In football, the greatest legacies are reserved for those who pioneer their way into folklore. Manager and players alike are remembered in the grandest terms by evaluating their role in changing the course of football forever. It’s a long list, one that sees names like Michels, Cruyff, Pelé and Beckenbauer retain some eternal magic.
It’s perhaps strange, then, that Giacinto Facchetti is often overlooked outside of Italy when the greatest, most pioneering, era-defining players are talked about. This was a man – who above all else played the game with impeccable spirit and morality – who was decades ahead of his time at full-back; a man who scored 75 goals in over 600 games for a largely defensive Inter Milan.
Some, not least the legendary Helenio Herrera, refer to Facchetti as the grandest captain of them all. And with reason.
Facchetti’s magnificent story begins in the quiet northern town of Treviglio, in the province of Bergamo. Noted in later years by his former teachers for being the model student, one who applied himself in class and who had aspirations of becoming a doctor, Facchetti began his playing career as a centre-forward with local club CS Trevigliene.
Much like his excellence in the classroom, Facchetti applied himself with great success as a young striker, favouring shooting from all distances with his rocket of a right foot. His work-rate was evident from a young age, and quickly his thoughts turned to a career in calcio.
It wasn’t long before Facchetti was spotted playing in a youth tournament by Helenio Herrera, who used to scour the local regions for homegrown talent to incorporate into his embryonic Inter dynasty. Facchetti would prove to be his greatest acquisition of all.
Signed with the intention of playing him as a full-back, Herrera worked with Facchetti on the defensive side of his game, surely surprised at how quickly he grasped his idea of catenaccio. Indeed, full-back was probably one of the most challenging positions to play in the system, with immense concentration required at all times, not to mention the ability to intelligently pick when to move forward and join in the counter-attack.
Facchetti, unsurprisingly to those that knew his ability to apply himself and work towards a clear target, was a revelation at full-back. In just his second game – against Napoli in 1961 – he scored and was praised by the media for his tackling ability, physique, pace and attacking prowess. He was the complete modern full-back, except it was the 1960s and most defenders at the highest level did exactly that: defend. Not Facchetti, who quickly established himself as the club’s first choice left-back, gaining a reputation around Europe as a leader and organiser.
Making 15 appearances in his first full season while still learning the position, Herrera was keen to give his prized asset enough time to craft his new role within the Inter system. It was a ploy that worked supremely well, and Inter quickly became ‘Grande Inter’, brushing aside all those in their path and dominating the national, and continental, game over the next decade. At the heart of everything was Facchetti, the manager’s manager on the pitch.
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Read | The incomparable legacy of Helenio Herrera
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By 1963, already the finest attacking full-back in the league, he helped Inter to their first scudetto in nine years, proving to be the catalyst for many attacks and scoring four goals in the league. Most crucially, he played a prominent role in their concession of just 20 goals in 34 league games. It was Facchetti’s ability in defence that so many attacking full-backs could learn from today. He would later tell Gazzetta dello Sport in 1999: “A defender must be able to defend. It is important to help in attack and create a numerical advantage, but a defender must keep everything organised. If you can’t do that, you’re just a winger out of position.”
With qualification for next season’s European Cup assured, Herrera set about conquering Europe and aiming to emulate the success of their local rivals AC Milan by lifting the club game’s most coveted prize. In an era where the format was a straight knock-out, Herrera’s Inter were perfectly suited to take on all those that awaited them. They sat deep, soaked up pressure with confident authority and then pounced on the break, utilising the creative brilliance of Sandro Mazzola, Mario Corso and Luis Suárez on the break.
The final of the 1964 European Cup pitted Inter against Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid. Miguel Muñoz’s side boasted the attacking prowess of Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás and Paco Gento – the most feared forward line in Europe at the time. Muñoz’s idea was to target the wide areas when Inter countered, utilising the skill, pace and trickery of his forwards. Facchetti, however, had other ideas.
Considered by many to be man of the match, Facchetti’s prominence in attack set free a number of moves, but it was his defensive contribution – bold, brave and bullish – that had the press talking afterwards. He played narrow, close to his central defenders and ensured that the fleeting feet of Real Madrid’s soon-to-be legendary front line was nullified.
A 3-1 victory in Vienna saw Herrera’s Inter dubbed ‘Grande Inter’, a moniker taken from the ‘Grande Torino’ side of Ernest Erbstein and Valentino Mazzola. The club replicated that success again in 1965, beating Eusebio’s Benfica courtesy of a solitary Jair goal. At 22, Facchetti was already a double European champion.
By 1965-66, Facchetti was at his most dangerous. He scored 12 goals in 38 games in all competitions and helped Inter to the scudetto again, this time proving more influential in attack than defence. His pace was proving to be a stern test for opposition full-backs, and his ability to cut inside and shoot was leading to team’s distorting their shape to keep him in check. It says everything about his quality that opponents were racking their brains about stopping Inter’s left-back.
The next season, 1966-67, would prove to be the most frustrating of Herrera’s Inter reign. Having lost out on the Serie A title to a miserly Juventus, who scored just 44 goals in 34 games, Facchetti’s thoughts turned to the European Cup final in Lisbon against Celtic.
Having played a pivotal role in seeing the Nerazzurri through to the final with a goal home and away against CSKA Sofia, a chance for a hat-trick of European titles was on offer. Sadly for the man who was the pin-up boy of Italian football, his good looks and impeccable hair winning a number of female admirers, Jock Stein’s Celtic had others ideas and recorded a victory that would see them nicknamed the ‘Lisbon Lions’.
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Read | Sandro Mazzola: from tragedy to triumph
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Having walked away from the season trophyless, Facchetti would have to wait another 12 months before his greatest moment in football would arrive.
Having made his debut for Italy in 1963, going on to become one half of a fearsome full-back pairing with Tarcisio Burgnich, Facchetti was now on the world stage. His performance in a memorable victory against Pelé’s Brazil at San Siro saw his name now mentioned amongst the greats of the global game.
His first major tournament for Gli Azzurri would be the 1966 World Cup in England. Having been sensationally beaten by North Korea in the greatest World Cup shock of all time, it was a mark of the man that he would later apologetically write to an English journalist who called him the world’s best defender, for his lack of form. That was Facchetti – a gentleman. Throughout all his success, his relentless marauds forward and his tight, unforgiving defending, Facchetti retained his humility and decency. He had the grace and honesty of a cricketer, never allowing personal gain to overshadow professional integrity.
The European Championships of 1968 would see Facchetti, now captain of the national side for almost two years, guide Italy to their greatest achievement under his leadership.
Despite being undermined for featuring just four teams, Euro 68 would present Facchetti with the only silverware of his international career. A 2-0 victory over Yugoslavia in the final of the tournament saw Facchetti lift the Euro title and set them on the path to Mexico 70, one of the greatest World Cup finals of all time.
Facchetti was now the respected leader in the Azzurri ranks, taking on the enviable task of guiding the likes of Gigi Riva, Gianni Rivera, Dino Zoff, Pierino Prati and Sandro Mazzola to the title. Having progressed through the group stage courtesy of a 1-0 victory against Sweden, Italy faced hosts Mexico in the quarter-final. A Gigi Riva-inspired Italy progressed, with Facchetti providing solid leadership in defence and ample attacking chances in the final third. Mexico had no answer to his pace, power and aggression.
The semi-finals saw the match of the tournament take place as Italy pitted their wits against Europe’s strongest team at the time, West Germany. Boasting Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, Sepp Maier and Berti Vogts amongst their ranks, Italy’s Squadra would prevail against Germany’s Mannschaft 4-3 after extra-time in front of 102,000 fans in a baking hot Azteca. For many, this is the greatest World Cup game of them all. It was the ultimate test of “endurance and will” according to FIFA.
Looking back, Facchetti’s performance is a sight to behold. In a game where players performed for two hours in the unforgiving heat of Mexico City, Facchetti played like a man on a mission. He never stopped running, constantly pegging the Germans back with his fight to keep Italy on the front foot. He never stopped talking to his defence and those in front. And he never gave up.
With his usual confidence and fearless composure, Facchetti played out one of the finest captain’s performances in World Cup history by guiding his close-knit squad to the final, where they would face the might of Pelé’s Brazil.
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Facchetti in action against Brazil
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In what was perhaps the most one-sided final between two truly great teams, Brazil romped their way to a 4-1 victory, their Samba flair in attack, supplemented by two astoundingly brilliant full-backs of their own, proving too much for Facchetti and co.
In reality, Italy were never in the game, despite being level for 30 minutes at 1-1. Brazil dominated the ball, made better use of the conditions and put Italy to the sword. An ever gracious Facchetti praised Brazil after the final, demonstrating his class even in the most distressing times: “Brazil are the real champions and they deserve this victory. I congratulate them, but I congratulate my teammates even more. We gave everything for our nation but must praise our opponents. This is sport.”
Facchetti would continue to lead Italy until 1977, guiding his nation to a forgettable finals in 1974 when they were knocked out by a superb Poland side.
His final game would come against England at Wembley in 1977, one in which he performed admirably as a 36-year-old libero, despite Italy’s 2-0 loss.
Fondly remembered for his long years as Azzurri captain, Facchetti would finally retire with 94 caps to his name, but more importantly the respect and adoration of the football world. His quite astounding consistency for Italy over a 14-year period in the national team saw him rank amongst the best full-backs of his day, and later in history. His talent and drive was only matched by his grace and honesty, traits that mark out the man from so many other greats.
Facchetti’s brilliance at Inter would continue until 1978, where he would win the scudetto again in 1971 and the Coppa Italia in his final season. They would be added to his remarkable tally of two European Cups and two Intercontinental triumphs. Facchetti would also become one of the few defenders to finish in the top three in the Ballon d’Or vote, coming runner-up to Benfica’s Eusébio in 1965. Having made the World Cup All-Star team in 1970, he was later inducted into the Italian Hall of Fame, a fitting place to rest for Italy’s most respected footballer, a defender only ever sent off once in his career.
Facchetti’s later years would see him remain at the club he played 629 games for, first as a coach and later as sporting director and president. In his honour, the club retired his famous number 3 jersey and kept him on payroll until his death in 2006.
Having influenced a generation of Italian defenders, most notably Paolo Maldini, who has spoken at length about Facchetti’s influence on his career, he passed away a legend; a man whose talent was so wonderfully supplemented by his human qualities.
Sandro Mazzola, Facchetti’s great friend and teammate for over a decade at Inter Milan and with Italy, summed up his old captain best: “He was the greatest figure on the field and off it.” An apt statement about a man who deserves his place alongside the likes of Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Pelé and Maradona.
By Omar Saleem. Follow @omar_saleem