After Herrera's Inter Milan lifted a second successive European Cup triumph in 1965, one newspaper claimed that they were ‘Kings with a hollow crown’. The journalist, Hugh McIlvanney, commented that ‘efficiency continues to flourish at the expense of art and entertainment in European football’ and, in comparing them to the Real Madrid side of the 1950s, the difference was the same as between ‘a matador’s cape and a laboratory technician’s smock’.
Herrera had a cosmopolitan upbringing. He was born in Buenos Aires to Argentinian parents, then brought up in the slums of Casablanca, before travelling to France, where he was naturalised in 1934.
He played for a number of French clubs, but never gained an international cap. He then moved into coaching; initially at Spanish clubs, including Atlético Madrid, winning La Liga in 1950 and 1951, and Barcelona. Under him, Barça won the league twice, but, in 1960, after thrashing the English champions Wolves 9-2 in the quarter-finals of the European Cup, the Catalans were themselves easily beaten in the semi-finals by Real Madrid.
Herrera was sacked, but ended up in Milan, where he enjoyed his greatest success with Inter. Financed by a millionaire president, the oil magnate Angelo Moratti – Il gran petrolifero – Inter won three Serie A titles in addition to their European Cup triumphs, as well as two World Club World Cups.
It was a period that saw an increasing competitiveness across European football. Following Hungary in the early '50s, clubs from major cities, like Milan and Madrid, came to dominate the early years of European competition. These clubs, some backed by wealthy donors, invested more in management to gain that winning edge, and Herrera was a prize target.
While critics poured scorn on his methods, Herrera could point to their success. The main reason behind Inter’s triumphs was ‘catenaccio’. Translated as ‘door-lock’ in Italian, Herrera was not the first to use this defensive system, but at Inter he was the coach who most perfected it. In addition to employing tight-marking defenders, Herrera would employ a sweeper or ‘libero’ to intercept any loose balls and stop forwards that had breached the first line of defence.
In addition, Inter would launch fast counter-attacks, using their full-backs such as Giacinto Facchetti, as well drawing on the skills of players like Sandro Mazzola and the Spaniard, Luis Suárez.
Above all else, Herrera was an authoritarian figure. He put great credence on the ritiro – training camp – for players before games. When asked about leaving Inter in 1962, the English forward Gerry Hitchens said it was like coming out of the army. On one occasion, some players fell behind on a training run and Herrera ordered the coach to leave without them – a six-mile walk back.
In 1968, Herrera left Inter for Roma, but was unable to repeat his success in the Italian capital.
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