Despite ending in controversial fashion and a lack of goalmouth action at times, the 1963-64 campaign became one of the most talked about seasons in Serie A.
It was a familiar footballing landscape that greeted Serie A at the start of the 1963/64 season. Helenio Herrera’s Inter had just won the Scudetto, while city rivals AC Milan had faltered domestically as the exertions of winning the European Cup took their toll. Between the two sat Juventus, noses twitching at the prospect of silverware.
Yet even during the previous campaign there had been pretenders to the throne. Bologna had started well under Fulvio Bernardini, with Helmut Haller and Harald Nielsen showing that even outside the big sides, there was a strength to Serie A. On that occasion, the Rossoblu led the league going into December before fading away.
As 1963 drew to a close, those four teams led the way again. Inter had taken 19 points from their first 12 games, and in early December, stood ahead of Milan (18*), Bologna (17) and Juventus (17). Newly promoted Lazio were behind the quartet, but a gap had already appeared. Milan’s game in hand came as they were away winning the Intercontinental Cup.
In those days of Catenaccio away wins were hard to find – only relegated Bari (who arrived along with Lazio) lost more home games than they won; six sides won one or fewer away victories. Goals, too, were difficult to come by; as high as Torino, who finished seventh, teams routinely scored fewer goals than games were played – there were 57 0-0 draws, of which Torino featured in 11.
Despite this goalshyness, there were some amazing goalscoring feats. Kurt Hamrin, who went on to win the Capocannoniere, scored 5 as Fiorentina won 7-1 at Atalanta. Perhaps more impressively, Spal’s Silvano Mancacci scored four (his only goals of the season) in a 5-2 win over Mantova, who had a young Dino Zoff between the posts. There were a further seven hat-tricks scattered through the division.
The success was, however, to the defence. Bologna kept 20 clean sheets in 34 games, conceding more than one just twice. In this context, the most important game in the title race of 1963/64 could be said to have taken place during the previous campaign.
On December 16 1962, Inter travelled to face the table-topping Rossoblu at the Stadio Littoriale. It was not long ago that Bologna had crushed Modena 7-1 in a game described as ‘football from the heavens’. A 4-1 here, a 5-0 there, and then the Nerazzurri came to town.
Inter ripped Bernardini’s side apart. 2-0 up through two Jair goals within half an hour, it ended 4-0. Renato Dall’Ara was devastated. Having constructed a team who played open expansive football, it was clear his approach was wrong. He instructed Bernardini to change system, to stifle his attacking play in order that Bologna could compete for the top honour.
He did so.
The following season, with their tighter defence, Bologna did not fall away. If anything, as winter rolled around, Bernardini’s side was stronger. Following a draw at Inter in November, they won ten games in a row, the last of which ended 4-1 against Torino.
That game was on February 2nd, and passed without much discussion. However, on the morning of March 3rd, news broke that five Rossoblu players were found to have used performance enhancing substances in the win. After seeing Bologna deducted three points, Dall’Ara rallied a group of lawyers to protest the decision but they had to work fast.
While this was going on Inter, once again, returned from the Bologna with two points in a game that was friendlier than might have been expected, and that defeat spurred Bernardini’s men to another run of wins.
On May 3rd, the Nerazzurri scraped a 1-0 win in the Derby d’Italia while Bologna could only draw at Mantova. Inter extended their lead over the Rossoblu to three points and with just three games to go, looked set for the title. Milan were a point further back, while Fiorentina had overtaken Juventus into fourth.
On May 4th came the judgement from the courts. The initial samples were stored in a way that it was possible they had been tampered with. Eventually, second samples were found and tested and the five Bologna players were cleared. The Rossoblu’s punishment was cancelled and all of a sudden they were back on terms with Inter and the title race was on.
The two sides matched each other point for point over the last three games and so, for the only time, there was a playoff to decide the Serie A champions.
With the game due to be held on June 7, Dall’Ara headed to Milan a few days beforehand to discuss some of the details with Inter president Angelo Moratti. As the conversation became heated, Dall’Ara collapsed. He died the same day.
Having spent 23 years trying to re-establish a Scudetto winning side, his passing came just four days before Bologna won 2-0 to be crowned champions for the seventh time. They dedicated the title, and later the Stadio Littoriale, to Dall’Ara.