The Flight of the Eagles
In the early sixties Benfica rose to topple Real Madrid, only to be cursed by Béla Guttmann
When is the beginning of anything? It's always possible to search further back and find the causes of the causes of great events but, realistically, the foundation stones of Benfica's European successes were laid in 1954 when Otto Glória arrived in Portugal.
In December that year the Estádio da Luz was inaugurated and that had a huge impact on the club, generating increased revenues and providing a top-class stage for them to perform on. The real key was probably Glória himself and the culture of professionalism he introduced. He was a Brazilian who had led the carioca side América on a European tour the previous year and had impressed Benfica's chairman Joaquim Bogalho. His impact was immediate as he took Benfica to the title in his first season, ending four years of domination by Sporting.
Glória paid far more attention to diet and medical examination than had ever been done before, and established the Lar do Jogador — literally, the Player's Home. The idea was not just to accommodate young players and those who came from outside Lisbon, developing their sense of responsibility, discipline and loyalty, but also to give the technical staff somewhere to billet and to control the entire squad in the 48 hours before games.
Most players in Portugal were still amateurs, something Glória would not countenance. He demanded full-time professionalism and his refusal to allow his players to hold down second jobs was the main reason that Rogério Pipi, a flamboyant inside-forward who was one of the most iconic players of the time, abandoned Benfica. While his brilliance on the pitch was appreciated by the fans, Rogério was also one of Ford's top salesmen in the country, making far more money from selling cars than from football. Forced to choose between Benfica and his work, Rogério moved to the lower-ranking Lisbon side Oriental.
Perhaps most shocking was Glória's refusal to allow the president and other board members to enter the dressing-room to speak to players. That was unprecedented in the Portuguese game but Bogalho was astute enough to accede to Glória's wishes and leave the coach to get on with it.
Glória won his second league title in 1956-57, but after finishing second behind Porto two years later, missing out on a third title by a single goal, he allowed his contract to expire and joined Belenenses. The new Benfica chairman Maurício Vieira de Brito, a coffee tycoon with a considerable fortune in Angola, turned to the coach who had led Porto to the title — the Hungarian Béla Guttmann. He was an astute and charismatic tactician who had played a huge part in restructuring the club after the departure of the fiery Brazilian Yustrich and had been idolised by the Porto fans. His desertion was seen by them as a terrible betrayal and his joke that the humid air in the north was causing him health problems did nothing to soothe their fury.
At Benfica, Guttmann had no need to engage in such restructuring. Glória's five years at the club had left a solid base and Guttmann was able to build on it, winning the league in his first season, going unbeaten for their first 25 matches, losing eventually at Belenenses with the title already all but secured.
In their contract negotiations, Vieira de Brito hadn't taken Guttmann seriously when he'd asked for a 200,000-escudo bonus if Benfica won the European Cup. "Make it 300,000, my friend," Brito had said, unable to believe that a Portuguese team could topple Real Madrid. It was a miscalculation with long-lasting repercussions.
Benfica were keen to enhance an international reputation that had stagnated since winning the Latin Cup, a precursor to the European Cup featuring the champions of Portugal, Spain, France and Italy. Coached by Ted Smith and inspired by Rogério Pipi, Benfica had beaten Bordeaux in the final in 1950. It was the first international silverware of any significance won by a Portuguese club and, as well as prompting celebrations across the whole country, it made Benfica an appealing guest for friendly matches. That summer, though, spurning a number of requests to stick to their original plan, they headed to Lobito in Angola.
Just a few days after their Latin Cup success, Benfica lost to a local all-star team, for whom a tall young striker scored twice. Rogério Pipi urged his club to sign him and so the 20-year-old José Águas joined Benfica for the rest of the tour. He would go on to become one of the club's most important players. He also prompted a change of policy. Benfica had always prided itself on employing only Portuguese players1, but the example of Águas persuaded them to look to Africa, considering players from colonies such as Angola and Mozambique who were classed as Portuguese citizens.
In 1960-61, it soon became apparent that Guttmann hadn't been joking about his bonus. They beat Hearts, then Újpest and AGF, before overcoming Rapid Vienna in the semi-final. Their opponents in the final in the Wankdorfstadion in Bern were Barcelona, who had already eliminated the five-times European champions Real Madrid. With the Hungarian trio of László Kubala, Sandor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor supplied by the graceful Galician playmaker Luis Suárez, Barça were firm favourites.
"On the eve of the final," the Benfica defender Ângelo said, "the Barcelona players didn't even look at us in the training session. They probably thought they were going to play against a bunch of losers."
Having gone behind, Benfica came back to win 3-2, Águas scoring the first and another of their African players, the Mozambican Mário Coluna, adding the third after an own goal from the Barça keeper Antoni Ramallets. A Kubala shot hit both posts, but Benfica held out. So great was the surge of emotion at the final whistle that Vieira de Brito suffered a minor heart attack. Yet in some ways that final wasn't even the key event for Benfica that year2. Of more significance in the long-term was the signing of a player who decades later would have a statue in Estádio da Luz: Eusébio.
Like his father and his elder brother, Eusébio grew up a Benfica fan. As a teenager, his goal was to enter the youth ranks of Desportivo LM, a club from the Mozambican capital Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) that had a link-up with Benfica. His dealings with them, though, didn't go well. "The first time I tried my luck at Desportivo LM they didn't like me and even refused to give me equipment to train," he said. "My pride was hurt but I went back a second time."
He had no greater success, though. For some reason, the Desportivo LM youth coach refused to consider Eusébio. He and a few other hopefuls from the Os Brasileiros club, where he'd been playing, gave up on Desportivo and walked to the Sporting LM club instead. They gave Eusébio a trial in which he and his friends were so successful that the club treated them to a lift home in their Volkswagen van.
Eusébio was still unsure about joining Sporting, though, and not just because it was the club associated with Benfica's major rivals in Lisbon. "In my neighbourhood no one liked Sporting," he explained. "It was a club that belonged to the elite and the police. They didn't like black people."
Nonetheless, Eusébio signed and, whatever the racial opinions of the club's leadership, his quality was obvious. He was promoted from the Under-19 side and, aged just 17, he began to shine among the seniors.
He was spotted by José Carlos Bauer, a Brazilian coach who had played for Guttmann at São Paulo, and was leading his Ferroviária de Araraquara side on a tour to Lourenço Marques. Bauer knew he couldn't afford Eusébio but, soon after, he met Guttmann in a barber's shop in Lisbon and recommended the young forward.
Benfica had signed the goalkeeper Costa Pereira and the midfielder Mário Coluna from Mozambique, but others from Lourenço Marques had slipped from their grasp. The multifunctional Hilário, for example, had been diverted to Sporting, while the forward Matateu chose Belenenses instead.
Benfica saw Eusébio as a younger version of Matateu, not only because of his origins but because of his combination of explosiveness and subtle technique. Both were examples of what in Lourenço Marques was known as a Magágaga, someone very powerful with a ferocious shot. This time, Benfica were determined they would get their man.
The Eagles reached terms with Dona Elisa, Eusébio's mother, who signed a contract stipulating that her son could play only for Benfica. Sporting, assuming Eusébio was theirs as he played for their feeder club, were blind to the danger. When they did finally approach Eusébio, they offered him only a trial. He reacted badly to that, at which Sporting tried to raise all kinds of bureacratic obstacles to prevent Eusébio joining their great rivals. Eventually, though, he joined the Eagles for a fee of 400,000 escudos.
Guttmann was so excited by Eusébio in his very first training session that he turned to his assistant Fernando Caiado and shouted, "Gold! Gold!" The centre-back Germano was just as impressed. "I'm fine because I'm a defender. But as for you guys," he said, turning to the forwards, "be ready because one of you will be out of the starting line-up for sure."
It took a year from Benfica's initial offer until Eusébio played for them. He flew to Portugal in December 1960 — using the alias 'Ruth Malosso' to escape attention — but he was only confirmed as a Benfica player five months later, shortly before the European Cup final. He couldn't play in that game, though, because of Uefa's rule that only players who had been registered with their clubs for a minimum of three months could play in European Cup matches.
Even though he was ineligible, Eusébio travelled with the team for the away matches in Aarhus and Vienna to become accustomed to the atmosphere of continental competition. He didn't go to Switzerland for the final, though, watching it on television in the Lar do Jogador in Lisbon. The Portuguese football federation had refused to rearrange Benfica's Portuguese Cup last-16 second-leg tie away to Vitória de Setúbal that was scheduled for the following day. Eusébio, making his competitive debut in what was essentially a reserve side, scored but also missed a penalty, saved by Félix Mourinho, the father of José.
It was a fortnight later that Eusébio really came to public attention, against the Brazilian giants Santos in the Tournoi International de Paris at the Parc des Princes. Benfica, though, were tired and Santos led 4-0 by half-time. Guttmann, figuring he had nothing to lose, threw on Eusébio for the inside-forward Santana. He responded with a hat-trick; although Benfica lost 6-3, all the talk afterwards was about Eusébio. "Who is that boy?" Pelé, two years Eusébio's senior, asked Mário Coluna. Eusébio was no longer a player to be left on the bench; Santana, an imaginative Angolan, was the player who made way.
Having collected his 300,000 escudos bonus, Guttmann asked for a salary increase of 65% if he won the European Cup again in 1962. His obsession with money was understandable. He had lost a huge amount of money in the Wall Street crash, endured the worst of Europe's anti-Semitism in the thirties, was interned during the Second World War and coached in Romania at a time when inflation was so rampant he demanded to be paid not in cash but in fresh food.
It soon became apparent that, with Eusébio in the side, Benfica were easily good enough to retain their title. They beat FK Austria comfortably in the first round, and drew Nürnberg in the quarter-final. Conditions were snowy, but Guttmann told his players "snow is only a problem if it's more than half a metre in height". Benfica lost 3-1. In front of 70,000 fans at what became known as the 'Inferno da Luz', though, it was a different story and Benfica won the second leg 6-0. "In this place," Nürnberg's captain Max Morlock said, "you can only play with cotton wool in your ears."
In the semi, Benfica faced Bill Nicholson's Tottenham Hotspur, who had won the double the previous season and were on their way to a second successive league title. Two goals from José Augusto gave Benfica a 3-1 win in the first leg in Lisbon but they came under intense pressure on a damp pitch at White Hart Lane. A goal from Águas cancelled out Bobby Smith's early opener and, although Danny Blanchflower converted a 54th-minute penalty, Benfica held out for a 4-3 aggregate win.
Real Madrid awaited in the final in Amsterdam. They were more respected than they had been a year earlier, but there was a lingering sense that they'd been fortunate against Barcelona the previous season. After all, there'd been a shot from Kubala that had bounced around the frame of the goal before finishing up in Costa Pereira's arms: a clear case of luck — unless it was Guttmann's sorcery.
There was an otherworldly genius about the Hungarian and before kick-off, in his odd blend of Portuguese and Italian, he found exactly the right words to motivate his side. "During the Paris Olympics of 1924," Guttmann said, recalling his days with the Hungary national team, "I met some celebrities. One of them was the great idol Paavo Nurmi, the Finn who won the 5000m gold medal with a superb time of 14:31. Yet, in the Rome Olympics in 1960, an unknown fellow from New Zealand [Murray Halberg] completed the same distance in one minute less." Evolution, he pointed out, was a natural thing in sport, and records achieved in the twenties meant nothing today. "Football is the same," he went on. "The best players in that period would nowadays be considered lower-ranked ones nowadays." His meaning was clear: Alfrédo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás had been great once, but now they were past it.
Before the game the zoo in Rhenen, in the far south-east corner of the Netherlands, gave Benfica a bear cub as a mascot. Vieira de Brito was enchanted by the gift and, startling everybody around, he took it with him into the VIP area in the stand3. One of the ball-boys that night, meanwhile, was a 15-year-old Johan Cruyff.
Benfica used a variant of 4-2-4 for much of the season, their shape matching the formation Vicente Feola, Guttmann's former assistant at São Paulo, had used with the Brazil national team at the 1958 World Cup. Just as Orlando had been the fourth defender for Brazil, dropping back from midfield to cover for Bellini, so Fernando Cruz did the same for Benfica, filling the space whenever the centre-back Germano was pulled out of position by Puskás4.
The Benfica full-backs Mário João (right) and Ângelo (left) weren't as attacking-minded as Brazil's, but they were noted for their energy and tenacity. Mário João, though, struggled to contain the rapid Paco Gento, and Real Madrid led 3-2 at half-time, Puskás having scored a hat-trick. Benfica's chances seemed slim, but Guttmann remained bullish. "Don't worry," he said, "we're going to win this thing. They're dead tired."
Of all Guttmann's managerial gifts, probably his greatest was his ability to make his players believe they were the best in the world. Perhaps they were; certainly in the second half they played like it. Guttmann was the leader off the pitch, but on it the chief was Mário Coluna, the 'Sacred Monster', who could get his message across with the merest glance.
He had joined Benfica at the same time as Otto Glória in 1954 and had been the most important figure in the team's transition from W-M to 4-2-4. Having joined the Eagles as a striker, he had struggled to find a place in the team because José Águas was a more natural finisher. Coluna was moved to inside forward, where it became apparent that his good technique, robust physique, leadership qualities, tactical awareness and decision-making could be even more useful if he played deeper, operating as the more offensive of the two central midfielders. He was dominant in the second half against Madrid and scored a brilliant equaliser, volleyed home in a manner reminiscent of his goal against Barcelona a year earlier in Bern.
Guttmann's prediction turned out to be correct. The Real defender Pedro Casado suffered a thigh injury and, with substitutes not yet permitted in Uefa fixtures, he was left to limp on the right wing in a side effectively reduced to 10 men. This was Eusébio's moment. Receiving the ball in midfield, he accelerated by Di Stéfano. He was charged by Pachín inside the box and a penalty was given. The Real Madrid centre-back José Santamaría, angered by what he thought was a dive, raced up to Eusébio and called him a "maricón". Eusébio had no idea what the word meant, so sought enlightenment from Coluna, who had taken on the role of Eusébio's mentor5. Calm and firm as ever, Coluna said to his protégé, "Just take the penalty and call him cabrón." He did, and gave Benfica a 4-3 lead.
Behind for the first time in the final, Di Stéfano turned to Puskás and said, "We're done." Eusébio all but confirmed the win with a goal from a free-kick move and very nearly completed a spectacular hat-trick two minutes later, bursting from half way and drawing a fine save from José Araquistáin. Characteristically, he then shook the goalkeeper by the hand.
Eusébio had been in awe of Di Stéfano before kick-off, and when the final whistle blew, he raced towards the 35 year old, even as the crowd poured onto the pitch. The Argentinian gave him his shirt and Eusébio promptly stuffed it into his shorts to make sure nobody would steal it from him. Photographs of the celebrations show him punching the air with one hand and clutching a bulge in his shorts with the other.
Benfica finished the season third in the league, but that mattered far less than retaining the European Cup. With fluid, cohesive, quick-passing football, they had proved themselves one of the world's great sides. Apart from the powerhouse Eusébio, the attacking line featured José Augusto, a right-winger with an eye for the goal, who was considered by Gabriel Hanot, the editor of L'Equipe, to be "as good as Garrincha". Then there was the thrilling António Simões, a promising teenager included in the senior squad for the first time that season. The fearless 'Mickey Mouse' was a right-footed left-winger with such flair that Guttmann had no option but to move the left-winger Domiciano Cavém into central midfield so Simões could fit in the first team6. And they all benefited from having the captain José Águas as a striker who, with aerial ability and a capacity to hold the ball up and distribute intelligently, bound the whole side together.
As Brian Clough said, "You win something once and people can say it's all down to luck. You win it twice and it shuts them up." That could serve as Guttmann's epitaph at Benfica. Enticed by a fabulous contract from Peñarol, the Wizard said goodbye to Portugal, confirming his theory that "the third year is always fatal for a coach." Moreover, he said that without him they would never again win the European Cup.
Portugal in the sixties was going through a period of social and economic turmoil. Thousands of troops were sent by the dictator Salazar to fight in the Colonial War in Angola, which began in 1961. Football had an impact there. "When Benfica played," the novelist António Lobo Antunes wrote, "our troops turned the speakers with the radio commentary towards the woods and this way we were never attacked. War stopped in those moments because even the MPLA7 liked Benfica. It was weird because it didn't make any sense being at war against people who shared the same club."
Benfica remained strong after Guttmann's departure. Having Eusébio was, of course, a major advantage. He could have gone to Italy, but the government of Salazar was determined to keep him in the country. Speaking to Gabriele Marcotti in 2004, Eusébio referred specifically to interest from Juventus and Internazionale, "And yet I was not allowed to move. Why? Salazar was not my father and he was certainly not my mother. What gave him the right? The truth was that he was my slavemaster, just as he was the slavemaster of the entire country." Along with the fado singer Amália, Eusébio was the most famous Portuguese citizen in global terms and the fact he was born in Africa could be used for propaganda purposes to claim that Portugal's relationship with its colonies was good.
These days, Eusébio walks with a pronounced limp, the result of a career in which he was regularly forced to play with the aid of pain-killing injections. He has had surgery on his left knee on six occasions and, as a result, can only drive cars with an automatic gearbox. He insists that he doesn't regret a thing; that his awards, including the 1965 Ballon d'Or, were worth the pain.
Benfica, meanwhile, struggle on, seemingly unable to shake off Guttmann's curse. Since 1962, they have played in five more European Cup finals and lost them all. Their last appearance in a final came in 1990, aganst AC Milan in Vienna, where Guttmann is buried. Before the game Eusébio visited the Jewish cemetery and prayed by the grave of his former coach. Whether he was praying for the curse to be lifted or not nobody knows, but if he was, it made no difference. Frank Rijkaard scored the only goal as Arrigo Sacchi's side retained their crown.