Milan vs Atalanta Throwback: The Match With the Most Goals Ever

People present at the San Siro Stadium on that day claim that the electronic scorecard went in tilt and lost track of the scorers. Others report that referee Luciano Giunti run out of space in his notebook to list them. Such claims may fade into legend, but one thing is for sure and it’s the score of the Serie A match with the most goals ever: On October 15, 1972, Milan beat Atalanta 9-3!

Twelve goals in a single match were something unprecedented in Italy – Milan and Inter had scored 11 in an equally-legendary Derby from 1949 – but what made the occurrence even more remarkable were the conditions in which it was born.

It was Round 3 of a Serie A season that didn’t promise much. The Italian top-flight was packed with local stars those years, but no new foreign players were allowed – a drastic measure taken by the Italian Football Association (FIGC) after Italy’s poor showings at the World Cup during the 1960s.

But while the traditional powerhouses could access to players the likes of Giampiero Boniperti, Sandro Mazzola, or Gianni Rivera, the smaller clubs had to make do with what they had and basically resorted to a down-to-earth style of play mostly based on defending.

There was no room for calciospettacolo and, as a matter of fact, when Atalanta traveled to the San Siro, they were coming from seven clean sheets in a row (two in the league, four in Coppa Italia, and one in a friendly match). The Bergamaschi were far from being today’s fearsome squad and used to swing between Serie A and Serie B – where they would be relegated at the end of the season.

Milan, on the other hand, were always Milan – a club with a fearful roster. There were, among others, the legendary Black Spider Fabio Cudicini in goal (the father of future Chelsea goalkeeper Carlo), rock-solid German defender Karl Heinz Schnellinger (who could still play in Italy has he had joined Milan before calcio closed its frontiers), and long-haired forward Pierino Prati, the man of the hat trick in the 1969 European Cup Final.

But it was, moreover, the Milan of Gianni Rivera – perhaps the most iconic figure to have ever worn a Rossoneri jersey. The first Italy-born player to win the Ballon d’Or and an archetypal “number 10” of those days, the so-called Golden Boy would spend 19 seasons in red-and-black. He was a legend for the club even before retiring.

And yet, even if the Rossoneri squad was sparkling, their style of play was not what you would call a highly entertaining one. At the helm of Milan was coach Nereo Rocco, a trainer known as a pioneer of the catenaccio – the infamous Italian system based on aggressive defending and fast breaks with long balls. As effective as the catenaccio would prove to be – it won the Rossoneri much silverware between the 1960s and 1970s – it was definitely not the most pleasant footballing show to watch.

The legend goes that, whenever an opposition coach used to address Rocco before a match with the courteous greeting “may the best team win,” the so-called Paròn would promptly reply: “Let’s hope not!

So, how is that even possible that a match between a catenaccio-based team and one coming from seven clean sheets in a row ended in such a goal-fest?

Perhaps it was just one of those days when everything had to go wrong for Atalanta. But surely their coach Luigi Corsini’s tactical suicide ended up favoring the Rossoneri a lot. Corsini decided to place one of his midfielders to man-mark the fearsome Gianni Rivera, adding a second sweeper in defense.

But that ended up leaving his midfield line constantly outnumbered, and, what’s worse, Rivera was in one of his days and basically left no chance to poor Alberto Carelli. So, as Carelli vainly tried to contain the Golden Boy, Milan midfielder Romeo Benetti had the space to build up the play and serve forwards Luciano Chiarugi and Pierino Prati, for whom Atalanta’s shaky sweepers had no answer. The game turned into a bloodbath for the Bergamaschi.

Prati opened the scoring for Milan on 15 minutes and Alberto Bigon (the future coach of Napoli’s second Scudetto) doubled the lead on the half-hour mark. Bruno Divina’s header reduced the gap for Atalanta, but immediately after Rivera finalized for the best an exchange with Chiarugi and, before half time, a Benetti screamer brought the score at 4-1.

That’s when the second “abnormality” in this story happened. With a comfortable three-goal lead, most teams in those days would have switched to cruise control mode and controlled the match tempo for the remaining 45 minutes.

But not Milan, not on that day. When Prati and Chiarugi could play together – something that wouldn’t happen for most of the season due to Prati’s injuries – the Rossoneri were unstoppable. The second half recorded, if possible, even more goals than the first period.

Chiarugi added his name to the scoresheet six minutes after the restart, and soon enough Rivera bagged his brace, converting an assist from Chiarugi himself. Atalanta stopped the hammering with another header, courtesy of Gian Piero Ghio from a set piece cross. But Milan also answered with a winning header just one minute later – Pierino Prati’s second goal from a Rivera free kick.

On 65 minutes, the score was 7-2 and coach Corsini decided that poor goalkeeper Pietro Pianta had had enough, as he sent in backup Marcello Grassi. It was an extreme measure in the days when only two substitutions per game were allowed, or perhaps just an act of mercy towards the shell-shocked goalie.

Grassi would resist nine minutes before Alberto Bigon would also wrap his brace and Prati complete his hat trick to bring Milan’s tally to nine. Between the Rossoneri’s last two goals, Nerazzurri midfielder Carelli (the one who was supposed to keep Rivera at bay…) found the right spot past Milan’s goalkeeper and scored another one for Atalanta’s honor.

Twelve goals in a game. History was made, not yet to be repeated as of today. But even if Milan’s season seemed off to such a good start, Nereo Rocco’s band would end the campionato in tears as they incredibly gave up the Scudetto losing to Verona in the last match-up. That was the birth of the Fatal Verona nemesis for the Rossoneri, that came to haunt them again several years later.



October 15, 1972 – Serie A 1972-73 Round 3

SCORERS: 16′ Prati (M), 30′ Bigon  (M), 33′ Divina (A), 35′ Rivera (M), 40′ Benetti (M), 50′ Chiarugi (M), 52′ Rivera (M), 54′ Ghio (A), 55′ Prati (M), 64′ Bigon (M), 88′ Carelli (A), 90′ Prati (M)

MILAN (2-3-3-2): Belli; Anquilletti, Zignoli; Rosato, Schnellinger, Biasiolo; Bigon, Benetti, Prati; Rivera, Chiarugi (67′ Magherini) Coach: Rocco
ATALANTA (2-3-3-2): Pianta (56′ Grassi); Maggioni, Divina; Savoia, Vianello, Picella; Sacco, Carelli, Pirola; Ghio, Vernacchia Coach: Corsini

REFEREE: Mr. Giunti from Arezzo
NOTES: No yellow Cards