Helenio Herrera, ‘HH’ to his friends, was never destined to be an also-ran. Born in Argentina in 1916 to Spanish parents – his father was an exiled anarchist – he grew up initially in French colonial Casablanca, a political and cultural hothouse of the 1920s. Highly intelligent and fiercely independent, Herrera could have turned his hand to anything, but chose football. Depending on your point of view, his decision changed the game for better or for worse, but it is impossible to deny him his twinkle in the sport’s firmament. In fact, for many, he remains the most influential coach of all time, the father to just about everything, directly and indirectly.
Herrera is always associated with the concept of catenaccio, although trivia merchants will always delight in telling you that he didn't invent it. Catenaccio, meaning ‘door-bolt’ in Italian, was a translation of the French term verrou, also meaning door-bolt, which was the brainchild of Austrian coach Karl Rappan, who used it to decent effect first with Servette and then, in the 1930s, with the Swiss national team. Perhaps it is Herrera’s misfortune to be exclusively associated with the system, or his version of it, since there was more to the man and coach than merely the door-bolt, but it is true that it remains his most lasting legacy. And despite the fact that as a sporting concept, there has never been a more reviled and controversial system, the history and development of post-war football are intimately linked to Herrera’s massive presence.
Football historians will carefully supply the single cataclysmic events that have changed the direction of football since World War II, and they are usually associated with Herrera. Celtic’s shock European Cup win in Lisbon in 1967 over Herrera’s Inter, a team seemingly invincible at the time, set the club, its coach and the system into something of a tailspin. Inter were feared and despised, but it was difficult to argue with the efficiency of their play and the challenge it offered to everyone to subvert it and usher in a new era of less cynical football.
Herrera left Inter the next (trophyless) season, but Jock Stein’s Celtic were too much an accidental confluence of great individuals to be considered the architects of Herrera’s downfall. Rinus Michel’s ‘Total Football’ conceit of the 1970s was the true inverse of the system, and Ajax’s victory over Inter in 1972 was probably a more significant event – but it’s an inescapable fact that Herrera gave us all this. It’s a sort of Yin-Yang view of the football universe, in that the presence of one paradigm will inevitably give rise to its opposite. As with tiki-taka now, post-millennial football is engaged in a monumental effort to dismantle its pre-eminence. The slightest flaw in Barcelona’s armoury is now seen as the ushering in of the revolution, as if Bayern really have something new to offer. We shall see. But tiki-taka is itself a further take on the Dutch model, and therefore another bastard son of Herrera.
Herrera, like José Mourinho, was never a great player. He played (as a defender, of course) for various French sides up until the end of the war, and then moved into management, first at Puteaux and Stade Français, moving to Valladolid in Spain and then to Atlético Madrid in 1949, where he first began to enjoy success. Herrera claimed that being a modest footballer made you a better coach. He argued that Alfredo Di Stéfano was the greatest player of all time (‘he was the whole orchestra’), but by contrast was a ‘dwarf’ in coaching terms. This was based on his idea that naturally talented players lacked the objective intelligence to communicate their ideas to other lesser mortals.
Strained relationships with great players in the first half of his career, particularly with Di Stéfano and Barcelona’s Ladislao Kubala, seemed to prepare him for his greatest period with the Inter of the 1960s, when the players who formed the backbone of his most famous side – [Armando] Picchi, [Giacinto] Facchetti, [Luis] Suárez and [Sandro] Mazzola - remained loyal to him in the way that ex-players seem to talk about Mourinho. It was only Mazzola who finally broke ranks in 2004, accusing Herrera of encouraging the use of performance-enhancing drugs and contributing to the death of Giuliano Taccola, who died in the changing-rooms after a game against Cagliari.
The Hungarian Kubala, of whom Herrera commented ‘he’s a great player, and an even better drinker’, looked back on his time at Barcelona and labelled Herrera ‘inhuman’. And famously, Di Stéfano hinted that the injury that prevented him from playing in Chile at the 1962 World Cup (Herrera was the Spanish national coach for the tournament), was brought about by a violent tackle from Herrera in a training session.
Herrera changed our perception about the role of the football manager or coach. Before him, the manager was a more marginal figure, but Herrera’s insistence on fitness, psychology, self-discipline and the power of tactics demonstrated how the manipulation of the collective was possible if the one individual given the job possessed the ability to consistently communicate his ideas. As the cliché insists, Herrera was a man before his time, and was probably the greatest thinker the game has ever known – largely because the ideas he came up with were the product of his own considerable brain.
Herrera claimed few influences, Rappan excepted. He produced two great teams, the cosmopolitan Barcelona side of the late 1950s, whose greatness was always overshadowed by Real Madrid’s overweening dominance, and the Internazionale of the 1960s. They were not just great teams, but textbook examples of system and player. Herrera perfected the mutual dependence of the two elements and for this reason he is such a towering figure. Aesthetically it wasn’t pretty, but even then you could argue that he set a template – the ‘Italian way’ of seeing football as a game of chess, not as a ‘biff-bang EPL excitement-fest’ or a tiki-taka possession-based orgy. No system is more valid than any other, if it creates interest and if it entertains. Herrera brought success – and oodles of it.
There are hundreds of quotations attributed to him, many no doubt apocryphal, but the most famous ones are ‘we won without getting off the coach’ (in other words, ‘we were mentally prepared’) and his motivational mantra, ‘Class + Preparation + Intelligence + Athleticism = Championships’. He once suspended a player for saying in an interview that “we [Inter] came to play in Rome”, instead of “we came to win in Rome”.
He was a perfectionist and a true original. He wasn’t the most popular and loved of men, but he was enormously influential. We may never see his like again.
ESPN FC’s Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of over 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.