Benfica have long been one of the world’s most renowned European football clubs. Part of Portugal’s big three (the other being cross-city rivals Sporting Lisbon and FC Porto), they have been synonymous with success and bringing to the fore talents that would change the game.
One of the club’s most successful periods came during the 1960s. A time of political and cultural change, Benfica would go onto triumph on both the European and domestic stage led at first by an inspirational coach and a collection of some of Portugal’s most talented players.
Lisbon is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, stunningly beautiful and full of compelling history, it is the heartbeat of a country that shares a universal love with football and the two sides that represent the city are two of the most well-known around the world, S.L. Benfica and Sporting CP.
These clubs are intertwined with one another, sharing the humblest of beginnings before eventually splitting to form one of the fiercest club rivalries in Europe.
The origins of the two clubs can be traced back to Belem in Lisbon, at the back of a pharmacy. The founding fathers were a group of young students and ex-pharmacy employees who used to play on the fields of Terras do Desembargador and came to the conclusion they should form a club for the young Portuguese men of Lisbon, whereby they could build their cultural and social circle.
After competing in a friendly against CIF Internacional, the idea of forming a professional club started to become more of a realisation than a dream and in the coming months, Sport Lisboa e Benfica would come to life.
Here, the colours were decided upon and their symbol, the eagle. This bird was chosen as it represented nobility, independence and authority all part of the values the club has tried to live up to (though not always managing this).
From this group, though, a splinter group broke away led by José Alvalade, who famously borrowed money from his wealthy grandfather to found Sporting Clube de Portugal. They settled on colours and an emblem in opposition to that of Benfica with green representing hope and the lion for strength and determination.
From this rivalry alongside FC Porto based in the north of the country, the vast majority of titles has been shared out. Porto had the gracious honour of securing the first title of the newly-formed Campeonato da Liga da Primeira Divisão. Benfica, though, wasted little time after that going on to secure the next three and setting the platform to be the most successful club in Portugal currently boasting 36 league titles, 26 Taça de Portugal, 7 Taça de Liga and the two European titles they secured during the 1960s.
THE EAGLES CONQUER EUROPE
For all of the trophies that Benfica secured, the European trophy still evaded their grasp. That was until an enigmatic Hungarian manager took the reins, leaving then champions FC Porto, who he had helped guide to the title ironically overtaking Benfica.
Guttman was a maverick, brash and often outspoken, but is credited with helping so many clubs throughout his life. His spell at São Paulo (where he led them to a state championship title) saw him introduce the 4-2-4 formation that would later be employed by the Brazil national side in their World Cup triumph of 1958.
The Hungarian lived and died by his philosophies and believed that a coach could not stay at one club for too long and throughout his whole career never stayed at one side for more than 3 years, with the Benfica job being the longest tenure he served.
“DURING THE FIRST SEASON, THE COACH GETS TO WORK QUIETLY, THE SECOND IS MORE DIFFICULT AND THE THIRD ONE IS FATAL”
Before his arrival, Benfica had been the most formidable side in Portugal but had missed out on any major European glory other than in the Latin Cup in 1950.
The side had initially taken great leaps under the tutelage of Brazilian Otto Glória, who led the side from 1954 to 1959. He raised the standard of the club and produced the platform from which other managers could build. The scouting ranks were given more priority and the club honed in on developing local talent as well as from the overseas provinces still under Portuguese rule.
The club had secured two league titles and three Portuguese cups during his tenure before leaving the club without conquering that final European hurdle. He would lead the side to the final again in 1968 when he returned to the club famously losing to Manchester United.
All of that, though, changed with the new manager Guttman who brought his attacking football to the talents of his new Portuguese side
Real Madrid were already building their name during the late 1950s and ‘60s as the leading football club in Europe and won the first five trophies on offer in Europe’s premier competition. As other clubs sought to wrangle the power from Los Blancos, Barcelona and Benfica became the number one challengers.
It was indeed these two clubs that participated in a final without the champions from Madrid and this was to be Benfica’s first title. The final was held in Bern in 1961 and Benfica would go onto triumph in a 3-2 tussle, without Eusébio, who had only just started to force his way into the club.
The sides that dominated these European ties and domestic games were all Portuguese nationals and contained many great players. Alongside the great Eusébio, there was Mário Coluna. A central midfield player of Mozambican descent, who would play over 350 games for the side and garner over 50 caps for the national team forming part of the side that finished third at the World Cup in 1966.
The captain and Eusébio’s partner upfront was Jose Águas. Known as Cabeça de Ouro (Golden Head), the striker scored an incredible 290 goals in 281 games. Not only a great goalscorer, but Águas also led the line for the club through 13 seasons and helped to build the base on which the club would secure all their success during the 1960s. He left the club for one season at Austria Vienna before hanging up his boots on the back of a 12th domestic title for the Eagles.
The second European trophy followed the season after their first success in the 1960-61 season. Strengthened by the inclusion of new burgeoning superstar Eusébio, Benfica would go on this time to defeat Madrid in the final 5-3, with the striker adding two goals to his already impressive tally for the season and upon the final whistle being embraced by Ferenc Puskás and swapping shirts with the Hungarian, before being carried from the pitch by his adoring fans.
The two routes to the final could not have been more different. The 1961 triumph had seen Benfica somewhat cruise to the final before going toe-to-toe with their Spanish rivals in the final in what was the toughest game of the tournament.
The 1962 final saw Benfica conquer some more of Europe’s elite sides before beating Real Madrid in the ultimate match. A classic encounter of that tournament that defined the skills and qualities of both manager and club were the semi-final legs against Tottenham Hotspur.
Spurs were led by stars Jimmy Greaves, John White, and Dave Mackay and had become the first British side to complete and league and FA Cup double. They were clamouring to be the first British side to triumph on the European stage.
The first leg was held in Lisbon at the Estádio da Luz and roared on by an intimidating 86,000. Benfica triumphed 3-1. Guttman had prepared his side to go at the opposition from the first kick and were rewarded for their endeavours with early goals from Simões and José Augusto. They struck even before their counterparts could settle into the contest. Although Spurs would pull a goal back, Augusto would net once more ensuring the Portuguese had a good lead to take with them to White Hart Lane.
Simões and José Augusto were excellent wingers, full of pace and trickery and were the type of players Bela Guttman loved. He would encourage them to stay wide and attack as often as possible – a strategy ahead of its time and one that prompted rich rewards for their club.
Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson had been exposed by the nous of Guttman and would ensure his charges for the second leg were prepared and ready to go. In a closely-fought and even game, which contained a penalty, goals ruled out for either side and plenty of chances, Spurs could only muster a 2-1 victory, thus seeing them fail to progress.
Benfica would take this momentum on and triumph in the final and write a chapter of history that would never be forgotten.
Benfica under Guttman had gone onto triumph in both the European finals they had featured in. After securing the second trophy, legend has it that the Guttman went to the board to request the bonus that had been agreed upon his joining the club and the promise of delivering back to back titles.
Guttman was denied the money he vehemently claimed had been agreed and on that, he cursed the club. No one to this day knows quite what was said but the most popular version was: “Not in 100 years from now will Benfica win a European Cup.”
The manager soon left the club stating that he was no longer needed and whether you believe in curses or not, Benfica to this day have not triumphed in a European final, with the latest final loss coming in 2014 against Sevilla in the Europa League.
Eusébio himself prayed at the grave of his old coach and asked the curse be lifted with no avail as the club would lose their last Champions League final in 1990 to AC Milan.
With Guttman having left the club, he left a wonderful, world-class side and the future managers would carry on this legacy of success the club had built with another six league titles and three Taça de Portugal trophies.
Benfica without the enigmatic Hungarian coach could not clinch that elusive third European title. Las Águias were still an enterprising and formidable foe and they went on to reach three further finals during the 1960s in 1963, 1965 and 1968.
The 1968 final was a feted game in the history of the club as it seemed the curse had taken hold. With the game at a deadlock, Eusébio was presented with a clear chance to score only to have it saved by Manchester United goalkeeper, Alex Stepney, who was promptly saluted by his opposition for the quality of his save.
As the years passed, no manager though could build a lasting legacy with Jimmy Hagan being the only manager during the 1970s to stay for three consecutive seasons. This though did not stop Benfica becoming the most successful club in Portugal winning three consecutive league titles losing only five league games during that period.
THE BLACK PANTHER
Benfica’s most legendary and famous player is Eusébio. Born in Mozambique to an Angolan mother and Mozambican father, the young striker joined Benfica from the claws of city rivals Sporting CP, who he seemed destined to join having played for their feeder club, Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques.
As often with life, a twist of fate led to a change in drastic fortunes for the two clubs and in this case, a chance encounter at a barbershop helped bring the forward to Benfica and the rest, as they say, is history.
Guttman one day was visiting the shop when he bumped into an old friend, Jose Carlos Bauer, who was a coach at São Paulo FC. He was on his way back to Brazil after a tour of Mozambique and gushed to the manager of Benfica about the talent of a young man they had faced. Mozambique was a colony of Portugal so it was of no surprise that Portuguese clubs had already heard rumours of this prodigious talent. The talk in the barbershop was all Guttman needed, and he convinced Eusébio’s family that Benfica would be the right route to take.
Wasting no time upon reaching the first team, the young striker began to set the world alight. After his sterling efforts in his first season to help his side conquer Europe again, he would go on to be runner up in the Ballon d’Or in 1962 before eventually capturing the honour in 1965 after helping his side win three successive domestic titles (1962-63, 1963-64 and 1964-65)
Eusébio was a marvel. The archetypal modern player. He was astonishingly quick and was a skillful dribbler, easily beating his marker and opposing defenders. He was a deadly striker with his goal return speaking for itself, 473 in competitive games leading him to finish as the top goal scorer in the Primeira Liga seven times.
To this day, Benfica have honoured the legacy of the greats from the 1960s by claiming more domestic titles than any of its competitors but European glory has continued to evade their grasp. Since that fateful meeting over 50 years ago, the club has fallen at the final hurdle six times. This year, the club hopes to put to bed the curse as they look to win the Europa League.
They are not all about winning, though. The continued investment in the club and the youth program have made them one of the premier sporting outfits in world football and it was recently calculated the club had made over sales of over €200 million, all of which was invested back into the state-of-the-art facilities.
Amongst this current generation there lies another diamond by the name of João Félix. He represents the dream of current president Luís Filipe Vieira who wishes to win the grandest club prize once again with a team of homegrown stars. Only time will tell whether they can achieve this goal but one thing is for sure, the club will only continue to grow whilst the kings of old look down upon them.