K E I R R A D N E D G E R E P O R T I N G
AMSTERDAM: The Eagles of Lisbon have history in their heads ahead of tonight’s Europa League Final against Chelsea.
Some 51 years ago they came to the Dutch diamond capital to demonstrate a newly-cut diamond of their own. His name was Eusebio and on May 2, 1962, the 20-year-old thundered the old masters of Real Madrid to a 5-3 defeat in the European Champions Cup final.
This was Benfica’s second successive success. The previous year, with all the luck in the world, they had beaten Barcelona 3-2 in the final in Bern. But the manner and match-up against Barcelona were considered less than perfect. The Madrid of Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento were the absentee kings. Thumping them the following year was the real deal.
That 1962 was played out in the old Olympic Stadium. This Europa League Final is being staged in the ArenA, a suitably smart new home for the smart football of Dutch champions Ajax.
But this is football: full of tales of the old and the new. Powered through today and into tomorrow by the legends and icons of yesterday. Chelsea have illustrated the point only this last week with the emotional outpouring to have greeted Frank Lampard’s surpassing of Bobby Tambling’s club record 202 goals.
Chelsea are one of the modern powers of the Premier League; by contrast Benfica bring with them all the pride of a status as Portugal’s most successful and renowned club. A statue of Eusebio stands at the entrance to one of the largest football stadia in Europe to intimidate each and every rival.
Their story is synonymous with that of Portuguese football since founder Cosme Damiao learned the game from English residents in Lisbon at the turn of the century.
On February 28, 1904, Damiao organised the first recorded local game of futebol on a patch of Lisbon wasteland. The next day he formed his “team” into a club named Sport Lisboa and, two years later was instrumental in arranging a merger with neighbours Sport Clube.
In the early years it was cycling which brought the club the first prizes. Presentday caters for two dozen sports but football is by far the most important. It also supports the others financially.
The first title arrived in 1910. That was the Lisbon championship; the national championship was not bolted together until the late 1920s. Since then Benfica have dominated domestic football. They lay claim to a record 32 league titles (compared with Porto 26 and Sporting 18) plus a record 24 cups (Porto 16 and Sporting 15).
In due course they set their sights on international glory and in 1950 won the Latin Cup, a forerunner of the European Cup.
Ambition envisioned more. In 1954 Benfica followed the example being set in Spain and built a vast new stadium (since redeveloped and scheduled stage for next year’s Champions League Final).
An exiled Hungarian named Bela Guttman became coach and his team filled the new stadium as Benfica swept to those two dramatic triumphs in the Champions Cup in 1961 and 1962.
At this time they remained faithful to the tradition laid down by Damiao that they should use only Portuguese citizens.
This was not quite what it seemed. Those ‘citizens’ included players from Portugal’s African empire. The 1961 and 1962 victories would have been both unthinkable and impossible without the presence of goalkeeper Costa Pereira and centre-forward and captain Jose Aguas from Angola as well as playmaker Mario Coluna and Eusebio from Mozambique.
Eusebio carried off the honour of finishing as leading domestic goalscorer on seven occasions.
But since those glory days of the early 1960s Benfica have appeared in no fewer than four further European club finals and lost them all. Finishing as runners-up was also their destiny in the 1983 UEFA Cup.
Later Portuguese heroes included goalkeeper Manuel Bento, centre-back Humberto Coelho and forwards Nene and Fernando Chalana. But the African option was ended by the grant to the colonies of their independence in the mid-1970s.
Thus Benfica members voted by a majority of two-to-one in the summer of 1978 to break with the past and enter the foreign market. The fruits could be seen in the team which reached the 1983 UEFA Cup final with the Yugoslav spearhead Zoran Filipovic and the Swedish midfielder Glenn Stromberg.
But an increasing reliance on player imports led to controversy and financial problems which undermined their resistance to the rise of Porto. Now they hunt Brazilians, Slavs and Spaniards with the rest.
Same as Chelsea, really.
Benfica came to Amsterdam in 1962 to win the Champions Cup. Fans thought it would be merely the second of many European trophies. They are still waiting. For another or just one more day?
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