A great talent or a great career – it forever remains a contentious issue which of these definitions for a footballer is more valuable, if of course you cannot have both. Many unquestionably gifted players don’t enjoy the careers their talents suggest they should because mental fortitude and drive falls well short of natural talent, while many workmanlike players greatly overachieve simply through sheer force of will and dedication to their profession.
A player who certainly falls into the latter category was Armando Picchi, the famous sweeper of Internazionale during their Helenio Herrera-inspired 1960s heyday. Picchi was undoubtedly a good player but the man himself was always sufficiently self-aware to recognise that his talent was in no way innate like that of his teammate Giacinto Facchetti, and everything he would achieve in the game could only come through sheer hard work and the sort of loyalty and reliability that coaches love.
Picchi started his career with his hometown club of Livorno before getting his first break in Serie A at the age of 24 with Ferrara club SPAL in 1959. In these fledgling years of his career Picchi played as a defensive-minded right back and he impressed sufficiently in that debut Serie A season to catch the eye of the newly-appointed Internazionale coach, Helenio Herrera.
The defender duly joined Inter in the summer of 1960 and began his career in Milan at fullback. Herrera had plans for Inter however and by 1962 was experimenting with the implementation of a new and controversial system which would become known as catenaccio, a defensively-minded ideology with which he would make his formidable reputation.
For the catenaccio system to work, one of the most vital components was the introduction of a libero (sweeper) who sat in behind the central defence to provide extra cover, tidy up loose balls and instigate his team’s attacking moves from deep positions. Such a player needed to be able to read and organise the play in front of him and spot danger early as well as remaining ever-focused and vigilant when the opposition was in possession.
Armando Picchi would be the player Herrera turned to as the keeper of the defensive lock that kept opposing forwards at arm’s length. Picchi might not have been fast, dominant in the air (he stood just 5ft 7” tall), the possessor of a great first touch or a great passing range, but he was an intelligent player who learned quickly and followed his larger-than-life manager’s instructions to the letter.
With Herrera he readily shared an uncompromising greater world view and undertook his responsibilities without any notion of pleasing aesthetics having any bearing on his game.
Inter’s three-man defence of Tarcisio Burgnich, Aristide Guarneri and Giacinto Facchetti was formidable enough, but any striker who got beyond them now faced another barrier in the ever-busy and tenacious Picchi. He was the ideal sentry who never deserted his post, winning the ball effectively then moving it on quickly and tidily to a more creative colleague.
His organisational skills turned Inter’s defence into such a force to be reckoned with that its reputation alone brought a substantial psychological boost which acted almost like a twelfth man.
Armando Picchi would become Inter’s captain for a wonderful run of success that brought three Serie A titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups between 1963 and 1966. The very specialist nature of his role at Inter meant he would never become a regular for his national side and won just 12 caps between 1964 and 1968.
Just as he looked like he might be establishing himself, the sweeper fractured his pelvis during a Euro ‘68 qualifier against Bulgaria and this would signal the end of his time with the Azzurri.
Armando Picchi’s seven-year career with La Grande Inter came to an end in 1967 at the end of a tumultuous season in which the club threw away the title on the last round of fixtures, then lost to underdogs Celtic in the European Cup Final just a few days later. Within the club there was a desire for a clear out and 32-year-old Picchi was one of the casualties, despite being a favourite of club president Angelo Moratti.
He spent the last two seasons of his career with the then Serie A side Varese and by getting involved in coaching there took his first steps towards the next stage of his career in management. He retired as a player in 1969 and took over as first-team coach of his boyhood club of Livorno in 1969. Such was the impression he made in such a short space of time that Juventus came calling in 1970 and at the age of 35 he was in charge of Italy’s most successful club.
His dramatic elevation to the upper tier of Serie A coaching would prove sadly short-lived however. On the 16th of February 1971 the club announced their coach was taking indefinite leave to battle a rib cancer diagnosis, though within the game it was common knowledge that his illness was terminal. Armando Picchi died on the afternoon of May 26th 1971, just days short of his 36th birthday.
Picchi’s tragically early death cost Serie A a coach who was already being spoken of as a future Italy trainer, but more so Armando would be remembered for his playing days when he starred as the uncompromising last line of one of the most iconic defences the game has ever seen.