Making it as a professional footballer is not easy. Making it when you are the son of a footballing legend is really not easy. To make it after finding out at 7 years old that your legendary father, who is still considered one of the best Italian players of all time, dies in Italian football’s greatest tragedy is even harder. To make it under those conditions, and to then go on to be considered, by some, as good as your legendary father, becoming one of Italy’s all time greats is truly remarkable.
But that’s what Sandro Mazzola did. Mazzola represented his country 70 times, scoring 22 goals. He played over 400 games for the best Inter side ever, scoring 116 goals in the process. He also picked up a Euro 1968 winners medal, and lifted 4 scudetti and 2 back-to-back European cups. He was also Serie A top scorer in 1965 and finshed 2nd to Johan Cruyff in the 1971 edition of Balon D’or. That’s some going.
His father, Valentino, was the captain and idol of the Torino side which dominated Italian football in the 1940’s. He died in the 1949 air crash in the foggy Turin hills which took the life of all 33 people on board; a tragedy that is hard to contextualize into today’s world: over 1 million people attended the funeral in Turin. Il Grande Torino, as they were known, are still talked about today as Italy’s best ever side. They were the European team of the 1940’s; producing the first wave of Total Football that Europe had seen. They revolutionized the post-war game with swashbuckling, rampant attacking football at a time when the roots of catenaccio were starting to take hold in Italian football. In the 1948-49 season they scored 125 goals and only conceded 33. They had won 5 back to back scudetti from 1945-1949. They were unstoppable and in their prime – which makes the tragedy even bitterer.
The legend goes that, upon learning of his death, the 7 year old Mazzola promised to follow in his father’s footsteps, to become a footballer. But to be as good as him? It was going to be tough. Mazzola Snr was the heartbeat of Torino; a goal scoring, indefatigable playmaker and leader that Italian football had never seen before. Mazzola Jnr had some big boots to fill. According to Ferenc Puskas, he was worthy of the Mazzola name:
Mazzola: “Our first European Cup came against Real Madrid in 1964. We Won 3-1 and I got two goals. Real Madrid were the dream team in those times. They won everything. And they had the best around – Alfredo di Stefano. I remember being paralyzed by him before the game – I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. At the end of the game I ran towards him to get his shirt, but Puskas got in my way. He said “I played against your Dad. You do him proud. Here’s my shirt.” And now it’s the most precious one of my collection.”
Sandro Mazzola’a parents had divorced in 1946 and Valentino had won custody of his eldest son. Mazzola attended all his father’s training sessions, and wherever Valentino was, Sandro was too. Torino was in the Mazzola blood. Nevertheless, Sandro’s legacy would be made elsewhere – in the city of Milan. After the tragedy, Valentino’s good friend, Benito Lorenzi, convinced Sandro’s mother to move to Milan with her young sons, for them to become mascots for the club and to sign up for the youth teams. Lorenzi and Giuseppe Meazza essentially took both the young Mazzolas under their wings. Meazza was the youth coach at the time, and openly welcomed and integrated them into the club. The brothers got changed in the dressing room with the players, went out onto the pitch with them and watched on from the sidelines. Inter even handsomely rewarded the Mazzola family in return.
But Mazzola nearly packed football in during his mid-teens. He found himself to be an excellent basketball player, too. He played the two sports for a time, as a way to relieve the pressure of the Mazzola name and legacy on his young footballing shoulders. “Everybody expected to see a player of the same talent as my father, but I never had his qualities.” He said. Luckily for Inter, he ended up going back to his first love, football.
Inter in those days were led by the legendary and visionary coach, Helenio Herrera. Grande Inter is how they were known. They were the Italian team of the 60’s. However, their style of play was far removed from Il Grande Torino’s. Herrera is considered one of the masters of catenaccio. This defensively orientated style of football demanded compactness and resoluteness, while requiring versatile and hardworking attackers capable of creating something from nothing. The team tended to attack with 5 players, 6 when Fachetti, the legendary full back, moved into offensive positions – a novelty at that time. Mazzola fit the bill perfectly for the set up. Watching Mazzola play, you notice a little bit of Kaka in him: most noticeably his elegant, upright dribbling style carried out at a speed which defied his height. He struck the ball excellently, too. But, he never shirked; Herrera admired him as much for his defensive work rate as his attacking ability. Mazzola could do it all.
In the 1960’s the Inter / Milan rivalry was fierce. Milan, led by Nereo Rocco, another master of catenaccio, and the main reason for the subsequent use of the libero in Italian football, had beaten Inter to the first European cup in 1963, and his team dominated the late 50’s and early 60’s in domestic Italian football.
The rivalry between the big Milanese two was not confined to the clubs. In a personalized rivalry reminiscent of Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero in the early 2000’s, Mazzola had his own to and fro with the Milan and Italy great and winner of the 1969 Balon D’or, Gianni Rivera. In the 1970 world cup, the Italian coach Ferruccio Valcareggi introduced the Staffetta (relay) Policy, playing Mazzola for one half and replacing him with Rivera at half time. The manager claimed the two of them couldn’t play together as they would unbalance the side. In the quarter and semifinals, as ever, Rivera came on at half time and decided the two crucial games. Pressure was on for Rivera to start, but Valcareggi didn’t yield. He persisted with the policy; Mazzola started the final, with Rivera on the bench. But this time, Rivera didn’t come on at half time – finally making his way onto the pitch in the 84th minute, with Italy 3-1 down. Despite a European Championship win in 1968 and a second place in the World Cup, the Italian fans and media were furious; and Valcareggi nearly didn’t survive.
The two great rivals finally played together in the 1974 World Cup, with Rivera wearing the number 10 shirt for Italy, and with Mazzola deployed on the wing; but their careers, like their clubs and national teams’ football dominance, were both coming to the end. The Italians were knocked out by Poland in the final group game.
Mazzola became Inter captain in 1970, and in his first season he led his side to the 1970/1971 scudetto and was consequently voted the second best player in Europe, behind Johann Cruyff. He captained the side until his retirement in 1977.
Sandro Mazzola certainly made true on his words as that seven year old; but did he surpass his Dad’s achievements and legacy? He would say he definitely didn’t. Nostalgia and loss combined is a strong force. Some would say he did. Nonetheless, he gave it a great shot.