Puskás, Di Stefano…Prati – the career of a Milan legend

Only three players have ever scored a hat-trick in a European Cup or Champions League final. Alfredo Di Stefano scored four in the famous Hampden Park final of 1960 when Real Madrid defeated Eintract Frankfurt 7-3, his team-mate Ferenc Puskás scored the other three in that game.

Puskás would repeat the feat two years later but it was all to no avail as a Eusébio inspired Benfica retained the Cup beating Madrid 5-3. Puskás and Di Stefano, the attacking stars of one of the greatest club sides ever, the storied ‘five in a row Real Madrid’, are justifiably regarded as amongst the greatest players ever.

How many remember the third of this three-goal scoring triumvirate? The final member of the triptych was Italian international Pierino Prati who, in the 68-69 final, at the age of 22 scored three against the emerging force of Cruyff’s Ajax in a 4-1 victory for AC Milan.

That hat-trick capped off an astonishing two year string of triumphs for Prati. From the beginning of the 1967-68 season to the end of 1969 season the young striker won a Serie A title, the Cup Winners Cup, the European Cup and the Intercontinental Cup for Milan and the 1968 European Championship for Italy; along the way he picked up the coveted Capocannoniere award for Serie A’s top scorer for the 1967-68 season.

What makes this run of successes all the more remarkable was that Prati had spent the previous season on loan at Serie B side Savona where, despite scoring 15 goals for the Ligurian side they were relegated to Serie C. It was only after the re-appointment of Nereo Rocco as coach of AC Milan that his prospects would change.

Prati was born in December 1946 in the small town of Cinisello Balsamo just north of Milan. He was on the radar of AC Milan at an early stage and played with various Milan youth teams. The then head coach Nils Liedholm was apparently alerted of his talents by another Milan player, Luigi Maldera who spotted the young striker’s talent in a youth tournament.

Before he would make his Milan breakthrough though he had to begin his senior career in 1965-66 on loan with Serie C side Salernitana where he scored ten goals (despite suffering a serious injury) to help them attain promotion to Serie B. Prati returned to Milan but only made a couple of appearances before his loan move to Savona began.

By this stage there was considerable change at managerial level leading to the appointment of Rocco, a man most synonymous with the defensive system of catenaccio.

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Prati after suffering an injury playing for Salernitana

Rocco had achieved great success with Milan in the early 60’s winning both the league and the club’s first European Cup before leaving for Torino. His return signalled a revival in the fortunes of the club and would mark a turning point in Prati’s career. Not that it started out so smoothly.

Rocco asked for the young forward to be recalled from Savona and he arrived at the club with long hair, jewellery and wearing a pair of flares. Rocco is reported to have reacted by saying:

I asked for Pierino Prati the footballer, not Pierino Prati the pop singer.

By the end of his career he’d be known as “Prati the pest” due to his driven and persistent style of play.

Any concerns that Rocco may have had were allayed in that first full season when Prati became Serie A top scorer as Milan strolled to the title, nine points clear of second placed Napoli.

Prati formed part of a formidable attack along with the Brazilian born Angelo Sormani, newly-arrived, experienced winger Kurt Hamrin and the legendary Gianni Rivera with whom he developed a close on-field partnership.

Behind this array of attacking threat was a solid midfield based around the more defensively focused Giovanni Trappatoni and Giovanni Lodetti, a man whose style of play allowed Rivera freedom as the creative fulcrum of the side and led to him being known as Rivera’s “third lung”.

Behind them was a defence that only conceded 24 times in 30 games with either Pier Angelo Belli or the newly arrived Fabio Cudicini in goal and German international Karl-Heinz Schnellinger in defence alongside the likes of Roberto Rosato, Saul Malatrasi and Angelo Anquilletti.

Early on it was difficult to find a role for Prati. Sormani was the first choice centre-forward, but in one game the right-footed Prati was asked to fill in on the left side of the attack and given the no. 11 jersey, he scored in that game and didn’t stop thereafter. He’d found his place in the side.

By May 1968 Prati had added the Cup Winners Cup to his accomplishments, starting the final in Rotterdam against the Hamburg of Uwe Seeler which was decided by two early goals from Kurt Hamrin. Such was the success of his breakthrough season that Prati was called up by the Italian national team for Euro 1968.

The Azzurri had comfortably topped their Euro qualifying group without Prati’s help but his form ensured that he made his debut in the competition’s two legged quarter final against Bulgaria due to an injury to regular starter Luigi Riva. He impressed, scoring in both legs as Italy advance 4-3 winners on aggregate, securing their place at the four team tournament proper hosted on Italian home soil.

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The Italians were drawn against the Soviet Union in the semi-finals, a tough task as the Soviets had been the side to knock them out of the World Cup two years earlier. It was tight game and Italy were beset by injury problems, first Rivera was forced from the field for lengthy treatment.

Then, as the match entered injury time, Giancarlo Bercelli also had to go off injured, and with no substitutions allowed Angelo Domenghini was withdrawn from the forward line to left back. Prati had a good chance to seal the win but shot wide and there was to be no separating the sides. In the days before penalty shoot-outs the game was to be decided on the toss of a coin.

Team captains Giacinto Faccetti and Albert Shesternev joined the referee in his room inside the stadium and Faccetti correctly called tails. He sprinted out to his team-mates on the pitch, his celebrations confirming to all that they were through to the final.

Prati would retain his place for the final against a strong Yugoslavia side who had just defeated England and featured the exceptionally talented winger Dragan Džajić. As with the semi-final, the first final was a very close affair.

Džajić had opened the scoring in the first half and Italy, without the injured Rivera were struggling to find a breakthrough. It looked as though Italy might lose the final in Rome’s own Stadio Olympico but ten minutes from the final whistle Angelo Domenghini of Inter thumped a free kick past Pantelic in the Yugoslav goal to secure a replay.

With two consecutive games going to extra time the Italy coach Ferruccio Valcareggi made significant changes to his side for the replay of the final. In came Mazzola and Di Sisti to the midfield while Sandro Salvadore started as a fifth defender.

Crucially for Prati and for his whole future international career, his place in the attack was taken by fit-again Luigi Riva of Cagliari. It would prove a decisive change, Riva opened the scoring after only 12 minutes with one of his trademark powerful left-footed drives, on the half-hour Pietro Anastasi, much improved from the first final, notched a second.

With Tarcisio Burgnich marking Džajić out of the game Yugoslavia were unable to find a way back in. Italy won Euro ’68 in their Capital city. Riva was the hero, he could have scored a hat-trick in the game given the number of chances that fell to him.

For Pierino after his first full season in Serie A he was a League Champion, Cup Winner’s Cup winner and now a European Champion with Italy. However much of his subsequent international career would be lived in Gigi Riva’s shadow.

While 67-68 had been Prati’s breakthrough season when he finished as Capocannoniere this achievement was bookended by Riva’s scoring exploits as it was he who had finished as top scorer in 66-67 and would again in the 68-69 and 69-70 seasons.

As a result Prati was left out of the starting line up for most of Italy’s World Cup 70 qualifying despite the fact that he had continued his excellent form into the 68-69 season. The one game he did play, a 2-2 away draw with East Germany saw Italy line-up with a front three of Riva-Mazzola-Prati with Rivera in behind. Riva scored both of Italy’s goals.

Despite a scoring record that showed 38 goals in 70 games over the previous two seasons, including the goals that won the 1969 European Cup, Prati was not in the original squad for the Mexico World Cup in 1970, it was only some locker room hijinks that got him on the plane to Mexico.

The Juventus forward Pietro Anastasi, at that time the most expensive footballer in the world, was in the Italian pre-World Cup training camp, he was a bored 22-year-old with too much energy and was spending his time winding up the team masseur Tresoldi. The masseur had had about enough of Pietro’s messing when he turned around swiftly and hit Anastasi square in the testicles.

Anastasi hit the deck but it was only later that night when the pain became too much to bear that Anastasi realised something was seriously wrong. He was rushed to hospital for surgery, his World Cup was over before it began.

The Italian coach Valcareggi had been pinning his hopes for success on the perfect strike combination of Anastasi and Riva, but with this unexpected injury he called up two forwards to replace one; Roberto Boninsegna of Inter and Prati, while he sent home Prati’s team-mate and Rivera’s “third lung” Giovanni Lodetti to make room. While Boninsegna would have a major impact on the finals, scoring against Germany in the semi-final, providing an assist for Rivera in the same game as well as scoring Italy’s consolation goal against Brazil in the final. Prati meanwhile spent the entire tournament either on the bench or in the stands. Despite the physical demands on the rest of the squad of the Mexican altitude, the heat, and the semi-final against Germany going to extra time Valcareggi kept faith with a core group of players with no space for Prati.

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Prati as a spectator at a show in Mexico

It was Prati’s misfortune that his international career overlapped with that of Riva, a man whose national team goalscoring record (35 goals in 42 games) has remained unbroken for over 40 years. Riva was a true star of the European game, he had propelled little Cagliari to their only ever league title in 1969-70, the same year he finished second for the Ballon d’Or behind his international team-mate Rivera.

Even despite Prati’s exceptional form it was also an injury to Riva that gave Prati his first starts for Italy, his return to the Azzurri jersey after the disappointment of the 1970 World Cup also coincided with Riva suffering a serious leg injury while playing in a friendly which caused him to miss much of the 1970-71 season.

In his absence. Prati helped Italy top their qualifying group for Euro 72, scoring in both of their games versus Ireland, as well as netting against Austria, however he was dropped for the quarter-final games against Belgium when Italy were knocked out.

By the 72-73 season Prati’s time at Milan was coming to an end. Milan had just won back to back Coppa Italia’s and while Prati had been central to their success throughout 1972 where he played regularly through to the final he wasn’t involved at all in the 1973 edition of the cup.

There was increased competition at Milan from the likes of Romeo Benetti, Alberto Bigon and the latest arrival, Luciano Chiarugi who would score 22 in his first season. The following year, after 209 appearances and 102 goals for Milan in all competitions, Prati was on the move. He was on his way to the capital to join his old coach Nils Liedholm at Roma.

At Roma Prati become the focal point of their attack and would be the club’s top scorer for each of the next two seasons as they steadily improved; finishing eighth and then third, but as the 1970s progressed and Prati entered his 30s, games were harder to come by and niggling injuries began to take their toll.

He joined Fiorentina for the 77-78 season but played only eight times without finding the net. It was to be his last year in top flight Italian football. He would spend the rest of his career (apart from a short spell in the NASL with the Rochester Lancers) with one of his earliest clubs, Savona, by then lining out in Serie C2. He retired in 1981 having made 458 appearances for his various clubs, scoring 205 goals; for Italy he won just 14 caps, scoring seven times.

In a league noted for the miserly nature of its defences, especially during the heyday of catenaccio as espoused by the likes of Rocco and the Inter Milan sides of Helenio Herrera, the scoring exploits of Prati are worthy of praise.

He was a versatile forward, capable of playing through the middle and on either wing. At just shy of six foot and blessed with a powerful leap he was a handful in the air while possessing a formidable right foot which saw him score his fair share of goals from distance, including a certain speciality with thunderous free kicks.

It was noted that at the time that it was common for Italian strikers to drop deep, afraid of being isolated further up the pitch or being caught on the counter-attack, Prati went against this completely and played a high line, always looking to get forward. in his style of play he was likened to the great striker of the 30s and 40s Silvio Piola by no less an authority than the infamous Gianni Brera.

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Milan celebrate their European Cup victory in 1969

And of course he is the last man to score a hat-trick in a European Cup final. His set of skills were demonstrated ably by the three goals he scored. His first on seven minutes a powerful head from ten yards out as he meets a Sormani cross.

The second and third goals showing his intelligence, positioning and most of all his on-field connection with Rivera. The second shows Rivera in possession with Prati feinting as if to head for the left touchline, before quickly changing direction, losing his nominal marker Barry Hulshoff to take possession off a delicious Rivera back-heel.

Now finding himself in acres of space 20 yards from goal he lets fly with a right foot rocket into the Ajax net just before the end of the half. The final goal sees Rivera in possession again, sending Ajax defenders one way and the other as he waits for support to arrive, charging through the centre comes Prati, Rivera deftly chips in a cross right onto his forehead as he heads home from six yards to seal a 4-1 victory over a side that will dominate the early 70s.

The Author

Gerry Farrell

Gerry Farrell, Dublin based football enthusiast with an interest in League of Ireland, the Irish National Team, and a bit of everything else. Bohemian in my outlook and footballing alliegiances, presenter of "The Beautiful Game" on Phoenix FM 92.5. Has nearly completed the Panini Euro 88 sticker album.

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