Nereo Rocco: 'El Paron', the Pioneer of Catenaccio & Forgotten Great of Italian Football

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Nereo Rocco is number 14 in 90min’s Top 50 Great Managers of All Time series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next three weeks.


As with so many words in the English language, forgotten (*cough*) can be overused in relation to those greats who have become less revered following prolonged exposure to that oh-so-corrosive agent known as time. 

So, to say that Nereo Rocco has been ‘forgotten’ would be to further drag this word through the literary mud – the man has a 32,000-seater stadium named after him, FFS, and he’s a Milanese legend. But, to say that he has been underserved in the annals of Calcio’s great legacy would certainly be fair.

And maybe it’s understandable, considering the great cohort of legendary names that have come since his glory years, obscuring him from view with their greater honed talents and expanded trophy cabinets. Success plus time is the equation that gets to us all, at some point, and, unless you’re a member of ‘The Beatles’ or Leonardo da Vinci, chances are the results will be less than satisfactory. 

Jimmy Greaves,Nereo Rocco

Of course, time is not the only thing keeping Rocco down, because his birthplace of Trieste had done that before his time on this earth had even begun. 

In a regionally patriotic country like Italy, where division has always been favoured over unity, cordoned off cities like Trieste will never be received well. Crowbarred into the country via the coast of modern-day Slovenia, the city was even more marginalised by the northern powerhouses it quasi-neighboured than those disdained-for nether regions in the south. 

Nevertheless, an admirable if unspectacular playing career was forged on the wing, with profitable spells at Trieste, Napoli and Padova had. In that time, Rocco scored 63 Serie A goals, though, perhaps in a foreshadowing of the insufficient narrative surrounding him these days, he was not one to celebrate such achievements, becoming known for humbly jogging back to the halfway line, head bowed, face concealed.

But, far more important than those goals was the one against-the-discriminatory-odds cap he earned with the Italian national team at the age of 22, with a 45-minute cameo in a 4-0 win against Greece in 1934.

For, in those days, those were the requirements to enter into Italian management. It wouldn’t be overstating to say that a scoreless 45-minute showing in that World Cup qualifier could rival any performance in the ultimately victorious tournament itself for overarching importance to Italian football.


Teams Managed

Triestina 1947-50
& 53-54
Treviso 1950-53
Padova 1954-61
Milan 1961-63 & 67-73
Torino 1963-67
Fiorentina 1973-74

And so his reign as a tactician began, like so many other greats of his era had, with a player-manager role at Triestina in 1947. Yet, despite taking the lowly Triestans to second place in Serie A in 1947/48 – which remains a club record – his managerial career didn’t begin in earnest until his move to Padova in 1954, by which time he had seven years under his belt split almost evenly between the estranged Triestina and Treviso. 

And, though Padova, in its location on the opposite side of Venice to Treviso, did nudge him that smidgen closer west – and to those footballing powerhouses in Piedmont and Lombardy – it was hardly a prestigious place. Hell, they were in Serie B for christ’s sake, and sinking fast.

What the club served as, though, was a platform for him to hone his tactical nous, specifically that mystic form of football known as ‘Catenaccio’.

Which is where, if you’ll allow me, we’ll take a brief detour down the roads of this hallowed, yet sometimes misunderstood, tactic.

Originating in Switzerland with semi-professional side Servette in the 1930’s, and brought to life by the mind of Austrian tactician Karl Rappan, it seeped into Italian football in the 40’s, via a purported mixture of Swiss influence and Salernita coach Giuseppe ‘Gipo’ Viani’s vision of a fisherman’s trawler using a second net to gather all the fish the first one had missed. 

Which, if you can’t guess, is a nice visual representation of Catenaccio in action, whereby, in a world dominated by 2-3-5 formations, the midfield ‘wing-halves’ dropped back to become full backs, and an extra ‘libretto’ or ‘bolt’ central defender was used to mop up danger, creating a solid 4-3-3.

Having been inspired by Viani to first attempt Catenaccio – which, as you can see is an Italian word, and derives from the chained latch (or bolt) on a door – at Triestina, Rocco made waves with it when he drilled that chaotic Padova side into shape, saving them from certain relegation in his first season, promoting them the next, and earning third-place (again, still the club’s record finish) in the 1957/58 season. 

Three years later, Rocco was finally granted his move to the proper west. AC Milan, in the aftermath of Viani’s enforced departure through illness, had come calling. Lombardy was to be his new home, the San Siro his canvas and Catenaccio the paint, with Cesare Maldini (a native of Trieste) providing the broad-strokes and young playmaker Gianni Rivera the artistic flourishes.

Gianni Rivera

And, after years of rural toiling, the big city life came naturally to Rivera, on and off the field. Food and drink-imbued relationships with big wigs, including the eternally celebrated journalist Gianni Brera, who was the editor of Gazzetta dello Sport, were cultivated, and pure sporting synchronicity was found on the pitch.


“He coaches with genius-like pragmatism. Whereas the average Italian coach simply relies on a pale imitation of the football offered in England, Rocco evolves it and innovates it.” – Gianni Brera


This led to instant success, with the Rossoneri beating out Helenio Herrera’s Catenaccio-utilising Inter side to the 1961/62 Scudetto. A European Cup triumph – the first of the club’s soon-to-be illustrious history in the competition – followed in 1962/63, with Eusebio’s famed Benfica side beaten in the final. 

In the midst of bringing Italy its first European Cup, Rocco had also rubbished away any myths declaring his style to be solely defensive, as his side scored 19 goals in the knockout rounds, and 14 in their preliminary round clash against Union Luxembourg alone. 

Nullifying, yes. Dull, not a chance. 


Career Honours

​Serie A (1962, 1968)
​Coppa Italia (1972, 1973)
​Intercontinental Cup (1969)
​UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup (1968, 1973)
​European Cup (1963, 1969)
Italian Football Hall of Fame (2012)

Atop the Italian managerial totem-pole, and indeed the footballing world, Rocco then decided to conquer the final Italian frontier – Torino. The Turin side, who had been languishing in tragic mediocrity ever since the Superga air disaster of 1949 had vanquished perhaps the greatest club side in Italian history, were in need of resurrection. 

Few had considered themselves worthy of such a project, but Rocco was convinced he could do it and, with his trusty Catenaccio and burly man-management in tow, he did. After achieving a stabilising seventh place in his debut season, ‘El Paron’ lead Il Toro to third in his second season, their best finish since ‘Il Grande Torino’ and those five successive Scudetti. 

These successes paved the way for the club’s emotional return to silverware-winning ways in 1967/68, with a Coppa Italia triumph, but by that time Rocco was back in Milan and back winning Serie A titles, having left Piedmont at the end of the prior season. 

That Scudetto triumph had broken up a three-year reign of Herrera’s Inter side, and the Rossoneri were hungry for more silverware, satiating that desire with a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup win in the same year.

Having not won domestically since Rocco’s departure, Milan were similarly barren on the European front, and the tactician set about restoring some continental pride. The result was two of the most famous victories of his career. 

The first was the semi-final triumph over Matt Busby’s Manchester United, with Bobby Charlton and co. restricted to just one score across both legs as the men from Milan triumphed 2-1.

That set up a treasured final with Rinus Michels’ revered Ajax outfit. 

Michels vs. Rocco. Johan Cruyff vs. Angelo Anquilleti. Total Football vs. Catenaccio. It’s football’s everlasting argument. And, inside a balmy Santiago Bernabeu stadium, it was Rocco’s rugged defenders who came out on top; and emphatically so. 

Soaking up any pressure Michels’ side could muster with ease, and reducing Cruyff to a spectator, the Rossoneri were rampant, coming out 4-1 winners thanks to a Pierino Prati hat-trick. 

An Intercontinental Cup followed, as well as two Coppa Italia triumphs and another UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, before an ill-fated one-year spell at Fiorentina spelt the end of the managerial road. 

Rocco retired in 1974, returning to Milan in an executive role in 1977. By 1979, now back in his hometown, he had passed away, going down as Milan’s longest-serving manager, a title that, like so many of his others, he retains to this day. 

It is with a sad irony, then, that the longest-serving manager of such an illustrious club has become underserved by history.

Over the course of the next weeks, as this countdown reaches a conclusion, you will see a number of managers (many of them mentioned here) whose legacies have held stronger than Rocco’s and whose achievements you may revere more.

But just know that, if the era’s aligned, at one point or another, Rocco bested them all.


Number 50: Marcelo Bielsa – El Loco’s Journey From Argentina to Footballing Immortality in Europe

Number 49: Vic Buckingham – How an Englishman Discovered Johan Cruyff & Pioneered Total Football

Number 48: Claudio Ranieri: A Ridiculed Tinkerman Who Masterminded One of Football’s Greatest Ever Achievements

Number 47: Bill Nicholson: Mr Tottenham Hotspur, the First Double Winning Manager of the 20th Century

Number 46: Sven-Goran Eriksson: The Scudetto Winning Shagger Who Never Solved the Lampard-Gerrard Conundrum

Number 45: Sir Alf Ramsey: The Man Behind the ‘Wingless Wonders’ & England’s Sole World Cup Triumph

Number 44: Antonio Conte: An Astute Tactician Whose Perfectionist Philosophy Reinvented the 3-5-2 Wheel

Number 43: Kenny Dalglish: The Beacon of Light in Liverpool’s Darkest Hour

Number 42: Massimiliano Allegri: The Masterful Tactician Who Won Serie A Five Times in a Row

Number 41: Sir Bobby Robson: A Footballing Colossus Whose Fighting Spirit Ensured an Immortal Legacy

Number 40: Luis Aragones: Spain’s Most Important Manager, the Atleti Rock and the Modern Father of Tiki-Taka

Number 39: Herbert Chapman: One of Football’s Great Innovators & Mastermind Behind the ‘W-M’ Formation

Number 38: Carlos Alberto Parreira: The International Specialist Who Never Shied Away From a Challenge

Number 37: Franz Beckenbauer: The German Giant Whose Playing Career Overshadowed His Managerial Genius

Number 36: Viktor Maslov: Soviet Pioneer of the 4-4-2 & the Innovator of Pressing

Number 35: Rafa Benitez: The Conquerer of La Liga Who Masterminded That Comeback in Istanbul

Number 34: Zinedine Zidane: Cataloguing the Frenchman’s Transition From Midfield Magician to Managerial Maestro

Number 33: Luiz Felipe Scolari: How the Enigmatic ‘Big Phil’ Succeeded as Much as He Failed on the Big Stage

Number 32: Jupp Heynckes: The Legendary Manager Who Masterminded ‘the Greatest Bayern Side Ever’

Number 31: Vicente del Bosque: The Unluckiest Manager in the World Who Led Spain to Immortality

Number 30: Arsene Wenger: A Pioneering Who Became Invincible at Arsenal

Number 29: Udo Lattek: The Bundesliga Icon Who Shattered European Records

Number 28: Jock Stein: The Man Who Guided Celtic to Historic Heights & Mentored Sir Alex Ferguson

Number 27: Vittorio Pozzo: Metodo, Mussolini, Meazza & the Difficult Memory of a Two-Time World Cup Winner

Number 26: Jurgen Klopp: The Early Years at Mainz 05 Where He Sealed His ‘Greatest Achievement’

Number 25:Mario Zagallo: Habitual World Cup Winner & Sculptor of Brazil’s Joga Bonito Era

Number 24: Bela Guttmann: The Dance Instructor Who Changed Football Forever (and Managed…Just Everyone)

Number 23: Valeriy Lobanovskyi: The Scientist Who Dominated Football in the Soviet Union

Number 22: Louis van Gaal: The Stubborn Master Who Won 15 Major Trophies at 4 of the World’s Greatest Clubs

Number 21: Otto Rehhagel: The ‘King’ Who Turned 150/1 Greek Outsiders into Champions of Europe

Number 20: Tele Santana: The ‘Joga Bonito’ Icon Who Helped Brazil Rediscover Their Love of Football

Number 19: Bill Shankly: The Innovative Motivator Who Rebuilt Liverpool From the Ground Up

Number 18: Ottmar Hitzfeld: The Manager Who Won Absolutely Everything at Germany’s 2 Biggest Clubs

Number 17: Miguel Muñoz: The Man Who Told Alfredo Di Stefano to F*ck Off & Led the Ye-Ye’s to European Glory

Number 16: Fabio Capello: Italy’s Cosmopolitan Disciplinarian Who Built on a Generation-Defining AC Milan

Number 15: ​Brian Clough: He Wasn’t the Best Manager in the Business, But He Was in the Top 1


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