You ought to know more about: Il Caffè Herrera

Helenio Herrera (H.H) is renowned for many things, like leading Internazionale to consecutive European Cup glory in 1964 and 65, for making ‘catenaccio‘ a part of every football aficionado’s vocabulary, for imposing totalitarian methods on players’ lives and introducing an ultra-strict regime for improving fitness and psychology, and for turning Inter into ‘La Grande Inter‘. But there’s more to Herrera than being a top-class manager.

The Argentine-born coach was known for pushing his players to the limit, so much so that some players were pushed to train till death. Would he do anything for a win? Apparently yes, he did do anything for a win. Herrera was known to give his players a pill (anphetamines) that reportedly worked as a performance enhancer.

Anphetamine, according to Wikipedia, is a psychostimulant drug of the phenethylamine class that produces increased wakefulness and focus in association with decreased fatigue and appetite, which answers why Herrera was so keen on his players consuming it.

What started as a pill, soon turned into a solute because the players used to spit out the drug when the manager was not looking. Once Herrera figured out that his pills were, literally, going down the drain, he came up with another formula, one which was fool proof – Coffee with the pill dissolved in it.

Ferruccio Mazzola, brother of the legendary Sandro Mazzola, who was synonymous with La Grande Inter, wrote a book in 2004 highlighting Herrera’s use of performance enhancing drugs. The former Inter man also said in an interview the same year that Herrera had his players place pills under their tongue. He went on to add that the pills were first tried on the reserves and then the main players.

Ferruccio believed there was Anphetamine inside those pills and once even suffered “3 days and nights in a state of complete hallucinations, just like an epileptic” after consuming Herrera’s coffee. Even though his brother Sandro has denied the allegations, Ferruccio has always struck to his claims saying his brother preferred to not wash dirty linen in public, while he himself liked to speak out, especially for the number of players who have died or are suffering due to Herrera’s coffee. Some of Ferrucio’s claims seem to be true considering that Anphetamine can trigger side effects like hallucinations.

According to Ferruccio, Armando Picchi (who died aged 36 due to a cancer), Marcello Giusti (who died of brain cancer in the 90′s), Carlo Tagnin (who died in 2000), Mauro Bicicli and Ferdinando Miniussi (who died in 2001 and 2002 respectively) and Enea Masiero and Pino Longoni (who are undergoing treatment) all suffered due to the continued consumption of the drug. We might never know if there’s truth to Ferruccio’s claims and the drug was the real cause of the deaths.

Picchi and Tagnin never featured regularly in Herrera’s first team plans but Ferruccio believed that was what made them more vulnerable. The younger Mazzola said that reserve team players were often used as Guinea pigs, with the coffee being tested on them before being given to the regulars. H.H, allegedly, had also tried to entice his players at Barcelona to take the pills but was kicked out of the club after László Kubala, their star player, refused to take them.

il Mago (the Wizard), as Hererra was called, won a total of seven trophies with the Nerrazuri, including back-to-back European Cups. But it still leaves one wondering how many of these would have been possible without the infamous drink. The entire Ferruccio interview could also be viewed as a selling point for his autobiography that was released the same year or as a way to get back at the club that gave him nothing and instead gave his brother a god-like status. But then again, when Inter sued Ferruccio for trying to defame his old club, Ferruccio won the the legal case in 2010, adding more authenticity to his claims. Ferruccio himself says it was not his intention to seek publicity for his book by bringing up details of Hererra’s coffee, as he could have chosen more interesting and controversial topics like match-fixing and bribing the referees for that.

H.H was one of the greatest managers the game has ever seen and if it wasn’t for him the likes of Jose Mourinho would have been viewed and judged from a completely different angle. He made the Nerazzuri one of the greatest teams of that era and deserves all the kudos for the same. If he did it by working them to death (Giuliano Taccola) or by drugging them may never be known, but Il Caffè Herrera is a part of footballing folklore that will live on for ever – fact or fiction.

This article is not an attempt to project Herrera in bad light, that is for you to decide. It is also not a piece that aims to take away anything from the legendary manager. If Herrera had the access to and could get away with giving his team Anphetamine, so could every other club or country in top flight football.

It’s just that Il Caffè Herrera is a little something everyone ought to know about.


If you are not tired of reading this, here is the full Ferruccio Mazzola interview:

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