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Who's the heir to Herrera and Catenaccio?
Last week, Internazionale of Milan gagged the wave of unlimited praise that had been dished out in Barcelona's direction in previous weeks: now the general consensus is that Mourinho's side have achieved the unachievable by closing in on Guardiola's delicious multi-passing side, and stopped the unstoppable Messi.
It is only one leg, only one match so far, but already we sense that this could be Inter's revival season: with a single exception the club have not really enjoyed European success (hand in hand with a close race for topping the Serie A) since the glory years of Helenio Herrera's squad. Back in the '60s, the Argentinian-born manager known as Il Mago, created a squad and an ethos which have come to be regarded as the 'invention' of modern football.
The founding father of Catenaccio was the first to introduce the notion of 'concentrations' prior to matches, looked into the importance of diet and psychology around his players, and generally imposed an unbeatable defensive style on the game of football.
The centenary of Herrera's birth (April 10, 1910) is being marked by - among many - his widow Fiora Gandolfi who has published some of his most famous sayings and has recently launched a film in his homage. "Magic is just a word for describing that which we cannot otherwise explain," she told me once.
Herrera was born in Buenos Aires to a father from Northern Africa and a Spanish mother who had been brought up by a family from Gibraltar. When, as a six- or seven-year old, Herrera returned to Europe, he was already able to understand Arabic, English, Spanish and French. As a young man, he played for Paris St Germain and had no trouble communicating with players who spoke any of those languages - "In those days, someone who could do that was seen as a Magician," Fiora concludes.
Fiora's interest in languages has led her to write a celebrated academic dissertation looking at the use of swear words and insults. She is also a photographer and a fashion designer, and met Herrera when he was a dashing young manager with Milan's prestigious team and she a journalist.
Herrera had previously made his mark as a manager in Barcelona, so last week even the Catalan press were re-living his legacy with interviews with former squad members and his son with Fiora, now a professor of Economics in the US but, in his heart, "a fan of both Barcelona and Inter" .
Comparisons between Herrera and Mourinho are inevitable. Herrera's famous squad had a line-up which, if pronounced with the right rhythm, sounds like a perfect Petrarca poem:
Sarti, burnich, facchetti
bedin, guarnieri, picchi
jair, mazzola, peiro, suarez, corso
baci, da matalascanhas, huelva
There may not be such an obvious sonnet in Mourinho's squad, but just like in the '60s Brazil's talent was present in Inter, today the club "boasts three-fifths of Brazil's back five, probably the best in the world, in Lucio, Maicon and Julio Cesar" as the Italian commentator Gabriel Marcotti puts it.
There are also four Argentinians present in the squad - the super sage Zanetti, Cambiasso, and Walter Samuel, experienced defenders who showed their compatriot Messi can be stopped in his tracks, and Diego Milito up front adding to the score-line - a little Dutch elegance in Wesley Sneijder and the potency of Eto'o.
"Helenio always said the future of football was in Africa" his widow Fiora tells me now, "But in those days it was impossible to bring someone from Nigeria or Cameroon to Italy". She goes on to point out that "the great Inter squad of back then could only field two foreign players. Mourinho's team now is like a United Nations squad".
Fiora says both men are similar in that "both are concrete, intelligent and honourable. Both are very much like psychologists. Both know how to communicate, men of few words but categorical". Herrera's football was often accused of being the 'anti-football', excessively defensive and seeking results above everything; Mourinho too is often regarded this way.
Although it's easy to slip into clichéd , reductionist views of the lyrical beauty of Barcelona, say, vis a vis Mourinho's more defensive play, Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid, a history of football tactics, tells me it's not so black and white: "I'd say very little similarity between today's Inter and Herrera's ; back four v libero; Mourinho's Inter pressed high up the pitch; Herrera's side would sit deep. Maybe both prefer to play on the counter - which was revolutionary in Herrera's day but commonplace today. In fact Barca are probably tactically more similar to Herrera's Barca than Inter to Herrera's Inter: the attacking full-backs, the loose 4-3-3 shape, goals from a forward cutting in from wide" .
As we prepare for the second leg of this most delectable of football duels, we can only know for certain that the game of football as we know it owes much to the influence of Il Mago. Whether or not Mourinho will take his mantle remains to be seen, but the fact is, one hundred years on from Herrera's birth, we play the game following his revolutionary ideas.
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