Black Pioneers: Jair da Costa – Inter

This is the second part of a serialisation recounting the tale of three black pioneers who challenged and, in some cases, successfully changed perceptions about race in Italian football some fifty years ago.

Jair da Costa spent the summer of 1962 playing the role of apprentice to the mesmerising Garrincha. He could only watch from the sidelines as Brazil lifted the Jules Rimet trophy for the second time in four years. It was a bittersweet moment for the young player; crowned a world champion aged just 22, but a surplus part of the victorious squad.

Similarly in South America that summer was Helenio Herrera, the head coach of Inter, who juggled his day job with that of coaching the Spanish national team. Following the underwhelming group stage elimination of his Spanish team, Herrara stayed on in Chile in a scouting capacity. It was whilst observing a Brazilian training session that Jair caught his eye.

Within a matter of weeks, Inter had paid $170,000 to sign the powerful right winger from Portuguesa, in Brazil. Jair left South America for the first time, stepping off the plane in northern Italy unable to speak a word of the language and with little idea of what to expect next.

Inter too were taking a gamble – but they were hedging their bets. At that time, Italian teams were allowed to field two foreign players and it was Luis Suarez and Gerry Hitchens that occupied those berths as the season kicked off in September. Luis Suarez was the world’s most expensive player, a Ballon D’Or winner and the lieutenant of Herrara’s side. Hitchens too had been a roaring success, averaging a goal every other game in a notoriously defensively league, since arriving the previous summer.

However, by his own high standards, Hitchens was making a slow start to the 1962/63 campaign. Meanwhile, and despite mounting frustration at the lack of opportunities, Jair was showing considerable promise in training. This prompted Inter to take the decision in November to sell Hitchens to Torino, freeing up a starting place for the Brazilian.

Now with a clear path to first team, Jair gave a firm indication of what was to come by scoring on his debut at Genoa. He struck again in each of his next two games at home to Venezia and Sampdoria. From that point on, neither Inter nor Jair would look back.

In his first season in Milan, Jair helped Inter to wrest the scudetto from their city rivals. With Jair marauding down the wing, Inter went on to take two more scudetti in the next three seasons. The foundation of Inter’s success was undoubtedly an impermeable defence, conceding less than a goal per game during this period. But make no mistake, this was not catenaccio. Inter were potent at the other end of the field too and Jair was pivotal to Inter’s counter-attacking threat.

Jair’s nickname, Freccia Nera (“Black Arrow”), gives an insight into his style of play. He had speed and agility in abundance and at times it seemed as if the ball was an extension of his foot. He combined to devastating effect with Suarez in the centre of the field and a young Sandro Mazzola in attack. This was the birth of Herrera’s Grande Inter and Jair was central to all of it.

Jair and Inter successfully transferred their domestic domination to the international stage too. In only his second season, Inter defeated Real Madrid to lift the European Cup for the very first time. Twelve months later, Jair truly etched his name into nerazzurri hearts by scoring the winning goal to overcome Benfica in the 1964-65 European Cup final. The grainy footage of Jair splashing through the torrential rain is symbolic of the Grande Inter era.

In 1966/67, and in pursuit of their third European crown, Inter suffered the heartbreak of losing the European Cup final to Celtic. The defeat had wider repercussions too; Inter appeared to implode, missing out on the scudetto to Juventus just days later. By this point Jair was being used more sparingly by Herrera, who increasingly preferred Angelo Domenghini on the right hand side.

Herrera had reached a cross-roads with Inter. He was a coach that demanded the very highest of standards from his players and he felt let down by their capitulation. In order to extend his Inter reign, he sought to rebuild his side the following season. Jair was a reluctant casualty of this shake up, being sent out on loan to Roma. But this would not be the end of Jair’s nerazzurri story.

It is testament to both Jair’s strength of character and the regard in which he was held by the Inter hierarchy that he returned the following year after Herrera’s departure. Under a new coach he re-established himself as a key player, contributing to the birth of a new Inter cycle. As a first team regular, Jair helped to secure a further scudetto (1970/71) and took Inter to another European Cup final the following season, where they were defeated by Cruyff’s imperious Ajax.

Over the course of 249 games and eight years with Inter, Jair averaged almost one goal in every three matches from a wide position. In that time he accumulated four scudetti, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups. His personal sacrifice for his time in Italy was that he would never add to his solitary international cap. Despite these achievements, he is perhaps an under-appreciated constituent of the Grande Inter era. Jair was and remains one of Inter’s most decorated players of all time.

Also in the Black Pioneers series:

Part 1 – Breaking Boundaries in Italian Football

Part 3 – Jarbes Canè Faustinho (Napoli) – available now

Part 4 – Jose Germano de Sales (Milan) – available now

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