Surely, none of us have forgotten the amazing Inter team that gave us so much joy in 2010. La Triplete was something unique and for a little while Inter found themselves at the top of the Italian and the international football. We all remember people like Samuel Eto’o, Wesley Sneijder, Javier Zanetti, Diego Milito, José Mourinho or any of the other heroes who gave us so much joy and pride. But how many of us remember and know about people like Sandro Mazzola, Luis Suárez, Giacinto Facchetti, Mario Corso, Helenio Herrera and the other heroes known as La Grande Inter? Since many of us were not born at the time, it is natural that we do not have any personal memories of this great team but that does not mean that we can not know how Inter in the 1960′s dominated world football. During the upcoming weeks I will be presenting the people who contributed to so many wins and who wrote so many pages in Inter’s history, people who, together were called La Grande Inter.
This part of the article series on La Grande Inter is about a player who spent his entire career at Inter, a person whose history would be impossible to tell without also telling that of his father and the legacy he brought forth. This is the story of Alessandro “Sandro” Mazzola.
It was May 4, 1949 and Valentino Mazzola was on his way home to Turin along with his teammates and coaches of Torino F.C. The Italian champions and dominants had just played a friendly against Portuguese Benfica and now flew back to Italy to play the last four rounds of Serie A and win their fifth straight Italian championship. When the plane approached Turin it ended up in a thunderstorm that forced the pilots go down in height for better visibility. All 31 people on the plane died when it crashed into the rear wall of the Basilica of Superga.
Valentino Mazzola was not only Torinos best player at the time, but also Italy’s and perhaps the world’s best. He was a legend, but despite this, he was humble in his statements. He said at one point that “football will always be a game of eleven”. His team-mate Mario Rigamonti, however, felt that Valentino was so good that “He (Valentino) alone is half the squad. The other half is made by the rest of us together.”
Valentino Mazzola was born in Cassano d’Adda in Milan in 1919 and had a tough upbringing. He lost his father at an early age and was forced to leave school to help his family. When he was 20 years old, his talent as a footballer was noticed by the factory team Alfa Romeo Milano, who signed a contract with him. From there he went to Venezia F.C. where he, together with Ezio Loik, led the team to its most successful period ever which was crowned with a victory in Coppa Italia in 1942. The success at Venezia led to his debut for the Italian national team and made Torino F.C. interested in him, and later made them buy the future super star. It would prove to be a good acquisition and Torino won the Scudetto in 1943 with a team which by many is considered to have played the best football ever. Torino were so dominant during this period so that the Italian national team at a time fielded ten players from Torino. Only the goalkeeper from Juventus managed to break the total dominance. The reserv goalkeeper, however, was from Torino. Captain was, as for Torino, Valentino Mazzola. Torino won five straight Italian football championships between 1942/43 and 1948/49 and came to be known as Il Grande Torino.
The story of this team ended on May 4, 1949. The Italian football lost the players who, during five seasons, dominated the Serie A, the Italian national team lost its backbone. Sandro Mazzola and his brother Ferruccio lost their father.
Sandro Mazzola was born on november 8, 1942 in Turin, just a week after his father had signed for Torino FC. He was only six years old when the accident occurred and no longer lived with his father since his parents divorced three years earlier. His mother Emilia had received custody of him and his brother, Ferruccio, and the family had returned to Milan. Since Sandro was so young when the accident happened, he has few memories of his father and talked about this in an interview:
“I was only six at the time of Superga and so most of my memories regarding what happened have been erased. However, I remember when I used to go to Turin to watch the games and I used to hold onto my father’s hand. I don’t remember much, but I do recollect when I was told that my father was dead many years later. I was told many things about what happened, but I tended to forget about it.”
Sandros early life was not easy. The family was struggling financially, but even worse was the envy of and all the rumours that circulated. In Italy, it was illegal to divorce during the 1950s and it was well known that Valentino had left Emilia for a younger woman. Sandro was often referred to as poor little Sandro and he was forced to attend and be at the centre of the many commemorations and anniversaries commemorating the accident. When Sandro became old enough to decline, he did so, and when the 25th anniversary of the Superga arrived, he chose not to attend and wrote the following to explain his absence:
“It is very difficult for me to talk about my father, because I hardly knew him… I don’t like commemorations… I prefer to suffer alone.”
To stand in the shadow of his father and be expected to follow in his footsteps must not have been easy for the young Sandro. He certainly had talent, and perhaps many who believed and hoped that he would represent Torino when he took the steps to get to Serie A, but that did not happen. In an interview, Sandro talked about the first time he put on Inter’s jersey, the only jersey he would wear during his career:
“One day Benito Lorenzi, the Inter forward who played with my father in the Italy team and was a very close friend of his, came to my house. He asked my mother to let me to go to Milan to become the team’s mascot. Giuseppe Meazza was also greatly affected by the Superga disaster and went out of his way to help my brother and I. The two of us would put on the full Inter kit, walk out with the players and stay by the side of the pitch during the matches. Even as mascots we were on bonuses and we used to get 10,000 lire for a win and 5,000 for a draw. It was a lot of money for our family.”
Above mentioned Lorenzi ensured that the Mazzola brothers were given football trials for Inter and in the spring of 1961, twelve years after the Superga air disaster, the Italian audiences got to once again see a Mazzola in Serie A. It was the last game the season 1960/61 and after a controversial decision, the previously abandoned game between Juventus and Inter was to be replayed. Juventus had secured victory in the Serie A and as a protest against the decision to replay the match, Inter president Angelo Moratti ordered coach Herrera to send out the Primavera for the game. One of the players who got the chance was the 18-year-old Sandro Mazzola. Inter lost the game 9-1, scorer for Inter: Mazzola on a penalty.
After the fine debut, it would take another season before Sandro established himself at Inter. When Inter won the Scudetto in 1962/63, he was a strong contributor with his 10 goals in Serie A. Sandro proved that he was a talented football player, and not just living on his surname, as some critics claimed. In an interview a few years ago, he talked about this criticism:
“It was very difficult when I was young because everyone expected me to be as talented as my father. But I didn’t have the same qualities as him. The fans sometimes made very negative comments about me and that was hard to take, and it got so bad I was even thinking about giving up football at one stage.”
The criticism, however, levelled off after season 1963/64 when he had his real breakthrough. In Serie A, Inter lost the crucial play-off match against Bologna but in European Cup things went much better. Sandro Mazzola scored seven goals in nine games for Inter and his two goals in the final against a great Real Madrid team led Inter to its first title in the cup. After the game Mazzola received the praise from the opposing team’s legend Ferenc Puskás;
“I played against your father. You did him proud and I want to give you my shirt.”
The following season Inter won the Scudetto and offensive midfielder Mazzola became Capocannoniere, top scorer, with 17 goals.
Sandro Mazzola became one of the most important players of Helenio Herrera’s La Grande Inter and stayed at Inter throughout his 17-year career. He was a member of the teams that won four Scudetti, two European Cups and two Coppa Intercontinentale. In 565 games he scored a total of 158 goals.
Mazzola also had a long career with the Italian national team that started in 1963 when he scored against Brazil on a penalty. He represented Italy in three world cups. In 1966, he was a part of the team that exprienced the fiasco against North korea which meant that Italy had to go home after the group stage. After Italy had won the 1968 European Championships, the team were favorites in the World Cup in 1970. The Italian coach Valcareggi had two really good offensive midfielders available: Sandro Mazzola and AC Milan’s Gianni Rivera. However, he was convinced that the two could not play together and came up with a solution that came to be called Staffetta which meant that the two players got to play one half each: Mazzola played the first half and Rivera the second. He consistently used this idea until the final against Brazil when he abandoned it and let Mazzola play the entire game. Rivera only got to play the last eight minutes of the game and finally the two got to play together. However, it was too late because Brazil had a secure 4-1 lead and coach Valcareggi endured much criticism for the late change. In the World Cup of 1974 he let the two to play together, but the team was older and the good results failed to materialise. In his 70 caps for gli azzurri Mazzola scored 22 goals.
After his career ended, Mazzola first received various roles in Inter’s management between 1977 and 1984, and then proceeded to Genoa. In 1995, he returned to Inter as sports director and was responsible for signings before he was replaced by his former team mate Gabriele Oriali in 1999. His achievements as a Sports Director for Inter resultet in both good and bad signings, but the one he himself is most proud of is the acquisition of Andrea Pirlo.
In 2000, he received a post as director at his father’s old Club Torino F.C, a club that never loved Sandro like they loved his father. When Sandro was in Turin to play there was never anybody there from Torino too greet him and he was often booed by the crowd. Therefore, it seemed a little odd that the Club hired him as sports Director in 2000. The results failed to materialise and after three years at the post, he had to leave Turin. For many people it appeared as a desperate attempt to forge ties to the Club’s history when Torino hired Valentino Mazzolas son for the job.
Sandro Mazzola is now working as a pundit on TV and is strongly engaged in issues related to Inter. An interesting fact is that Mazzola worked as a commentator during the World Cup finals in 1982 and 2006, both won by Italy.
Sandro Mazzola grew up with almost inhuman expectations from the public because of his surname. He was not like his father, but made a name for himself with his performances on the pitch. His father was the leader of Il Grande Torino, he himself was one of the players who were La Grande Inter. Just like his father, Sandro was one of the greatest of his generation and although he never became as legendary, he is still, for us Interisti, a true legend and bandiera.
Calcio – a history of Italian football by John Foot