When one thinks of Italian football in the 1960s, one thinks immediately of ‘catenaccio’, and Helenio Herrera’s bolt that secured the triumphs of the Grande Inter. A little deeper, and the names of Rivera, Altafini or Sormani might spring to mind.
In truth the 1960s were in Italy, as in England, a high-watermark for a lot of aspects of football. The quality of foreign players in Serie A was improving all the time – from Scotland’s Denis Law at Torino to Wales’ John Charles at Juventus to Brazil’s Jair at Inter, even to Spain’s Luis Suarez, also at Inter and Germany’s Helmut Haller at Bologna. The game was rich and the wallets grew fat on it.
It was a time of considerable success, too. Inter won two European Cups, and Milan repeated the trick, winning their second final in 1969. In short, if you were a professional footballer and wanted to showcase your talents on the biggest stage in the world, when the World Cup wasn’t in town, Serie A was the place to be.
The AC Milan side of that era, although trailing in the Grande Inter’s wake a lot of the time was very much a team of a thousand talents. The likes of Giovanni Trappatoni, Cesare Maldini and Jose Altafini echo down the ages while Gianni Rivera’s career spanned that period and lined it with gold.
That Milan were able to add one of Brazil’s heroes from the 1962 World Cup, Amarildo, to their in the summer of 1963 only further indicates their appeal. Given the spectacular nature of the squads, it is almost perverse that the most successful way of playing was to try and stifle the opposition; a bit like signing Chris Gayle but demanding that he only looks to score ones and twos.
Although Inter won the European Cup twice in a row in the mid 1960s, it is important that AC Milan beat them to the punch by a single season, beating Benfica in the 1963 final courtesy of two of Jose Altafini’s fourteen goals in the competition that season – a record that remains unbeaten.
As a result of the European Cup win, Milan were flush with money and decided to embark on a quest for one of the world’s most singular talents. Having signed Amarildo from Botafogo, their next target was with a team with whom they were on a collision course in the World Club Cup. Of course, neither the Rossoneri nor Pelé knew it at the time.
Nereo Rocco’s side already had a deal to thank Pelé for, if only by unfortunate accident. As a result of the Brazilian talisman being injured during the Chilean World Cup of 1962, Amarildo was thrust into the team and the spotlight.
It was a year later that he signed for Milan, but his stock had risen imperceptibly after that World Cup victory – achieved largely without Pelé.
In the summer of 1963, then, Milan sent Rudolfo Recchi to Rio de Janeiro with what seems to have been a blank cheque in order to secure the services of Pelé for AC Milan. In late August, news came back to Italy that his bid for 900 million Lire had been rejected by Santos (proportionally, that was £385,000 – which sounds piffling, but in the context Denis Law had recently moved to Torino for a mere £100,000 is a little more striking), which would have made Pelé the most expensive player in the world.
The player himself admitted to having his head turned a little by Brazil team-mate Jair, who admitted Pelé had never earned more than 12m Lire in a year (£100,000 in today’s money) but, although he acknowledged he was open to the possibility of moving to Italy – citing Milan as one of three clubs, along with Juventus and Inter, who had made offers for him – the deal was scotched at source.
So that October, AC Milan and Santos were scheduled to meet in the World Club Cup, which offered the Rossoneri the perfect opportunity to resume their pursuit of a Pelé who was dissatisfied with Santos. While the news agencies at the time reported that the Rossoneri were keen to do a deal for him, Milan quickly threw water on the fire.
“Pele would make us comfortable, but we would not be able to use him now,” he admitted, “because we have already used Amarildo and [Peruvian] Victor Benitez and regulations forbid us from changing foreign players now the league has started.”
And with that, any dreams of seeing Pele in red and black were over – the dream of an Altafini, Pele and Rivera strikeforce, forgotten.
Santos beat Milan in a playoff for the International Club Cup after both teams had won their home legs 4-2; Pele scoring twice in Italy, but missing the two games in Brazil.