"Many people think I'm all-powerful, because they say I know everything. But it's not true; I've just never experienced failure, and I'm proud of that," said Helenio Herrera, a defender of limited ability who, through sheer force of conviction, would become one of the most influential coaches in football history.
A shrewd tactician, Herrera was renowned for his ability to build successful systems and declare their death when they ceased to be relevant. And despite his rigid approach and harsh training methods, his unstinting will to win could convince his teams and directors that anything was possible, regardless of their profile, if they believed in themselves.
Here, FIFA.com looks back at the life and career of a man widely remembered at the mastermind behind catenaccio, but whose legacy, in reality, goes far beyond that famous title-winning system.
The birth of a passion
The son of Spanish immigrants, Herrera was born in Buenos Aires on 10 April 1910, though he always believed 1916 to be his real year of birth. As a child, he and his family emigrated to Casablanca, Morocco, where he suffered a near-fatal bout of diphtheria. That early fight for survival would shape the rest of his life, convincing him of the need to work hard for success.
Despite his father's effort's to train him as a carpenter and being put to work at a young age, Herrera maintained a strong love of football. And it was while playing for Roches Noires, a small Moroccan outfit, that he caught his first break, impressing a scout from the more illustrious Raja Casablanca before signing for their youth set-up.
What the young defender lacked in talent he made up for in grit and determination, and in 1932 he earned a move to French side CASG Paris. "There's no magic in football, only passion and fighting spirit," Herrera was once quoted as saying, a phrase somewhat at odds with his future nickname Il Mago (the Wizard). In France he played for various clubs, with little notable success except a French League Cup triumph with Red Star Saint-Ouen. He nonetheless adopted French citizenship in the hope of playing for the national team, but his plans would ultimately be thwarted by the second world war.
When asked where his national loyalties lay, Herrera replied: "I consider myself neither Argentinian nor French. I'm of the world." In the end, however, he would not have to decide, as in 1945, while player-manager of CSM Puteaux, he suffered an injury and subsequently retired from playing.
Herrera then moved into coaching and quickly excelled in his new role, managing Stade Francais and assisting the French national team before moving to Spain, where he helped keep newly-promoted Real Valladolid in the top flight. That achievement in turn earned him the top job at Atletico Madrid, where he rose to fame by winning the league in 1949/50 and 1950/51, and drew attention with his working methods.
Three former Atleti players had particularly vivid memories of working under Herrera. "He was a monster," said defender Alfonso Aparicio. "He used to make us train like crazy for up to three hours every day, but it meant that when Sunday came we could demolish anyone." Ramon Cobo, another former Atleti defender, had this to say of him: "It's not true that he used to exploit players. He just insisted on thorough preparation, and on leading the right lifestyle for sporting success."
Herrera's subsequent spells at Malaga, Deportivo La Coruna, Sevilla and Belenenses were trophyless, but that did not deter Barcelona. The Catalan club appointed him coach in 1958, putting him in charge of a squad that features stars such as Ladislao Kubala, Zoltan Czibor, Sandor Kocsis and Luis Suarez.
Herrera's arrival gave those established names fresh belief, allowing them to overcome the mental barrier imposed by Alfredo Di Stefano and his all-conquering Real Madrid team-mates. "Football today isn't about the individual player. These days it's all about winning as a team," Herrera once said. It was an approach that got results, and in just two years in charge, his Barça side won two league titles, a Spanish Cup and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a predecessor of the current UEFA Europa League.
His uncompromising approach was not universally popular, however, with internal rifts ultimately leading to his departure from Barcelona. "I have no differences with any of the players, including Kubala. That is, of course, as long as he does what I tell him to," Herrera said in early 1960, shortly before joining Inter, whom his side had beaten soundly in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup not long before.
When Herrera arrived at Inter, he brought with him a tactical revolution. "The 4-2-4, like all formations, is idiotic if you enforce it too strictly," he said in 1962. "Why are people so determined to impose systems on football? The coach should devise his playing style around the characteristics of his players."
His approach was to make Inter more efficient both in defence and attack, adding an extra, deeper-lying defender to the back four to sweep up mistakes and prevent the opposition from scoring. The versatile, so-called libero, paired with an unprecedented system of man-marking, would become the cornerstone of Inter's defensive success under Herrera.
As for Inter's attacking play, Herrera summed it up thus: "A small number of short, very quick passes to get to the opposition's goal in as little time as possible. There is almost no place for dribbling. It's a tool, not a system. The ball always moves further, and more quickly, when there isn't a player behind it." One player who particularly thrived under Herrera at Inter was Giacinto Facchetti, a left-sided player who is considered one of the very first attacking full-backs. Also key were inside forwards Luis Suarez and Sandro Mazzola, and the potent goal threat of Mario Corso.
The system, known in Italian as catenaccio (door bolt), drew criticism for its miserly nature, but it did not affect Herrera or his players in the slightest. Between 1963 and 1966 they won three Italian league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups, beating the likes of Di Stefano's Real Madrid and Eusebio's Benfica along the way.
The demise of catenaccio
In the 13 years after he left Inter in 1968, which included second spells with the Milan giants and Barcelona, Herrera never matched that level of success. At international level he coached Spain at the 1962 FIFA World Cup™, while the Italy side that reached the final of Mexico 1970 implemented his famous defensive system.
Following Italy's crushing 4-1 defeat by Pele's Brazil in that final, Herrera declared: "Catenaccio has no chance of surviving. After the lesson Italian football was handed out in the World Cup final, I'm absolutely convinced that such overtly defensive systems have completed their life cycle."
A number of Herrera's tactical concepts have stood the test of time, while others have been adapted to suit the demands of modern football. He was also one of the first coaches to employ pre-match meetings and motivational pep-talks, and the influence of his working methods can still be seen today. And while some have questioned his excessive strictness, others consider him the first truly high-profile football coach.
Herrera died of a heart attack in Venice at the age of 87. So while it is not entirely true that he never experienced failure, one thing is certain: his memory and football legacy will live on forever.
Did You Know?
Kubala scored seven times in Barcelona’s 9-0 win over Sporting Gijon in 1952, with five of those coming within 19 second-half minutes. The only other man to have netted seven goals in a game in La Liga is Bata, who managed the feat for Athletic Club in a 12-1 reverse of Barça in 1931.
A film was made about Hungaria, the team of touring refugees Kubala co-founded. Titled ‘Kubala: Stars In Search Of Peace’, the inside-forward played himself.
Kubala began his coaching career with a brief, unfruitful spell at Barcelona, and went on to lead several other clubs in the country - including Catalan rivals Espanyol - and ones in Switzerland, Canada and Saudi Arabia. He also held the Spain reins between 1969 and ’80 and guided Paraguay in 1995.
Popular Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat, a big Barcelona fan, produced a song about the Budapest-born legend in Catalan and Italian, which he titled ‘Kubala’. In it, Serrat salutes Pele, Diego Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano, but proclaims that, for him, nobody was comparable to Kubala.
Kubala scored 243 goals in 329 matches for Barcelona. He died after suffering from Alzheimer’s in 2002, seven years before the club honoured him with a statue outside Camp Nou.