Giuliano Sarti – The ‘Ice Goalkeeper’

On 5 June 2017, in the Italian city of Florence, Giuliano Sarti, one of the most decorated goalkeepers in the history of Italian football passed away following a brief illness, aged 85. Sarti had been a prominent member in two of the country’s greatest club sides. In the fifties, he played under Fulvio Bernardini at Fiorentina as I Viola topped Italian football securing the Scudetto in 1955-56, and losing controversially to Real Madrid in the second European Cup tournament.

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The Coppa Italia and European Cup Winners Cup were later added with legendary Hungarian Nándor Hidegkuti in charge. After almost a decade in Florence, he would join Inter Milan in 1963, becoming a key element in the success of Helenio Herrera’s ‘Grande Inter’ team, winning a further two Scudetti, successive European Cups and Intercontinental Cups. On the way, he would also become the only Italian goalkeeper to appear in four European Cup Finals.

Born in Castello d’Argile, part of Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, on the second day of October 1933, Giuliano Sarti began his footballing career with Centese, in the nearby city of Cento, 25 kilometres or so from his place of birth, as a 19-year-old. He would stay a single season with the club before moving to Bondenese where he would play for a similar period. Both clubs were then in the lower reaches of the Italian league structure, but in 1954, a chance arrived to step into the big time of Italian club football.

In the 1953-54 Serie A season, Fiorentina had finished in fourth position in Serie A, seven points behind champions Inter Milan, but their defensive record across the season had been outstanding. In 34 league games, Fulvio Bernardini’s team had conceded a mere 27 goals. It was far and away the best record in the league. The next lowest being Inter, who had conceded five more. Such a record was surely sufficient to make incumbent goalkeeper, Leonardo Costagliola, feel secure in his position. Bernardini, however, was the hardest of taskmasters and never satisfied when he thought better options were available.

The name, and growing reputation of a young Giuliano Sarti had come to the attention of I Viola manager, and he decided that this was the man who could improve his defence. More than anything, it was Sarti’s style of goalkeeping that impressed the manager the most, as a calm assurance radiated from the young goalkeeper. By this time, Sarti was in his early twenties, but had already established a technique, rare in goalkeepers of that time, concentrating on, what has been characterised as, a ‘no nonsense’ approach.

Eschewing the acrobatic diving saves so beloved of photographers, instead Sarti relied on anticipation, positioning and technique, for the most part nullifying any need for dramatics. This, coupled with a resolute composure and strong mentality, ensured that he became a formidable barrier for any opposing forward, and a comforting presence for the defenders in front of him.

A key element in his approach was his willingness to be, what is often termed these days as, a ‘sweeper-keeper.’ Unlike the overwhelming preponderance of goalkeepers at the time, who saw an uncrossable barrier at the edge of their penalty area, Sarti would often stand on the edge, or even sometimes outside, of the area, poised to charge forward and collect any over-hit pass played in behind his back line. In doing so, instead of merely hacking clear, he would look to feed the ball to his own players, initiating another attack for his team.

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When faced with an opponent clear of his defensive, he would retreat towards his line, always keeping the opponent in his eye line, providing a block between the forward and the goal. By doing this, he increased the space, and therefore the time, between the ball being struck and when the save had to be made. Although arguably marginal, Sarti would content that on many occasions this advantage proved decisive. This was the advent of the ‘Ice Goalkeeper,’ calm and measured, as if that very frozen water had replaced the blood in his veins. It was an approach that that Bernardini warmed to, and a deal for Sarti to join Fiorentina was sealed.

In his previous season, Sarti had played a meagre handful of games for Bondenese, but such trivial matters were of little interest to Bernardini. He had found the goalkeeper he was looking for. For any tyro player, moving to a new club and seeking to usurp an incumbent with such an outstanding previous season behind him would be a daunting task, but Sarti not only had confidence in his technique, he had confidence in himself as well, and when the manager selected him to play in place of Costagliola, he would reward Bernardini’s belief and faith in ample measure.

It took little time for the new man to prove himself to his defenders, and make them as sure as the manager had been that he was the better goalkeeper. By the end of the 1955-56 season, a return of a miserly 20 goals conceded in 34 league games, had proved the point. The next best return was almost double that figure. With their Ice Goalkeeper keeping the back door shut, Fiorentina had topped the league title by a margin of 12 points, and secured the Scudetto for the first time in the club’s history.

I Viola would disappointingly relinquish their title the following year, finishing second behind Milan, but with the title success of the previous term, a wider focus for success opened up when the club entered the second running of the new European Cup. If winning the Scudetto had been like climbing a mountain, now at that exalted height, Bernardini wanted his team to reach up and touch the sky.

Granted a bye in the preliminary round, Fiorentina then eased past Norrköping of Sweden and Swiss champions Grasshopper to face a Semi-Final tie against Red Star Belgrade. In the tense atmosphere of the Stadion JNA in front some 40,000 fans, the coolest man of the pitch was inevitably the Ice Goalkeeper.

Sarti, displaying all the calm assurance that was now his hallmark, kept the eager and persistent Belgrade forwards at bay, and when Maurilio Prini struck the winning goal with just a couple of minutes remaining, Fiorentina were odds on to progress to the final. Back in Florence, another clean sheet completed the job. Fiorentina would play holders Real Madrid in the final. A 2-0 defeat to the Spanish club in a final played in their opponents’ home stadium and riddled with controversy over refereeing ended the dream though. Seven years later, Sarti would have his revenge.

In 1958, Bernardini left Fiorentina and in the same year, the club signed a young goalkeeper, Enrico Albertosi, from Spezia. By now, Leonardo Costagliola, had moved on, and the young Albertosi was seen as the long-term replacement for Sarti. Despite making his debut in January of 1959 though, the younger man would have to show patience before inheriting Sarti’s shirt as the club’s first choice goalkeeper. As time moved on though, successive managers seemed to favour Albertosi, and when chance of a move to Inter came along in 1963, Sarti decided to go. Before that though, Fiorentina would get compensation of sorts for that disputed defeat in Madrid when they captured the European Cup Winners Cup in 1961, defeating Rangers in the two-legged final.

Inter had qualified for the European Cup for Sarti’s first season in Milan, after winning the title by four points from Juventus. It would be the tournament where Sarti proved himself to be a vital part of the ‘Grande Inter’ success story. Across nine games, he would concede a mere five goals including successive clean sheets against Everton in the Preliminary Round. In the First Round, AS Monaco would eventually breach the Inter backline in the home leg but, by that time, Inter were already three goals clear and coasting towards qualification for the last eight.

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Seven years earlier, then with I Viola, Sarti had visited the Stadion JNA Stadium in Belgrade to face Red Star in a battle to reach the final. In typically calm assured manner, Sarti had returned with a clean sheet that that would ease his club through. In this tournament, he would return to the same stadium, this time to face Partizan in the Quarter-Final. Although the opposition was different, the outcome was the same. Sarti kept the home team at bay and with Jair and Mazzola scoring away goals, the tie was virtually settled before the return at the San Siro. Again, as in the previous round, a fairly meaningless late goal, this time by Mane Bajić, somewhat blotted Sarti’s copybook, and doubtlessly his pride, but his team were four goals clear at the time.

The Semi-Finals brought a confrontation with West German champions, Borussia Dortmund. It would be the only tie in which Sarti would concede more than a single goal. In the first leg played at Dortmund’s Stadion Rote Erde, a brace from Franz Brungs earned the Germans a 2-2 draw, but it was back to normal in Milan. Another clean sheet from Sarti, and two goals at the other end, locked out a place in the final.

Going into the tournament, the city of Milan were defending champions, but in the guise of AC Milan, rather than Inter. The Rossoneri had relinquished their crown in the Quarterfinal, losing out to Real Madrid. For the second time in his career, Sarti would be facing the aristocrats of Spanish football in the European Cup Final. With memories of seven years earlier still locked into his mind, and the nagging belief that Fiorentina had been harshly treated when the game was played in the Spanish club’s own ground. There would have been some satisfaction for the goalkeeper in knowing that this time, Vienna’s Praterstadion, would host the game.

Going into the final, the formbook suggested it would be a battle between the Spanish forwards and the Italian defence to decide the crown. In the four ties leading up to the game, Real Madrid had netted no less than 29 goals and conceded eight. Inter’s record, with their Ice Goalkeeper was 13 scored, but conceded only 4. Miguel Muñoz had lifted the trophy at that final in Madrid seven years previously, and now that same Muñoz was manager of Los Blancos. There were more than few scores to settle for Sarti, and a 3-1 victory was more than sufficient to do so. The crown of European champions stayed at the San Siro, but the ribbons were changed from red and black to blue and black. Inter, Herrera and Sarti had topped the European tree. Once again, Sarti had moved to a club, established himself as the number one goalkeeper and been a key element in its success.

It was something widely recognised by his team-mates. Sandro Mazzola would later comment. “Giuliano joined Inter when he was already an established and mature footballer. He was a great goalkeeper and a great man. Alongside Picchi he was the main secret behind the team’s defensive strength.” That triumph was merely the start. In the next few years, Inter would come to dominate, not only Italian and European football, but also at the global level as well. His understanding with both full-backs, Burgnich and Facchetti, as well as sweeper Armando Picchi, would be the key to the success of Inter’s Catenaccio system.

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The following season, Inter retained the European Cup. This time, the final was held at the San Siro and in customary fashion Sarti kept another clean sheet, as a single strike from Brazilian Jair secured the trophy. Facing them were the massed firepower of a Benfica side featuring the likes of Eusébio, José Torres, Mário Coluna and António Simões. Such had been the goal power of the Portuguese club that Eusébio and Torres had tied as the tournament’s top scorers with nine goals each. It meant that Inter were again facing a team who had amassed 27 goals on their way to the final. Sarti would deny all their attempts though, to see his side to glory.

In domestic matters, the Serie A title was also retained in the 1965-66 season with the Inter defence, including Sarti, providing a solid foundation for their success. They would finish the season four points clear of Bologna, and as one of only seven clubs to have a positive goal difference. To put matters into a little perspective however, Inter’s was plus 42, some 19 clear of the second best returns. It’s a record that leant heavily on their defence and masterful goalkeeper who conceded just 28 goals across the 34-game league season.

With both Italy and Europe conquered, Inter moved into a position of global prominence with successive victories in the Intercontinental Cup against Argentina’s Independiente. In 1964, a single goal defeat in Avellaneda, was reversed back in Milan with goals from Mazzola and Corse, plus of course, a clean sheet from Sarti and his defence. The following year, the first leg was played in Milan and a 3-0 victory went a long way to making the return in Argentina a mere academic exercise. A goalless draw saw out the win. It meant that in four games against the best in South American football, including two games away in Argentina, Sarti conceded a grand total of one goal.

For a goalkeeper so often regarded by many as the best in Italy, it remains a strange fact that for so many years when he was collecting silverware and winner’s medals of the highest order, Sarti was apparently largely disregarded by the managers of Italy’s national team. He debuted for the Azzurri in 1959, and played his last international game in 1967. Across that eight-year period, he would garner a triflingly astonishing eight caps, and was never called up for either a European Championship or World Cup Finals. One is left to wonder about the perceived excellence of the goalkeepers selected ahead of him, or perhaps, the perversity of the decisions that saw him excluded.

Returning to the European Cup Final in 1967, things wouldn’t go as well when they faced Celtic. Initially, it was an ideal start for Inter. A mere six minutes had passed when a foul by Jim Craig on Renato Cappellini allowed Mazzola to put the Italians ahead from twelve yards. With their defence as their strongest card, Inter then resorted to type, confident that their backline could deal with anything the Scots could throw at them, and if anything managed to get through, there was always Sarti.

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Celtic duly pressed and probed for an hour or so without reward. An effort from Bertie Auld hit the bar, with Sarti unusually beaten. The goalkeeper gathered a cross from Jimmy Johnstone, and then tipped a header over the bar from the same player. The Italians’ nine-man defence looked to be holding out.

A fierce free-kick from Tommy Gemmell was superbly denied by Sarti. The full-back could hardly believe he had been denied. “He pulled off a save in the first half which I still rate as one of the best I’ve ever seen. Every player knows when he has hit his shot sweetly and you have an exhilarating feeling when the ball leaves your boot. That’s exactly how I felt … But Sarti threw himself to his left to push the ball away. I could hardly believe it.” Frustration grew. Celtic were dominant, and the Inter attack was almost totally absent, but time and again, Celtic found themselves foiled by outstanding goalkeeping from Sarti.

Finally, with pressure mounting to unbearable levels, even Sarti couldn’t get to the 25-yard shot from Gemmell that brought the sides level. To all intents and purposes, the game was now lost. Inter’s attack was insipid at best. There was only one team going to score and, had it not been for the stubborn refusal of Sarti to bend the knee to the inevitable, the winner would have arrived a lot earlier than the 85th minute when Steve Chalmers diverted a Bobby Murdoch shot into the net. Strange to say, but despite the European Cup Finals both he and Inter had triumphed in, the game against Celtic was probably Sarti’s most outstanding performance.

Nothing lasts forever though, and just a week or so after that final, the pendulum of form and fortune swung heavily against Sarti. Going into the final Serie A game of the season, on the first day of June, Inter faced a trip to Mantova. The home team were safely ensconced in mid-table, with nothing of any real note to play for. Inter were leading the table on 48 points, one ahead of Juventus who faced Lazio at home. If Inter won, the title was theirs.  The Old Lady needed Inter to stumble, and then overcome Lazio to lift the Scudetto. The Roman club needed to avoid defeat to retain their Serie A status. In such scenarios, for many, Italian football had a somewhat tawdry reputation.

As would be expected, Inter began the game in dominant and confident mood but despite sustained pressure and a shot from Mazzola that struck the bar, with young Dino Zoff well beaten, the first period ended goalless. Up in Turin, the same score line was apparent. Four minutes into the second period, however, Inter lost possession as Bedin was robbed. Di Giacomo stole the ball away, with only sweeper Picchi, and then Sarti to beat. The experienced defender though, managed to usher the home player towards the sidelines.

With the opportunity squandered, Di Giacomo turned a seemingly innocuous looking cross hopefully into the box, but no home player was there to take advantage. Incredibly though, under no pressure, Sarti missed the ball. It flew unhindered into the net, and Inter fall behind.

Now the pressure was on, and Inter needed to strike back. Up in Turin, Juventus fans celebrated as Giancarlo Bercellino put them ahead, and then they heard the news from Mantova. Gianfranco Zigoni added a second for Juventus, and Inter still struggled to find a way past Zoff. Claudio Di Pucchio hit a late penalty for Lazio to give them a little hope and the Juve fans some fear, but only briefly. Juventus won. Inter lost. The title went to Turin, and Lazio were relegated. For Giuliano Sarti, the Ice Goalkeeper who apparently melted on that hot June day, the inquests were about to begin.

A few days later, writing in Gazzetta dello Sport, journalist Emilio Violanti states his thoughts on Sarti and the mistake that may have cost Inter the Scudetto. “Vedrete che ora finirà alla Juventus, ci starà un paio d’anni e poi sparirà dal giro del grande calcio.” (“You will see that now he will end up at Juventus, he will stay there for a couple of years and then he will disappear from the big football circuit.”)

The following year, with Sarti now in his mid-thirties, and Herrera also departing, Inter decided to move on their goalkeeper. The 1968-69 season was spent as back up to first choice to Roberto Anzolin – at Juventus. Violanti’s prediction broadly came true, but few who had watched the career of Sarti would ascribe much validity to the implication intrinsic in it.

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He would play just ten Serie A games that season, in a short stay with the Old Lady of Turin. At the end of the season, a move to lower tier Unione Valdinievole, back in Tuscany, confirmed the winding down of an illustrious career. He would stay there until retiring in 1973. After hanging up his gloves, Sarti would spend a short period managing lower league club Lucchese, before drifting away from the game.

Without doubt, goalkeepers’ mistakes are always the more costly. A misplaced pass here or there may lose possession, but there’s always time to recover. A shot fired high and wide may be greeted with derision from opposing fans, but there will be other chances coming along. For the man between the sticks however, that is hardly the case. One error and it’s usually a goal. Throughout a 15-year career with Fiorentina, Inter Milan and Juventus, there are bound to be a few errors accrue, and one in particularly is highlighted of course for the consequences attached to it. To have such an outstanding career held up to question for one aberration, regardless of the cost is surely harsh though, and to offer any kind of implication that it was anything or than an error is even worse. Such things are unworthy as summaries of the career of Giuliano Sarti – the ‘Ice Goalkeeper.’

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