Giacinto Facchetti could perhaps most aptly be described as the Pele of the defensive arts. He will forever be remembered as the man who brought fullbacks out of their shells and, while playing under that great architect of catenaccio Helenio Herrera, became the first attacking European of his position in the modern era..
Elegant both on and off the pitch, Facchetti was also a one-club man, rising through the ranks at Inter Milan from player to president and performing every role with the same degree of modesty and dignity. In short, Giacinto Facchetti was class personified.
Born in Treviglio, the second largest town in the province of Bergamo, Facchetti was long torn between athletics and football in his youth. Standing 1.88m tall and weighing 85kg at the age of 18, he was built for a career on the track and showed particular aptitude in the sprint disciplines, while dreaming of becoming Olympic champion in the 100m. The call of the beautiful game proved even more alluring, however, and in 1960 his life was transformed when he was spotted and recruited by Herrera while playing as a centre-forward for his hometown club Trevigliese.
The pionnering ‘first forward’
HH went on to make him the keystone in his catenaccio system, building upon Facchetti’s natural speed as well as his refined technique, which was uncommonly good for a player his size. At the time, defenders were confined to their own zones and absolutely forbidden from venturing past the halfway line, with their role on the pitch limited to foiling opposition advances. The pacy counter-attack and use of fast-breaking defenders as the ‘first forwards’ were simply unheard of.
Herrera was not nicknamed Il Mago (the Magician) for nothing, of course, and the Nerazzuri coach immediately saw how Facchetti could fit into his plans. He put the newcomer straight into his first team at left-back and handed him his debut in a 2-0 win over Roma at the Stadio Olimpico on 21 May 1961. The 19-year-old quickly made the No3 shirt his own and scored his maiden Serie A goal in his second outing against Napoli. Over the next 18 years, he would go on to make his name as an elegant defender with a keen eye for attacking openings.
Whenever members of the opposition’s rearguard attempted to block his runs, he would simply unleash pinpoint crosses for the likes of Mario Corso, Luis Suarez, Sandro Mazzola and Jair. And should his team-mates find themselves marked out of contention, he never hesitated to take his chance. In 475 Serie A appearances, he racked up 59 goals, adding another ten in the Coppa Italia and six in 68 European contests for a grand total of 75. He plundered ten in the 1965/66 season alone, a remarkable feat for a defender at the high-water mark of the catenaccio era.
Wearing the Nerazzurri colours, Facchetti secured two consecutive European Cups – beating final opponents Real Madrid in 1964 and Benfica in 1965 – and likewise helped claim four Serie A titles and a pair of Intercontinental Cups.
On the international stage, meanwhile, his maiden outing against Turkey on 27 March 1963 marked the start of a long and distinguished career with La Nazionale that yielded 94 appearances between 1963 and 1977, including 70 as captain. Upon retirement he had won more caps for Italy that any other player, his record eventually being broken by fellow Squadra Azzurra legend Dino Zoff.
Like his team-mates, Facchetti did not distinguish himself during Italy’s ‘match of shame’ at the 1966 FIFA World Cup England™, when his team suffered a surprise 1-0 loss to Korea DPR, but two years later he captained his country to glory at the UEFA European Championship on home soil.
As fine as that achievement was, though, Facchetti truly made his name in the epic semi-final against West Germany at Mexico 1970. While Franz Beckenbauer ended the match with his arm in a sling, Facchetti displayed impressive calm as he skippered a line-up featuring the forthright personalities of players such as Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola and Gigi Riva. Italy followed up that 4-3 extra-time triumph with a heavy loss to Brazil in the decider, but despite being given a torrid time by livewire Jairzinho, Facchetti returned to Italy a hero.
From player to president
A few years later, he spoke affectionately about the passion of the supporters back home: “After the loss to North Korea, they wanted to condemn me to forced labour for the rest of my life. Four years later, following the semi-final against Germany, the police had to protect my wife because the local tifosi wanted to carry her aloft. Despite its faults, football is one of the rare things that makes people speak positively about Italy.”
Facchetti and Co were unable to build on their Mexican high four years later in West Germany, and Italy’s frustrating campaign hinted that the great defender’s career was slowly drawing to a close. He operated as a libero in that tournament and spent the next three seasons limiting himself to defensive duties, performing with continued distinction until withdrawing from the international scene aged 36 at Wembley on 16 November 1977. His final Serie A game then followed at the San Siro on 7 May 1978, after which Facchetti joined the staff of the club to which he had always displayed such impeccable dedication.
He would go on to hold a variety of technical and administrative positions at the club and, after becoming vice-president on 13 November 2001, was named Inter’s 19th president on 19 January 2004. It was a role he occupied until his death from illness on 4 September 2006.
The son of a railwayman, he was a genuine icon of the Italian game, leaving an indelible impression as an ambassador for the sport as well as a player of superlative quality.
Date of birth: 18 July 1942 in Treviglio
Date of death: 4 September 2006
Position: Left-back and sweeper
Club: Inter Milan (1960-78)
International: 94 caps, 70 as captain
International debut: 27 March 1963 (Turkey 0-1 Italy)
Last international: 16 November 1977 (England 2-0 Italy)
* 2 Intercontinental Cups (1963/64, 1964/65)
* 2 UEFA European Cups (1963/64, 1964/65)
* 4 Serie A titles (1962/63, 1964/65, 1965/66, 1970/71)
* 1 Coppa Italia (1977/78)
* 1 UEFA European Championship (1968)
Fachetti picked up just one red card in 728 competitive matches during the defensive heyday of catenaccio, earning his solitary dismissal for ironic applause of a refereeing decision.
Boasting a personal best of 10.7 seconds for 100m and regularly coming in under 11, Facchetti had dreams of becoming the 100m Olympic champion in his youth before opting to pursue a career in football.
Several roads in Italy are named after Giacinto Facchetti. The little village of Monte San Vito, in the province of Ancona, was the first to honour the defender in this way by renaming a road leading to – where else? – a stadium.
“I learned from him to get forward in attack,” said West Germany legend Franz Beckenbauer of Facchetti.
When Giacinto Facchetti was asked who he considered his successor, he identified Paolo Maldini, “whose only fault is that he chose AC Milan”.