Jose Altafini wrote himself into the history books of two of the most successful nations in world football. One of the most well-known ‘Oriundi’, Altafini represented both his birthplace of Brazil and his ancestral home of Italy. This was in addition to a string of Serie A clubs including AC Milan, Napoli and Juventus, with phenomenal success.
Considered one of the most talented players to have represented Italy, the dual-capped star captured the imagination of millions of fans across the world in a career that saw him lift the World Cup, European Cup, Serie A and Coppa Italia.
Despite multiple league successes, Altafini will be forever associated with the European Cup. His incredible 14 goal haul in the 1963-64 competition, including a brace in the final, was testament to the ability of the inside forward and was a record that stood until Cristiano Ronaldo hit 15 some 50 years later.
Born in Piracicaba, Sao Paulo to a family of Italian migrants, Altafini began his career at Brazilian giants Palmeiras. The club was long associated with the Italian immigrant population in Brazil, with Altafini only the latest of a string of players of Italian heritage to represent them.
Despite making his debut at the tender age of 17, Altafini became an instant star with the Sao Paulo based club and was sought after throughout Europe.
Nicknamed ‘Mazzola’ due to an uncanny resemblance to captain of the Grande Torino side Valentino, Altafini also possessed a similar style of play. His flair, creativity and eye for goal were complemented by pace and strength to devastating effect, first as a winger and eventually as an out-and-out striker.
Altafini was soon thrust onto the world stage, as a call up for the 1958 World Cup exposed the then 18-year-old to the powerhouses of Europe.
The second youngest member of the travelling party behind Pele, the teenager got his campaign off to a dream start by scoring a double in the opening fixture against Austria. However, he was unceremoniously dropped in the semi-final and final as Brazil were crowned champions in Sweden.
Warm up matches for the tournament proved to be the catalyst for Altafini’s career outside his homeland though, as Brazil took on Inter and Fiorentina upon arrival in Europe. Scoring in both fixtures, the youngster had caught the eye of scouts from Milan, who were sufficiently impressed to offer Palmeiras 135 million Lire.
‘Mazzola’ officially signed for the Rossoneri on the eve of the World Cup, making his Serie A debut at 20 years of age on 21 September 1958 and hitting his first goal for the club two weeks later.
His first season in Milan proved to be a precursor to his career in Italy. The young ‘Mazzola’ developed a deadly partnership with fellow forward Giancarlo Danova and hit a prolific 28 goals in just 32 games as Milan romped to the Scudetto. Indeed, the Brazilian was second only to Inter’s Antonio Angelillo in the Capocannoniere chart.
In a remarkable career with the Rossoneri, Altafini showed the cutting edge and prolific finishing to end up as the club’s top scorer in each of the following five seasons. He broke the 20 goal mark in all but one of his first six seasons at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, and hit more than 30 twice.
Such prolific finishing was not only reserved for so-called lesser opponents, as Inter found out in 1960. As the two Milanese heavyweights took to the field in a bid to keep up the pace with runaway Serie A leaders Juventus, a closely fought encounter was expected, particularly as the sides had played out a tense 0-0 draw earlier in the season.
In reality, the Derby della Madoninna became the Jose Altafini show as he hit four of Milan’s goals in a 5-3 drubbing, given the red half of the city their first Serie A win over their bitter rivals in six seasons. Altafini’s quadruple remains the highest number of goals scored in a Milan derby to this day.
Another solid season followed as the Diavolo were 1961 Serie A runners up, thanks in no small part to the 26 goals from their Brazilian maestro. However, 1961-62 proved to be a defining season for Altafini at both club and international level.
A second Scudetto and Capocannoniere crown were added to Altafini’s burgeoning trophy cabinet, with his 22 goals inspiring his side to their eighth title, finishing five points clear of Inter. The highlight of the season was an incredible four goal haul as he walked off with the match ball in a 5-1 thumping of Juventus at the San Siro on 12 November 1961.
Only three weeks before this man of the match performance, increasingly vocal calls for the Brazilian international to be selected for the Italy national team were answered.
Without the tightened restrictions on representing more than a single nation, Altafini was free to make his second international debut, scoring as the Azzurri defeated Israel 4-2 in a World Cup qualifier.
Representing two of the most successful nations in footballing history was testament to the ability of Altafini, particularly as he played for both sides at World Cups. After wrapping up the Scudetto, Altafini joined his Italian teammates as an “Oriundo” at the 1962 World Cup in Chile.
A disappointing campaign saw the forward play in two of Italy’s three matches before elimination and receive criticism for a lack of physical presence.
The fall out was greater though; Italy’s disastrous showing spelt the end of their Brazil-born attacker’s international career. Altafini never received another call-up, despite a highly respectable six goals in eight games for the Seleção and a further five in six for the Azzurri.
Despite the setback, Altafini bounced back on the world stage the following season in remarkable fashion. Indeed, it was his irrepressible form and sensational potency in front of goal from that saw Milan lift their first European Cup.
A record breaking 14 goals from their 24-year-old striker culminated in a brace against Eusebio’s all-conquering Benfica, inspiring the Rossoneri to a maiden victory in a competition that they have become synonymous with.
Of the record haul in the 1962-63 campaign, five came in a single match as Altafini scored all the goals in Milan’s thrashing of Union Luxembourg. It is an achievement that has been reached by only seven other players.
The Piracicaba-born striker was nominated for both the 1963 and 1964 Ballon D’Ors, in recognition of his increasingly mature displays.
Unable to build upon their first European Cup, Milan suffered something of a trophy drought over the following two seasons, with Altafini only scoring 18 and then a hugely disappointing three. With his influence waning, rumours were abound that the happy marriage between Milan and their star striker was beginning to unravel.
By 1965 appearances in the Rossoneri shirt were becoming increasingly limited for Altafini, leading to a change of scenery in the shape of Napoli. A dispute at Milan with fellow Brazilian forward Amarildo hastened his exit, with the lure of linking up with Argentinian superstar Omar Sivori in Naples proving an enticing prospect.
Sivori had been Altafini’s attacking partner at the 1962 World Cup for Italy and the two Oriundi provided Napoli with a formidable strike force as the club secured third place in the latter’s debut season. The now 28-year-old Altafini grabbed 14 goals as the Partenopei fell five points shy of champions Inter.
The forward’s most memorable season in southern Italy came in 1967-1968 as Napoli secured their highest ever league finish, coming runners-up to his former club Milan.
The highlight of a campaign which saw him bag 13 goals was a wonder goal on New Year’s Eve 1967 against Torino, rising to score an acrobatic bicycle kick.
It would be the last season that Altafini would reach double figures in Serie A, as his strike rate began to falter. With only a 1972 Coppa Italia runners up medal to show for his time with the Partenopei, he was on the move once more in a transfer which saw both ‘Mazzola’ and Italy goalkeeper Dino Zoff leave Naples for Juventus in 1972.
After a barren spell with Napoli, Juventus allowed Altafini to taste success once more. His age restricted his appearances somewhat, but the Brazilian played a crucial role in the Scudetto success of 1972-73.
Going into the last game of the season, Juve trailed Altafini’s former club Milan in the standings and found themselves a goal down against Roma. The 35-year-old scored a crucial equaliser which set Juventus on their way to a famous win, securing the title in his debut season.
Altafini lifted his fourth league title two years later as Juve pipped Napoli to the Scudetto, courtesy of his late winner against his former employers. As appearances became more sparse however, his influence became less noticeable.
Having only featured ten times in 1975-76 it was evident that his time in Turin was drawing to an end. Sadly, it also spelt the end of his career in Italy, with a move to the Swiss second division side Chiasso.
Altafini’s ability stood the test of time, with his name adorned in Serie A, Coppa Italia and European Cup record books. A phenomenal 216 Serie A goals has only been bettered by Silvio Piola, Francesco Totti and Gunnar Nordahl, whilst Javier Zanetti is the only non-Italy born player to feature in more than the 459 matches Altafini was involved in.
Altafini remained in the Italian game after retirement, becoming a respected pundit and coining the popular term “golasso” from his mother tongue of Portuguese to describe a wonder goal.
As an 18-year career in Serie A was brought to a close, a trophy cabinet that holds four Scudetti, a European Cup, a World Cup and top goal scorer awards for Serie A and the European Cup ensured that Jose Altafini was a true legend of calcio.