The 1950s was a good period for AC Milan. The club started the decade having won only 3 league titles: fewer than Genoa (9), Juventus (8), Pro Vercelli (7), Torino (6), Bologna (6) and Inter (5). Indeed throughout the half-century following Milan winning their first Scudetto in 1901, success was sparse. But by the start of the 60s they had won their 7th title, drawling level with Inter and Pro Vercelli, lying behind only Genoa and Juve.
But the history of the Rossoneri would not be defined solely by league triumphs. In 1955 there arose a new way for teams to display their dominance in Europe aside from their domestic successes. The European Cup was to become Europe’s premier footballing spectacle, the pinnacle of club football, and a competition in which, eventually, AC Milan would become a major force. Yet Milan were not the first Italian club to reach the European Cup final – in 1957 Fiorentina lost 2-0 to Madrid in a packed Bernabeu. At the time Milan’s best result had been when they reached the semi-finals in the tournaments inaugural year, where they fell to Real Madrid, who would go on to win the tournament and begin their long standing romance with the European Cup.
Milan’s manager for the 57/58 season was Giuseppe “Gipo” Viani. One of the more interesting characters in the early years of Italian football, Viani was a self-proclaimed pioneer of catenaccio. As the (most likely apocryphal) story goes, Viani was sat by the bay in Salerno, thinking of ways to resolve the defensive porousness of current his team, Salernitana. Whilst looking at the fishing boats in the bay he noticed that behind the nets was a back-up, used to catch the fish that slipped through the main nets. Applying the same principles to football, he employed a player sitting behind the defence who would sweep up anything that broke through the back four. Viani would claim that he passed on this method to Nereo Rocco, who had much success with it at Padova (who in the 57/58 season would finish 3rd) and, of course, Milan. A further anecdote concerning Viani that is worth mentioning comes courtesy of Jimmy Greaves’s autobiography, Greavsie. When Greaves arrived in Milan in 1961 he claimed to have heard the news that Gipo Viani, one of the club’s managers, had died of a heart attack. Now Viani did indeed die of a heart attack, but not until 1969. This attention to detail was, no doubt, why Greaves’s career in Italy went so well.
With regards to the playing staff, by the start of the 57/58 season Il Grande Milan, built around the Swedish trio Gre-No-Li (Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Niels Liedholm), had a different look about it to earlier in the decade. They were approaching the end of an era. Gren and Nordahl had moved on whilst Liedholm was approaching the end of his career. Nevertheless, this was a good side, featuring Cesare Maldini, Ernesto Grillo and Juan Alberto Schiaffino (the Uruguayan World Cup winner who was, at the time, the most expensive player in the world when he signed from Penarol) in addition to the veteran Liedholm. Whilst Schiaffino and Grillo added bite to the attack, this Milan side also had a fantastic defence – in the 58/9 season they won the title, conceding just 32 goals in 34 games. Their league form in 57/8, however, was very disappointing. With 14 draws (more than anyone apart from bottom placed Atalanta) they finished joint 9th as Juve won the league. There is an argument to be made, however, that had Viani not rested so many players domestically to keep them fresh in Europe Milan may have won the 57/8 trophy, giving them 4 in a row (and their 5th within the decade). We cannot know for sure, but certainly Milan’s European performance outstripped their domestic underachievement.
|Swede dreams are made of this|
In the preliminary round of the European Cup Milan were drawn against Ernst Happel’s Rapid Vienna, a side who were scoring for fun in their domestic league. This proved to be something of a struggle for the Rossoneri who, after 2 legs and an aggregate 6-6 stalemate (a 4-1 win at home followed by a 5-2 away defeat), had to progress through a playoff which they won 4-2, with striker Gastone Bean getting on the scoresheet twice. The first round was more comfortable for Milan. A 6-1 aggregate win against Rangers included a satisfying 4-1 away win at Ibrox in front of 85,000 Scots (compared to the 5,000 home fans at the Arena Civica for the return leg). The quarter finals then saw another relatively trouble-free outing, with Milan easing past Borussia Dortmund, holding them to a draw in Germany and then inflicting a 4-1 beating in Milan.
The next round, however, was overshadowed by tragedy. Milan would play Manchester United in the semi finals after the English club bested Crvena Zvezda, holding onto their slender home advantage after a thrilling 3-3 draw in Belgrade. That United side (the Busby Babes) were widely expected to be Real Madrid’s main rivals for winning the trophy that year, with players such as Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and Tommy Taylor. It was upon their journey home from Belgrade that Matt Busby’s side were struck down in their prime in the infamous Munich Air Disaster. Who knows what they would have achieved had fate not dealt such a cruel hand. As it was they faced Milan in May, just a few months after the deaths of so many of their friends and colleagues. Without even Bobby Charlton (who was away on international duty) Manchester United fell to a 5-2 defeat over 2 legs. To their credit they actually managed to best the Milanese team at home, but conceded 4 goals at the San Siro (including a brace from Schiaffino) in a second leg defeat.
The final saw Milan taking on a Real Madrid side who were two trophies into their astounding run of five European cup wins. To get to final they destroyed Antwerp, Sevilla and, despite a second leg defeat, eased past Vasas of Hungary. Of course Milan had played Real in the European Cup before, narrowly going out 5-4 over two legs in the 55/6 semis. But if Madrid were good in 1956, now they were better, having been boosted by the acquisitions of top players in Raymond Kopa and Jose Santamaria.
The match turned out to be an entertaining encounter between two very good teams. At the end of the first half the game was all equal, with the teams’ systems cancelling one another out. Then, in the 59th minute, Milan surprised the reigning European champions after taking the lead – Schiaffino blasted the ball into the net from the edge of the box after a Milan counter attack. They almost doubled their lead after Cucchiaroni hit the post with his effort. The Rossoneri, inspired by their brilliant captain Liedholm, were giving a very good account of themselves, but Madrid were still very much in the game. Di Stefano in particular looked dangerous, and indeed it was the Argentine who equalised for Madrid in the 74th minute, drawing the teams level at 1-1. There ensued a thrilling five minute period, in which Grillo scored for Milan and Rial (whose participation was a doubt before the match due to an injury) restored parity with a wonderful lobbed shot. Just before the whistle blew for full time, Liedholm had time to hit the bar and almost win it for Milan. And so the match went into extra time where, as we all know, Madrid wrapped up their third successive European Cup win – Gento hitting home an effort in the 107th minute that Milan’s keeper, Narciso Soldan, might have done better with.
So how good was this Milan side? It is true that their league form was terrible in this season, but their European performances were of the highest calibre. We must not forget how close they were to beating a truly great Madrid team. To put things into context, Gento and Di Stefano, scorers against Milan, also scored in the 2-0 win over Fiorentina in the previous year’s final. Indeed Di Stefano, the 1957 Ballon D’Or winner, was top scorer in that year’s European Cup with 10 goals, also winning the Pichichi award by notching 19 goals in Real Madrid’s title winning domestic campaign. This Madrid side was arguably one of the greatest sides in history and in this final they had 75% of possession. That said they only had 3 more shots than Milan (20 to their 17). It is a credit to Milan that they more than held their own and, with a bit more luck, could even have won. The team was undoubtedly in a period of transition, after era of Gre-No-Li but before the arrival of Rocco and talismans such as Altafini and Rivera. They were still good enough to win the 1959 Scudetto, but it would take them another few years before they would reach a European Cup final again.