KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS —- Mario Coluna, who has died at 78, was as important to Benfica’s triumphs in the early 1960s as old attacking partner Eusebio, who was being mourned by world football less than two months ago.
While Eusebio was the explosive goal-scorer supreme for the Lisbon Eagles and Portugal so the older Coluna was the playmaker who commanded the game and created many of the openings.
Mario Esteves Coluna was born on August 6, 1935, in Inhaca, Mozambique, then a Portuguese overseas territory. He played first with local Desportivo de Lourenço Marques and was then scouted by Benfica who found many of their finest players in the African colonies.
Initially Coluna was a centre-forward but Benfica already had a fine attack leader in Jose Aguas and Coluna was converted to inside-left by the veteran Hungarian coach Bela Guttman and then into midfield general by Chilean Fernando Riera.
In all he would score 127 goals in 525 competitive appearances, winning 10 Portuguese league titles, six national Cups and the European Champions Cup in 1961 and 1962.
Of all his goals, none was more important than his 25m strike from outside the penalty box in the 1961 final when underdogs Benfica beat odds-on favourites Barcelona 3-2. Coluna played almost all of the match with a broken nose after a collision in the eighth minute.
In the 55th minute, with Benfica holding a fragile 2-1 lead in Bern, the ball broke back to him out of the penalty area and he thundered what proved the decisive drive back past keeper Antonio Ramallets.
The following year Coluna scored Benfica’s equaliser at 3-3 in the 5-3 win over Real Madrid in the final in Amsterdam. He might have scored a second goal but let Eusebio take the penalty which put Benfica 4-3 ahead.
Benfica also reached the final for a third successive season in 1963. However, Milan set midfielder Gino Pivatelli to close-mark Coluna which he did so roughly that the Benfica captain was a passenger for much of the game in days before substitutes. Benfica, despite taking an early lead, lost 2-1. Coluna’s Benfica also lost subsequent finals to Internazionale and Manchester United.
Coluna returned to Wembley in 1966 as captain of the Portugal side who finished third in the 1966 World Cup finals. Portugal defeated the Soviet Union 2-1 in the third place play-off.
He scored eight goals in 57 appearances for Portugal between his debut in a 3-0 defeat in a friendly against Scotland on May 4, 1955, and his farewell in a 4-2 defeat by Greece on December 11, 1968, in a World Cup qualifying tie.
Nicknamed Monstro Sagrado (Holy Monster) by Benfica fans, Coluna left in 1970 to spend one season in France with Lyon (two goals in 19 games) before returning to Portugal to end his career at Sport Clube Estrela de Portalegre.
After Mozambique became independent in 1975, Coluna returned home and served as football federation president and then Sports Minister between 1994 and 1999. He died in Maputo from pneumonia after heart problems.
Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira, in tribute, said: “Mario Coluna won not only the appreciation of all who had the privilege of seeing him play, but also the respect of those who, not having seen him, heard him lauded as one of the greatest talents of his generation.
“He was someone with a unique life, whose legacy will prevail long after his death.”