A Long Read (estimated 25 minutes)
In 1962, after defeating Real Madrid 5-3 to secure their second European Champions Cup, Benfica were on top of the world. Eusébio had just completed his first full season as a Benfica player and was on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats. The nucleus of a team capable of dominating both domestically and on the continent was in place and, in Béla Guttmann, they had one of the most remarkable coaches of this generation at the reigns. Having just masterminded the Portuguese giants to consecutive European Cup victories defeating both Barcelona and Real Madrid in the finals, this widely respected and well-travelled coach believed he was worth more than what he was being paid. Yet, the board at Benfica did not agree, refusing the Hungarian’s request for a 65% pay rise. Guttmann, a man not afraid to walk away from any club, resigned on the spot with the promise of a greater pay day elsewhere. When storming out of the boardroom, legend has it that Guttmann emphatically declared that Benfica “would not win another European trophy for a hundred years”…
Understanding the importance of psychology in sports, Guttman repeatedly told the team that they were going to be the Champions of Europe.
The foundations of Sport Lisboa e Benfica can be traced back to 1904, when a group of twenty-four individuals (Cosme Damião the most important of these) decided to form the social and cultural football club called Sport Lisboa. It wasn’t until 1908, after acquiring Grupo Sport Benfica, that the club became known as Sport Lisboa e Benfica. Nevertheless, the Portuguese giants waited until 1 June 1930 to win their first trophy, defeating Barreirense 3-1 in the Campeonato de Portugal (Portuguese Cup). Somewhat confusingly, as the Primeira Liga was not created until 1934, the winners of the Campeonato de Portugal were branded the Champions of Portugal – although they are not officially recorded as such. Benfica’s first official Championship was in 1936, when they beat Porto to the title by a single point and even winning one game less. By 1959, despite having won the league title nine times, Benfica were in danger of being overtaken as the biggest club in Portugal by their rivals Sporting CP and FC Porto.
For the 1958-59 season, Guttmann accepted an invitation to become manager of FC Porto and successfully lead them to the league title. The runner’s up, Benfica (arguably the bigger club with a greater history and fan base) were impressed by the Hungarian and offered him twice his Porto salary to take over for the following season. Guttmann, who it appears was never swayed by sentiment or a sense of loyalty, agreed and set his sights upon becoming European Champions. His confidence in his own ability was so great that he asked the Benfica President, Mauricio Vieíra de Brito, for 200,000 escudos (a fee equivalent to half of his salary) as a bonus should they win the European Cup. Believing it was joke and far from possible, Vieíra replied: ‘make it 300,000 my friend’.
Guttmann wasted no time in making his mark on the Benfica squad, promoting the nineteen-year-old left wing-back Fernando Cruz to the first team and signing José Augusto from recently relegated Barreirense. He then proceeded to sack twenty of the playing staff in a streamlining and cost-cutting exercise. He argued that he would rather have eighteen committed players than an inflated squad of players who will not play. Guttmann later remarked that when he took over at Benfica, he was fortunate enough to have inherited some good players who simply needed a better system in order to be successful. Since their inception, Benfica adhered to a strict “Portuguese players only” policy, albeit extended to include the colonies of Angola and Mozambique as well as the appointment of a Hungarian manager. It was from said colonies that an important part of Benfica’s great team originated. For example, José Águas would go on to score over 250 goals for the Lisbon giants. Joaquim Santana, another Angolan known simply as “Santana”, had great ball control and a deadly right foot playing as the right half. Benfica’s inside left and central midfielder, Mário Coluna was born in Mozambique as was the goalkeeper Alberto da Costa Pereira.
Aside from the squad, Guttmann brought his own brilliance. Exploiting Augusto’s lightening pace, Guttmann moved him from centre forward to right-wing and alternated tactics between the 4-2-4 that he had pioneered in Brazil and the WM formation. Essentially, he needed a system that would accommodate his five forwards. His tactics were fundamentally based on passing and shooting, contributing to his “blitzkrieg” approach with the aim of unsettling opponents with bursts of sustained, high-energy attacks in the opening minutes of each half.
Guttmann’s impact was instant and Benfica, losing only once in the league, won the competition two points ahead Sporting CP and fifteen above Guttmann’s previous employers who finished fourth. Without the mastermind Hungarian at the Helm, Porto lost eight times more than they had the previous season. Guttmann was now able to start work on fulfilling his promise by bringing the European Cup to Lisbon. Firstly, for the 1960-61 season, Guttman appointed the former Benfica midfielder Fernando Caiado as his assistant manager. Preferring to stick with the side that had won the league in the previous season, Guttmann only made one other personnel signing – the resolute central defender Germano Luis de Figueirdo, purchased from Atlético Clube de Portugal. Germano, as he was commonly known, was respected for being exceptionally skilful with a great passing range, launching numerous attacks and counter attacks from deep within his own half. Slotting in as the final piece of the jigsaw, the signing of Germano meant the end for thirty-year old Artur Santos, who was arguably in the prime of his career, having made over 300 appearances for the club. However, Guttmann was not going to allow sentiment to get in the way of securing a European Cup.
Benfica’s European Cup campaign for the 1960-61 season started in Edinburgh, where they faced the Scottish champions Heart of Midlothian in the preliminary round. Totally outclassing their Scottish opponents, the 2-1 and 3-0 victories for Benfica flattered Hearts. Their outside right at the time Gordon Smith recalled that ‘Benfica were streets ahead in terms of style, technique and set plays… frankly the score should have been much bigger’. Benfica’s reward for defeating the Scottish champions was a two-legged tie with the Hungarian champions Újpest – a fixture of great personal significance for Béla Guttmann.
In 1939, despite managing Újpest to their first league title in four years as well as winning the Mitropa Cup and overseeing his side score an average of four goals per game, Guttmann had been forced to leave the club after just one year when the fascist government in Hungary passed The Second Jewish Law. Jewish men or women were barred from numerous professions and highly visible positions. A Jewish man coaching the greatest football team in Europe would have been viewed as an affront to the Hungarian authorities, so Guttmann left. Accounts differ on how the prestigious coach endured the war years. The suggestions that he escaped to Switzerland are mostly false, but it seems almost certain that he spent some time hidden in the attic of a family member’s house before being interned at a German Labour Camp in 1944. Just days before he was due to be transported to Auschwitz, Guttmann escaped and survived the war – largely thanks to brave people who hid him. Four others escaped alongside the Hungarian coach, one of which happened to be the Grande Torino Technical Director, Ernö Egri Erbstein.
Guttmann returned to Újpest in 1947 but left within the year. League title aside, he had fallen out with some of the club officials over his training methods. In November 1960, Benfica, almost as if they were channelling Guttmann’s hurt and anger, blew Újpest away in a thirty-minute spell of football that was certainly more “slaughter-house” than “blitzkrieg”. Within twenty-eight minutes, Benfica were 5-0 up. Taking their foot off the pedal in the second half, Benfica won 6-2. UEFA delegate Augusti Pujol remarked ‘that not even Real Madrid could survive here’.
Despite losing the second leg 2-1, Benfica progressed to the quarter final against Aarhus Gymnasikforening (AGF). Guttmann did not travel with the team for the away leg in Denmark, afraid that the Hungarian government would not allow him to leave the country. Instead, he listened to the match at home on the radio. Almost as significant as Benfica progressing was the news that FC Barcelona had knocked Real Madrid out of the competition. For the first time since the inception of the European Champions Cup in the 1955-56 season, there was to be a new club’s name engraved on the trophy – and even if the rest of Europe believed that team was going to be FC Barcelona, Guttmann thought otherwise.
While Guttmann had made it clear that his main focus was the European Cup, this did not stop his team from flying out of the gate in defence of their league title. Benfica won fourteen of their first fifteen league games in the 1960-61 season – not losing their first league game until 22 January 1961. By the time the Lisbon giants were facing AGF in the quarter final of the European Cup, the league was as good as won. Benfica’s impressive unbeaten run before facing AGF on 08 March 1961 included the 8-1 and 7-2 hidings of Salgueiros and Atlético. In Lisbon, Benfica ran out 3-1 victors over the Danish champions, but AGF felt confident that the Portuguese and African players that made up Benfica’s side would struggle in the unfamiliar and bitterly cold conditions of northern Europe. Yet, the Danes were wrong. In another dominant display of “blitzkrieg football”, Benfica were 3-0 up by half time with José Augusto netting twice and José Águas scoring the other. Benfica went on to win the tie 4-1 (7-2 on aggregate) which, in turn, set Guttmann up for another trip down memory lane with a semi-final tie against SK Rapid Wien. Guttmann’s final game as a player had been against Vienna in 1933.
Benfica “warmed up” for the first leg of the European Cup semi-final against Rapid by dispatching Braga 7-1 at home – a result which meant that they only needed a point in their final three league fixtures to secure the league title. In the semi-final, acknowledging Benfica’s awesome “blitzkrieg” attack in the previous rounds, Vienna came to defend. Not that it mattered for Coluna, Águas and Cavém all scored whilst Germano dealt with Vienna’s main attacking threat Robert Dienst in a 3-0 victory for Benfica. Needing only a single point in the league, and with the European cup second leg to be played in Vienna, Guttmann rested eight players for the next domestic fixture away to Porto in which Benfica lost 3-2.
Rapid’s fans believed that history was on their side for their 3-0 comeback to secure the German League title in 1941 was the stuff of club legend. The fact that this feat was twenty years ago as part of a Nazi-officiated competition didn’t seem to matter to the Viennese, who worked themselves up into a frenzy before kick-off. The game didn’t exactly go according to their plans as resolute defending and poor finishing kept the score goalless for the first hour. Águas eventually opened the scoring for Benfica in the sixty-sixth minute with Vienna equalising through Skocik only a few moments later. The main talking point, however, was English referee Reg Leafe’s refusal to award Vienna a penalty for an alleged foul on Dienst, sending the crowd wild and resulting in a storming of the pitch. Under duress from the Viennese fans, the police raced to protect the referee and Benfica players, escorting them back to the changing rooms. It would take them more than two hours to safely secure the ground. The match was abandoned. Victory was awarded to Benfica and Rapid were banned from European competitions for three years. In his incredible biography of Guttmann, The Greatest Comeback (2017), David Bolchover suggests that the sight of a Jewish coach defeating their heroes (for a club as historically tied to anti-Semitism as Rapid Vienna) would not have helped calm the situation. None of this was Guttmann or Benfica’s concern, they had a European final to prepare for against the favourites, FC Barcelona. But first, there was a league title that needed wrapping up.
And wrap it up, they did. Ten days after progressing to the European Cup final, Benfica trounced Sporting da Covilhã 8-0 to secure a successive league title. Benfica would end the 1960-61 league campaign champions by four points (it was two points for a win back then), having won twenty-two of their twenty-six games – losing only twice. Even then, one of these games was after Guttmann had rested eight of his first team for the semi-final against Rapid. Benfica scored ninety-two goals at an average of 3.5 per game, ending the season with a positive goal difference of seventy-one. Águas ended the season as top goal scorer, netting twenty-seven times in twenty-three games, whilst Augsuto (the centre forward-come right winger that Guttmann signed in 1959) finished the season with twenty-four goals from twenty-five league games.
As great as it was to win the league, Guttmann’s aim had been clear from the moment that he took the Benfica job and, after securing the league title in May, he turned his attention to winning the European Cup. Despite being favourites for the competition, Barcelona were not in great shape at this moment in time. After one too many fallouts with star player László Kubala, the authoritarian head coach Helenio Herrera had left the club the previous season and his replacement, Ljubiša Broćić, only lasted until January 1961 after a midseason dip in form. Additionally, the cost of building the Nou Camp was escalating, so much so that Luiz Saurez, the reigning European Player of the Year, left the club in a world record transfer of £210,000 to Herrera’s Inter Milan. Kubala, their aging superstar, was now thirty-four and also considering his options. Worse still was the fact that the final was to be played in the same stadium where seven years previously, Barcelona’s Hungarian stars, Kocsis and Czibor had lost their first international match in four years, losing 3-2 to West Germany in the World Cup final of 1954.
Barcelona started the final as the better of the two teams and, after twenty minutes, Kocsis rose above the Benfica defence to head in the opening goal from a Suarez cross. Ten minutes later, Benfica equalised through Águas after Barcelona’s goalkeeper had allowed the ball to drift past him. A minute later, Ramallets again flapped at a backward header from Barca’s Gensana and Benfica led 2-1. Nine minutes into the second half, Cavem crossed from the left for Benfica and, Coluna – who had picked up an injury earlier in the match – smashed home a shot from twenty-five yards with his less favoured right foot to give the Portuguese a 3-1 lead. Barcelona rallied with Kubala, drifting into the centre, tormenting the Benfica defence. He had a shot which hit both posts before bouncing out before Kocsis had a header cleared off the line. Even a second Barcelona goal, scored by Czibor, would not stop Benfica from becoming the second club to ever win the European Champions Cup. Losing 3-2 again, Czibor and Kocsis would have to make do with runners-up medals once more.
After the final, Guttmann remarked “that was our peak, I’m not sure we can repeat it”. Somewhat surprisingly given his track-record over the previous three seasons, Guttmann would be proven wrong thanks to the emergence of the recently signed wonderkid Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, whose goalscoring feats would lead Benfica to further glories over the coming seasons. Largely due to Guttmann’s extensive contacts, Eusébio had been snatched from under the noses of Sporting CP. Such was Sporting’s insistence that, even after signing with Benfica, a club director arrived at his house with 500,000 escudos (an enormous fee for an 18-year-old) and informed the young forward that the money was his if he signed for them instead. Much to Eusébio’s credit, he declined the offer, telling the Sporting representative that it was a disrespectful thing to do. Once in Lisbon, Guttmann insisted that Eusébio remain hidden and followed by bodyguards just in case Sporting tried their luck again. When the wonderkid finally got kitted up for a Benfica training session, Guttmann – unable to contain his excitement –is reported to have shouted at his assistant that ‘the boy is gold!’
Indeed, gold he was. Ineligible for the European Cup final against Barcelona, Eusébio scored on his league debut away at Belenenses in a 4-0 victory on the 08 June 1961. But it was in a preseason friendly against Pelé’s Santos that the so-called “Black Pearl” announced himself on the world stage. Benfica were trailing 4-0, when Guttmann turned to his young star; in approximately 20 minutes, Eusébio won a penalty and scored a hattrick (all three goals were scored from twenty to twenty-five yards). Unfortunately, Benfica failed to convert said penalty and would lose the match 6-3. Yet, French newspaper L’Équipe clearly didn’t care for the result, running with the headline ‘Eusébio 3 Pelé 2’. It would appear for the time being that Eusébio, and Benfica, were here to stay.
Discussing management, Guttman had once stated that “the third season is fatal”, and so it proved for him at Benfica. The season started with defeat in the Intercontinental Cup to Peñarol of Uruguay. Having won the first leg in Lisbon 1-0, Benfica lost the return leg 5-0 in Montevideo. As the competition did not recognise aggregate scores, a deciding leg was played. Eusébio, who had missed the first two legs, was flown in from Lisbon and scored but Benfica lost 2-1. The deciding goal was a disputed penalty, to which Guttmann remained convinced was awarded on account of bribery.
Having been awarded a bye in the preliminary round, Benfica started the defence of their European crown at the end of October 1961 against FK Austria Wien. Drawing 1-1 away in Vienna, Benfica later dismantled the Austrian champions 5-1 at the Estádio da Luz to progress to the quarter finals against the (then) masters of German football, 1. FC Nürnberg. Eusébio was injured for the away leg in Germany, whereby the Benfica players were confronted by a pitch covered in snow – conditions that they had never experienced before. Despite Cavém scoring early, the German side rallied and ran out 3-1 winners. Benfica were forced to return to Lisbon contemplating losing their champion status. Not that you would have known it when the German giants visited Lisbon for the second leg. Now fit, Eusébio returned to the starting line-up and helped inspire his team to a 6-0 victory. The noise generated by the Benfica faithful was so deafening that Max Morlock, Nürnberg legend and World Cup winner, stated that ‘in this place, you can only play with cotton wool in your ears’.
Whilst the protection of their European Cup was progressing, Benfica’s defence of their domestic status was as good as over by Christmas 1961. Winning only three of their opening eight league fixtures, Benfica were never able to sustain a run of victories to challenge Sporting CP, who would go on to win the competition for the eleventh time – drawing level with Benfica for the greatest number of league titles by 1962. Beside their erratic league, Benfica’s progression in the Portuguese cup was spectacular. Having already thrashed Caldas 11-0 (16-3 on aggregate) in the first round, Benfica went on to defeat Ferrovíario 7-1 both home and away in the quarter finals with José Torres helping himself to eight of the fourteen goals. In the semi-final they proceeded to continue their goalscoring feats when they defeated Vitória de Guimarães 6-0. Although this thumping only occurred in the second leg after Vitória had temerity to draw the first game 2-2 in front of their own fans. In a rather routine 3-0 win, Eusébio scored twice in the final to end his cup campaign with eleven goals in seven games. Torres topped the competition’s scoring charts with thirteen goals in six appearances while the club netted a total of fifty-one times in twelve matches to secure their eleventh Taça de Portugal.
Meanwhile, Benfica had the small matter of their European Cup to defend. Having progressed at the expense of Nürnberg in the quarter finals, their reward was a two-legged semi-final against the English champions Tottenham Hotspur. Having won the first leg at home 3-1, Benfica were 2-1 down in the second half and Spurs were on top. Benfica responded by demonstrating the same resolve that saw them defeat Barcelona in the last stages of the previous tournament; they clung on to a 4-3 aggregate victory in order to set up a successive European Cup final – only this time against the masters, Real Madrid.
Just like the year before, Benfica entered the final as the underdogs. Madrid had just won the league while Benfica could only muster a third-place finish. Despite their increasing age (and an increasing waistline in Ferenć Puskás’ case), Madrid could still call upon the brilliance of their Hungarian magician and the Argentine born Alfredo Di Stéfano. It is also worth noting that Madrid had won five of the previous six European Cup finals.
Understanding the importance of psychology in sports, Guttman repeatedly told the team that they were going to be the Champions of Europe again from the moment that they had defeated Spurs. Having reiterated this sentiment at every opportunity, even Guttmann would have been excused some self-doubt when Madrid shot in to a 2-0 lead after twenty minutes with the explosive Puskás scoring both goals. Just like the year before, Benfica began to play themselves into the game, Águas pulled a goal back after Eusébio hit the post with a freekick and Cavém rifled in a long-range equaliser to level the game at 2-2. Puskás then pummelled in his and Madrid’s third to give the Spaniards the lead at half time. Guttmann had continually told his side that they were stronger than their opponents and could win the match in the second half as long as the deficit was not too great. Then, going against his natural inclination to attack at all costs, he restructured his team at half time. To deny Puskás the service, he went directly to the source and instructed Cavém to stick to Di Stéfano for the remainder of the game. Confident Puskás would now be isolated and deprived of the ball, Guttman returned to making his team believe that they would win in his own unique blend of Italian and Portuguese: ‘Real Madrid tired, Real Madrid old, old, old, they cannot win, Real Madrid cannot run, Di Stéfano dead’.
Inspired by their coach, self-belief began to flow through the Benfica team and, within five minutes of the restart, they had drawn level again. Coluna for the second successive season scored a spectacular goal with his weaker right foot to bring it back to 3-3. Seven years previously, the competition had offered the settings for Di Stéfano to showcase his talents, but now it was time for the next great player to take centre stage: cue Eusébio. With approximately sixty-five minutes played, Eusébio collected the ball in his own half, proceeded to weave and power past tiring Madrid defenders before being brought down in the box. Picking himself up and brushing himself down, he dispatched the penalty himself. Only five minutes later, Eusébio scored a deflected second to make it 5-3. Guttmann had been right – Madrid were tired, old and dead. Symbolically, Di Stéfano exchanged shirts with Eusébio at the final whistle and it appeared to all of the footballing world that Benfica would simply carry on where Madrid had left off. Europe would have swapped one footballing dynasty for another, or so it seemed…
By the time that Benfica had defeated Real Madrid in the European Cup final of 1962, Guttmann had already agreed to manage the Uruguayan side Peñarol at the end of the season. As with most decisions regarding Guttmann’s career, the move was motivated by money. Guttmann felt he was not being paid enough given the success that he had brought the club. Benfica disagreed whereas Peñarol offered a wage Guttman felt he deserved. Guttmann had also received the only known approach from a British club for his services. Having finished twelfth in the Third Division, Port Vale sent a representative to speak with him about becoming their new manager for the following season. As great as the pull of managing a team from Stoke-on-Trent would have been, Guttmann decided to accept the Peñarol offer of a very substantial pay increase and three-roomed suite atop a hotel in Montevideo instead. English football’s loss would be Uruguay’s gain.
Guttmann’s outburst, cursing the Benfica board to a European trophy drought of a hundred years, seemed little more than the last twisted words of a bitter old man after his old team reclaimed the league title in the 1962-63 season. Finishing six points above second-place Porto, Benfica claimed their twelfth league title, losing only once and scoring eighty-one goals in the process. However, the season hadn’t started as well as they had hoped having lost the Intercontinental Cup to Santos 8-4 on aggregate. But seeing that Pelé considered the second leg his greatest ever performance (scoring a hattrick in a 5-2 away victory), it is perhaps understandable. Again, Benfica progressed to the semi-final of the Taça de Portugal with some impressive score-lines; Laco were blown away 19-0 on aggregate in the first round and Marinhense were hammered 8-1 in the quarter final. Yet, Benfica lost 2-1 in the semi-final to Sporting and could only watch on as their rivals claimed their sixth Portuguese Cup. But in truth, all eyes were on the European Cup with fans of all clubs waiting to see if Benfica could emulate the great Real Madrid side who had won five European titles in a row.
Benfica defeated the Swedish champions IFK Norrköping, Josef Masopust’s Dukla Prague and the Dutch champions Feyenoord to set up a European Cup final with the Italian champions A.C Milan at Wembley. Milan had dispatched Ipswich Town, Galatasaray, and Dundee on route to the final and faced a Benfica team supremely confident. While Santos were widely regarded as the best side in the world, Benfica were arguably the best team in Europe at the time. Recognised as one of the few men in the world capable of marking Pelé out of a game, Giovanni Trapattoni was rightly given the job of marking Eusébio. But not even Trapattoni could stop the Portuguese forward as Benfica led 1-0 at half time through Eusébio’s eighteenth-minute strike. Unable to make substitutions, the Milan manager Nereo Rocco changed his game plan. Victor Benitez took over from “Trap” in marking Eusébio and Rocco encouraged his players to close-down their opponents quicker. At the beginning of the second half, Pivatelli signalled Milan’s intent when catching the Benfica captain late. Injured, Coluna struggled through the rest of the game and Benfica fell apart. Rivera, Milan’s teenage sensation, created the equaliser and the winner for Altafini. These two goals brought the Brazilian up to fourteen for the competition (two more than the previous record set by Puskás) and subsequently won the European Cup for Milan. Paulo’s father, Cesare Maldini thus became the first Italian to lift the European Champions Cup.
The following season Benfica were domestically unstoppable once more; they won their thirteenth league title, again only losing once throughout the campaign. Defeating Seixal 10-0 at home, the club set the league record for the highest home victory. Eusébio finished top goal scorer with twenty-eight goals in nineteen games. Completing the domestic double, Benfica also claimed their twelfth Portuguese Cup. Unsurprisingly, Eusébio was crowned top scorer with fourteen goals in six matches. Benfica’s 12-1 and 17-1 aggregate victories from the first two rounds gave Eusébio plenty of opportunity to get amongst the goals. In the European Cup, however, Benfica failed to progress past the first round. Despite defeating Borussia Dortmund 2-1 in Lisbon, the Portuguese giants were blown away 5-0 in Germany with Franz Brungs helping himself to a hattrick. In truth, the warning signs had been evident in the preliminary round, where a 5-0 home victory against the Northern Irish Champions Distillery was followed by a 3-3 away draw. Still, Eusébio was Benfica’s top scorer in Europe with four goals in three games and ended the season with a total of forty-six in twenty-eight games.
Despite losing as many games in the 1964-65 season as they had in the previous two seasons, Benfica won the league again. This time, five points ahead of Porto in second. They scored eighty-eighty league goals, ending the season with a goal difference of +67, and Eusébio was again top goal scorer with twenty-eight goals. Despite defeating Braga 13-1 on aggregate in the semi-final of the Taça de Portugal, Benfica surprisingly lost 3-1 in the final to Vitória de Setúbal – denying them the double for a second successive season. No prizes for guessing who the top scorer in the competition was with eleven goals in seven games. Yet, it was the European Cup that everyone at Benfica was focused on.
Aris, the Champions of Luxembourg, were dispatched 10-2 on aggregate in the preliminary round. The Swiss Champions, La Chaux-de-Fonds, were crushed in Lisbon 5-0 after a credible 1-1 draw in Switzerland. Then Benfica faced Real Madrid in the Quarter Finals. Age was finally catching up with the legendary Madrid side. Di Stefano had left for Espanyol at the end of the previous season and, despite Amancio (the club’s new hero) scoring, Los Merengues could not handle Benfica. Somewhat impressively, Madrid won the return leg 2-1 but Benfica progressed 6-3 on aggregate having already won 5-1 in Lisbon. They went on to face the Hungarian Champions Vasas ETA Győr in the semi-final. Albeit managed by the legendary Hungarian international Hidegkuti, Vasas Győr were no match for Benfica who won 5-0 on aggregate. Benfica’s reward was to face Internazionale in the final.
The final of 1964-65 was scheduled to be played at the San Siro. Concerned that they would not be allowed to win if they played at Inter’s home ground, Benfica redoubled their efforts to have the venue changed. The club were not only concerned about the pressure of the locals upon the match officials, but rumours had spread regarding Inter’s preparations and their hospitality towards the officials. Branko Tesanic, the Czech referee who had dubiously officiated Inter’s semi-final against Dortmund the season before, admitted that Italians had footed the bill for a Mediterranean holiday. Benfica threatened a boycott, but UEFA warned of a hefty fine plus suspension from subsequent competitions. The Portuguese giants responded that they would only send in their youth team to play but UEFA still didn’t budge. The governing body informed them that, with 80,000 tickets already sold, they would hold the club liable for any subsequent claims from fans, broadcasters and advertisers alike.
Arguably, the game ought to have been called off anyway after powerful storms had hammered the city of Milan. With water unable to soak into the hard ground, the pitch resembled a lake more than a football pitch. Reluctantly though, Benfica had turned up to play. Both teams splashed through the first half and, in the forty-second minute, Jair’s shot slipped through Pereira’s hands and legs, giving Inter a 1-0 lead. Worse things were to follow for Benfica in the second half. An injury to the keeper’s leg saw Germano, the centre-half, take his place in goal. He too was limping after an injury sustained earlier on in the game, but he was rarely troubled. The ever-hopeful Eusébio attempted the occasional shot for Benfica but Inter were easily able to hold on for the win. Despite Eusébio scoring forty-eight goals in thirty-six games, Benfica had fallen short in their pursuit of the European Cup once again. Guttmann’s curse couldn’t be real… could it?
Whilst Béla Guttmann had been away from the club, Benfica had won three league titles, reached two European Cup finals and won the Portuguese Cup. None of which was considered good enough by the club, whose expectations rested firmly with the idea of being European Champions. Nor had their successes stopped the clamour and relentless pressure from the fans to restore the great Hungarian coach. In the summer of 1965, however, the supporters were granted their wish. After agreeing to his costly demands and sky-high bonus provisions, Guttmann returned to Lisbon and was met by a large and excitable crowd at the airport.
Luckily for Benfica’s bank-balance, Guttmann proved the age-old maxim that one should never return to a club where you have enjoyed such great success previously. The team that Guttmann inherited was not the same calibre as the one he had left in 1962. Guttmann believed that the team had become arrogant in his absence and less hungry for success. Three years previously, he had the players eating out of his hands and if anyone questioned him, he only had to point to their successive European Cup victories. Having won three league titles and reached two European Cup finals under three different coaches in his absence, the players were no longer the wide-eyed boys they had been when he left. Nor did they respond well to Guttmann deflecting any criticism of himself on to them. Before the first leg of the European Cup tie with Manchester United, after a poor start to the season by their standard, he had informed journalists that some of his team lacked motivation and were over the hill. Learning of what Guttmann had said, the team demanded a meeting with their coach. Guttmann defended himself, arguing it was all part of his psychological warfare with Manchester United, but the damage had been done. Benfica lost 3-2 in a memorable match at Old Trafford, although they were still believed to be the favourites for the return leg having never been defeated at home in the European Cup. Writing for The Times, Geoffrey Green remarked that ‘one goal might not be enough to progress but at least the night could not be taken away. It was something to remember’.
Guttmann had always maintained that if the coach did not have complete control of a squad, or his power was neutered in anyway, then the team had no chance of success. Learning of the meeting between the players and the coach before the away leg in Manchester, the board informed Guttmann that he was not to speak to the press. Humiliated, the Hungarian stated that he was going to leave Benfica for good at the end of the season. With mutiny in the air, Manchester United visited Lisbon for the return leg. In a demonstration of blitzkrieg football that Guttmann himself would have been proud of, Manchester United crushed Benfica 5-1 with the nineteen-year-old George Best showing off his talent on the European stage for the first time. By the end of the season, after Benfica’s collapse had gathered serious pace, Guttmann also had his training responsibilities removed from his remit. This decision raised the question: if the coach isn’t in charge of training, what exactly was his job? Benfica ended the season empty-handed, surrendering their league title to Sporting CP and exiting the Taça de Portugal in the quarter final to Braga, the eventual winners of the competition. Consequently, Guttmann left the club, never to return.
Thankfully for the fans, normal service was resumed for the 1966-67 season with Benfica winning their fifteenth league title and Eusébio typically finishing top scorer with forty-two goals in thirty-three games in all competitions. But more importantly, being domestic champions meant that Benfica would once again compete in Europe’s premier club competition for the 1967-68 season. Benfica progressed towards the final of 1968 at the expense of Glentoran from Northern Ireland in the first round. Northern Irish opposition once again proved problematic for the Portuguese Champions, who won thanks to the away goals rule, having drawn 1-1 in Ireland. Benfica could only manage a 0-0 draw in Lisbon. Later, they defeated St Étienne 2-1 in the second round on aggregate. In the quarter finals, Benfica faced Vasas of Hungary. After drawing the away leg 0-0, Benfica won 3-0 at home to set up a semi-final with the Italian giants, Juventus. A 2-0 win at home and a 1-0 victory Turin meant that, for the fifth time in eight seasons, Benfica would compete in the European Cup final. Their opposition this time were the English Champions Manchester United – who ten years after the Munich air-disaster, returned to the pinnacle of European football and would be playing in their first European Cup final.
Manchester United were favourites at Wembley as Benfica were forced to play a final in the home country of their opposition once again. Despite ending the competition as top goal scorer with six goals, Eusébio appeared to have lost his golden touch in the final. In the first half, he hit the crossbar and, in the dying minutes of the match with the score level at 1-1, he was offered two great chances to win the game. Firstly, he was forced wide and shot weakly at Alex Stepney. His second chance was a powerful shot which was too central as the ball struck Stepney full in the chest. It would appear that fate was against Benfica. In extra time, George Best, Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton all scored as Manchester United became the first English club to win the European Cup. For Benfica, this loss was a death knell.
The following season, Benfica progressed to the quarter final of the European Cup, where they lost 3-0 in a play-off to the up-and-coming Ajax. Benfica retained the league and completed the double by defeating Académica de Coimbra 2-1 in the Taça de Portugal, but European glory was slipping further and further away from them. Arguably, the greatest team of the 1960s had reached the end.
Benfica would continue to enjoy success in the 1970s, but they would never touch the heights that they achieved in the previous decade. Between 1960 and 1969, Benfica won the league eight times, the Taça de Portugal twice and European Cup twice. They reached the European Cup final five times and had the league’s top scorer for seven out of the ten seasons. In all competitions, Eusébio scored 321 goals in 269 appearances and should rightfully be considered one of the greatest footballers of all time. But what of the curse? Since Guttmann’s supposed damnation, Benfica have played in eight European finals and lost them all. For the Benfica fans who wish for European glory once more, roll on 2062!