Friday, March 27, 2015

Gunnar Nordahl: Il Cannoniere


During this International break, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at a Milan legend who gave up his right to represent his country in order to sign with Milan. If you’ve ever heard of the epic Gre-No-Li trio, he was the “No” in the Gre-No-Li. He is also the only player still to have won the capoconnoniere (top scorer) title five times in Serie A. So many goals, so many records, from such humble beginnings. Like other legendary players and coaches, Gunnar Nordahl is permanently etched into Milan history. In fact, he is known in Serie A as “Il Cannoniere,” or the gunner.

A giant of a man, a legend of a player

Nordahl has the distinction of being the first Swedish player to play in Serie A. He was born in 1921 to a very humble family, one of 10 children living in a simple one-room home. His father worked manual labor to provide for his big family, but they could not even afford a football. The irony being that Gunnar and his four brothers all went on to be footballers. He was eight years old before he kicked an actual football, and that was at school. By the time that he was 16 years old, he was playing for local side Hörnefors IF, while also working at a local brewery. He played three seasons with his local side, with 68 goals in 41 apperances.

From there, he went to Degerfors IF where he played from 1940-1944 and scored 56 goals in 77 appearances. During a match vs. league leaders Malmö, his strike was so powerful, it literally ripped the net and the ball went into the crowd. At this point, he was in demand, and had the choice of Malmö or IFK Norrköping. IFK offered him a job as a fire fighter in their city’s fire department, so he took that job. (Unlike Mexes’ ambitions, Nordahl was both a firefighter and a footballer at the same time.) Nordahl became a star at IFK, scoring 93 goals in 95 appearances over five years’ time. During his time in Sweden, he helped IFK win the league four of five of his years with the club and was top scorer in the league three of those five years as well, with an additional top scorer honor won during his time at Degerfors.

His national team career may have been cut short by ridiculous laws, but his statue in Sweden shows his value even today

It was at this point that Milan came calling for the robust 1.81m (5’11”) and 92 kg (209 lbs.) scoring machine. His size made him as feared as his skills, he was a danger in the air, was brilliant at scoring on the volley, as well as tap-ins and easy goals. But due to his size, he would become known as il Bisonte (the bison) in Italy. However, first he had to navigate Swedish laws, which may have been trickier than the toughest defense to unlock and allow him to play in Italy. Additionally, he would have to give up his chance to represent the Swedish national team anymore. This after 43 goals in 33 caps for Sweden. That includes helping lead Sweden to victory in the 1948 Olympics alongside two of his brothers, where he was also awarded the title of top scorer for that tournament.

Italy was different. Milan offered him a luxuriously furnished apartment in the heart of Milan, but instead he chose a simple, modest one on the outskirts of the city. When his teammates showed up for his first function in the most stylish suits of the day with luxury watches and nice shoes, he showed up in an inexpensive shirt and trousers. He was concerned about being able to fit into that world, but on the pitch it was no problem at all.

The legendary Swedish Milan trio: Gre-No-Li

In his first 15 games with Milan, he scored 16 goals, which led Milan to renegotiate and give him a better contract after only six months. Additionally, upon his recommendation, they would sign Swedish teammates Gunnar Gren and Niels Liedholm, who also forfeited their chance to represent Sweden anymore in order to help Milan win two Scudetti, in 1951 and 1955. Nordahl was capocannoniere in 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954, and 1955. He still holds the record for the most Serie A goals scored post-war, with 35 goals in the 1949-50 season.

After his time at Milan, he went to Roma, where he played for two years and then stayed on for another year as a player-manager. Counting the goals he scored at Roma, he is the third highest all-time Serie A scorer, behind Silvio Piola and Francesco Totti, the latter of whom just passed him in 2012. Nordahl’s 210 goals scored in just seven years in Serie A has left his mark indelibly on Italy, and he is also AC Milan’s all time highest scorer, with 221 total goals for the club. But perhaps his most impressive feat is his scoring proficiency record, which he also holds for Serie A. Amazingly, he scored .77 goals per match. To put that in perspective, Piola’s scoring percentage is only .51. They just don’t make them like that anymore.

il Cannoniere

He went on to manage a number of clubs in Sweden, including IFK for two different spells. Sadly, he passed away in 1995 at the age of 73. But his legend in Sweden lives on, as IFK just recently named their supporters’ stands after him: the Curva Nordahl. The name blends his Italian legacy (“Curva Nord” is the north curve) and his Swedish and IFK legacies to honor a man who not only left his mark on Swedish and Italian football, but also paved the way for future Swedish players to be able to play in abroad today. Without Nordahl, there would be no Ibra. So let’s tip our hats to a true Milan legend and a great man, il Cannoniere.


This post inspired by the music of The Hives