MILAN – "Kid, I played against your father and you did him proud. Take my shirt."
With these words, the legendary Ferenc Puskas, one of the best footballers in the history of the sport, gave his No.10 Real Madrid shirt to 21-year-old Alessandro Mazzola after the 1963/64 European Cup final. Sandro, as he was known to everyone, had just scored the decisive brace that defeated Los Blancos at the Prater Stadium in Vienna.
Seventeen years earlier, on 11 May 1947, Puskas had played (and lost) against another Mazzola – Sandro's father Valentino – when his star-studded Hungary were defeated 3-2 by an Italy side that fielded ten players from Torino, the team of which Valentino was captain, goalscorer and above all beating heart.
In the late 1940s, Torino were the dominant force in Serie A and played their home games at the Stadio Filadelfia, which Sandro visited often as a lad. He was the team's mascot, had a locker like his father's and Valentino would accompany him onto the pitch every Sunday and lovingly watch him try to score past Granata goalkeeper Valerio Bacigalupo.
This blissful time ended abruptly and tragically in May 1949 when a plane carrying the Torino team crashed in the Superga disaster. Sandro went to live with his brother Ferruccio and his mother, eventually winding up in Porta Ticinese, Milan. Despite the pain of losing his father, Sandro's passion for football endured, partly thanks to long afternoons playing at the San Lorenzo oratory. It was here that another Nerazzurri legend Benito Lorenzi, a man as wild on the pitch as he was kind-hearted off it, first laid eyes on the young Mazzola.
Lorenzi's debut in the national team came thanks to a good word from Mazzola Snr. and he hadn't forgotten that act of kindness. Benito took an interest in Valentino's sons, taking them often to San Siro where they were the mascots for Inter during a period when the club won two Scudetto titles. Sandro first pulled on the Nerazzurri shirt himself when he was 14 years old at a trial under the gaze of two-time Italian World Cup winner Giovanni Ferrari.
Next came Mazzola's meeting with another Inter star, perhaps the brightest in the club's glorious history, Giuseppe Meazza, to whom the stadium was rightfully dedicated in 1980. Meazza arguably had the biggest hand in shaping Sandro's development, both from a footballing and a human perspective. Giuseppe came down hard on him once after seeing him treat a team-mate poorly and put an arm around his shoulders on Mazzola's return to the Filadelfia for a youth-team game against Torino. Granata kitman Gildo Zoso, who knew Sandro as a child, showed him his old locker and an already emotional Mazzola played terribly. "I understand, Sandro, forget about it," reassured Meazza.
The legacy of Valentino, the symbol of il Grande Torino, might have been too much of an obstacle in Sandro's career. The comparisons with his father were inevitable, especially from a physical point of view. The elder Mazzola's muscles bulged through his shirt, while his son was more slight in build. Sandro resisted the temptation to go and play basketball (Olimpia Milano were interested in his services) and his big chance came in June 1961 at the age of 18 and a half. In protest at the FIGC's decision to first strip and then re-award points to Juventus after a pitch-invasion scandal, Inter decided to play the Primavera against a Bianconeri team that included John Charles, Omar Sivori and Giampieri Boniperti. That game, which Juventus won 9-1 with Sandro scoring the only Nerazzurri goal, was the last of Boniperti's career and the Italian striker made a point of seeking out Mazzola after the game: "I played with your dad in the national team. He was the best I've ever seen".
His real debut was later that year in October against Palermo. Inter coach Helenio Herrera, who was sceptical to begin with because of his physique, named Sandro in the starting line-up.
"From now on, you're an Inter player and I'll turn you into a great attacker," the Argentine manager said, and he was right.
The rest, as they say, is history: 417 games, 116 goals, four league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cup titles, plus triumph at the Euros with Italy. Valentino's son had written his own name into the record books.