in a time when Real Madrid was dominating Spain and Europe with its megastars Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskás.

Then, the call came that would put Herrera on the world map forever.

La Grande Inter

Just as Massimo Moratti’s most influential signing was bringing José Mourinho to Inter in 2008, his father Angelo’s best piece of business came in the summer of 1960 when he recruited the José Mourinho of the mid-twentieth century: Helenio Herrera.

Little did Angelo know that the secret meeting between him and Herrera in a tollbooth on the Italian motorway Autostrada del Sole would mark the beginning of the most successful era in the Nerazzurri folklore.

Herrera was a hot item on the market. He had a proven winning record of four league titles in Spain, evenly distributed between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. That success was also achieved by playing open-style, attractive football, something that would be abandoned in his later Inter years. One player that Herrera did not abandon, though, was midfielder Luis Suarez – the original Luis Suarez. The Spanish midfielder, Ballon d’Or winner in 1960, was signed to join Herrera at Inter, and he would become a central figure in executing Herrera’s tactics on the field with his incredible vision and ability to pick out passes from anywhere – sort of like the Spanish Xavi of the 1960s.

Although Herrera’s first two seasons at Inter were trophy-less, they were – naturally – not without controversy.

One of the most talked-about episodes in the Italian calcio history was the replay match between Juventus and Inter in June 1961. The teams had their return fixture in April that year, but the match was suspended due to Juve fans invading the pitch, and subsequently, the win was awarded to Inter. However, the president of the league federation FIGC Umberto Agnelli, who was also the president of Juventus at the time, decided that the teams should play a replay match, something that infuriated Herrera.

In protest, the Argentine coach fielded the reserve team to face the wrath of a Juve side that had one of the most lethal trios in history: Giampiero Boniperti, Omar Sivori, and John Charles. The result was an emphatic 9-1 victory to Juve, with the sole Inter goal scored by Italian teenager Sandro Mazzola, the son of Torino legend Valentino who died in the Superga tragic airplane crash in 1949.

Herrera was just getting started in changing the power balances in Italy, and that only represented the first chapter.

Helenio Herrera with defender Giacinto Facchetti during the years of the Grande Inter

After missing out on the league title in his first two seasons, Herrera decided to change tactics. The sudden change of heart came after an encounter with Nereo Rocco’s Padova, as recounted by legendary Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi:

“When he first arrived, he played attacking football, 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 tactical change was basically shifting a player from midfield back to the defensive line as a “libero”, or a sweeper, whose mission was to intercept through balls and to stop the opposition’s attacking schemes. That player was Inter captain Armando Picchi, and he excelled in that role.

Another important role was that of the towering, gigantic left-back Giacinto Facchetti, who would burst down the left flank and contribute to finishing the deadly Nerazzurri counter-attacks. He was so vital to Inter’s attacking buildup that one season his scoring was in double-figures.

In midfield, Luis Suarez, as the team’s regista, controlled the tempo and dictated the play, distributing short passes and long balls – mostly to Facchetti. He was accompanied by Mario Corso, who reveled in the role of trequartista as he linked the midfield to the attacking line.

Upfront, Inter was led by the youngster Sandro Mazzola, or Il Baffo (The Moustache), who would represent the Nerazzurri in 17 seasons, scoring a total of 116 goals in Inter colors. Mazzola would eventually be paired in attack with Brazilian Jair, who would score many crucial goals for Inter.

The parts were assembled and the puzzle pieces were put in place. Glory was looming on the horizon for Inter.

The group of the Grande Inter celebrates one of their many victories during the days of Helenio Herrera's successful tenure
The group of the Grande Inter celebrates one of their many victories during the days of Helenio Herrera’s successful tenure

Three league titles for the Nerazzurri in 1963, 1965, and 1966 meant Inter reached ten league titles which merited the star that is on the team’s logo to this day. The pinnacle of Inter’s defensive prowess came in the 1963, 1964 and 1967 seasons, when the backline conceded only 20, 21, and 22 goals, respectively.

More importantly, this formidable team would go on to win Europe’s Holy Grail, the European Cup, twice. Inter beat Di Stefano and Puskás’ Real Madrid in the 1964 Final and won again in 1965 after eliminating Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in the Semis and overcoming Eusebio’s Benfica in the Final, which was held at a soaking San Siro stadium, thanks to a Jair goal right before the halftime whistle.

Herrera would also lead this Inter side to achieve world recognition when they won the Intercontinental Cup – now the FIFA Club World Cup – twice against Argentina’s Independiente in 1964 and 1965.

Angelo Moratti’s dream had come true. Inter was – for a brief period of time – the best club in the world. Twice. And Helenio Herrera was at the forefront of that incredible success.

The Post-Inter Period

Unfortunately, every fairytale has an end, and Herrera’s was not a joyful one. The beginning of the end for Herrera at Inter came when he lost the European Cup Final to Jock Stein’s Celtic in 1967. After that loss, things spiraled south for the Argentine.

His time at Inter ended in 1968, after which he went on to coach Roma, made an unsuccessful comeback at Inter, moved on to Rimini, then made another short comeback, but this time at Barcelona.

After retiring from management, Herrera devoted his time to writing articles in newspapers, discussing football, and other matters. But the papers will always remember Herrera the visionary, the revolutionary, who changed how people viewed the game forever. Herrera departed this world in 1997.

Herrera’s Legacy

Before Herrera’s glorious first tenure at Inter, coaches were considered part of the squad, a peripheral, marginal one, and all the attention and detail went into dissecting the players and their style of play, without giving much recognition to the coaches or managers. The great Real Madrid side of the 1950s, which went on to win the European Cup five times in a row, is remembered by its star players, not its charismatic manager. It is still referred to as “Di Stefano and Puskás’ Madrid.”

Same goes for Benfica, they were known as Eusebio’s Benfica. Coaches before Herrera did not get the same credit or emphasis that they get nowadays. Herrera was perhaps the first superstar manager, as the Grande Inter side of the 1960s is remembered mostly as his team than that of any player. Mazzola once said in an interview that:

“When Herrera came to Italy, nobody really knew the names of the coaches. 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.”

He introduced novel ideas like following a healthy diet, encouraging players to eat yogurt, which was a word that even some journalists struggled to spell. He forbid his players to smoke or drink so that a bad lifestyle wouldn’t influence their game on the pitch. Things that now every professional soccer club considers fundamental aspects of a professional footballer, whereas with Herrera it was revolutionary, unheard of, and everybody thought he was a madman.

Herrera came with a winning mentality that turned all the tables at Inter, so much so that he once suspended a player for saying that “we came to play in Rome”, instead of “we came to win in Rome”.

He was arguably the first coach to put so much emphasis on psychology and player morale and spirits. His famous one-on-one confession meetings with every member of his squad were an attempt to stuff his players with confidence and positive energy.

He developed what became known as the ritiro, i.e. isolating and locking up the squad in a training camp for days to increase the players’ concentration before an upcoming match. This method is frowned upon these days, and is counterproductive, especially with the generational and cultural differences between players of today’s age and those of the old guard. But back then, this was highly effective, especially for Herrera’s Inter.

When he was in Barcelona, and while lying inside a hospital getting treatment for a fracture, a book caught his eye which contained spiritual exercises from the 16th century. According to Herrera’s wife Fiora, Herrera practiced yoga every morning. Fiora said he would sit completely nude in front of an open window, and start repeating phrases like “I am beautiful”, “I am strong”, “I am calm”, “I fear nothing”, “obstacles won’t stop me.”

Il Mago nickname came from the Italian press because many times he would correctly predict the outcome of matches of the Italian league. But personally, Herrera wasn’t particularly fond of the nickname, saying that the word “wizard” doesn’t belong in football, whereas the words “strength” and “passion” do.

Herrera is mostly associated with the famous Catenaccio system of play, and unfortunately, many believe that tactic was created by him. However, the system was introduced by a Swiss coach by the name of Karl Rappan in the 1930s. It was taken by Giuseppe Viani in 1947 when he guided Salernitana to Serie A promotion. Then, it was developed by Nereo Rocco at Padova and Milan. Herrera carried the lantern and tweaked it to suit his players’ needs and abilities, which he utilized perfectly to achieve great accomplishments for the Nerazzurri.

In this day and age, we have an abundance of superstar managers: Jürgen Klopp, Zinedine Zidane, José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte, to name a few.

It is not far-fetched or an exaggeration by any means to suggest that these Hollywood A-listers of football management owe a small amount of gratitude for their stardom to the man who started it all in the first place. A man of Spanish origins, who was born in Argentina, and spent his formative years in a French colony.

A man of the world.

A Wizard.


  1. What a great history of football in Italy. Wish old days come back and see inter again in chamions league

  2. Il Mago will always be remembered, he had a great history with four La Liga titles in Spain and three Serie A titles in Italy with Inter.

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