Herrera's creative engine room: God, Freud and Yoga

“He who plays for himself plays for the opposition. He who plays for the team plays for himself.”

The notebooks of Helenio Herrera, published by his widow Fiora Gandolfi, are full of aphorisms like that, which shed insight on the intriguing paradox of Inter’s famous, infamous coach.

The brilliant Argentinian football writer Marcela Mora y Araujo has just analysed Herrera's notebooks in the new issue of Champions (out now folks, at all good newsagents and here).

Brilliant analysis - and the journals are good, too

As Marcela points out, Herrera is usually remembered as a dictatorial, authoritarian leader whose greatest triumphs – winning the European Cup in 1963 and 1964 with Inter – were clouded by rumours of skulduggery, gamesmanship and bribery, and whose reputation is forever stained Darth Vader black by his association with the sterile defensive football of catenaccio.

Yet, as Marcela’s researches make clear, Herrera wasn’t just a brutal cynic. His life reads like a magic realist tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The son of an exiled Spanish anarchist trade unionist, Helenio was born, at an unknown date (some say 1910, others 1916), in the islands of the Tigre Delta near Buenos Aires but moved as a young boy to Casablanca, where he lived in poverty.

By the 1930s, when he made his name as a player in France, he could speak Spanish, Arabic, French, English and Italian and often spoke them all in the same sentence.

His personal Esperanto gave him an aura that led many to call him Il Mago (The Magician).

After impressing in Spain, he made Inter successful and notorious before drifting into self-parody (he was even repudiated by the Inter old guard, the very players he had made famous) and retirement.

When he died, in 1997, his ashes lay behind an unmarked stone on San Michele, Venice’s island cemetery, until the British royal family, which owns some plots on the island, intervened. 

For tactical aficionados, Herrera’s beautifully annotated diagram of a W-M formation dated 1925 – the same year Herbert Chapman was pioneering this system in England – will be of particular interest.

For me, the intriguing aspect of Herrera’s notebooks is the breadth of his sources.

He draws on yoga, psychoanalysis and – interestingly for a man who insisted on a non-religious funeral – the lives of saints, as he jots down thoughts and sketches which might help him as a defender and coach.

He pioneered self-help psychology.

Decades before Paul McKenna promised to make us thin, rich and tobacco-free, he would stick up signs around the dressing room which challenged players: “Why not be the best?” (Ironically, Jimmy Carter, one of America’s most mediocre presidents, later adopted the slogan.)

Crystal Palace, 1965: HH shows his methods to the FA

I was struck by two of Herrera’s dictums: “Style is in limitation” and “The worst thing is to make a mistake with someone else’s ideas.”

Nobody ever accused him of doing the latter.

Though he hated being called Il Mago and could analyse football with scientific dispassion, Herrera believed in ritual.

The ball was to be worshipped, its talismanic qualities so powerful that touching it briefly was, he told players, good for the mind.

Herrera was a paradoxical man.

The Italian writer Gianni Brera, who loved him and hated him, caught his aspect brilliantly when he called Herrera a “clown and a genius, vulgar and ascetic, sultan and believer, boorish and competent, megalomaniac and health freak... he is all this and more.”

Even his adherence to catenaccio is not as unswerving as legend suggests.

The stats on his managerial career show that his Atletico Madrid team scored 2.76 goals per game between 1949 and 1952, while at Sevilla (from 1953 to 1956) and Barcelona (1958 and 1960) his side averaged 2.29 and 3.03 goals a game respectively.

At Inter, he managed a free-scoring side but won nothing and turned to a variation of catenaccio that relied on attacking full-backs or wing-backs.

Once he’d discovered that system, he never significantly deviated from it.

Herrera probably didn’t invent catenaccio, but he was responsible for the ritiro, the traditional pre-match ritual where Italian teams retreat to focus on the task in hand.

The ritiro was soon institutionalised throughout calcio.

Jonathan Wilson says that Inter’s extended retreat before the 1967 European Cup final ironically contributed to their defeat by Celtic.

Inter’s ritiro in Portugal was so claustrophobic that many players couldn’t sleep. Herrera’s invention had been so successful that he had forgotten another of his maxims: “Avoid monotony in speeches, training and meals.”

Bested by Stein in '67

The diagrams of yoga and exercise give some insight into the obsessive inner world of this great coach and, by extension, all great coaches.

As he lovingly depicts various exercises, Herrera seems engaged on a quest to understand every muscle and its relevance to a footballer’s performance.

The breadth of his curiosity is a striking contrast to the depth of his self-belief, his certainty that “Things are only as difficult as you make them.”

These notes don’t square with the stereotype of Herrera. But they are, his widow suggests, the rules he tried to live by.

Maybe, too, they helped obscure some of the unpalatable aspects of his success.

It’s easier to ignore skulduggery if you can tell yourself you are inspired by Saint Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Jesuits, and one of Herrera’s greatest influences).

Herrera’s wisdom still resonates.

“Doubt must not enter into me” is, surely, a motto to find favour with Jose Mourinho, the paradoxical genius who now reigns at the San Siro.

Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate Helenio Herrera.

On the evidence of these notebooks, Herrera looks more, as Marcela suggests, like a Renaissance Man than one of South America’s more enduring – and benign – tinpot dictators.

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