Somnath SenguptaComment


Somnath SenguptaComment

Just twenty two minutes had passed at the San Siro when Juan Carlos Loustau dipped into his pockets for the second time within a space of few seconds, dismissing Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Völler. The minutes leading up to this incident was rife with elements of anti-football – clattering tackle, play acting and intentional handball but worse was Rijkaard spitting at Völler. What was touted to be one of the games of 1990 World Cup instead became an ill-tempered slug fest. The bitterness of Dutch rivalry with Germans was a major reason behind this animosity but in this match, there was an another factor. In the official World Cup film narrator Edward Woodward asserts the same,"These two [Lothar Matthäus and Jurgen Klinsmann] and full-back Brehme play their club football for Inter Milan.With Gullit, van Basten and Rijkaard from AC Milan, there was an additional edge between two nations short on brotherly love for each other".

Given the wealth and aura of the Milan clubs, the derby has attracted many legendary names over the year, resulting in a number of intriguing rivalries. One such instance came in early 1950s when like two great prize fighters Hungarian Istvan Nyers and Gunnar Nordahl from Sweden exchanged punches during the Milan derby and in the process, delivered some of the greatest matches ever played in this celebrated fixture.

The rivalry was vital in the context of post WW2 Serie A which returned in 1945 after being cancelled for two seasons. With jobs being scarce and the scars of a devastating war still afresh, football became way of escape for many people and the league grew in popularity. On the field, one team had an overwhelming monopoly on the Scudetto – Il Grande Torino, under the wily tutelage of Egri Erbstein. They had steamrolled their way to four consecutive league titles between 1942 and 1948.

Turin was the capital of Italian football while Milan was experiencing hard times. Inter's glory days with Giuseppe Meazza were long gone and their last Scudetto had come in 1940 under the name of Ambrosiana Inter. AC Milan's last league title came way back in 1907 in the old Prima Categoria format. Under these circumstances the bragging rights of the Milan derby mattered more than ever. By 1948 Inter were playing a second fiddle to their cross-town neighbours. Their last derby victory came in 1946 and since then they had lost the fixture six consecutive times. Desperate to turn the tide, president Carlo Masseroni made significant investments in the squad before start of 1948/49 season. Although a bid for Valentino Mazzola was unsuccessful Inter did manage to land Roma legend Amadeo Amadei and future club legends Gino Armano, Attilio Giovannini. The final piece of Inter's attacking puzzle was found after a friendly against Stade Francais FC in Paris.

Istvan Nyers was born on 24th May, 1925 to a mining family in France. He made his senior debut for Szabadkai VAC before briefly teaming with László Kubala for Ganz-MÁVAG SE. Nyers' big break came a year later when he moved to Hungarian giants Ujpesti. Playing as a left outside forward the 21 year old scored 20 times and topped assists charts, regularly setting up goals for the prolific duo of Gyula Zsengellér and Ferenc Szusza. Propelled by a fantastic forward-line Ujpesti clinched the league title after scoring an incredible 186 goals in one season! He made his debut for the national team in 1945 alongside Ferenc Puscas and Nandor Hidegkuti in a 7-2 thrashing of Romania, scoring once.

Had Istvan Nyers opted to stay in his homeland, he might have become a cornerstone of the great Hungarian team of '40s and '50s. However, he soon realised the modest pay cheque of Ujpesti didn't satisfy his appetite. He made a daring switch, crossing borders to join Viktoria Zizkov in Czechoslovakia. By his own admission Viktoria was an inferior team but they did offer him more money. His career in Viktoria lasted for just three games and he was yet again on the move, switching country to join Stade Francais FC in Paris where he would play under Helenio Herrera. At Stade Francais Nyers, who went on to score 34 goals in 62 games would also collaborate with Larbi Benbarek, the first African superstar. Thanks to these two players with natural flair, Stade Francais became one of the most exciting teams in the league but could do little more than finish fifth in 1946/47 and 1947/48 seasons. A friendly against Internazionale in 1948 brought Nyers in the crosshairs of sporting director Giulio Cappelli. His life would never be the same again.

Soon after signing for Inter Nyers was asked to visit office of the club president. Masseroni handed a note to his new player containing results of the past six Milan derbies, making clear what was expected from the Hungarian. On 19th September 1948 Istvan Nyers made a sensational debut, scoring a hat-trick in a 4-2 victory over Sampdoria . On 17th October he played his first Milan derby and did complete justice to the expectations set on him by the club president. On 35th minute Nyers notched up his first derby goal and with Milan pushing for an equaliser in second half he assisted Benito Lorenzi to round off the scoreline.

Inter started the season under John Astley but a series of inconsistent performances saw Capelli replace him in February. The Nerazzurri was struggling to close games but with Nyers leading the attack where they didn't lack was scoring goals. He stuck up a fantastic partnership with Amadei and the duo quickly moved up the top scoring charts.

Intrigued by the impact Istvan Nyers had made, Internazionale's cross-town rivals decided to go shopping in winter. Lack of international tournaments meant the 1948 London Olympics became a prime ground for scouting foreigners. In the Games eventual bronze winners Denmark sent shockwaves by defeating reigning World Cup and Olympic champions Italy 5-3. With John Hansen, the man who scored four times on that day being signed by Juventus in November, AC Milan zeroed in on the man who scored Denmark's fifth - Johannes Pløger. As fate would have it, Juve hijacked the deal and Pløger signed for the Turin giants despite arriving on Milan's train station. To mollify enraged Milan officials Gianni Agnelli made a peace offering, a player who was suggested by a FIAT official in Stockholm – Gunnar Nordahl. In a curious turn of destiny, AC Milan's history would forever be changed thanks to the supremo of one of their major rivals.

Gunnar Nordahl was born on 19th October, 1921 in a family where four of his brothers would also become footballers. After spending three seasons at his local club Hörnefors IF he made his breakthrough in top division with Degerfors IF, finishing league top scorer in 1943. Four years of goal scoring exploits saw him earn a move to a bigger club in 1944 - IFK Norrköping. After initial struggles Nordahl came out with all guns blazing, picking up his first league winner's medal after a series of impressive performances including seven goals in a 9-1 thrashing of Landskrona. Three more league titles and two more league top scorer awards followed in three seasons, along with a Swedish Player of the year award in 1947.

By 1948 he was a famous name in Swedish football but it was the London Olympics that brought continental recognition. Sweden started their campaign with 3-0 win over Austria before dismantling South Korea 12-0 in quarter-final. In-form neighbors Denmark was defeated 4-2 in semi final. In final a talented Yugoslavia containing legendary names like Stjepan Bobek & Rajko Mitic provided stiff competition but Sweden clinched gold after a 3-1 win. Nordahl finished as joint top scorer with John Hansen.

Gunnar Nordahl joined AC Milan on 22nd January, 1949 – this was the first instance of a Swedish player moving to a foreign league. Five days later he made his debut, duly scoring his first goal in a 3-2 win over Pro Patria.

Over 60,000 fans crammed into the San Siro on 6th February, 1949 – the first derby featuring both Istvan Nyers and Gunnar Nordahl. As early as the second minute the game saw its first goal – a deflected free-kick from Carlo Annovazzi. Twenty five minutes later miscommunication between the Milan 'keeper and Edy Gratton saw the latter's backpass creep into the net to make it 1-1. On 33rd minute a darting run from Nyers caught the Milan defence off guard and the Hungarian latched to Aldo Campatelli's through ball to put Inter in the lead. It took mere 80 seconds to Milan pull level when Renzo Burini found the head of the much-travelled Irish striker Paddy Sloan's head with a cross. Two minutes before half-time Nordahl scored his first derby goal with a rasping shot, Burini the creator again.

Seven minutes after the restart the Swede got his second and Milan's fourth with Burini notching his third assist. 4-2 up with 24 minutes left AC Milan fans could smell a victory but this match was far from over. On 66th minute Lorenzi made it 4-3 taking advantage of yet another mix-up in Milan defence. Five minutes later Nyers had the last laugh. Camillo Achilli sprinted into the box, before finding Gino Armano, who passed it to the Hungarian, who made no mistake from close range.

4-4 it finished, the first Nordahl-Nyers derby. It was arguably the most exciting game in post war Serie A and remains as the highest scoring draw in history of Derby della Maddonina. Likewise, the personal battle between the two stars had also ended in a draw.

Under Capelli Inter stitched a fantastic league run and eventually finished second with Nyers finishing as Capocannoniere after scoring 26 goals. Nordahl's 16 goal haul in 15 matches helped Milan to a third place. At the end of the season though, none of those things mattered. On 4th May, 1949 the Il Grande Torino team perished in the Superga tragedy and suddenly, there was an unprecedented power vacuum in Serie A.

The excellence shown by Nordahl & Hansen had a profound impact on the league. The number of Scandinavian players in the league rose exponentially from 3 in 1949 to 39 in 1951. In Juventus John Hansen, best of the bunch with 124 goals in 187 games, was ably assisted by compatriots Karl Aage Præst & Karl Aage Hansen. Dane hitman Jørgen Leschly Sørensen teamed up with Swedish striker Hasse Jeppson in Atalanta before the latter joined Napoli for a world record fee in 1952. Between 1950 & 1952 AS Roma employed Swedish midfielder Sune Andersson, nicknamed ironically as “Mona-Lisa” for his lack of facial expressions. The “swaying corn cob” Lennart Skoglund joined Internazionale in 1950, became a club legend & eventually spent 13 seasons in Serie A. In Bologna a popular midfield partnership was forged between Danes Axel Pilmark and Ivan Jensen, who played together for six years.

In terms of success though, none of the clubs hit an absolute gold mine like AC Milan did with their Scandinavians. Before start of the 1949/50 season AC Milan brought in Nordahl's national team mates Nils Liedholm and Gunnar Gren, to form the legendary Gre-No-Li trio. Lajos Czeizler, who had coached both Gren and Nordahl at IFK Norrköping took over as coach.

The word "chaotic" could have described the 4-4 draw but that word would have done severe injustice to the derby that followed it in November, 1949. With Torino out of reckoning Juventus, Milan and Inter were locked in a three way showdown. Gre-No-Li had started to fire for Milan while the infusion of Dutch striker Faas Wilkes added more teeth to Inter's attack. Both teams were third in the table before the match.

Without Enzo Bearzot Inter's defence was weakened and so it wasn't a surprise when the Nerazzuri went down 2-0 within just seven minutes, courtesy of a brace from Enrico Candiani. Three minutes later Nyers sneaked past his marker to halve the deficit. AC Milan, clearly in full control, regained the two goal advantage through Nordahl on 14th minute before going 4-1 up thanks to a Liedholm strike on 19th minute. The Inter supporters watching with grim faces were bracing up for a landslide loss. Instead, what followed was the greatest comeback in the history of the derby. Six minutes before the halftime Amadei took advantage of lax defending in the Milan box to make it 4-2 and was followed up by Nyers a minute later from the penalty spot. The score-board read 4-3 at halftime.

On 50th minute, the comeback was complete with Amadei scoring his second of the game. Incredibly, Inter took the lead eight minutes later with a goal from a man who was nicknamed "Poison", Benito Lorenzi. Jolted, Milan took just a minute to draw level through Carlo Annovazzi. The clock read 64 minutes when Amadei completed a fantastic hattrick, which mercifully was the last goal in this match. The 6-5 victory for Inter makes this match the highest scoring Milan derby in history. Lo Sport Illustrato succinctly summed up, "Rain at the San Siro for the defences with no umbrella".

The first Milan derby was a fair reflection of the 1949/50 season - where champions Juventus scored 100 goals, second placed Milan 118 times. Nyers and Nordahl were also involved in a keen contest for Capocannoniere. The Hungarian hit 30 goals, good enough to win the award in most Serie A seasons. Unfortunately, his rival scored 35 times, a record that would stand for 6 decades. Inter despite scoring an impressive 99 goals ended in a distant third place due to a leaky defence. Milan got their revenge in the return leg of the derby, winning 3-1.

In 1950 Inter paid a handsome transfer fee to sign Lennart Skoglund, who received a hero's welcome from over 10,000 fans on his arrival and soon made a memorable derby debut. Four minutes after kick-off Nyers had given Inter the lead and Skoglund made it 2-0 around the half hour mark. In second half, Milan came out with renewed fervour, led by a rampaging Nordahl, who struck twice in twelve minutes to level to scores. On 83rd minute Nyers assisted Skoglund's second and the decisive goal.

After this victory Inter topped the table for next ten matches before eventually relinquishing it to their city rivals. In return leg Nordahl scored the only goal from a defence-splitting pass by Liedholm as Milan picked up a victory which would prove invaluable when they clinched their first league title in over 40 years. For Inter, there was a heartbreak as they got pipped to the title by a solitary point. Istvan Nyers again lost his personal tussle with Nordahl, managing 31 goals against the Swede's 34.

In 1951/52 season both players would again play a vital role in the derby. The first match ended in a thrilling 2-2 draw. On second minute Nyers received the ball just on the edge of penalty box, suddenly increasing his pace, he peeled past the last defender before calmly beating Lorenzo Buffon with a grounded shot. Three minutes later Burini pulled Milan level with a powerful right-footed shot – the Inter 'keeper got a hand to it, in vain. Just four minutes later Inter regained the lead when Lorenzi dinked past his marker before squeezing in an unstoppable shot between two defenders.

With three goals in nine minutes fans may have expected a repeat of the 6-5 scoreline but both teams defended stoutly for rest of the match. It took a set piece to change the scoreline in second half – Rossoneri legend Omero Tognon's booming free-kick was unstoppable.

In the return leg somewhat surprisingly, there were no goals in first half. Liedholm broke the deadlock nine minutes into second half, only to see Nyers bring Inter level just four minutes later. With the derby heading into another tense draw, Nordahl popped up with a match winner with a typically powerful finish on 75th minute.

Nordahl's 26 goals and Nyers 23 saw them finish as top scorers of respective clubs but in the league they were outshone by champion Juventus' John Hansen, who scored 30 times.

What made the rivalry between Nyers and Nordahl entertaining was their stark differences and some curious similarities.

The most obvious similarity was how prolific both were. With 225 goals in 291 matches Nordahl is the most efficient scorer in the history of Serie A with a strike rate of 0.77. Nyers tally of 153 goals in 236 matches is more modest but his rate of 0.65 is second only to the Swede. Except these two no other player in Serie A history has crossed the 30 goal barrier in multiple seasons. Both had brothers plying their trade in Serie A. In 1949 both Istvan and his brother Ferenc Nyers scored for opposing sides when Inter defeated Lazio 2-1. Knut Nordahl played for AS Roma while Bertil spent three seasons in Atalanta. Curiously, international careers of both players ended when they joined the league where they became legends. Sweden national team didn't allow professional players while Nyers’ decision to cross the Iron Curtain incensed the Hungarian authorities.

Their dissimilarities started right from their basic personality traits. Nordahl grew up in a single room home and worked as a fireman while he was still an amateur footballer. The middle class ethos he inherited would remain integral to Nordahl even when he became a star. Offered a lavish apartment, the Swede opted instead for a modest one and was known to arrive at parties clad in simple shirts, trousers while his teammates sported designer suits. Nyers was complete opposite. Described as “[George] Best before Best” by his biographer, the Hungarian lived life to the fullest. He loved parties, was a womanizer and had an affinity for expensive cars.

On the field, the contrast was all the more evident.

At 5'11'' and weighing over 90 kilos, the Swede was a battering ram. His sudden burst of acceleration when combined with his physical prowess would help his swat aside defenders. In the air, Nordahl was almost unbeatable and a wonderful sense of positioning made him dangerous in the box. Few footballers had a more booming shot but Nordahl combined power with precision, routinely finding bottom corner of the net. He also had a singular ability to score when his back was towards the goal, twisting his body with a half-turn he would power a side volley. Istvan Nyers was skillful, an expert dribbler and reportedly could cover 100 meters in 11 seconds. He could shoot with both feet and playing most of his career on the left-wing he could assist goals as often as scored them. A set-piece expert, the Hungarian was an unerring penalty kick taker, good with free-kicks and could generate tremendous power in his long throws. Nyers' strengths would come handy when Inter took a tactical U-turn in 1952.

Weary after years of finishing second best due to leaky defences Inter hired Alfredo Foni, who was an extremely successful defender with Italy and Juventus in mid-30s. In Serie A smaller clubs like Triestina were tired of being battered by foreign strikers of rich clubs and had began to dabble with a defensive tactic that increased the number of defenders. Foni took a page out of this book – this was the first time a bigger club would go the more cynical way. Catenaccio would take ten more years to get perfected but Serie A's age of innocence was to end soon.

Foni's Inter had a solid defence, combative midfield and relied on sudden long-balls to launch counter attacks. They scored just 46 goals with Nyers leading the tally with 15 strikes. The derbies reflected the season, an 86th minute goal from Lorenzi decided the first match while the second ended 0-0, the first stalemate in this fixture since 1932. Fittingly, Nyers struck twice, his second an unstoppable right footer, in a 3-0 defeat of Palermo to decide Internazionale's first title since WW2.

In the following season Nyers' impact was lessened with injuries and off field problems. An argument with the club president over increased payment saw him temporarily frozen out of the squad. It was almost ironic that his greatest derby performance came when he was on the decline on 1st November, 1953.

The first half was goal-less thanks to brilliance of two custodians Lorenzo Buffon and Giorgio "Kamikaze" Ghezzi. On 50th minute a saved shot fell in front of Nyers, who slotted into an empty net to make it 1-0. Four minutes later, he intercepted a shot from Armano before rolling the ball into the net between Buffon's legs. On 73rd minute Istvan Nyers became the first foreigner to score a hattrick in the Milan derby when he converted a penalty kick after Skoglund was brought down.

That hat-trick was the last derby goal Nyers would score. In the return leg Nordahl scored once in the first half to help Milan win 2-0. Nyers was sparingly used but he scored important goals against Juventus, Napoli and Genoa as Inter retained the league title. It was also his last season at the club.

Istvan Nyers never managed to outscore Gunnar Nordahl in a full Serie A season but where he excelled was derby goals when they came face to face. In those games Nyers scored 10 times, compared to Nordahl's 8. The Swede scored on 3 consecutive derbies between 1955 and 1956 to end up on 11 goals, exactly same number as his Hungarian rival. The duo would remain as the highest scoring foreigners in history of the derby till 2005 when Andriy Shevchenko broke their record.

After leaving Inter Nyers never found success again. Two mediocre seasons in Roma were followed by stints in lower league clubs before he retired in 1961. To make matters worse, a failed collaboration with shady business advisor Gino Anzanello had ruined him financially. He eventually moved back to Subotica, removed from glare of media. Later in his life logistical problems saw him miss out on the pension given by Inter and he died in 2005 in relative poverty, with a handful people attending his funeral. Then Inter president Massimo Moratti graciously sponsored a tomb.

Nordahl also joined Roma after leaving Milan in 1956, before retiring in 1958. He had a 12 year coaching career with little success. He passed away in 1995. Nordahl is revered as a hero in Sweden and his statues can be found in Hörnefors and Norrköping. This is perhaps the greatest dissimilarity between the two.

Between 1950 and 1955 the Scudetto headed for Milan in four out of five seasons, the first real spell of dominance from both clubs in the league. Nordahl and Nyers played vital roles in reinforcing the importance of the derby as well as the clubs. Their's was a unique and record-breaking rivalry.

Somnath is @baggiholic

All images are of the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan and have been kindly provided under licence by Marco Pochestorie.