Nils Liedholm would have been happy to see AC Milan winning at FC Shakthar Donetsk while AS Roma were earning an important point at Sporting Clube de Portugual this week. The Swedish legend, who died on Monday aged 85, always answered with a diplomatic "Forza Milan and Forza Roma" every time he was asked to chose between the two teams he loved during his playing and coaching career in his second homeland.
As a player 'Il Barone' helped restore Milan to the pinnacle of the Italian game, forming a formidable forward line with compatriots Gunnar Gren and Gunnar Nordahl, known forever as the Gre-No-Li trio. All three joined the Rossoneri after leading Sweden to gold in the 1948 Olympics and combined to lead Milan to their first title since 1907 in 1951. Milan scored more than 100 goals that season and are the last Italian side to do so.
Tall, good in the air and with great technique, Liedholm was also cultured, refined and elegant. He helped Milan win further Serie A titles in 1955, 1957 and 1959 and in 1958 he captained the Rossoneri in their first European Champion Clubs' Cup final against Real Madrid CF in Brussels. It was to be the first of two disappointments that summer as Madrid narrowly beat Milan 3-2 after extra-time. Just over a month later Liedholm captained his country in the FIFA World Cup final against Brazil and scored an outstanding individual goal after just four minutes to give his team the lead. Pele later said it was the best goal he saw anyone score against Brazil while he was playing. Brazil, though, would go on to win 5-2.
Liedholm retired as a player in 1961 after scoring 81 goals in 367 matches in 13 seasons at Milan. He was never booked during his entire Serie A career, and was so good that one time that he did misplace a pass, supporters at the San Siro gave him a five-minute standing ovation as recognition of his consistent excellence. "It was the first pass I missed in about five years," Liedholm recalls. That was just one of the many anecdotes surrounding his career as a player and a coach.
Di Stéfano 'shackled'
Former Milan team-mate José Altafini once attempted to play a practical joke on Liedholm by hiding naked in his locker in the Milan changing room. If Liedholm was surprised to find Altafini there when he opened the door, he wasn't showing it. Losing none of his self-control he casually remarked: "I think you have the wrong wardrobe". Liedholm once said he had done the perfect marking job on Alfredo Di Stéfano in a match against Real Madrid. When a journalist pointed out that Di Stéfano had scored three times, Liedholm replied, in a strong Swedish accent that he never lost despite living for over 50 years in Italy: "Yes just three goals, no more than that".
"A great figure in Milan's history has left us," Milan president Silvio Berlusconi said following Liedholm's death. "
He was a champion, a gentleman, a friend. I remember performances in which he didn't make a single mistake." Gianni Rivera, who was a team-mate of Liedholm's at Milan and later played under him with the Rossoneri, paid tribute to the Swede's generosity of spirit. "I remember he did everything to put others at ease, both the young and old members of the group. He was the first one to make himself available to others to create the ideal atmosphere."
A genuine legend as a player, if possible Liedholm had an even bigger influence as a coach. After spells with Hellas-Verona FC, Varese Calcio and ACF Fiorentina, he returned to guide the Rossoneri to their tenth title in 1979. His zonal marking in defence, and the exhausting ball possession his teams enjoyed set the example for many generations of Italian coaches. "It's better to get tired playing the ball than running after it," Liedholm used to say. Liedholm then joined Roma and in 1983 led the Giallorossi to their first title since 1942. The following year they reached the European Cup final, losing to Liverpool FC on penalties. "People like him should never pass away," said Falcão, the leader of that Giallorossi side. "He was like a father to me. He knew how to love with altruism."
'A game and a joy'
Liedholm returned to Milan as a coach and gave future Milan legends Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini their debuts. "He asked me which role I wanted to play," Maldini said remembering that game against Udinese Calcio in January 1985. "He was always repeating that football is a just game and a joy and if it is not like that it's better to do something else. I have never forgotten those words during my whole career. I think Carlo Ancelotti is his real successor in this sense." There can be no bigger compliment than that.