The triumph and tragedy of Armando Picchi and Gaetano Scirea, the legendary liberos who died by 36

The triumph and tragedy of Armando Picchi and Gaetano Scirea, the legendary liberos who died by 36

For me, the term “Calcio” immediately conjures up images of the iconic blue shirt of the Azzurri. Upon deeper consideration, my mind jumps to the alliterative and associated term of Catenaccio – door bolt – a defensive system of play initially developed by an Austrian coach for his Swiss national team in the 1930s, but refined and perfected by the Italians.

If one is so inclined to travel further down the cerebral rabbit hole of the Italian lexicon, it is not a great intellectual leap to move from Catenaccio to Libero, the position that in essence controls the opening and closing of the door bolt. Within calcio history, the libero was the fulcrum around which great sides were built and the implicit trust of a manager was placed. Indeed, the libero was the manager’s vision incarnate.

Italian football is littered with examples of defensive brilliance, names indelibly linked to the very soul of the peninsula. These include Baresi, Cannavaro, Nesta, Maldini, Gentile, Bonucci, Costacurta, Facchetti and Burgnich. However, two names ascend even beyond this illustrious list; they are the very embodiment of the libero and are synonymous with glory. Armando Picchi and Gaetano Scirea are the silk threads that run through the defensive steel of calcio.

Armando Picchi

Armando Picchi had the type of craggy facial features that gave the appearance of having lived a hundred lifetimes by the time he was 18. Watching old black and white video footage does nothing to enhance the appearance of the original Italian libero, but it does put into perspective that he played the game with the intelligence and experience of a player mature beyond his years.

Born in Livorno in 1935, the future standard-bearer for all subsequent incumbents of the position was born the same year that his hometown club finally completed work on their stadium. A symbiotic relationship between the new-born baby and Livorno’s newly finished football amphitheatre would fully merge in 1990, but before then, Picchi would set the standard by which all future Italian defenders would be judged.

Leo Picchi was Armando’s senior by 14 years, and was, as is so often the case, the elder sibling who instigated a love affair with the beautiful game. Leo made his debut for local side Livorno in 1945 played a pivotal role in identifying his younger brother’s talent, recommending him to the club and setting him on a journey to follow in his footsteps. Just as Leo left the first team in a move to Torino, Armando made his debut for the Primavera side.

In 1954, Armando eventually made his debut in the Livorno first team, starting his career as a right-back. Up until his transfer to SPAL in 1959, throughout his 99 appearances for his beloved Livorno, Picchi would play and develop in the wide position. This would continue throughout his single season of 27 appearances at SPAL, where Armando would help the side achieve a record high of fifth place in Serie A.

Picchi’s promise had caught the wandering eye of Helenio Herrera, who would tempt the full-back from the provincial side to Internazionale, and although it wasn’t obvious at the time, the seeds of Grande Inter had been sown

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Joining Inter at the same time as Picchi was another critical component of Herrera’s master plan, Giacinto Facchetti. Picchi would initially play as Inter’s right-sided defender and Facchetti – a defender decades ahead of his time – would play as the left. Herrera and Picchi’s first two seasons were one of poverty when considering football’s primary currency of silver.

In the midst of a six-season Scudetto drought when Herrera arrived, and despite a third-place finish backed up by a runner’s up spot the following season. Inter’s maverick owner Angelo Moratti wasn’t impressed. Rumours circulated like ravenous vultures over the brooding Herrera, and with them the very real possibility that two seasons would be all he saw at the Giuseppe Meazza. But history is littered with decisive moments. Moratti opted to give Herrera a little more time, forcing the manager to acknowledge that his side were too open and susceptible to conceding.

Herrera opted to change the team’s style of play. A traditional back four was deployed, but with the natural attacking instincts of Facchetti given licence to patrol the entire left side of the pitch. The extra man was placed into the sweeper role behind the back four. Inter would play a man-to-man marking system and leave a spare player at the back to sweep up any opponent or through ball that was missed. It was a position that required intelligence, composure, vision and anticipation. Picchi had all the technical and mental attributes needed and so he became Herrera’s libero, captain and voice on the pitch.

Gaetano Scirea

Gaetano Scirea was born in Cernusco sul Naviglio, a suburb in the metropolitan city of Milan in 1953. For Scirea, it wasn’t to be the northern powerhouses of the Nerazzurri or Rossoneri where he would learn his trade. Instead, Scirea attracted attention from Atalanta and in 1970 joined the side based in Bergamo. As Armando Picchi finished his playing career in 1969, so began the career of Gaetano Scirea.

As with Picchi, Scirea didn’t start as a libero; in fact, during the early stages of his career with the Orobici, he played in midfield. It was to be a grounding that would allow him to take the position to unprecedented heights and create the prototype for the modern-day libero.

At just 19 years of age, Scirea had done enough to convince Atalanta’s coaching staff that he was ready for the physicality of Serie A. Ironically it was Scirea’s perceived ability to play the game without resorting to the more traditional Italian dark arts that set him apart from his teammates.

After two years in Lombardy it was inevitable that a player with Scirea’s poise and intelligence would attract the monolithic giants of the north, with the Old Lady of Turin making a move for the 21-year-old in 1974. Juventus were basking in the glow of consecutive Scudetti, and despite Čestmír Vycpálek’s success during his short reign, it was former Juve player Carlo Parola who would take charge for Scirea’s first season.

Scirea’s first obstacle after arriving in Turin was the somewhat inconsequential reputation of Sandro Salvatore, who had been at the club for the previous 12 years. Initially, the Bianconeri fans were sceptical of the slight young man signed from Atalanta, but football is not all about physicality. Scirea didn’t take long to turn the doubters, his intelligence and maturity, which belied his age, soon allaying any fears that he wasn’t up to the considerable task of replacing Salvatore.

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Scirea’s first two years at Juventus were more successful than Picchi’s at Inter. In his first full campaign, Scirea won his first Scudetto title. The second season would see Juve finish as runners-up to rivals Torino. However, if Picchi had his mentor in place at the start of his journey at Inter, Scirea had to wait until the start of the 1976/77 season and the arrival of Giovanni Trapattoni.

Upon Trapattoni’s arrival, Scirea was paired with a manager and mentor who truly understood his talents and liberated the sweeper role from being the last line of defence into a position that would be the springboard for attacking play.

Picchi’s Glory

The 1962/63 season saw the manifestation of Herrera’s tactical thinking and astute alterations bear fruit, and while Herrera’s claim to inventing the very concept of catenaccio is a discussion for another time, what was immediately clear was that Picchi under Herrera’s tutelage was defining the libero position.

Picchi, like Scirea, was not a physically imposing figure on the pitch, but his ability to read the game and sense the danger before it had become apparent ensured that his five-foot-seven frame was rarely needed for bruising football. His body was merely the conduit which carried the footballing brain into the correct position to snuff out the threat of his opponent.

Inter won their first Serie A title in nine years in 1963, conceding just 20 goals in 34 games. Herrera’s tactical reinvention of Inter’s back line had profound effects, not only for the club but also for wider Italian football. Picchi was seen as an extension of the manager, directing his teammates around the pitch, issuing instructions and orchestrating the play on his terms. His natural instinct to defend meant that he very rarely crossed into the rarefied atmosphere of the opposition’s half – just as his manager intended.

Such was Picchi’s control over the game that the fabled Italian football journalist, Gianni Brera, commented: “Picchi was a defensive director … his passes were never random and his vision was superb.” There is a wonderful anecdote in John Foot’s seminal book Calcio that illustrates Picchi’s supreme confidence in his ability to run the game without the need for instruction from his manager.

During a game sometime around the mid-1960s, Herrera was trying to get instructions out to his players. Frustrated at the lack of attention being paid to him, he called a player over to the sideline and gave him the instructions to pass to Picchi. After a short while, Herrera asked the player, “What did Picchi say?” The player replied, almost apologetically: “Up yours and up yours to Herrera as well.” Inter went on to win the game.

While Herrera couldn’t always rely on Picchi to follow instructions like a good foot soldier, he knew the libero would never desert his post. Picchi was defensively inclined to the core, but he could play. He wasn’t the type of defender who was all about clearing lines at all costs; he liked to get the ball down and move it quickly. Even though the opponent’s half was seen as a no-go zone, the Livorno native enjoyed instigating attacks.

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Picchi’s 1963/64 season with the Nerazzurri saw them fail to retain their Scudetto title, losing to Bologna in a playoff game after tying on points for the season. However, the bitter pill of a domestic defeat was more than compensated for by success in the European Cup.

Picchi led Inter to their first-ever continental success, defeating powerhouse Real Madrid in the final. Perhaps of more importance than mere glory, certainly to Herrera and his captain, it was a campaign that vindicated the manager’s catenaccio system and Picchi’s ability to marshal his side. Indeed, Inter only conceded five goals in nine games against the English, French, Yugoslav, German and Spanish champions.

As reigning European kings, Herrera, Picchi and Inter set about trying to regain the Scudetto. Against the increased pressure and currency with which the Milan side were now faced, Picchi was to lead his men into the unknown in a two-legged Intercontinental Cup fixture against Independiente of Argentina. A 1-0 defeat in Buenos Aries kept the tie in Inter’s reach, with a 2-0 in Milan seeing Inter crowned as the world’s best.

The 1964/65 season was to be the most successful of what was now the emergence of Grande Inter. Armando Picchi led his side to the title, losing only two games across the campaign. However, as is often the case, chasing the most prominent of trophies on multiple fronts saps the resources and sees most teams fall short. Not for Inter. Picchi and Herrera maintained the Nerazzurri’s intensity and a second successive European Cup followed.

Once again, only five goals were conceded in the entire continental campaign. The final had the ring of a typical Italian performance as Inter took a 1-0 lead over Benfica after 42 minutes. It was all the incentive the captain needed, rarely leaving his third of the pitch as Inter registered a defensive performance that came close to perfection against a brilliant Portuguese attack.

The diminutive libero had helped Inter reach the greatest of heights, but there was more to come from the Milanese giants. The 1965/66 season offered Inter the opportunity to retain their Intercontinental Cup, with a tie against Independiente on offer again. With familiar opposition came a familiar result, only this time Picchi and Inter didn’t concede over the two ties, winning 3-0 on aggregate.

The final trophy of the Grande Inter era was the 1965/66 Scudetto. Winning the title by four points, Inter were once again difficult to break down, conceding only 28 goals all season but uncharacteristically scoring 70. Lifting seven major trophies in four sensational seasons, Armando Picchi had led his Inter side to unprecedented success.

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The irony of all this success is that Armando Picchi was never given the opportunity to transfer his club performances to the national team, and wasn’t even selected for the 1966 World Cup. In the eyes of manager Edmondo Fabbri, Picchi was too defensive. Fast forward to Ayersome Park on 19 July 1966 and Italy’s shock 1-0 defeat to North Korea; how Fabbri must have wished he had selected Inter’s indomitable libero.

Ferruccio Valcareggi, the man tasked with repairing the Azzurri’s shattered international reputation regularly selected Picchi for the 1968 European Championship qualifiers. However, a serious pelvic injury sustained during a qualifying fixture against Bulgaria essentially ended his international career. It remains a travesty why one of the nation’s greatest footballers was only selected 12 times for the Azzurri.

The 1966/67 season would have ranked as an impressive season for most clubs, but Grande Inter were no ordinary side. The standards demanded by Moratti, Herrera and Picchi meant that runners-up finishes in Serie A and the European Cup saw the premature breakup of Internazionale’s greatest side.

There was no room for sentiment in the corridors of power at the Giuseppe Meazza and Inter’s captain was sold to Varese in the summer of 1967. Despite that, Armando Picchi would always be remembered as Il Grande Capitano. More importantly, the very definition of the libero had been changed by a man who played with such due diligence to his role and responsibilities that he only scored a solitary goal during his entire Inter career.

As Picchi’s playing career started to come to its inevitable conclusion, it seemed a natural progression that, with such an analytical mind and voracious appetite for learning about the game, Picchi would begin to take an interest in coaching and management.

During his two seasons as a player at Varese, Picchi started to take increasing responsibility for the coaching of the players. The man who had been the manager’s voice on the pitch was becoming the boss off it too. At the end of the 1969 season, Picchi’s playing career finally drew to a close. A swift return to Livorno followed as his hometown club recognised his coaching potential and appointed Picchi as first team manager.

If his playing career had been rapid and meteoric, it was nothing compared to his coaching reputation. Within a season the very best in Serie A came calling for the 35-year-old. After just a year at the helm of Livorno, Juventus proved too great a temptation. At the start of the 1970/71 campaign, Il Grande Capitano had the most lucrative management job in Italian football.

Scirea’s Glory

Gaetano Scirea won the Scudetto in his first season under Trapattoni. In an ongoing symmetry between Picchi and Scirea, Juve also conceded just 20 goals on their way to the 1976/77 title, but unlike Picchi, Scirea was encouraged to venture forward. While Inter’s captain remained obedient to his defensive inclination, Scirea was deployed by Trapattoni as a new breed of libero, given licence to carry the ball out of defence and into midfield.

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Unlike Picchi’s obstinance, Scirea was a much more accommodating character. Testimonies from teammates, fans and managers all talk of a player who was calmness personified, who played the game with a quiet, dignified manner. Italian journalist Darwin Pastorin called Scirea the “gentleman sweeper.”

The typical theatrics associated with calcio at the time weren’t for Scirea, with his silence on the pitch deafening. Leading by example, teammates knew what he expected from them and what he could do with the ball at his feet, and opponents rarely heard him coming, timely interceptions his forte.

If Picchi’s redefining role had brought an exorbitant amount of silverware to his club, Scirea’s adaptation of the libero role was about to exceed his predecessor’s in most ways possible. Trapattoni would occupy the managerial seat at Juventus for a decade, and for every one of those seasons, Scirea would be his loyal lieutenant.

If the gnarly physical appearance of Picchi was a perfect representation of his playing style, then Scirea’s physical elegance, with his languid, tanned limbs, upright frame and thick black hair, always in place, was an equally perfect representation. Scirea was the definition of composure; when he took to the pitch, manager and teammates would offer up a collective prayer of thanks, knowing that the Juventus libero would be watching over them.

During his decade-long tenure in Turin, Trapattoni’s team were easy on the eye, thanks in part to Il Trap’s adaptation of catenaccio, known as Zona Mista. What made Juventus so successful was that they surrounded the more skilful players with stereotypical Italian enforcers. Scirea was one of those rare footballing commodities who could do both. It is a testimony to Trapattoni’s trust and Scirea’s talent that the manager built arguably the greatest Italian defensive unit around the ball-playing libero.

Zoff, Gentile, Cabrini and Scirea would form the heart of the Juve defence for seven seasons. It was the most perfect blend of silk and steel, with Gentile offering everything that Scirea didn’t and vice-versa. The experience of Zoff in goal only added to the seeming invincibility of the back line during their decade of dominance.

Scirea collected silverware at will during his time with the Bianconeri. lifting seven Scudetti, two Coppa Italia, a UEFA Cup, a Cup Winners’ Cup, a UEFA Super Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and the European Cup. He remains one of only five players in football history to win every UEFA and FIFA club competition.

The European Cup victory was secured on that fateful night in 1985 at Heysel Stadium. A 1-0 victory against Liverpool is rightly forgotten on a night of such tragedy, but it was Scirea and Phil Neale, the Liverpool captain, who were asked to address the supporters and plead for calm during those horrific moments inside the stadium.

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Following the final whistle, the trophy was presented to the Juventus team in a wooden box inside their dressing room. Though Scirea was deprived of lifting the trophy, it is more appropriate that he is remembered as the figurehead of that Juventus team. On a night of such abhorrent chaos, Scirea’s calm and considered voice was the one that reached out to the Italian fans.

If there are any major differences to be found in the careers of Picchi and Scirea then it is in the blue shirt of the national team. While Picchi’s career was blighted by a difference of opinion and injury, Scirea’s was crowned on 11 July 1982 in Madrid when Italy lifted the World Cup after defeating West Germany 3-1 in the final.

The tournament became a month-long window for the world to peer through and marvel at what Italian fans already knew. Scirea was at the absolute peak of his career. Lining up alongside his club teammates Zoff, Cabrini and Gentile, Italy grew into the tournament in typical Azzurri fashion. If Marco Tardelli’s goal celebration is the defining image of that World Cup, then Scirea’s part in the goal is the defining moment of his role as the ultimate libero.

Intercepting the ball on the edge of his own area, Scirea strode forward, head up, eyes scanning for options, John Motson’s commentary telling the story: “Look at Scirea here.” Laying the ball off with a simple pass, he continued his run beyond the strikers into the West German penalty area. It’s Rossi, Its Scirea.” A deft back-heel from the libero in the opponent’s penalty area later, “It’s Bergomi, it’s Scirea, they’re appealing for offside. Not Given. Scirea right across to Marco Tardelli … 2-0 to Italy.”

Following Italy’s abject defence of their World Cup in Mexico in 1986, Scirea retired from international football. Two years later, following only six first team appearances in the 1987/88 season, he called time on his club career too. Deployed as a libero for the majority of his playing days, and competing at the highest level of club and international football, the Gentleman Sweeper never received a red card. Scirea had been the perfect example of defending with the brain rather than the body.

After completing 14 years of loyal service to the Old Lady, Gaetano Scirea was appointed as assistant coach to his longtime friend and former teammate, Dino Zoff. As with Picchi, the analytical mind with which Scirea played the game was identified by Juventus as something special, part of a man whose intellect was a perfect fit for the tactical demands of Serie A.


On 16 February 1971, after only seven months in charge of Juventus, the club announced that Armando Picchi would be taking indefinite leave in order to fight an aggressive form of cancer. Close friends and family were aware that the illness was terminal and, only three months later at the age of just 35, Picchi passed away. His replacement would be Čestmír Vycpálek, the man who brought Gaetano Scirea to Juventus.

If Il Grande Capitano’s playing career was one that revolutionised the tactical development of calcio and brought incomparable success and joy to the Inter supporters, then Picchi’s coaching career was one of unfulfilled potential.

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Whilst his greatest days were at Inter, his boyhood club, Livorno, bestowed the most physical symbol of remembrance to Inter’s great captain. In 1990 the stadium was named in his honour. The Stadio Armando Picchi stands as a permanent reminder to the incumbent Livorno side, the city’s residents, and to the fans of the club that there was once a legend amidst their ranks; a player most will only dream of ever emulating.

Above that, however, the memories Picchi left behind, the stories recounted by older generations, stand as the greatest testimony to a special footballer. The Italian was the man who turned defending into an art form and who was the epicentre of a revolutionary style of football. The black and white images of the stoic yet uncomplicated leader of men illustrate a footballer who implicitly understood the role of the libero and what it was to be a captain.

As the symbiotic career of these two great players would dictate, Gaetano Scirea, too, was taken before his time. On 3 September 1989, just a year after hanging up his boots, Scirea was returning from a visit to Poland when the car he was travelling in was involved in a fatal accident. Aged just 36, Italian football had lost another giant who still had so much to offer the game.

The outpouring of shock and grief came from fans around the world, who put aside tribal prejudice to honour and acknowledge the brilliance of the Juventus man. In 2005, his World Cup-winning manager Enzo Bearzot petitioned for the number six shirts of the national team and Juventus to be retired in his honour. When Juventus moved to their new stadium, the Curva Sud was named the Curva Scirea and is home to the ultras of the Bianconeri.

As with Armando Picchi, it is more than bricks and mortar which serve as a lasting legacy to Gaetano Scirea. It is the languid brilliance and gentlemanly manner in which he played the game, as well as the modernisation of the libero position, for which Scirea is most celebrated. He could play Picchi’s game when needed, but his natural talent allowed him to add a further dimension to the role, stepping out off defence and initiating attacks. Like Picchi, Scirea’s legacy is touched by few.

Italy’s glorious history has at its very foundation an obsession with the art of defending. The nation has produced numerous world-class defenders and taught us that a cautious philosophy can be a winning philosophy. But two players stand astride that history, their careers coming within touching distance of each other at Juventus.

Both achieved great success on the pitch and redefined the art of defending. However, for all the glory and adulation afforded to Armando Picchi and Gaetano Scirea, it is their untimely deaths – so soon after finishing their playing days and so early into their coaching careers – which sadly binds them together. The two silk threads that run through the steely history of calcio must never be cut loose or forgotten.

By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44

Dedicated to good friend and calcio connoisseur, Jim Hart.

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