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Giuseppe Meazza: A legend ahead of his time

Coming into the 2012/13 winter break, I thought I'd look at an Inter legend who is still considered one of the all-time greats of football -- Giuseppe Meazza, a striker so great that it was only fitting to name the San Siro Stadium after him.

His story begins a hundred years before Jose Mourinho led Inter to their historic Triplete, when he was born in Milano on August 23, 1910. The young 'Peppe' had a love for football even as a boy, although his mother preferred to have him helping her run the family fresh fruit market stall. This was a completely different age than today. Football wasn't considered a worthy career so his mother saw no benefit to him wasting his time with the sport; she even went as far as to take his shoes away from him to discourage the lad from playing.

Meazza had other ideas and learned to play in the streets, barefooted, and using a ball made of rags. As you will see later in this article, Meazza was never one to follow the rules. As a youngster, Meazza actually admired AC Milan, but was turned down by them for being too skinny. Inter weren't so easily dissuaded, and after a Nerazzurri scout witnessed him juggling his rag ball on the streets of Milan, he was quickly signed. Inter set to work bulking up their young talent with a diet of steak while honing his football skills.

Meazza was, in fact, a player decades ahead of his time, with a scoring record of 241 goals in 348 games during his time at Inter, not to mention the additional 33 goals he scored in his 53 appearances for Italy, a feat that made him the Azzurri's highest scoring player until 1973 when Gigi Riva broke the record. Despite his record being broken, 'Peppe' still holds second place all these years later.

It wasn't just his scoring talent that made him such a fantastic footballer, he also possessed skills on the ball that would even have Lionel Messi mesmorized. He was a complete footballer who used his passion for dancing the tango to assist him on the pitch with his trademark twists and turns. Though not the tallest player, he was excellent in the air, had a truly inspiring vision for the game across the field of play, and by playing with both feet, he was a brilliant passer of the ball. All these skills meant he could not only score countless goals, but he also provided many for his teammates too.

The famous Italian intellectual Luigi Veronelli once said of Meazza: "I also saw Pele playing. He did not achieve Meazza's elegant style of playing. One day, I witnessed him doing something astonishing. He stopped the ball with a bicycle kick, elevating himself two meters from the ground. Then he landed with the ball glued at his foot, dribbled over an astonished defender, and then went on to score a goal with one of his hallmark shots, sardonic and accurate to the millimeter."

During the 1933 season, the Juventus goalkeeper, Giampiero Combi, made two bets with Meazza ahead of the game in Milan between Meazza's Ambrosiana Inter and Combi's Juventus. The first was that he claimed 'Peppe' could not repeat a stunning bicycle kick goal that he scored in training with the Italian national team against Combi a few weeks earlier, and the second was that Meazza would be unable to achieve his trademark goal of sidestepping the keeper and simply tapping the ball into the net against the Bianconeri shot-stopper.

The day of the game came around, and Combi lost both bets as Meazza first scored an identical goal with a bicycle kick, and then 'Peppe' dribbled through the line of defenders before taking the ball past Combi to tap in the second. After the second goal, Combi jumped to his feet astounded, and insisted on shaking Meazza's hand mid-game.

As you can see, Meazza, even by today's standards, could easily be described as one of, if not the best in the game. That being said, Meazza wasn't a model athlete by any means. He had a weakness for several vices which saw him drinking and frequenting brothels the night before matches. He was also the only Inter player at that time that was permitted to smoke.

This love for alcohol and women often got the talented striker into trouble with the club's directors, as Meazza himself revealed once in an interview: "Luckily I lived near the stadium, and I managed to get there in a rush. My teammates and the coach looked at me disapprovingly. It was only five minutes before the kick-off, so I quickly changed and joined the team on the pitch. I could hear the Inter directors saying: 'We'll deal with him after the match. We'll find out what he's been up to.' Luckily I scored a hat-trick so afterwards no one said a word!"

His huge talent meant that he could get away with almost anything, and he often took advantage of this. Even a night of heavy drinking and sex before the 1937 match against Juventus didn't stop the rebellious striker from scoring a brace, and taking the award for the best player on the pitch. The story goes that the Inter directors had to send two staff members to look for him when he didn't show up shortly before kick-off, and they found him snoring in bed and had to drag him half-asleep to the stadium, all the while telling about how the night before had made him feel like a lion.

Of course, behaviour like that wouldn't be tolerated these days, no matter how good you were on the pitch, but all those years ago it was part of the charm of the man. The late great Peppino Prisco considered him to be the best of all time: "Meazza was great, unbeatable, even if he would occasionally run into a frightful crisis, caused by his intense sexual activity and his passion for the game. When he took over on the field, he did things that left the mouth ajar."

Meazza eventually did sign for his boyhood team, Milan, and following his two year stint on the red side of Milan, he even played for Inter's other fierce rival, Juventus, as well as Varese and Atalanta. At the end of his career, he returned for his swan song with Inter as a player/coach. It was however, his 13 years with FC Internazionale between 1927 and 1940 that saw his greatest success, winning three Scudetti, a Coppa Italia title, and during the same period he even won two World Cups with the Italian national team. These achievements made him the first ever worldwide football superstar, and he was also the first player to gain a personal sponsor. Anyone who knows anything about football should consider him one of the greatest strikers in the history of the game.

After being a player/coach for Inter, he then made history once again by becoming one of the first Italians to coach abroad with Besiktas, before returning to Italy to coach Pro Patria and the Italian national team. Meazza, like all the true club legends, could not keep away from the club where he made his name, returning to coach Inter in 1955/56 and 1957. This was to be his last coaching job, and he passed away many years later in 1979 at age 68.

As you can see, Meazza did many great things for Inter on the pitch, and had an effect as well off of it where he worked as a youth coach for the Nerazzurri. In fact, it was Meazza who convinced another Inter legend to sign for the club -- the young Sandro Mazzola.

Meazza, without knowing it at the time, would become the first legend of not just Inter, but also world football, with his legacy living on through the world's greatest players today.