2 July 2011

A History of AC Milan in European Cup Finals. Part Two. 1963, Wembley: Milan 2 Benfica 1

Whilst the 1950s saw AC Milan become one of the giants of Italian football, it was the 1960s that saw them make their impact upon the European scene. In this decade they picked up a comparatively paltry two league titles, compared to four in the 50s, in addition to winning their first Copa Italia in 1967. Yet on the 22nd May 1963 Milan beat Benfica 2-1 at Wembley to become to first Italian team to win the European Cup. This landmark was achieved by a team which contained names that would become legendary in this history of the club, Jose Altafini, Gianni Rivera, Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni. Before the decade was out they would claim a second European Cup and a Cup Winner’s Cup. So why, in this period of continental success, were Milan often bested in Serie A? As we will see, it was less a case of their failings and more a case of their rivals’ strengths.
After a near miss in the 1958 European Cup final, the Rossoneri saw out the 50s by winning the 1959 Scudetto. Due to their miserable 9th place finish the previous year they did not compete in European competition again until the 1959-60 season. This foray into Europe did not go well, as Milan went out in the first round to a wonderful Barcelona team inspired by Luis Suarez (the 1960 European Footballer of the Year and, until recently, unquestionably the greatest player that Spain have produced) and their Hungarian trio: the incomparable Laszlo Kubala (who scored a hat trick at the Camp Nou), Zoltan Czibor and Sandor Kocsis. Yet if this 7-1 aggregate defeat was a humbling experience, it was no less embarrassing than their next foray into Europe in the 1961-62 season, where they were eliminated from the European Inter-Cities Fairs Cup by Yugoslavian side FK Vojvodina (who would reach the quarter finals of the European Cup in 1967, only to be knocked-out be eventual champions Celtic).
Milan’s less frequent appearance in the European Cup throughout the 60s reflected a period where domestic success was scarcer than in the 50s. The team had undergone many changes since the 1958 European Cup final. It was after this defeat that Milan signed Altafini, one of the best strikers to play in Serie A, and, in 1960, the mercurial Rivera made his first appearance for the first team. Between 1960 and 1979 Rivera would make 658 appearances for Milan; only Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti would make more appearances for the club. To this day Rivera remains Milan’s youngest goal scorer, after finding the net against Juventus on 6th Nov 1960, aged just 17 years and 80 days. From here he would go on to become Milan’s 3rd highest scorer of all time, coming behind Nordahl and Andriy Shevchenko, with 164 goals in all competitions. Yet on this same list Altafini can be found just one place behind Rivera. In his spell at the club, between 1959 and 1964, the Brazilian was Milan’s top scorer each year. He would leave the club in 1965, having scored 161 goals in 246 appearances. The team at this time also included Trapottoni, a ruthless man marker who was one of the greatest mediani to play in Serie A, and iconic captain Cesare Maldini. This Milan side first showed what they were capable of when they on the 1962 Scudetto, outscoring their nearest rivals, Inter, by 24 goals. It was on the back of this title win that they would enter, and eventually win, the 1963 European Cup.

Rivera: This charming man

To look solely at Milan’s players in this period would be to leave half of the story untold. On the bench was Nereo Rocco, Milan’s longest serving manager, who managed the club for 459 matches (323 as head coach and 136 as technical director) in his four spells at the club, between 1961 and 1977. An advocate of a robust form of catenaccio, Rocco had success with Triestina and Padova before getting his opportunity at Milan after his predecessor, Gipo Viani, suffered a heart attack following the 1959 title winning season. Viani, who subsequently took an ‘upstairs’ role at the club, claims that it was he who fine-tuned Rocco’s catenaccio, but this seems unlikely given the fact that Rocco had used the system at both Triestina and Padova (combined with Viani’s propensity for spinning a tall tale or two). Contrary to the negative connotations surrounding the word catenaccio, Milan were not an unattractive side to watch under Rocco.[1] They still scored plenty of goals and managed to accommodate the abatino Rivera by employing a mediano to win the ball for him in midfield. The sweeper, Cesare Maldini, was an elegant defender rather than a vicious stopper; his defensive acumen was not mutually exclusive to an ability to play the ball.

Yet, as mentioned, Milan had less domestic success in the 60s. The explaination for this is not particularly difficult to fathom - one does not even have to look beyond the city. In Italy the 1960 belonged to one team: Il Grande Inter. In 1960 Helenio Herrera, Il Mago, joined Internazionale Milano from FC Barcelona. Dispensing with Inter’s star striker Antonio Valentín Angelillo, Herrera set about building one of the greatest sides that Serie A (and indeed the world) has ever seen. In 1961 he went back to his former employers to sign Luis Suarez, who would become the heartbeat of the side. In goal stood the reliable Giuliano Sarti, protected by a backline that included Tarcisio Burgnich and Aristide Guarneri. Orchestrating the team from the back was their outstanding sweeper Armando Picchi, and repeatedly charging down the left was Giacinto Facchetti, arguably the greatest left back of all time and a player who did much to define the position. Suarez’s sublime passing allowed Inter to mitigate their numerical disadvantage in midfield whilst further forward in the team Herrera could call upon Brazillian forward Jair, the enigmatic (read inconsistent) Mario Corso, and Sandro Mazzola, the son of Torino star Valentino Mazzola. Under Herrera Inter quickly equalled Milan’s tally of domestic titles, with wins in 1963, 1965 and 1966, in addition to back to back European Cup wins in 1965 and 1966. Hererra’s management combined ruthless determination to win and tactical genius with new-age sloganism and arcane ritual. Yet his perceived gamesmanship means that there will forever remain a blot against the name of this team. Allegations of match fixing and player doping have never been completely dispelled. That said, despite their undoubted cynicism, they were far from an unlikable team. As with Rocco’s Milan, the catenaccio practiced by Il Grande Inter was not unattractive to watch. Herrera himself was quick to note the importance of committing fullbacks to the attack, highlighting the importance of Facchetti to the team. The statistics support Herrera: in two of the three seasons where Inter won Serie A in the 60s they were also the top scoring team in the league. So whilst Milan were first team in Italy to be noted for achieving big success with catenaccio, it is undoubtedly Inter who were its best known practitioners from this era. Consequently, if there is an argument to suggest the Milan of the 60s was better than the Milan of the 50s, the strength of Inter during the latter period meant that Milan were more often than not second best (or worse). Yet despite Inter’s edge in Italy, it was in Europe that the Rossoneri would match them.

Nereo Rocco: Cup-fiend

Milan’s route to the 1963 European Cup final was marked by a series of demolitions. In the preliminary round they were drawn against Union Luxembourg based (negligibly) in Southern Luxembourg. In the home leg Milan won 8-0, Altafini scoring 5, making this their record win in European competition. The away leg was only marginally less embarrassing for the Luxembourg team: 6-0, a hat trick for Altafini and a record away win (equalled in 1993 when Milan beat Copenhagen by an identical margin in the Champions League). A 4-2 aggregate victory against Ipswich Town was followed by an 8-1 against Galatasaray and a 5-2 versus Dundee F.C., with Altafini notching another hat trick (at home to the Turks) in the process.

In the final Milan met a Benfica side who would by far prove their sternest test of the tournament. The Portuguese had won the previous two European Cups, overcoming Madrid and Barcelona in the respective finals. This Benfica side was an attacking team still marked by a Danubian romanticism, that featured talents such as Eusebio and Mario Coluna. Perhaps this was why Rocco chose to drop hitherto free scoring striker Paolo Barison, instead selecting Gino Pivatelli to pick up Coluna. It may have seemed like the plan was not working in the 18th minute, when Eusebio gave Benfica the lead, but two Milan goals after half time sealed the Rossoneri’s first European Cup. As if to highlight their importance to the club, both goals were scored by Altafini; both assists came from Rivera. Indeed Altafini was competition’s top scorer with 14 goals. Cesare Maldini lifted the cup at Wembly as Milan’s European legacy began in earnest.

"Mr Maldini's Great Day Out"

There seems to be no question that the Milan side of the 60s was a very strong team. Whether or not they were as great a side as Il Grande Milan is open to debate, but I would argue that their trophy haul was equally impressive. Two league titles and three European trophies is nothing to be scoffed at. As we have seen, it was the emergence of Il Grande Inter who took the sheen of this period for Milan. Even so, this Inter side only won one more major trophy more than Milan, so perhaps we should be cautious not to overemphasise the gulf in class (for surely any team featuring Rivera and Altafini could not be too lacking in this department). Significantly, the catennacio system employed by both Inter and Milan during this period, which was so successful for them both, became something of an orthodoxy for Italian sides – the reign of the libero lasted well into the 80s. Milan's next apperance in a European Cup final, at the end of the decade, would similarly be a cause of tactical innovation - an innovation that would have a irrepresible effect on global football.

[1] John Foot’s Calcio: A History of Italian Football does well to distinguish catenaccio as a system with catenaccio as an attitude – the former being liberated of the negative connotations of the latter. See pp. 140-142.

1 comment:

  1. I am a little young for this, but I remember my father used to tell me about the famous victories of his favorite club AC Milan, and I wanted to be a soccer player like the captain Rivera, but life decided I was gonna be a bookie, well I am not complaining