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Simon Heptinstall On March - 15 - 2012

Comparing The All Time Greats: Benfica

So Barcelona are through to the quarter finals, who saw that coming? It’s perhaps unkind to Leverkusen to say they never had a chance but if they of beaten Barcelona over two legs it would rank as one of the clubs greatest every achievements. And the manner of their win last week, and the display from their star man Messi, has only added to their reputation as an all time great. As we wait to see who they will play in the last eight of Europe’s top club competition, let’s have another look at one of the top club sides ever to grace the European Cup.

After the 1960 cup final where Real Madrid claimed their fifth successive European Cup, things started to change in the world of club football. In the first round Real Madrid drew their old enemy Barcelona. And unlike in previous seasons, it was the Catalan club who gained the upper hand and eventually went through 4-3 on aggregate. They would go on to defeat Spartak Hradec Králové in the quarter finals before beating Hamburg, with the aid of a play off, in the semi finals. It was in the final that they would take on the next of our European greats, Benfica.

Benfica had first entered the European Cup back in the 57/58 season but disappointedly went out in the preliminary round 3-1 on aggregate to Sevilla. They remained out of Europe’s elite competition until 1960 but which time they were a vastly different team and they meant business. Dispatching of Heart of Midlothian, Újpesti Dózsa and AGF with ease in the first three rounds, Benfica defeated Rapid Wien 4-1 in the semi finals to set up their European Cup final with Barcelona.

The late 1950’s and 60’s would see total dominance of domestic football from Benfica built around dynamic attacking players. In 1959 Porto had clawed back a five point deficit in the league to beat Benfica to the title. This was thanks to their Hungarian coach Béla Guttmann who promptly jumped ship to Benfica for the following season. It would be under his guidance that Benfica would win their first ever European Cup, defeating Barcelona in Bern 3-2 and becoming the first team other than Real Madrid to hold the title of European Champions.

Barcelona took the lead in the 20th minute when their midfielder Sándor Kocsis got his head on a cross from Luis Suarez and powered the ball into the bottom corner. Benfica drew level ten minutes later thanks to their captain José Águas and just two minutes after that they took the lead thanks to an unfortunate own goal from Barcelona keeper Antoni Ramallets. Benfica extended their lead shortly after the break when Mario Coluna scored a stunning volley low into the bottom corner. Barcelona pulled one back through Zoltán Czibor but it wasn’t enough and The Eagles held on to lift their first of two European Cups.

Their second European triumph followed the season after, beating Real Madrid 5-3 in Amsterdam. By beating the five time European Champions and retaining the trophy, Benfica had sealed their place at the top of European football. Guttmann’s side of Eusebio (his first full season at the club),Aguas, Simones and Coluna would be the defining Portuguese team of the decade ahead and one that had firmly taken over from the great Madrid side of the 50’s. The match was a very close and entertaining one with Real leading Benfica 3-2 at half time thanks to a hattrick from the mighty Puskas. Coluna levelled the match soon after the break, before, at the tender age of just twenty, Eusebio fired two goals in quick succession to give Benfica victory and seal their place in football history. This would be their last European Cup success and despite making three more finals in the 60’s, including the following year after against Inter, Benfica would never lift the famous trophy again. Though they did at least continue their domestic success and sealed their place as the greatest Portuguese team of all time.

Guttman stepped down after defeating Real Madrid in 1962 after a fight with the board over a pay rise that he never got. On leaving the club he is said to have placed a curse on the club “Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever win a European Cup.” How true this story actually is, is a matter of some debate but whatever the reason was, they never did win it again. Before the European Cup final in1990, which was played in Vienna, where Guttmann was buried, Eusébio even prayed at his grave and in order to break the curse. The prayers failed and Benfica lost.

Guttman returned to Benfica for the 65-66 season, but even that was not enough to secure another European Cup and despite establishinga great European history, to this day Benfica are still searching for their first Champions League. Maybe only after the 100 years curse of Guttman has passed will they once again win the trophy that they so badly.

So how does team compare to the greatest team of modern football, Barcelona? Well just like with the Madrid comparisons, it’s hard to really accurately compare and contrast. With such advancement in technology and science, the Barcelona team of today would be fitter and stronger than the Benfica side of the 60’s. But no one can take away their achievements of the time or the quality of football they played. Having won eight league titles, three national cups and two European Cups, this was a team not only of great style and flair but just like the Real Madrid team before them, a team also of winners with real heart and determination. Their success during that decade has defined the club ever since and just like the Barcelona team of today, their star player was born abroad and brought over to the club as a teenager.

Eusébio da Silva Ferreira was born in Mozambique in southern eastern Africa and signed as a teenager for Benfica from under the noses of Sporting. After making his debut in 1961,his goal scoring ability was evident immediately and the following year he would establish him in the first time, capping of his rise to fame by scoring twine in the European Cup final. His amazing record of 319 goals in 314 games for Benfica, plus his 41 goals in 64 games for Portugal sealed his place as the top striker in Europe after Puskas and Di Stefano had retired. He was a game changer, match winner and a player who helped transform the game of football into what we know it today. His legacy in Europe will never be forgotten and the statue of him outside the Estádio da Luz is the very least such a legend deserves.

Alongside Eusebio was the captain José Águas. He was goal scoring forward of extreme talent, Aguas scored 290 goals in 281 games between 1950 and 1963. And his departure from Benfica at the same time as Guttman leaving may have been the real curse for the team. His influence and leadership, as well as his huge talent, was never really replaced at the club and his place in European football has perhaps been overshadowed by the brilliance of Eusebio. He died in Lisbon in 2000 but his legacy at Benfica remains with the club to this day.

Benfica of the 1960’s were the definitive side of the decade. Yes Inter did claim back to back titles of their own during that time and did so with a great side, but with five final appearances and two wins, Benfica were considered the greatest club side of that time. It must surely be a huge regret even now for the club that they never really turned up in the three finals they lost and play the football they were capable of. But their achievements and consistency remain untouched by a Portuguese club and it is perhaps indicative of the times that they were able to hang onto Eusebio throughout the decade and not lose him to a Spanish or Italian giant. Maybe the saddest fact of all is that if you placed this Benfica in modern football, most of the top player might have gone off to sign mega bucks deals outside of Portugal. But even if many ex players from though out the world of football consider this Barcelona team the greatest side of all time, there is little doubt that the Benfica side of the 60’s sure would have given them one hell of a game.

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