Gianni Rivera’s 89th minute winner against Brescia at San Siro on March 31, 1968, secured for AC Milan the ninth Italian championship in their history, for this win gave them a nine-point lead at the top of the league and with only four games left to play they could not be caught.
What have been the main reasons for their runaway win? Off the field the vigorous efforts of trainer Nereo Rocco in moulding the team into a powerful single unit playing fluid, open football and ignoring catenaccio have been at the very heart of this success. On the field one can point to skipper Gianni Rivera's superb skill and vast imagination, Saul Malatrasi's organisation of the defence, Pier Angelo Belli's inspired goalkeeping in the first half of the season before a shoulder injury put him out of the team and Giovanni Lodetti's tireless efforts in midfield.
But as important as all these has been the emergence, one could almost say explosion, on to the scene of Pierino Prati, a 21-year-old striker whose frequent and decisive goalscoring has been paramount in bringing the championship back to the rossoneri.
In less than a season, Prati's eye for the half-chance has earned for him not only his first scudetto but also his first Italian "cap" and the position of top goalscorer in the league as well as the adulation of press and public alike. Prati has undoubtedly been the find of the season but despite only being in his first full season in Serie A he has been no overnight success for, young as he is, he has received a thorough grounding in the arts and crafts of calcio. A product of the Milan youth training system at their training centre Milanello, where he first went at the age of 16, Prati was centre-forward in the Milan youth team that won the Primavera championship of Italy in season 1964/65. He was then selected for the Italian squad that was to take part in the 18th UEFA Youth Tournament in West Germany in April, 1965. In this competition he played in all Italy's games; against Scotland in Stuttgart (1-1), Yugoslavia in Pforzheim (2-0), scoring once, Northern Ireland in the quarter-finals in Bochum (2-1), scoring both goals, and England in the semi-finals in Marl-Huls (1-3). It is interesting to note that two of England's three goals in that game were scored by Dennis Bond and Peter Osgood.
In July, 1965, in order to give him league experience, Milan loaned Prati to the Serie B (2nd Division) team Salernitana. Unfortunately in January, 1966, while playing for Salernitana, he broke his right leg. With patience and courage, however, he overcame this injury and today his powerful right foot shooting and bravery in the tight defences bears witness to the fact that it is now just a cloudy memory. At the end of the season he was recalled to Milan by their new allenatore Arturo Silvestri. With regular centre-forward Angelo Sormani injured and unable to play for a few weeks, Prati made his Serie A debut at San Siro on September 18, 1966, against Venezia in the opening game of the new season. Despite winning 2-1 he lost his place to Riccardo Innocenti for the next two matches but came back into the side for the game at Napoli which Milan lost 3-2.With Sormani fit again, however, and Amarildo and Innocenti also available for the centre-forward position, chances would have been few and far between and so, in order to continue his league experience, he was loaned out again, this time to Savona also in Serie B.
It was while he was with Savona during season 1966/67 that he first gave the hint of his enormous potential. Playing at centre-forward in a team that was not really strong enough for the division, his 15 goals in two-thirds of the season - 29 appearances to be precise - almost, but not quite, saved them from relegation. It also placed him second in the Serie B goalscorers' classification, preceded only by Francesconi of champions Sampdoria.
When the season ended he was once again recalled to Milan but this time it was to stay. For the new season Milan had managed to re-engage as their allenatore, Nereo Rocco, the man who had guided them to victory in the European Cup in 1963, and he definitely wanted Prati back at San Siro. Even so, he was not included in Rocco’s immediate plans to build a first team capable of regaining the championship they had last won in 1962. As a centre-forward Prati would naturally only be an understudy to Angelo Sormani, the excellent Brazilian who had cost Milan such a lot of money when they bought him from Roma in 1965.
Rocco had assembled a fine team with all positions covered, all positions that is except one. Nereo had problems on the left wing. It was a choice between Bruno Mora, the highly experienced international who had never quite got over a badly broken leg suffered in a game against Bologna on December 12, 1965, that had kept him out of the game for nearly a year, Lino Golin, a 22-year-old they had signed from Verona, and Giorgio Rognoni, another youngster they had bought from Modena during the close season. Nereo tried one, then the other, but still he was not happy and finally he introduced Prati, who had earlier had a couple of games at outside-right when Kurt Hamrin was injured, into the team to wear the No. 11 shirt.
Prati was like the answer to a prayer for he started scoring at once - in one's and two’s in almost every game - and in no time had become the most feared man in the Milan attack, an attack that contained such celebrated names as Hamrin, Rivera and Sormani. At one stage he was averaging over a goal a match and to date has scored 15 goals in 18 league games and three goals in five European Cup-Winners’ Cup ties which is very good going by any standard but in Italy is a particularly formidable rate of scoring.
The possessor of a remarkably powerful right foot shot, he is also very good in the air where he uses his height to fine advantage in getting up to Rivera's finely flighted crosses. Tall and long-legged, he has a very awkward and unorthodox style that often baffles opposing full-backs. Many a time I’ve seen him take the ball into a seemingly impossible situation, with three or four defenders in close attention, only for him to somehow emerge with the ball leaving a trail of beaten opponents in his wake.
Once in possession of the ball he is very difficult to dispossess and frequently opponents find that the only way to stop him is to foul him. Time and again he is dumped on the ground by ruthless full-backs determined to make sure that he doesn't continue his goalscoring spree against them. He takes all this, however, without a word of protest. His only concern is to get into the penalty area to try and collect the free-kick and get it into the net. It is in the penalty area that he is at his most dangerous where he does not hesitate to have a go at goal no matter what the distance or angle. It is his refreshing willingness to try a shot from narrow and confined spaces that has contributed so much to his success. He is also a specialist at taking direct free-kicks outside the penalty area, the power of his shot making him a threat to his opponents anywhere within 30 yards or so.
As the season progressed it was obvious that representative honours would soon come his way and in December, 1967, he was selected for the Italian Under-23 party to travel to Nottingham to play England on the 20th of that month. Although not originally selected for the actual team he came on as a second-half substitute in a match that England, with a goal from Martin Chivers, won 1-0. By the end of March, with Italy's European Championship (Henri Delauney Cup) quarter-final first leg against Bulgaria in Sofia just around the corner, many critics and writers were clamouring for Prati's inclusion in the full national side. More so because the regular first choice left-winger, Luigi Riva of Cagliari, was going through a bad spell, fighting against loss of form and injuries.
Gianni Brera, Italy's leading football writer, in the paper Guerin Sportivo, called Prati the new Piola (Italy's most prolific goalscorer of all time and their centre-forward in the 1938 World Cup winning team). Indeed, he went further than that and said that Prati was one of only two or three Italian forwards who was not afraid of playing away from home, while Annibale Frossi, writing in the Carriere della Sera, said that while most Italian forwards, in the interests of prudence, were used as midfield players, preferring to remain far away from the penalty area and the opposing goal, Prati was among the few forwards in Italy that were the exception to this rule. He went onto say that Prati was a rebel against the tactics of the present day, concentrating all his skill and strength on the offensive and the scoring of goals. And Brera again, after Milan’s European Cup-Winners' Cup playoff against Standard Liege, wrote that if Ferruccio Valcareggi -the national team manager in the stand watching the game - did not pick Prati for the match in Sofia it would be a big mistake.
It was no surprise, therefore, that when the names of the 22 players were announced Prati's was amongst them, ostensibly as reserve to Riva. Prati's comment was: "I think it is a miracle and I am very happy. I do not think that I will play in Sofia but for me it is sufficient to be included in the list of 22 players. “
The inclusion in the squad had crowned a great year for the young striker but there was still more to come. Just two days before the match in Sofia, Riva pulled out of the squad with an injury and Valcareggi immediately confirmed that Prati would definitely wear the No. 11 shirt. Despite having 10 men for most of the game- Picchi going off injured in the first half- and a referee that was heavily biased against them, Italy gave one of their typically spiritless away-from-home displays. The faith that many people had in Prati, however, was confirmed for he played magnificently, by far the best Italian on the field.
Seemingly unaffected by nerves and the fact that he was playing in his first international he was a constant danger to the Bulgarian defence. With a little bit of luck he could have scored a memorable hat-trick. In the first half his beautiful glancing header struck the bar and a little later his left-foot shot from a difficult angle hit the foot of the post. Then, just seven minutes before the end of the match, with Italy trailing 3-1 and in dire trouble; he popped up to lash Rivera's cross past Boncev to put his team back in with a chance. His display in Sofia meant that he was in the team to stay and Valcareggi did not hesitate to include him in the side to play the return leg in Napoli. Once again Prati turned up trumps and his all-important 14th-minute goal levelled the aggregate scores and opened up the way for the azzurri to win the tie, with a 68th-minute goal from Domenghini, and move forward into the semi-finals.
Prati has become the new hero of the Milaniste, even ousting Gianni Rivera from this position, with a large weekly fan mail. He is, however, a person with both feet firmly placed on the ground and has not let this popularity go to his head. He remains just plain Pierino to his friends and, as a single man, still lives at home with his mother in the little town of Cinisello Balsamo just outside Milan where he was born on December 13, 1946.
He is not one of those players who think that because he has received a little praise and attention he has nothing left to learn. He realises that he is lucky to be playing alongside men such as Rivera, whom he considers the most complete player in Italy. He is also very grateful to Nereo Rocco for giving him his chance even though earlier in the season Rocco was quoted as saying that Prati was only half a player. In this often misinterpreted statement Rocco was merely referring to the fact that whereas Prati was very effective in front of goal, he could boost his game by increasing his work rate and improving his technique. But Prati is young and willing to work hard to add to his natural talent for scoring goals.
This season the name Pierino Prati has meant anti-catenaccio. Next season he will be marked even more ruthlessly. Prati, however, a sensible and intelligent young man - at present, in between playing and training, he is studying English - has no false illusions about the difficulties he will have to face up to as his career progresses. It is for this reason that I believe he has a fine future ahead of him.
And that’s exactly what Prati enjoyed. In the season following the publishing of this article, Prati was a key component in Milan’s European Champions Cup Winning side of 1969, scoring seven goals in the tournament including a well taken hat-trick in the final against Ajax.