A large image of Armando Picchi posing with silverware adorns the wall of Inter Milan’s dressing room at the San Siro Stadium. [PHOTO: Adeyinka Makinde]
The death earlier this year of Fiorentina’s Davide Astori evoked memories of other tragedies involving Italian football players. Fans and journalists recalled the sudden deaths of Livorno’s Piermario Morosini in 2012, Perugia’s Renato Curi in 1977, and, in 1969, Roma’s Guiliano Taccola.
I don’t follow the Italian league as rigorously as I once did, so it is information about the players of yesteryears which spark the greatest amount of empathy in me. The news of Astori’s passing brought to mind the tragic demise of Armando Picchi, the captain of the Internazionale side of the 1960s immortalised as “La Grande Inter.”
The Livorno-born Picchi led Inter Milan to three scudetti, two European Champions cups and two Intercontinental Cups. He was a player of formidable tenacity whose role as a sweeper was a vital part of the Catenaccio system successfully applied by Helenio Herrera. Herrera’s version of Catenaccio was the proceed of his modification of a 5-3-2 tactic known as the Verrou (door bolt) which had been developed by Karl Rappan in Switzerland.
It was a defensive strategy aimed at stifling attacking play, into which Herrera incorporated a flexible plan for mounting counter-attacks led by the likes of Sandro Mazzola and Giacinto Facchetti. Working between the the goalkeeper and the line of four man-marking defenders, Picchi helped develop the sweeper role, setting the standard for the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Gaetano Scirea and Franco Baresi. For some, Picchi was the first ‘libero’ of the modern game.
The following comment by English journalist Kenneth Wolstenholme encapsulates the passion and the efficiency for which Picchi became renowned:
If a player got beyond the line of four backs, either by dribbling his way there or by creating space with one-two passing movement with a colleague, he would be confronted by Picchi. Any player who ran through to pick up a long pass would be confronted by … Picchi. Any high lob or centre which was floated into the Inter Milan goalmouth would be picked off by … Picchi.
On the field of play, Picchi’s influence on his team mates was tangible and is said to have surpassed that of Herrera’s. In times of difficulty, it was Picchi to whom players such as Sandro Mazzola looked:
Picchi was our captain, a great captain and a clever man. We did everything for him. There were days when Herrera would tell us something and Picchi would say, “he’s wrong; today we do it this way” and we always did what Picchi said because he was our leader.
But Picchi’s success at Inter did not translate into a substantive international career. He was considered as overly defensive-minded by Edmondo Fabbri who left him out of the Italian squad for the 1966 World Cup in England. And while Fabbri’s successor Ferruccio Valcareggi selected him for many of the qualifying matches for the European Nations Cup of 1968, a fractured pelvis injury sustained during a match against Bulgaria ruled him out of the competition.
Picchi was by all accounts a personable and humane person. For instance, he is said to have taken the time to help negotiate the contracts for his teammates. His generosity extended further than the world of football. There is a story of how a woman brought her three-year-old daughter, to the wake where Picchi’s relatives were watching over his coffin. It was around 4AM and the astounded mourners who were on the verge of scolding the woman were disarmed by her explanation of why she had insisted on bringing the little girl: She wanted her daughter to see the remains of a man who had done so much to help her family.
Picchi’s coaching career, still in its infancy at Juventus, was cut short by the onset of a tumour in his sixth left rib which ended his life at just 36 years of age.
Decades later, his untimely death was brought under scrutiny by allegations made by the late Ferruccio Mazzola, the younger brother of Sandro. In a 2004 autobiography entitled Il Terzo Incomodo, Ferruccio claimed that Herrera had created a regime in which performance enhancing drugs were regularly administered to Internazionale players. The pill, which Ferruccio insinuated contained amphetamines, was first given to the players, many of whom spat it out because of its pungent taste until Herrera supposedly chose a more discreet method: dissolving the drug in the player’s morning coffee.
These allegations were refuted by his brother Sandro and also denied by Massimo Moratti, the then chairman of Inter Milan, who sued him. Ferruccio responded that his brother’s position was based on a resolve not to ‘wash dirty linen in public’. Moratti’s action was settled in Ferruccio’s favour. Ferruccio sought to back up his claim that Picchi was the first to succumb to death and various forms of debilitating illnesses caused by Il Caffe Herrera (Herrera’s coffee), by pointing to the deaths of Marcello Giusti, who died of brain cancer in the 1990s, and Carlo Tagnin, Mauro Bicicli and Ferdinando Miniussi who all passed away in the early 2000s.
It is unlikely that such a link will ever be definitively made.
Those who prefer not to believe Ferruccio Mazzola’s claims, insist that the only ‘drug’ Herrera administered on the likes of Picchi was of a psychological dimension. Whether in denial or objectively affirming the potency of the original thinking and innovative stratagems of Herrera, a vindication of the doping allegations as well as those relating to match-fixing,* tends to undermine the achievements of the Nerazzurri as well as to besmirch the reputation of men like Armando Picchi.
For his devotees, these revelations serve to detract from Picchi’s abilities and pose a cruel question mark on his legacy.
Fate already dealt Picchi the cruellest of blows, for May 27th, the day on which he tragically passed in 1971, had been the date of his greatest triumphs on the football field when Inter had respectively defeated Real Madrid in 1964 and Benfica in 1965.
* Brian Glanville, the English football writer and investigative journalist, claimed that matches were fixed in favour of Inter during the 1960s at the behest of Inter’s president Angelo Moratti, Dezso Solti, a Hungarian match fixer and Italo Allodi, Inter’s sporting director.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.