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.
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.
|Milan||1961-63 & 67-73|
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.
Today we celebrate what would have been the 105th birthday of our first timer European Champion, Nereo Rocco
Forever grateful, Paròn! ❤⚫ pic.twitter.com/On2gttMHa5
— AC Milan (@acmilan) May 20, 2017
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.
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.
|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.
Happy Birthday Nereo Rocco ⚫️
UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup
Intercontinental Cup pic.twitter.com/CXNYJgFJcy
— TeamMilanAC (@TeamMilanAC) May 19, 2019
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.