The death of an Italian octogenarian who quit playing as a goalkeeper more than 40 years ago would not normally be noticed by Scottish football but when it was announced that Giuliano Sarti had passed away in his beloved home city of Florence at the age of 83, tributes were paid on the Celtic FC website and by many of the Parkhead club’s fans.
For it was Sarti who almost single-handedly defied Celtic in their greatest game, the 1967 European Cup final in Lisbon.
Tenacious in goal and gracious in defeat, Sarti went on to enjoy a remarkable relationship with Celtic, so much so that at a dinner to mark the 25th anniversary of the Lisbon Lions’ achievement, one of the loudest cheers of the night was for the surprise guest, none other than Giuliano Sarti.
Over the years he spoke several times of the passion of the Scottish football fans, and explained that he particularly recalled his match in Glasgow. Yet that game was not against Celtic, but Rangers.
Sarti was in goal for Inter Milan when the two sides met in Glasgow in March 1965. He knew Rangers well – Fiorentina had beaten the Ibrox side home and away, 4-1 on aggregate, in the 1961 European Cup Winners Cup final, the only time the final was played over two legs.
In 1965, the reigning European and World champions Inter were 3-1 up from the first leg. On a very cold and foggy night, Sarti caused some laughter by appearing in pink long johns, and in practically his first piece of action he stopped Roger Hynd’s 30-yard shot, only for Jim Forrest to pounce on the rebound and put Rangers ahead after just six minutes. With almost 80,000 fans roaring on Rangers, Sarti kept Inter in the game on several occasions but needed the assistance of the crossbar when he was beaten by a shot from George McLean after 70 minutes.
Sarti and Inter held out and went on to win the European Cup for the second successive season. They lost in the semi-finals in 1966 to their great rivals of the era, Real Madrid, but Sarti was in goal when the Italian champions faced Celtic on 25 May, 1967.
His performance that evening in Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional was simply remarkable. It is no exaggeration to say that Celtic would have won by five or six had Sarti not pulled off save after spectacular save – the statistics show that he saved 13 efforts by Celtic that were on target.
His most amazing stop was when he reached out and stopped Tommy Gemmell’s deflected shot as it was crossing the goal line.
Gemmell finally beat Sarti with his thunderbolt after 62 minutes and with five minutes left, Sarti had a low shot by Bobby Murdoch covered until Stevie Chalmers stuck out a boot and won the Cup for Celtic.
Amazingly, Sarti had been identified by Celtic manager Jock Stein as a possible weak link in Inter’s defence. He proved anything but, and around the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Lisbon Lions just a few days before Sarti died, the Lions themselves remembered the Italian’s feats that night.
Born the third of five brothers in Castello d’Argile in the province of Bologna, Sarti’s childhood was interrupted by the Second World War, when his grocer father sent him out to trade their goods for food.
After the war he kept up his trading, and growing tall, he took up volleyball. Remarkably, he did not play in goal at football until he was 17, when his local amateur side were short of a goalie.
He proved an immediate hit, and was snapped up by lower league sides Centese and Bondenese, with whom he spent a season each before Fiorentina took him to Florence in 1954. He would play 220 times in nine seasons for Fiorentina, who won the Italian league in 1955-56 which took them into the European Cup. They reached the 1957 final against Real Madrid played in Real’s own Santiago Bernabeu stadium, Sarti kept out Real until Alfredo di Stefano scored a much-disputed penalty and Gento added a second – it was the first of Sarti’s four European Cup finals, still a record for an Italian goalkeeper.
The other three were for Inter Milan, where Helenio Herrera had crated a team that was known as “Grande Inter”. The Argentine manager signed Sarti at the age of 29 and made him an integral part of the infamous “catenaccio” system which emphasised defence over attack. Sarti became Herrera’s first choice behind Tarcisio Burgnich, Giacinto Faccheti and sweeper Armando Pucchi, and they duly won two Italian championships and two European Cups before they came up against Celtic and catenaccio was destroyed. Sarti’s style as a goalkeeper was unique for the time.
Perhaps because he was never coached until in his twenties he eschewed acrobatics and became the thinking man’s goalie, often judging when to narrow the angle on a striker or staying on the line to the last second and defying attackers to do their best. He would often act as a second sweeper behind Pucchi, and his coolness in goal proved transformational for Italian goalkeeping – greats such as Dino Zoff, Walter Zenga and Gianluigi Buffon all cited him as an influence.
Picked only eight times for Italy, Sarti left Inter in the general clearout the season after they lost to Celtic – the goalkeeper was rather unfairly blamed for an error in their final league game of 1967 which allowed Juventus to win the championship.
Sarti duly joined Juve, but lasted only a season before announcing his retirement from top flight football. He played on with lower league sides but soon moved into management with Lucchese, though he was unscuccessful there.
Back in his beloved Florence, Sarti set up an industrial cleaning and pest control business and it flourished so much that it soon had hundreds of employees. Sarti later sold the company for a reported €3m and enjoyed a long retirement, still supporting his favourites Fiorentina.
Giuliano Sarti is survived by his wife Anna Pia, his twin sons and a daughter.