On a balmy early May afternoon in 1979, AC Milan clinched their tenth Serie A title with a game in hand. A mundane 0-0 draw at home against Bologna was enough to put Nils Liedholm’s men out of Perugia’s reach and to ensure the gold star symbolising the ten domestic titles would adorn the Rossoneri’s shirts from the following season.
As Gianni Rivera and his teammates celebrated around the San Siro, their thoughts turned to the late Nereo Rocco, the man for whom achieving the star had become a personal obsession, but whose life had come to an end less than four months earlier.
In AC Milan and Italian football’s illustrious history, few men have had as big an impact as the man they called El Paròn, Triestin for The Master. Not only did Rocco pilot the Rossoneri to two European Cups, he was a pivotal figure in the introduction of Catenaccio, the defensive system with which Italian football has been associated which ever since.“My teams play Catenaccio, the others only play a cautious style football,” was one of Rocco’s favoured rebuttals when asked about his philosophy. Born in Trieste in 1912, he retained a special feeling with his hometown, so much so that he would always speak in the local dialect. Rocco’s razor-sharp humour, quick wit and Triestine dialect would become a mainstay of calcio’s landscape for over two decades.
By a strange twist of fate, one of the most recognisable surnames in Italian football was borne out of a mistake. In 1925, the family’s original surname, Rok, was Italianised as under the Fascist regime only citizens with an Italian sounding surname could apply for certain jobs. Rok was originally meant to be translated into Rocchi but, due to a mistake at the local council it became Rocco.
After a decent but not particularly illustrious playing career took him from his local side Triestina to Napoli and Padova, Rocco, who won a solitary cap for Italy, returned home to begin life as a coach. With El Paròn at the helm, Triestina finished the 1947/48 season as runners-up behind the mighty Grande Torino, before two eighth-place finishes in the two following seasons.
An acrimonious departure from Triestina took him to Treviso, but the seeds of what would become a tactical revolution had been sown. While Torino and other major Serie A sides adopted the WM formation pioneered by Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman, Rocco followed the example of Gipo Viani, who introduced the role of a libero behind the three centre-backs.
With this system, Viani took Salernitana to the Serie B title in 1946/47 and Rocco quickly recognised his colleague’s tactics were a formidable weapon for smaller teams.
However, Rocco’s defensive philosophy did not derive from a lack of tactical nous, rather from understanding the need to maximise his team’s strength as much as possible and to steer away from the suicidal nature of going toe-to-toe with the best clubs in the league.
Once, shortly before kick-off, a journalist addressed Rocco. “May the best team win,” he said. The reply was typically concise and honest: “Hopefully not.”
He often described his philosophy as “bread and salami football” – a theme which would be revisited by former Torino coach Emiliano Mondonico in the 1980s and 1990s – to illustrate the simplicity of its tactics.
“He coaches with genius-like pragmatism,” said Gianni Brera, an icon of Italian sport journalism, who developed a special relationship with Rocco. “Whereas the average Italian coach simply relies on a pale imitation of the football offered in England, Rocco evolves it and innovates it.”
Following a rather uninspiring spell at Treviso Rocco returned home to Triestina, but constant disagreement with the board saw him move to Padova after just a single season. With the Biancoscudati languishing towards the bottom of the table in Serie B, Rocco first steered them clear of relegation, then took them to Serie A.
Padova were far from the richest club in the land, but with some shrewd signings, chief among them Sweden international Kurt Hamrin, who had been discarded by Juventus, he put together a side that was far greater than the sum of its parts.
The Appiani Stadium quickly became a graveyard for much more established sides, including the mighty Juventus team boasting the likes of John Charles and Omar Sivori. What Padova lacked in talent they more than made up for with intensity, duly applying Rocco’s no frills approach.
What today would be considered a master motivator, was simply thought of as a man with common sense back then.
Rocco and Brera (right) had a special relationship.
While financial limitations would prevent Padova to ever better the third place finish achieved in the 1957/58 season, the trajectory of Rocco’s career pointed firmly upward and, when AC Milan came calling in 1961, El Paron did not have to think about it twice.His reputation for defensive football preceded him at the San Siro, but Rocco made light work of it in his first season at the club, as the Rossoneri romped to the title, scoring 83 times in 34 games.
Ruthless on and off the pitch, he decided to send the homesick Jimmy Greaves back to Britain, where he would become a Spurs legend, after just 12 league appearances. Rocco wasted no time in recruiting a replacement, signing Dino Sani from Boca Juniors, who he would welcome in trademark fashion. “He looks older than me,” he joked as Sani arrived in Milan.
With the Brazilian replacing Greaves, Rocco’s Milan slowly began to take shape, making history the following season by becoming the first Italian side to lift the European Cup, after beating Benfica at Wembley in the final.
“Those who are not men enough for this can stay on the coach,” Rocco told his players as Milan approached the ground. Typically, everyone disembarked apart from the man himself, who had successfully managed to take his players’ minds off the historic occasion ahead.
Benfica took the lead, before two second-half goals from Jose Altafini clinched the first of the Rossoneri’s seven European Cups. AC Milan’s zenith was also the end of Rocco’s first spell in charge, with the man from Trieste moving to Torino.
In his four seasons under the Mole Antonelliana, Rocco failed to lift a trophy but nevertheless ensured the club achieved their best league finish since the Grande Torino era had been brought to a tragic end two decades earlier.
At the beginning of the 1967/68 season, El Paròn returned to the San Siro, winning his second Scudetto, lifting the European Cup Winners’ Cup and renewing his era-defining rivalry with Inter manager Helenio Herrera.
Like Rocco, Herrera, who would lead his side to European glory the season after Milan’s Wembley triumph, could claim to have invented the Catenaccio. However, that’s where the similarities between El Paròn and The Wizard began and ended. Whereas the latter kept his cards very close to his chest, the former made a point of drinking regularly with journalists. While Herrera came across as sophisticated, Rocco was much more down to earth and, inevitably, much more of a straight-talker.
“That idiot they call ‘The Wizard’”, he once proclaimed, “is only good at giving those other idiots [the journalists] something to write about.”
Rocco (right) and Herrera were best of enemies during their careers
However, once he allowed his grumpy mask to slip off, Rocco was eager to express the utmost respect for his crosstown rival.The following season, inspired by Rivera, calcio’s original Golden Boy, Milan reached another European Cup final. Having disposed of Celtic and Manchester United, the winners from the previous two campaigns, along the way, the Rossoneri were pitted against Rinus Michels’ Ajax, the emerging powerhouse of European football.
Billed as a clash of cultures, Milan’s Catenaccio against the Dutchmen’s Totaalvoetbal, the final proved to be exactly that. Rocco defied calls to alter his system to neutralise Johan Cruyff, preferring instead to convince his players his tactics would see them home. “Kick everything that moves and too bad if you happen to hit the ball,” was his way of readying his troops, whom he urged to “mark their midfielders from the dressing room to the toilet.”
Milan overwhelmed Ajax, with a hat-trick from Piero “Pierino” Prati and a goal from Angelo Sormani securing a 4-1 win and a second European crown.
In the following four seasons, Rocco would lift another European Cup Winners’ Cup and a Coppa Italia, before stepping down for the final time in 1973. In the same year, he turned down Federico Fellini’s offer to appear in Amarcord, which would end up winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Rocco, however, did not need a screen, for he was an actor in everyday life, famously replying to those questioning his tactics that it was “Mrs Rocco’s decision, not mine.”
After spending a season at Fiorentina, he would return to the San Siro one last time in 1977, as he was appointed technical director alongside Liedholm. Less than two years later, a life lived always with the foot firmly on the gas came to an end in his hometown.
A man larger than life could not go out on a whimper, and he didn’t. Speaking in dialect, as he lay in his hospital bed, Rocco asked his son, Tito, a question he had asked countless time during his career.
“Dame el tempo, Tito.” “How long is left, Tito?”
El Paròn behaved as a football man until the very end.