In 1952, Alfredo Foni revolutionised the tactics of Internazionale, turning the team from all-out attack to catenaccio and winning their first Scudetto for 13 years. He was able to do this thanks to the genius of one player, Lennart ‘Nacka’ Skoglund. Despite his success, Foni was dismissed by the club president Carlo Masseroni, who thought he was destroying the game. Inter were not yet ready to win at all costs.

When Foni took charge of Inter in the summer of 1952, he suffered an immediate setback as contract negotiations with the star Dutch forward Faas Wilkes broke down. Il Tulipano had enjoyed great individual success in three seasons at Inter. But he was a 29 year old with a dodgy knee. He needed surgery on damaged cartilage, which made the club unwilling to gamble on his future. Opening the knee of a footballer was serious business, with months of rest and rehab ahead before you knew whether he would be able to regain fitness. Foni watched as the crowd favourite signed for Torino and then sat down to figure out how to turn this indisputable loss to his advantage. 

In the 1930s, Foni had been a defender of international stature, renowned for his toughness and mental resilience. He replaced Virginio Rosetta at Juventus in 1934-35 to partner Pietro Rava, just in time for the last of Juve’s five consecutive Serie A victories, and played 229 consecutive league games for the club. Foni was an Olympic champion in Berlin in 1936 and a World Cup-winner in 1938, when he and Rava were voted into the team of the tournament.  

Bearing this in mind, it was no great surprise when he started erasing attackers from his tactical blackboard. But he also felt he had to do something extraordinary to break the pattern of Serie A, which since the war had been strongly influenced by high-scoring foreign imports. From 1946 onwards the league champions had usually scored more than 100 goals over the 38 games of the season. Torino had shown the way with an incredible 125 in 1947-48. Juventus and Milan accepted the challenge, rather than digging down and kicking the attacking verve out of their opponents, and were ready successors when that great Torino side was wiped out by the Superga diaster in May 1949. Individually, the 35 goals scored by Milan’s Swedish tank Gunnar Nordahl in 1949-50 is still a record in the Italian post-war game.

Inter had tried to compete with the other all-out attacking teams in their kind of game. But Inter always fell short. Foni felt there had to be other ways of trying to win, especially if you didn’t have a Nordahl or a John Hansen (Juventus) up front. In 1952 there was a change in league format: twenty teams were cut to eighteen; 38 league rounds became 34. A smaller number of games meant every loss counted for more and became more difficult to rectify. 

Foni knew what some of his colleagues had done, or had tried to do. Gipo Viani, who took Salernitana to Serie A in 1947, sacrificed an attacker to reinforce the defence. But it didn’t work. The pride of Salerno failed to win away and finished last. Nereo Rocco did better in that same season (47-48) with his home town club Triestina. He altered their basic formation along the same lines and finished a more than credible second. Triestina shared that spot with Juventus and Milan, fully 16 points behind the champions Torino. The winners outscored everybody (with a goal difference of 125–33) while Triestina backstopped themselves into second place (51–42). They finished eighth in the two following seasons, but have since never been seen in the top half of Serie A. Neither Salernitana nor Triestina ever seriously challenged for the title. They had only used these tactics to survive. The problem for Foni, managing a big-time club constantly chasing titles and glory, was to find a solution: how could he reinforce the defence by diminishing the attack without losing the ability to win regularly?

For starters he had better players than Salernitana or Triestina, more skilled and abler in the art of counter-attacking. The team that his predecessor Aldo Olivieri had taken to third place in 1951-52 looked like this: Ghezzi; Blason, Giovannini, Giacomazzi (Padulazzi); Fattori, Neri; Armano, Broccini (Wilkes), Lorenzi, Skoglund, Nyers. Wilkes, plagued by his knee, had lost 15 games to injury, so the team already knew how to cope without him. But Foni went beyond that. He scrapped one of the inside-forward positions altogether. Young Pietro Broccini soon realised he had been pushed way back in the competition for first-team places. 

Foni restructured the team completely. The goalkeeper Giorgio ‘Kamikaze’ Ghezzi remained but Ivano Blason was moved from right-back to become the free defender, the one without a designated opponent who would always be able to support his colleagues. The journalist Gianni Brera, one of the few who appreciated what Foni was doing, described how Blason added qualities to the team, especially after a couple of minutes defending: “…then, suddenly, Blason fires a bombshell from deep within his own half, and 70 metres away you will not find many opponents, only wide open spaces exploitable for the great skilled individualists of Internazionale.”

Gino Armano was drawn back from outside-right to right-back and added further precision to this counter-attacking long-ball game. The centre-half Attilio Giovannini became a stopper who now knew he could choose between making a risky tackle or just anticipating and irritating, as Blason always was there to cover and support him. The left-back Silvano Giacomazzi retained his position.

In the process Foni created a new entity, a well-populated midfield, a purely defensive one acting as a bulwark in front of the defenders. Maino Neri remained, now moved to the right. Bruno Mazza, an acquisition from Legnano, and Fulvio Nesti, a ferocious tackler with remarkable endurance who had joined from SPAL in Ferrara that summer, made up a hard-working trio. 

Up front Foni had the three main reasons for his revolution, his three stars capable of entertaining the full defensive force of most opponents. 

Benito Lorenzi, nicknamed ‘Il Veleno’ (Poison), was the mobile and quick central striker. He was on the small side (169 cm/68 kg) and made from a different mould than the powerful Gunnar Nordahl (180/97) or the rangy John Hansen (183/78). Lorenzi was cut out for counter-attacking and obnoxiously effective. He began playing with his home-town club, the amateurs US Borgo a Buggiano, who sold him to Empoli in 1946 for 100,000 lire. A year later Internazionale showed interest, but had to pay 12 million lire to get him. He had been their first-choice striker since. His nickname had nothing to do with football. It was given to him by his mother when he was a boy and plundered the family bakery to share the bread with friends of lesser means.

Stefano Nyers was a fast left-sided attacker, physically compact with an explosive left foot. He had a chequered background. Born István Nyers in Freyming-Merlebach, France, in 1924 to Hungarian parents (his father was a miner), he grew up in Budapest. He was nurtured by III.Kerület and got a chance to play professionally at only seventeen with Szabadkai Vasutas AC in Subotica, Serbia, a territory annexed by Hungary during the Second World War. Then he played briefly alongside László Kubala at Ganz TE before moving across Budapest to Újpesti TE. He left Hungary in 1946, still only 22 years old. After a short stint with Viktoria Zizkov in Prague he went on to Paris. At Stade Français he was coached by a certain Helenio Herrera. He made such an impression in a friendly against Inter in 1948 that the Italians simply had to get him.

Inter had seven defenders and a two-man attack lopsided to the left, with the right-back Armano coming up whenever he had an opportunity. The tenth and last piece of this jigsaw puzzle was the remaining inside-forward, the Swede Lennart ‘Nacka’ Skoglund, who was a player of wonderful skills, able to trap any hoof from his own defenders. He was the creative mind, the hub Foni needed to get the attack going. In this context, as a modern number 10, Skoglund was as important to Inter as Diego Maradona would be to Napoli 35 years later. 

His rise to stardom was rapid. He grew up in Stockholm, not far from the Hammarby headquarters, and made his debut for the club at 16, in 1946. He left them, then a third-division outfit, late in 1949 to join AIK. Swedish football was amateur at the time (until 1967) and quarantine rules (instead of transfer fees) meant he would not be eligible to play a league game until July of the following year. But he could play friendlies and joined the squad for a post-season tour of England. There, at Highbury, the teenager was spotted by another promising youngster, Brian Glanville. 

”By chance, I was probably the first journalist to write about him in a London newspaper,” Glanville told me a couple of years ago when I was writing Skoglund’s biography. “Coincidence was the word, but you didn’t need great perception to notice and admire his talents that chilly evening at Highbury. AIK were tired at the end of their tour and got beat badly. Still, the best player on the pitch was a boyish little inside-left with glowing blond hair. His name was Skoglund. I have never seen anything like it, not before or since.” Arsenal won the game 8–0.

During the winter Skoglund began his compulsory military service as an artillery gunner at Vaxholm, east of Stockholm. Then he got a lucky break. He was called up late to fill a vacancy when a team picked by the press played the national team as a preparation for the World Cup in Brazil. The cheeky Skoglund showed no respect and scored the two first goals as the Press XI won the game 3–1. At the banquet afterwards he was told to get the necessary vaccinations.

The Yorkshireman George Raynor, who coached both AIK and Sweden, had watched him closely that spring and knew exactly what he was getting, even though Skoglund had yet to play a first division game. The youngster, who had turned 20 on Christmas Eve, went straight into the team for the last friendly, against the Netherlands. He then kept his place for the World Cup opener, in which Sweden faced Italy. Skoglund practically went straight from reserve-team football to the World Cup and wasn’t in top shape. But inspiration and good support from the industrious left-half Ingvar Gärd carried him. Sweden won 3–1 against the depleted Italians, who were rebuilding after the Superga disaster a year earlier. Inter put him on their list and began discussions on the spot. Good for Skoglund, who began to wane during the next game, against Paraguay, and ultimately lost his place after the disastrous 7-1 defeat to Brazil.

He wasn’t fit enough and he had also lost focus during the long periods of inactivity between games. The local press named him Cabelo de Milho (corn hair) and he got all the attention he wanted at Copacabana. Sometimes Raynor and the team manager Putte Kock had no idea where he was.

Rumours surrounded the squad on the return to Sweden. Eight players had gone abroad after the Olympic victory in London 1948. Within weeks of the World Cup they were followed by a further eleven. Skoglund had to go back to Vaxholm to finish his military service, and became the 20th Swedish player to move abroad when he left in early October. 

Carlo (or Charles) Davies went to Stockholm in late August. Davies, the son of AC Milan’s charter member Samuel Richard Davies, was responsible for recruiting new players to Inter and he was determined to get this one. The first 19 Swedes to move had been paid between 75,000 and 130,000 kronor for their signatures. Davies offered 120,000. Skoglund replied, whimsically, “Oh, I have another offer of 140,000.” The negotiation went on and they finally reached an agreement at 165,000. When it came to signing, he realised he still wasn’t of age; his 21st birthday was four months away. He called his father Josef, who had to get a taxi to Hotel Reisen in the Old Town and pen his name. 165,000 kronor was a full year’s pay for 25 skilled workers.

Nacka Skoglund became a professional and as such he was barred from playing in Sweden. AIK weren’t too unhappy to let him go, as he had been alarmingly disinterested during his last few weeks at the club. Besides, AIK had only been able to use him in five league games and a victorious cup final. Losing two mature players was much worse. The wing-half Sune Andersson went to Roma and the striker Bror Mellberg to Genoa. Those were heavy blows and in the end it meant relegation in the spring of 1951.

Skoglund left Sweden five weeks after signing his contract. He flew to Zurich and then headed for Milan by train. He was pulled off at Como by Carlo Davies, to avoid havoc at the final destination. The city of Milan was a revelation to Skoglund. He suddenly had all the money he could ask for, he got a flat at 8 Via Morrone, behind La Scala, and soon found his way to the nightclubs. His habits worried the club management until, in the summer of 1952, he began dating Nuccia Zirelli, a local beauty queen with Calabrian roots. The couple married in early August and his settling into family life, with their first child expected in May 1953, coincided with the appointment of Foni as coach of Inter.

The team got off to a good start and were unbeaten well into the new year. In his first autobiography Nacka recounts the away game against SPAL: “It looked as if we would only get a draw. As usual it was safety first, with only three attackers. It was Nyers, Lorenzi and myself. We ran like poisoned rats, puffing and panting with our tongues hanging out like red ties. ‘I can’t take this anymore,’ complained Lorenzi with five minutes to go. ‘Why don’t you score a goal?’ he suggested. ‘Of course, as you please. But I will wait a minute or two, just to make it more worthwhile.’ I told him that just for fun, because I was so exhausted I almost felt sick when I saw the ball. But suddenly I got a good pass from Nyers. I used my last resources to make a dash for it, dribbled past two opponents and hit. It was a blast, like a rocket past their goalkeeper high up in the net.”

Inter did not lose until the 20th game, 3-1 against Torino, Faas Wilkes scoring one of the goals. His bad knee restricted him to only 12 games and this was the Dutchman’s only goal of the season. Inter lost two more matches before the league title was secured, with a 3-0 win at home against Palermo in the 31st round. Nyers converted a penalty before half time, Skoglund scored the second and Nyers finished with a cannonball. The Inter players were instantly rewarded with a million lire each – and lost the three remaining games.

Inter won the league two points ahead of Juventus. It was a long-awaited reward for the rubber industrialist Carlo Masseroni, who celebrated a decade as club president. Masseroni was happy, but he was also fed up. He had listened to too many remarks during the season. Opposing attackers were drawn into the Inter defensive trawl, where they were outnumbered and inevitably got lost. This was an ugly kind of football, previously unheard of among the top teams of the league. Masseroni was not prepared to take any more of this and simply ordered his coach, “Play like everybody else. At least try to play beautiful football.”

You only have to study the league table to see what Masseroni was after. Inter had won. But they had not scored a century of goals, which might have been expected. The goal difference was 46–24. Not a lot to shout about if you were president of a sports club that strived to provide entertainment.

Foni had to comply for the following season. He reverted to a regular 3–2–2–3 – and won again. He used the same players and probably did as he pleased, employing the defensive formation against the top teams and attacking more intensely against the lesser sides. The catenaccio genie was out of the bottle anyhow and there was no turning back for football as a sport. This time around Inter took four more points (51), scored more goals (67) and loosened up a bit defensively (32). Foni stayed on for one more year and left the club to become coach of the Italy national team at the same time as Masseroni relinquished the presidency. 

The petroleum magnate Angelo Moratti took over and initially had to oversee the break-up of a great team. Moratti liked Skoglund a lot, so much that in 1958 he changed his mind and kept him for a year longer than had been planned. Skoglund had, for some reason, teamed up with Gino Anzanello, the business adviser who had squandered the savings of Stefano Nyers. Anzanello had invested the Hungarian’s money in a men’s shop that never made profit. The first project with Skoglund was a perfume shop for Nuccia, opened in 1955 but hopelessly located in a back street and abandoned after two years. The second was a bar, even farther away from the town centre at Via Paolo Sarpi. This venture went reasonably, well enough for Anzanello to stick around. 

Skoglund left for Sweden in May 1958 to play in the World Cup. To make things easy for Nuccia, he had signed a number of blank cheques. Anzanello got wind of this and made a proposal, to loan the family capital – the savings from eight years as a professional player – to help one of his friends set up a knitting factory. “You will have every penny restored by the time Lennart gets back from Sweden. There will even be interest on top of it.”

It seemed a good idea. Nuccia gave Anzanello a cheque with Lennart’s signature, and off he went. When Nacka returned to Italy with a silver medal he found his gold was all gone. On top of it he had to go to hospital for a hernia operation. Moratti, whose original intention had been to let Skoglund loose after the World Cup, changed his mind. He presented him with a bonus of 10,000 kronor and also gave him a generous loan to allow him to get on with his life. During his final season at Inter, Skoglund shared his position (now outside-left) with Mario Corso, an enigmatic youngster who soon became the new presidential favourite.

Skoglund left Internazionale in 1959, after nine years, for Sampdoria. Moratti concluded a long search for the right coach in 1960, when Helenio Herrera was sacked by Barcelona. Herrera was a catenaccio man, applying the same tactics that Foni had had to give up. In the process he made Inter a team that would win at all costs.

Skoglund spent three seasons with Sampdoria. The team was largely made up of veterans who only got paid when they actually played. The pressure to be selected to earn money and ignore nagging injuries made them use painkillers. Skoglund, who still had his family in Milan, lived the life of a bachelor and began abusing both pills and alcohol. He rounded off his Italian tenure with a disastrous season at Palermo before returning to Sweden.

Nuccia and his two sons stayed in Milan and after a few years the separation became official. He played for Hammarby for four seasons, from 1964 to 1967. He showed glimpses of greatness, as when he scored with a corner kick only minutes into his comeback game against Karlstad. The club made many efforts to find him a job. He tried to sell cars, carpets, books – you name it. Before going to Italy he had been unwilling to work. He never held a job for more than a month or two. This time he was completely unable to adjust to a regular life. He became increasingly irrational. At one point he lived a few blocks from the Hammarby clubhouse but still refused to go there and get on the bus for away games. The bus had to stop outside his door and wait for him. He usually opened the window and shouted, “Got home late yesterday, going into the shower now!” In the end, in 1968, he was kicked out by the fourth-division side Kärrtorps IK, a team coached and managed by his older brother Georg. From then on it was downhill all the way. 

Lennart Skoglund became a recluse, fluctuating between bad days and horrible ones; he only went out after dark. One evening he went to an Italian restaurant. It was a quiet place and he made no fuss at all. The waiter became interested and asked how he knew so much about the food and wine on the menu. “Well, I lived and worked in Italy for quite a few years,” replied Skoglund. “Really? Doing what?” Perhaps he felt he had said too much when he admitted to have been a professional footballer. “My name is Nacka Skoglund.” At this point he was past forty. He had become pudgy and balding. The waiter simply didn’t believe what he heard. “Hey, me and dad used to go to the San Siro and watch Inter. You are NOT Nacka Skoglund!” He left the place devastated.

Skoglund’s life ended dramatically in his childhood home at Södermalm in Stockholm. One summer night in July 1975 he felt something strange inside him. He panicked rather than call an ambulance. He was found in bed, seemingly asleep, with everything around him turned upside down. He had been suffering a haemorrhage in his abdomen.

Eleven years later the Swedish filmmaker Tom Alandh made a documentary dissecting the tragedy of Skoglund. Most of his old pals were still around. Alandh also went to Milan, where he interviewed Benito Lorenzi. Il Veleno was comfortable in front of the camera, speaking Italian and not being pushed into using English. Lorenzi wanted to explain how things were thirty-odd years ago. But he wasn’t able to handle the situation emotionally. It was as if he for the first time realised how important his old friend had been for his own success. No words could describe what he felt. All he could give was tears. He cried out of gratitude.