You can plan, you can plan and you can plan some more and then something happens over which you had no control, that you couldn’t reasonably have been expected to foresee, and everything changes. That’s not to say that there’s no point in coaches and directors planning, but it is to say that there are times when entirely external events take control – and that doesn’t have to mean something as enormous as coronavirus. Football can turn on events that seem random, unconnected, unpredictable – the bounce of a ball, the shape of the goalposts, the eruption of an Icelandic volcano – or on the unlikely influence of one man.
Take, for example, the case of Gino Pivatelli, a forward for Bologna, Verona and Napoli who was top scorer in Serie A in 1955-56 and won seven caps for Italy. At the end of his career, he played 37 games for Milan, by which time he had lost some of his pace and sharpness in front of goal. He never managed them. And yet without him, the first two of their eras of European pre-eminence may never have come about.
Milan’s meeting with Benfica in the 1963 European Cup final was one of those rare crossroad games after which football history takes a decisive turn in a particular direction. Bela Guttmann had left (and cursed) Benfica the previous year in a dispute over his bonus for leading them to successive European titles. Under Fernando Riera, their football remained of the old school, attacking and individualistic. Nereo Rocco’s Milan played a form of catenaccio and it was the mentality that underlay this that led him to pick the 30-year-old Pivatelli rather than Paolo Barison, who had scored six goals in their run to the final. Pivatelli’s job was to mark Mário Coluna, Benfica’s left-half and playmaker. It was an overtly negative move. “He had practical intelligence, common sense and was extremely intuitive,” said the forward Gianni Rivera. “He always knew where the least expected danger would come from.”
Eusébio put Benfica ahead after 18 minutes. José Altafini levelled 13 minutes after the break. A minute after that came the decisive moment. Coluna intercepted a Pivatelli pass inside his own half and advanced. Space was opening up. If he’d been able to play the pass, Benfica would have been three on two. But he wasn’t allowed to. Pivatelli closed in, clipped his back leg and brought him down. The attack was thwarted, but worse than that, Coluna had broken a bone in his foot and was forced off. In the days before substitutes it was a decisive blow. Coluna did hobble back on with 10 minutes remaining but it was a gesture, no more. Altafini had added his second 11 minutes after his first, and Milan won 2-1.
On the 24th anniversary of the final, RAI, the Italian state broadcaster, gathered Coluna, the Milan captain that day, Cesare Maldini, and the journalist Gianni Minà in a studio to watch the game again. “Awful challenge, eh?” Minà said after the foul, before broaching directly the suspicion that has always lingered. “Lads, after 24 years, can we say whether that foul was ordered or not?”
Maldini was adamant: “Absolutely not. Clearly it was a foul, but …”
Coluna, agitated, silenced him with a wave of the hand, pointing at the screen. “Look how far away the ball is,” he said, through an interpreter. “Pivatelli got nowhere near it!”
The truth is the foul was cynical rather than malicious. It was late and clearly designed to bring the counter to an end, but it wasn’t the sort of crunching foul that characterised football in the sixties. And besides, if Pivatelli had been acting under instruction to crock Coluna, why wait until nearly an hour had been played? Nonetheless, as Minà acknowledged, the foul settled the game. Catenaccio had been validated as a style of play that could win the biggest European trophies.
The age of innocence, of Real Madrid and Benfica and all-out attack, of finals that finished 4-3 and 7-3 and 5-3 was over. Rocco – and two of the same players, Giovanni Trapattoni and Rivera – added a second European crown six years later. Inter, with their version of catenaccio, won the European Cup in 1964 and 1965, as well as reaching the semi-finals in 1966 and the final in 1967. Pivatelli’s foul, symbolically at least, had been the moment when the Italians and defensive pragmatism took over.
Pivatelli retired that summer at the age of 30 and soon found a job coaching an amateur side in Fusignano, a comune with a population of about 8,000 in the northern province of Ravenna. He had in his squad a right-footed 18-year-old left-back who was enthusiastic but not particularly gifted. “When you get the ball,” he told him, “give it to [the playmaker] Pollini.” But the full-back wasn’t happy with that, less, it seemed, because it diminished his own role than because he felt football shouldn’t be played like that. Eventually Pivatelli had to tell him that he would never be a regular starter; he just wasn’t good enough.
For the full-back, it was the first major turning point in his life. He gave up his dreams of being a player and decided to become a coach, to put into practice his belief that there shouldn’t be just one playmaker but that every player in the team should be a protagonist. It took a long time, but Arrigo Sacchi did become a coach. Twenty years later he took charge of Parma and, after his then Serie B side beat Milan in the 1986‑87 Coppa Italia, he was made manager of the Rossoneri. Within three years Milan had won two more European Cups and, more than that, their hard pressing style had redefined Italian football.
What if Pivatelli hadn’t been so decisive? What if Sacchi had hung on playing low-level amateur football? There were many other factors in Milan’s late-80s rise under the presidency of Silvio Berlusconi, but that detail was critical. Pivatelli, with a foul and some straight words to a teenager, incidents a little over a year apart, twice transformed the history of the club. Plans are important but, sometimes, stuff just happens.