Regarded as the greatest Italian player of all time, Giuseppe Meazza was much more than a football genius. With his triumphs on the pitch and his excesses off it, he was long seen as a symbol of social success in Italy, rising from a modest background to become a two-time world champion and legend of the game before giving his name to Milan’s famous football stadium.
“Having him in your team meant you started every game 1-0 up,” his Italy team coach Vittorio Pozzo once said. “He was a born striker. He could read the game, understand situations and make the whole attack work by applying a concept of the game that was based entirely on technique.”
Hailing from the Milan suburb of Porta Vittoria, the diminutive Meazza had to find his own way in life following the death of his father on the Italian front in 1917. A football fanatic from an early age, he spent a significant part of his formative years on the makeshift pitches that dotted the city’s outskirts, learning to master improvised footballs made from rags. His first taste of the game on a proper pitch came when he made his debut at the age of 12 for Gloria FC.
After being spotted by some AC Milan fans, the frail-looking youngster earned a trial with the club but was turned down on account of his slight frame. I Rossoneri’s loss quickly became Inter Milan’s gain when the influential Fulvio Bernardini, one of their former players, took a shine to the young prodigy and introduced him to the Hungarian coach Arpad Weisz, then in charge at Inter.
Over the course of the next three seasons Meazza would hone his skills with the Inter youth team, which at that time went by the name of Ambrosiana-Inter. He made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old against Milanese Unione Sportiva, scoring twice to set his illustrious career in motion.
A showman is born
It took the teenage tyro less than a season to become the darling of Italian football. Outrageously talented and capable of making the difficult look ridiculously easy, the slight Meazza took mischievous delight in provoking the opposition with his skills, attempting and invariably pulling off the most dazzling of tricks.
On occasion he would run the entire length of the pitch with the ball glued to his feet, swerving past opponent after opponent only to stop in front of the keeper, urge him to come off his line and sell him one last dummy before sliding the ball into the empty net. It was party pieces such as those that earned him the adulation of the fans and the ire of his rivals.
Nevertheless, there was more to the intuitive Meazza’s game than impish trickery. As well as striking viciously dipping free-kicks, he was also a precise passer of the ball. And, despite standing only 1.69 metres tall, his timing in the air often helped him get the better of much taller opponents, his heading prowess bringing him many goals throughout his career.
In his first two seasons in the Inter first team he scored 64 goals in all, a prodigious tally that included a double hat-trick in one game against Venice in May 1929 and two five-goal hauls. Even the normally implacable Pozzo fell under his spell, giving the 19-year-old Meazza his international debut against Switzerland in Rome in February 1930.
The kid they called La Balilla immediately repaid Pozzo’s faith, scoring twice in a 4-2 win. His first masterclass in the blue of Italy came three months later in the final of the International Cup against the mighty Hungary in Budapest. Meazza scored a hat-trick in a superb individual display as La Nazionale ran out 5-0 winners. Still to turn 20, he had by that time scored a record ten goals in seven appearances.
Touched with greatness
Meazza was 24 and had around 20 caps to his name when Italy hosted the 1934 FIFA World Cup™. Such were the team’s attacking riches, however, that Pozzo decided to switch him from the centre-forward position to the right wing, where his elusive dribbling would unsettle defences and create openings for his team-mates.
Benito Mussolini deemed victory an imperative for Pozzo’s side, but despite the pressure weighing on the players, Meazza went into the tournament in a relaxed frame of mind and would play a decisive role in their eventual success.
After scoring in a 7-1 defeat of USA in Italy’s opening match, Meazza was on target again in a quarter-final replay against Spain, hitting the only goal of the game. He then set up Enrique Guaita for the solitary goal of a tight semi-final meeting with Austria, with the Italians going on to face Czechoslovakia in the Final.
Despite picking up an early injury, the Inter star soldiered on. With the teams locked at 1-1 in extra time, Czech coach Karel Petru sensed that he was flagging and instructed his defenders to focus their attention elsewhere. It proved to be a fatal error, Meazza instigating the move that led to Angelo Schiavio’s winner.
Five months later Italy travelled to London for a match that was billed as the “real” World Cup final owing to England’s continued absence from the World Cup proper. In a memorable meeting that would become known as The Battle of Highbury, Italy were quickly reduced to ten men after Luis Monti limped off with an injury, with an aggressive England side storming into a 3-0 lead.
Earning the respect and admiration of the fans with a wondrous display, the irrepressible Meazza salvaged Italian pride with two second-half goals, allowing the world champions to leave the English capital with their heads held high.
The Italian wizard scored his finest goal for his country in a May 1936 friendly against Austria in Rome. Bearing down on goal after collecting a through ball, he saw two opposing defenders advancing towards him from either side, before suddenly coming to halt, putting his foot nonchalantly on the ball. Unable to stop in time, the defenders collided with each other, leaving Meazza free to sidestep the keeper with customary ease and roll the ball home for a goal that would not look out of place in one of today’s video games.
World title number two
The Italian legend was still in prime form when he captained his country during their world title defence at France 1938, having hit 28 goals in 30 matches that season alone. His only goal of the finals came from the penalty spot in the 2-1 semi-final win over Brazil, and proved to be his last in the famous blue jersey. His value to the side was undiminished, however, with the lion’s share of tournament top-scorer Silvio Piola’s five goals being set up by the skipper. Making relatively comfortable progress to the Final, the Italians retained their crown with a handsome 4-2 defeat of Hungary in Paris.
Even in the key phases of his football career, Giuseppe Meazza enjoyed living life to the full. A renowned ladies man, he loved gambling and dancing the Tango with a white gardenia tucked behind his ear, and was the only player to smoke openly in front of Italy coach Pozzo.
After leaving Inter Milan in 1940 he played for a handful of other clubs over the next few years, spending two seasons with city rivals AC Milan, before returning to coach the Inter youth team. It was there that he uncovered a similarly bright young star in Sandro Mazzola, who like his mentor had also lost his father at an early age.
On his death in 1979, and with the agreement of AC Milan, Inter decided to rename their San Siro stadium in his honour, an indication of his standing in the game and the huge impact he had on both the club and Italian football in general.
Did You Know?
Attempting to take a penalty in the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup France 1938™ against Brazil in Marseille, Meazza broke the elastic in his shorts. Undeterred, the Italian simply held his shorts up with one hand before sending the keeper the wrong way from the spot with his trademark feint.
Meazza was 16 when he was given his first pair of football boots by a well-wisher who had seen him playing on makeshift pitches in a Milan suburb. In those days boots cost three times the average monthly salary.
Playing against Roma in Milan on 27 April 1930, Meazza achieved the remarkable feat of scoring a hat-trick inside the opening three minutes.
Just before his debut game in the Inter Milan first team, the slight 17-year-old Meazza was given the nickname “Balilla” by the Nerazzurri striker Leopoldo Conti. The inspiration for the soubriquet came from the youth organisation Opera Nazionale Balilla, which took in children aged between eight and 13. The frail teenager went on to score twice in that maiden outing, but the nickname stuck for the rest of his life.
Meazza turned 16 on 23 August 1926, the same day that his hero, the famous Italian actor Rudolf Valentino, died. In tribute to him, the young footballer slicked his hair back in the style of the time, a look that also helped Meazza reinforce his image as a “Latin lover”.