In the run-up to the release of Issue Ten on 9th September, we will be offering you a sneak peek at a couple of excerpts of articles from the forthcoming issue. Our second excerpt is from Miguel Delaney, who has tackled the Milan v Benfica European Cup final of 1963 for our regular ‘Greatest Games’ section.
You can pre-order Issue Ten on a pay-what-you-like basis from as little as £6 (+P&P). It will be available to download on a pay-what-you-like basis from 16th September.
After a few seconds of silence, the issue that has simmered for years is finally brought up. It’s the 24th anniversary of the 1963 European Cup final and, in order to commemorate the occasion, the Italian state broadcaster RAI have gathered Cesare Maldini, Mario Coluna and the renowned journalist Gianni Mina into a studio to watch and discuss AC Milan’s 2-1 win over Benfica at Wembley. The panel have just seen the pivotal moment in the 59th minute, when Gino Pivatelli fouled Coluna and (to?) put him out of the game. The incident didn’t just reduce Benfica to 10 men in the absence of substitutions, it removed their most influential player. In a period of perceived attacking innocence, Coluna was the architect who gave the defending European champions clear direction and design. Now, the question is how much direction and design lay behind the foul.
So, Mina eventually broaches it.
“Awful challenge, eh? Lads, after 24 years, can we say whether that foul was ordered or not?”
Maldini, who was captaining Milan from centre-half that day, is insistent: “Absolutely not. Clearly it was a foul, but…”
An agitated Coluna cuts him off, pointing at the screen as a translator relays his words.
“Look how far away the ball is. Pivatelli got nowhere near it!”
“Coluna said it decided the game,” Mina interjects.
The game itself, meanwhile, did more than decide that season’s European Cup. It was one of those exceedingly rare individual fixtures that distinctly divided eras in the competition’s history; a meeting of two ultimately dominant teams at opposite points of their cycle.
Because of the improbability of so many elements aligning — right down to the luck of the draw — there have only really been three such clutch contests in 58 years of the competition.
In the 1972-73 quarter-final, a fully formed Ajax brutally illustrated to Bayern Munich just who the continent’s best team were. Many of the German players cited that resounding 4-0 defeat as the most traumatic match of their careers, but also the final lesson that transformed them from domestic champions into European champions. After that elimination, Bayern immediately embarked on their own three-in-a-row. Four years before that, Milan had much the same effect on a more callow Ajax by beating them 4-1 in the 1969 showpiece.
In 1963, though, it was a nascent Milan that showed much greater savvy than the reigning champions Benfica. That wasn’t the only aspect that marked this match apart. It was also unique in the manner that one moment so distilled all of the defining traits of those eras and those sides, effectively bringing two decades down to a single kick.
In that, Pivatelli’s foul was as layered as it was lasting. Because, even if an injury was not intended, it was the ultimate consequence of Milan’s distinctive approach.
Their manager Nereo Rocco had specifically detailed Pivatelli — a notional wing-forward — to shackle the playmaker. Moreover, he had dropped the prolific Paolo Barison in order to do so. Never before at such a vaunted level had a team so conspicuously compromised their existing attacking approach. It perfectly illustrated Rocco’s new pragmatism.
After eight years of free-scoring European Cups in which creators like Coluna had space in which to innovate, a more calculating breed of team and coach were now seeking to shut them down. Innocent attacking had started to give way to a singeing cynicism. The Pivatelli foul did not just symbolise a new era; it set the template for it.
Wembley was witnessing the rise of catenaccio. First, Rocco had to figure how to bring about the fall of Benfica.