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Golden Great: Nils Liedholm June 2001 Issue

There are few individuals who have made an impact on Italian football quite like Nils Liedholm. Both as a player and a Coach he commanded the utmost respect. Giancarlo Rinaldi pays tribute to the Milan and Roma legend

Swede success

Long before Sven Goran Eriksson was even heard of there was another wily Swede making his mark on Serie A. Both as a player and a Coach Nils Liedholm left a considerable imprint on the Italian game. To this day his opinion is still regularly sought on the present state of the two clubs he most deeply affected - Milan and Roma.

As a player, Liedholm was the kind of straniero clubs nowadays must dream of signing. Influential and mature, he was both a playmaker and scorer of some repute. There was already plenty of silverware in his trophy cabinet when he made the trip to Milan in the summer of 1949. That was only enhanced over 12 memorable seasons with the boys from the San Siro.

With domestic League titles in Sweden and Olympic gold for his country already behind him, it was clear new challenges were needed for the talented 26-year-old plying his trade with Norrkoping. There was no better place to do that than with a Milan side desperate to rediscover some success after decades in the doldrums.

Just as they would years later, the Rossoneri decided to build their success around a trio of impressive foreign stars. The tactical awareness of Gunnar Gren, the awesome scoring power of Gunnar Nordahl and the character of Liedholm formed the impressive Gre-No-Li partnership. It was to be a model successfully followed by Frank Rijkaard, Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit at the club decades afterwards.

And the rewards, at least domestically, were not dissimilar. Four League titles came in the fabulous 1950s for the Milan giants and they came close to knocking Real Madrid off their European perch in 1958 - only losing out to that great side in extra time. It was a Golden Age for the club and Liedholm was a vital part of that.

An organiser of play the whole of Milan’s game revolved around him for more than a decade. Legend has it was two years before he misplaced his first pass in front of his home fans - prompting a five minute round of applause such was the rarity of the event. In ‘Liddas’ the Rossoneri had something special and a tally of 81 goals in over 350 games is testament to his quality, especially since he arrived in Italy relatively late in his career. But the Swede was a class act and had both the fitness and footballing brain to play at the highest level longer than most.

An accomplished sportsman, he was one of the first players to realise the importance of more all-round fitness in the game. This was so much the case that he would carry out additional practice to better prepare him for the football field. That regime was unusual but certainly seems to have worked. "At that time footballers only trained a couple of times a week," he said. "But I used to add two sessions of athletic training including the 100 metres, 3000 metres, javelin, shot put and high jump."

He used his physical stature to develop an impressively long throw-in which he used to deadly effect. Almost from the halfway line he was able to catapult the ball towards Nordahl who rarely missed out when a chance came his way inside the penalty box.

Perhaps it was this dedicated approach to training that allowed Liedholm to play at the top of the game for so long. In 1958, with his 36th birthday fast approaching, he played a part in taking his country to the World Cup Final in Sweden against Brazil only to lose out to the teenage Pele. And his Serie A career went on until he was close to 40.

There was little doubt that such a methodical man could switch his skills to coaching and after spells in the backrooms at Milan he was ready to take charge of clubs of his own. Promotion seasons with Verona and Varese saw him catch the attention of Fiorentina and then the top job back at his old club Milan.

Dubbed ‘The Baron’ after marrying a member of the Italian nobility, he was also lucky enough to be in charge of the Rossoneri when they picked up their tenth League title in 1979. An even trickier task proved not to be beyond him when he made his way to Roma. In 1983, playing the zonal system which was unusual for Serie A at the time, he took the capital club to only their second Scudetto. A year later, his team lost out to Liverpool on penalties in the European Cup Final.

That must have been his only regret as both player and Coach, never to clinch a title at European level. But his impact on the game in Italy and beyond should not be underestimated. Many of the theories he hatched have become accepted practice today.

Still a respected pundit as he approaches his 80th birthday, he reckons the biggest change in the game has been in its tempo. Back in the 1950s there was not the same frenetic action and even his Roma team of just two decades ago might find things tough in the helter-skelter world of the year 2001. "The game has changed, above all in the speed of players around the ball," said Liedholm. "During a game if you watch the players far away from the ball they are not running - but close to the ball they run at breakneck speed.

"The only trouble is they do not do much to avoid fouling players," he added. "It is too easy to stop a player by fouling him. Proper training teaches you how to win the ball without committing a foul, which is much more difficult. I learned that as a youngster and that was why I was rarely booked or suspended."

Liedholm loved Italy so much that he set up his home there and remained even after his lengthy coaching career ended. Away from the game he enjoyed success with vineyards now run by his son. Of course, he still catches a Serie A clash when he can. And his opinions carry a lot of weight as one of only a handful of foreign Coaches - like his countryman Eriksson or wily Yugoslav Vujadin Boskov - to have taken the Scudetto in the last 20 years.

That should be good news for Roma fans if their old boss’ predictions can come true. He rates this Giallorosso vintage as good as the won that he took to the title nearly 20 years ago. And that really ought to be enough to see them grab a third Scudetto. After all, if anyone knows what he is talking about it must be Liedholm - a man who has seen nearly a thousand Serie A Sundays as player and Coach.

STAR RATING 8/10 A thinking-man’s footballer, the Baron was impressive on the pitch and on the bench. Ahead of his time in both training and theories of the game, it is little wonder he is still highly regarded to this day.

Nils Liedholm
Born: Valdemarsvik (Sweden), 8/10/22
Position: Midfielder
Ht/Wt: 1.83m/82kg
Serie A debut: Sampdoria 1-3 Milan, 11/9/49
Italian club: Milan

Playing Honours:
Swedish Championship (1947, 48)
Lo Scudetto (1951, 55, 57, 59)
Olympic Gold (1948)
World Cup Runner-up (1958)

Coaching Honours:
Lo Scudetto (1979, 83)
Coppa Italia (1980, 81, 84)

This article is taken from the monthly Football Italia magazine. Back issues are also readily available. For more info click here

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Pictures: Richiardi (Milan)
& Getty Images (UK)

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