When Celtic took on the might of Inter Milan in a recent pre (mid?) season friendly, it was a tie dripping in nostalgia. Now admittedly our day in the Dublin sun didn’t quite match up to ‘the heat of Lisbon’ but it gives us an excuse to reminisce (not that one is needed) about what was really achieved that day.
Having been born just a few weeks after that tragic night at Ninian Park, when Mr Stein passed away having secured Scotland’s passage to the World Cup, I like many, never had the privilege of seeing that side in the flesh. And this bring s me to my point, I know there are many of my generation, Celtic and non-Celtic fans alike, who tend to look upon events that occurred before their time with a certain scepticism. There is undoubtedly a feeling amongst younger fans that ‘rose tinted’ spectacles cloud the judgement of those re-calling the events of a previous generation. As someone who has a keen interest not just in the history of Celtic, but the game football itself, I know that in the case of the ‘Lisbon Lions’ and their inspirational manager, that the ‘rose tinted’ glasses can be thrown away, their achievements and legacy, stand the test of time.
We all know the stories of the ‘11 local lads’, their singsong in the tunnel which so unnerved the Milanese, and the image of ‘Cesaer’ halfway up the stand, arms aloft, that magnificent trophy glinting in the sun is one that will outlive us all. What many who were not around at the time of these seminal events are aware of though, is the impact that the manner and style, of Celtic’s play had on, not just Scottish or British football but the whole of continental Europe.
Celtics opponents that day were one of the most formidable club sides ever assembled. Under their fearsome manager Helenio Herrera, La Grande Inter had claimed 3 scuddetti and had won back to back European Cups before they faced the Lions in Lisbon.
Their success of the Italians was not built on free flowing, expressive football, quite the opposite. Herrera adopted, and made famous, the system of ‘catenaccio,’ that the name translates as “door-bolt” probably tells you all you need to know about Herrera’s general approach to the game.
Whilst not exactly aesthetically pleasing, ‘catenaccio’ was efficient, ruthless, and most of all successful. And where others see success, they tend to follow. It seemed that football no longer had a place for expression and individualism, the thought of playing to entertain was fading, efficiency and discipline were the new ‘buzzwords’.
Mr Stein not only defeated the system, he smashed it, and he did it with a style of “football, pure, beautiful, inventive football” he sent his bhoys out with the instruction to “attack as we have never attacked before”.
Italian cynicism was overwhelmed by Scottish skill and flair. ‘Catenaccio’ lost its air of invincibility and its flaws were laid bare for all to see.
The next great side that came along did not practice the dark arts of ‘catenaccio’ as had seemed inevitable before that day in the Lisbon sun, instead it was the wondrous Ajax side of the 70’s that came to dominate. The Lisbon Lions were the forerunners for Rinus Michels and his Cruyff inspired “Total Football”, Celtic showed Europe that while negative football could of course be effective, it was limited and could be exploited.
Barcelona currently set the standard for the world game, their success is of course due to a variety of factors, but two hall marks of their approach in particular would have met with the approval of Mr Stein. The relentless pressing of the opposition, high up the field, allows Barcelona to gain possession in an already dangerous area, Mr Stein talked of there being no better place to win the ball than the opponents penalty box, and the use of the full-back as an attacking force is as vital to Guardiola’s Barcelona as it was to Stein’s Celtic. Dani Alves and Tommy Gemmell may not share many physical attributes, but the similarities in their playing styles are uncanny. Then of course there is the commitment to attacking football shared by the two sides.
The song asks “if you know the history” and when you do, it turns out it’s even more impressive than you ever dared imagine.
Incidentally while I am too young to have seen the ‘Lions’ play I did, as an awestruck teenager have the honour of meeting, Tommy Gemmell, Stevie Chalmers, Bobby Lennox and Berti Auld. I can still remember the pride I felt as I lined up amongst them for the obligatory photograph, unfortunately I can also remember doubling over in pain, as Tommy Gemmell grabbed me (firmly) by the balls just as the camera flashed! Oh well I suppose as a goal-scorer in two European Cup finals I can forgive him.