That famous moustache. The receding hairline. Sandro Mazzola was unmistakable on the pitch. As he weaved his way through the hoards of Italian defenders during the greatest years of catenaccio, the Turin-born megastar would build a career that took him to the very heights of what was possible in an Internazionale shirt. To this day, few can boast the achievements of ‘ Il Baffo’.
How differently life began, however. Born to one of Italy’s most revered players, Valentino Mazzola, in November 1942 – a week after his father signed for Torino – tragedy would strike at the very heart of this institution of an Italian family in 1949. Valentino, a star of perhaps the finest Italian club side to date, was to perish in the Superga air disaster; a plane crash that took the lives of the Grande Torino team as they made their way back from Lisbon.
Valentino, a handsome, supremely gifted and diminutive number 10 is still considered by some to be the greatest Italian player of all time. Indeed, his 118 goals in 195 appearances for Il Granata lends weight to the assertion.
Unlike the player his son would later become, Valentino exuded a calm elegance on the pitch, gliding past players as an inside forward and dominating games in a way that few could match. He was the pin-up boy of calcio – a man, at 30, with everything to gain and nothing to lose. Until Superga, of course. A legacy of legend was left behind and the seeds were sewn in the mind of a boy who would later guide Inter to two European Cups and four Scudetti.
For Sandro, the death of his father hit hard. After his parents divorced in 1946, it was Valentino who raised a young Sandro and taught him the early art of dribbling, striking and passing. Later in life, Sandro told Gazzetta Dello Sport: “The basics are everything for a footballer. My father taught me the basics – for that I will always be in his debt. I built a career on the skills he taught me. I had to become a footballer. There was no option. I had to find peace on the pitch. We had little time together.”
Perhaps the agony, anger and sheer frustration at losing his mentor were what motivated Sandro to reach the heights he ultimately scaled. Along with his brother – another talented young player – Ferruccio, he would sign for Inter in 1960.
The story of how the brothers came to join the Nerazzurri is heart-warming: “One day Benito Lorenzi, the Inter forward who played with my father in the Italy team and was a very close friend of his, came to my house. He asked my mother to let me go to Milan to become the team’s mascot. Giuseppe Meazza was also greatly affected by the Superga disaster and went out of his way to help my brother and me.
Read | Valentino Mazzola: the legendary leader of Il Grande Torino
“The two of us would put on the full Inter kit, walk out with the players and stay by the side of the pitch during the matches. Even as mascots we were on bonuses and we used to get 10,000 lire for a win and 5,000 for a draw. It was a lot of money for our family.”
The generosity that Meazza and Inter demonstrated was enough to convince Sandro that his future lay in Milan, the city where his father was born 41 years earlier. The world had to wait for 12 years before they saw the return of a Mazzola on the pitch after Superga, as Sandro made his debut for Inter against Juventus in 1961, selected by the notoriously hard-to-please Helenio Herrera. It was a tough baptism of fire, witnessing a rampant Juve side put nine past his new employers.
Despite his obvious talent, the early years were tough for a forward who relied heavily on touch, vision and passing in the final third. Aside from struggling to match the expectation that the Mazzola named carried, he was part of a Herrera team that often sat back, soaked up pressure and relinquished possession of the ball: “It was very difficult when I was young because everyone expected me to be as talented as my father. But I didn’t have the same qualities as him. The fans sometimes made negative comments about me and that was hard to take, and it got so bad I was even thinking about giving up football at one stage.”
After making his Azzurri debut in 1963, aged just 20 for a national team that preferred the selection of senior, experienced players, Mazzola was to push on and mould himself into one of the most effective forwards in the game. In many ways, he was an early Kenny Dalglish; capable of using his body to shield possession and spotting passes before most others. A goal every four games for the club is a testament to the finishing and technical qualities that ensured he successfully emulated his father.
Alongside the likes of former Barcelona midfielder Luis Suárez, Mario Corso, Armando Picchi and the great Giacinto Facchetti, Sandro would form the backbone of a team that would go on to dominate calcio and the European game in the 1960s. Mazzola’s personal influence was colourfully vivid as he helped the club lift the 1964 European Cup as the tournament’s joint top-scorer. A year later, the Nerazzurri would defend their crown against Benfica, Mazzola again proving to be the catalyst in attack.
For those who remembered Valentino, it was a different kind of Mazzola on show. Sandro, despite his undoubted class, was a bustling forward, perfect at defending from the front, as Herrera demanded. He buzzed around in the inside forward positions, finding space and moving the ball. Valentino was different: he glided, looked the part and would often come off the pitch with not a mud stain in sight. Sandro, unlike the man he barely knew but revered, was a warrior. He had to work harder for it. He had to prove he was more than just Valentino’s son.
Read | Giacinto Facchetti: the Inter legend decades ahead of his time
In addition to his notable success for Inter, Il Baffo was also part of a great era for wider Italian football. While the Azzurri didn’t pick up the number of trophies the wildly-talented squad deserved, Mazzola helped guide Italy to Euro 1968 glory, overcoming a strong Yugoslavia side in the final. His performances over the course of the week-long event elevated him to the UEFA Team of the Tournament. It was just reward for a player who didn’t score during the finals but was a constant threat throughout, turning defence into attack with the same intelligence that his father demonstrated two decades earlier.
A World Cup runner-up in 1970 – when the world held its breath to watch both Mazzola and Gianni Rivera in the same side (something that was ultimately a pipe dream as Rivera was used sparingly) – Sandro finished with 22 goals in 70 national team appearances and three World Cup appearances. It remains a shame that the likes of Mazzola, Facchetti and Rivera never lifted the Jules Rimet.
As Sandro scaled the tallest peaks in the world football, brother Ferruccio would move from club to club, enjoying his best years at Lazio between 1968 and 1971. A nomadic existence was finally brought to an end aged just 29. Ferruccio passed away in May 2013, illness taking the life of the younger Mazzola.
As Sandro wound down his career in 1977, six years after finishing runner-up to Johan Cruyff in the 1971 Ballon d’Or, Italy would look ahead to brighter times with a new generation; a generation of players who would lead the Azzurri to 1982 World Cup glory in Spain.
Still involved in the game today as a commentator and pundit for RAI, Mazzola continues to display the guile and knowledge that enabled him to succeed his father and cement his place, alongside Valentino, as perhaps greatest father and son to have ever kicked a ball. In an era before in-depth stats, Mazzola’s brilliance was obvious – the numbers were merely a supplement to things that often can’t be measured. In many ways, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, with his intelligent movement and speed of thought, is a similar player in today’s game.
As a now 76-year-old Mazzola looks back on his early years, as he fought to overcome the death of his superstar father, he reflects with fondness at a career that brought him closer to the man who he barely knew but idolised for his entire life. In 2014, he told Rai TV: “I was closer [to Valentino] through football. Maybe I could have studied and become something else, but I know I wouldn’t feel at peace. I feel close to my father. Football brought us together again.”
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem