Helenio Herrera: 10 Things You Didn't Know About the Coaching Legend
In case you didn't know, Helenio Herrera was one of the greatest football managers of all time and one of the greatest coaches in any sport.
In the 1960s, his Inter Milan team, nicknamed Il Grande Inter, won back-to-back European Cups and pioneered a new style of play that greatly affected the future of European football.
Not to mention, he also had successful spells managing Barcelona.
Basically, he was one of the most polarizing figures in football history, and yet, if you're young or a newer football fan, you've probably never even heard of him.
What follows is a list of 10 things you probably did not know about Herrera, the coaching legend.
There Is More to His Nickname "il Mago"
Herrera's nickname, il Mago (which means "the wizard"), was given to him by Italian sports journalists.
The story behind the nickname is that Herrera would predict match scores to them before the match and more often that not be correct.
However, there is actually more to the nickname than just that: the name il Mago actually came with some very negative connotations.
Most were very critical of Herrera's embrace of the catenaccio, the ultra-defensive style of play that he mastered at Inter.
Hence, "the wizard" had implications of the dark magic that Herrera was performing in order to win.
The nickname may have seemed to be the most flattering of monikers, but it actually had a thick core of criticism.
Not Always Big on Defense
Herrera may have been best known for preaching defensive solidity, but that mostly began when he made his move to Inter in 1960.
From 1958-1960, Herrera put together a Barcelona squad that was actually lavished with attacking talent and slightly behind defensively.
His Barca squad did not play the same tactics as Herrera's later squad, but actually played an open style.
However, his years with Barca did not even come close to the prowess of his years with Inter.
Hence, perhaps he learned from his Barcelona days and realized that that open style was not a winning method.
In fact, Herrera is quoted as saying that, "Barcelona played better with ten [men] than eleven," when the manager is forced (or perhaps is allowed by circumstance) to play a defensive style.
He Did Not Invent Catenaccio
Helenio Herrera and catenaccio are nearly synonymous in the world of football.
Catenaccio, which is Italian for "door-bolt," is the ultra-defensive style of play that Herrera employed in his days at Inter.
Just looking at the formation above, you can see that it calls for one defender to play right in front of the keeper, almost functioning as a second keeper.
However, Herrera was not the inventor of the system that he popularized and that made him famous.
It was actually invented in the 1950s in Italy by Nereo Rocco at the Italian club Calcio Padova.
In the end, though, Rocco's lack of success made him almost forgotten when it comes to the history of his invention.
On the other hand, Herrera's success, especially in Europe, made all of Europe take note (whether with love, acknowledgement, or hatred) of this new system.
First Manager to Take Credit for Play
Have you ever wondered why managers get the credit when their team wins a match?
Well, it's because of Herrera.
Before him, not as much emphasis was put on the manager, but rather on the players.
When he coached Inter, though, he was hailed as the genius and mastermind behind the team and became a celebrity.
His legacy has allowed for managers like Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho to be the international superstars that they are.
Pioneered Use of Psychological Tactics
If you have played any level of football anywhere, you have surely run into a coach who has used psychologically motivating tactics (whether or not you have realized it).
Herrera was a huge pioneer behind such ideas.
His pep talks to his players had incredible gems of wisdom in them, gems that were posted around Inter's grounds and are even used today.
This legacy lives on today in any motivational moments from managers to players.
Next time you see a story about a manager's halftime talk making the difference in a match, realize that Herrera was an important factor in the match.
First to Coach for Three Different National Teams
Herrera was a truly international character, as he was born in Argentina to two Spanish parents, moved to France (Casablanca for the most part) and coached in Italy.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that, given this and his abilities as a football manager, that he became the first person to coach three different national teams.
In 1946-48, he was a coach for France (under manager Gaston Barreau); in 1960-62, including the 1962 World Cup, he was the manager of Spain; and from 1966-1967, he managed Italy.
Quick glances at the histories of those national teams show that Herrera's success in managing at the club level did not translate to the international level.
However, his legacy has followed with other coaches, such as Guus Hiddink, who have managed multiple national teams.
Called Up Twice for France
Herrera's playing career did not come close to matching his managing career.
As he grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, he was a French citizen and played mostly for French clubs.
From 1935-1937, while captaining OFC Charleville (currently in the sixth division, but then in the 2nd division of French football), he led his club to the final of the Coup de France.
As a result, Herrera was actually called up twice for the French national football team.
Because he was such an international figure (born in Argentina to Spanish parents and raised in Morocco), Herrera had many options as to which national team for which to play, but it was France that he represented.
However, he never actually entered a match and those two call-ups were the only two of his life.
Fired from Roma for Mussolini Comment
When Herrera moved from Inter to AS Roma in 1968, great things were expected of the i Giallorossi.
However, after three seasons, the club had only managed to win one Italian Cup.
Maybe it was due to the frustration (or maybe it was just a severe case of foot-in-mouth), but Herrera made this comment in 1970:
"This club has not won the championship since 1942 and only did so then because Mussolini was the coach."
In all fairness, although he was not actually the manager of Roma, the Italian fascist dictator during World War II had supposedly wanted to have the nation's capital be the true cultural center of the nation, and thus showed great favoritism toward the club.
Of course, Roma were not thrilled about this comment.
In response, they issued the comment:
"Other than being shamefully false, it is a very grave and intolerable offence against the valiant athletes who won that title and also an offence against all the passionate supporters."
Unsurprisingly, Herrera's tenure as manager ended very soon after this incident.
Only Manager Besides Mourinho to Win European Cup for Inter
Helenio Herrera was the only manager to win a European championship for Inter Milan (actually, consecutive championships) until 2010, when Mourinho did it in his second season.
It is very fitting that Mourinho is the first to do it since il Mago, as both have been huge celebrities and polarizing figures in their respective careers.
In fact, Mourinho has been ridiculed as of late for his highly defensive tactics, which some have termed "anti-football."
These are the same criticisms contemporary sports journalists had of Herrera, and even the same term used by them to describe his tactics.
He Was an Awful Person
He may be one of the most celebrated managers in football history, but that does not mean he was a good person.
In fact, some of the methods he used to push his players are somewhat unforgivable and make anyone who hears about them cringe.
For example, he once used a player whose father had died before the match and did not tell the player of his father's passing until after the match.
Further, he once coached a player at Roma, Giulano Taccola, who he may have literally worked to death. Taccola fell ill before a match, and when the doctor found a heart murmur, Herrera did not tell the player and kept the information to himself.
In the next match, Taccola only lasted 45 minutes, and after Herrera made him train two weeks later, he collapsed in the dressing room and died.
Furthermore, in Jonathan Wilson's book Inverting the Pyramid, Wilson even asserts that Herrera fixed matches.
Whether all or some of these stories are completely true, one thing is clear: Herrera wasn't the best person in the world.
To me, that just makes him an even more interesting character.