To the casual outsider, Benfica’s apparently successful 1966/67 season appeared to be just the latest in a long line of trophy-winning campaigns. With huge pride derived from Portugal’s third place finish in the 1966 World Cup, the club and its players were at the heart of a vibrant era for the nation’s game. Domestically, Benfica would take back the Primeira Divisão title from city rivals Sporting with ease, their sixth title success in eight seasons and the passport back into their beloved European Cup.
It wasn’t quite as simple and glorious a time as it appeared though. “Nem tudo que reluz é ouro” is the Portuguese version of the English saying “All that glitters is not gold” and the surface glitter of trophy success and world-class players resplendent in the famous red jersey masked what was, in reality, the most deeply shocking season in the club’s history. Benfica would be hit first by a dreadful human tragedy involving one of their players in December 1966. “Uma desgraça nunca vem só” is another common Portuguese saying, translating as “a misfortune never comes alone.” Horrifically this was all too prophetic; only a matter of a couple of months later, and just as some sort of equilibrium was returning to the club, a second player tragedy would strike. This is the first of a two-part story looking back at those couple of fateful months.
On December 5th 1966, news emerged from Lisbon of the random and violent death of the Benfica defender Luciano. After morning training, seven of the club’s players were relaxing in the club’s Whirlpool Jacuzzi when an electrical fault developed. The players started to receive severe electric shocks and the unfortunate Luciano was killed instantly. He was 26 years old.
Luciano Jorge Fernandes was born in the small fishing village of Olhão in the Algarve and signed his first football contract with the town’s local team, Olhanense, at the age of 19. He started to attract covetous glances from bigger clubs during the 1962/63 season with his composed defending and assuredness in possession. His stylish play soon attracted the nickname of Germano II – a huge compliment to be compared to the world-class Benfica defender. The Lisbon giants signed him the very next season and, as he was not going to displace Germano, coach Lajos Czeizler decided to switch him to right back. Bad luck shrouded his Benfica career from the earliest days and progress in his debut season was set back when he needed a knee operation. Not long after he returned to full fitness, misfortune struck again when he sustained torn ankle ligaments. Finally he seemed to be fit and ready for action at the start of the 1966/67 season, but once again was injured in an early League derby against Atlético Lisboa.
The American firm Whirlpool was a major supplier of Jacuzzis to Portuguese hotels and sports clubs and Benfica were one of their highest profile customers. Always first to get the newest models, local suppliers had just fitted a brand-new, experimental hydro-massage system that was ready to use for the first time that December Monday morning. After twenty minutes of operation, the electrics short-circuited and a huge surge of electricity engulfed the players. The hero of the hour was Jaime Graça who had trained as an electrician before he became a professional footballer. Despite convulsing heavily, Graça managed to climb out the pool and cut off the power supply. Graça, Eusébio and Santana escaped with burns. Cavém and the reserve players Carmo Pais and Malta da Silva collapsed unconscious, but fortunately recovered in hospital – doctors commenting that it was only Cavém’s high levels of physical fitness that saved him. Luciano was the only player who had been fully immersed in the water at the time and died instantaneously.
Just a couple of days before Luciano’s death, the former Yugoslav international, Petar Radaković, had also died in sudden circumstances after suffering a fatal heart attack during training. He was 29 years old. There were obvious parallels in the deaths of two similarly-aged players just a few days apart, yet the different nature of their deaths invoke slightly different reactions 45 years later. Without attempting to diminish the death of Radaković in any way, his passing is perhaps the less shocking when viewed through contemporary eyes. As witnessed recently with Livorno’s Piermario Morosini, sporadic deaths linked to congenital or hard-to-diagnose medical conditions remain with us and probably always will. There was something altogether more jarring about the violent demise of Luciano though. Like the many footballers of his era killed in car crashes, it was a death very much of its time – when technology and our ideas about safety were desperately primitive.
Luciano’s funeral had the largest, public turnout ever seen in the Algarve and a street near the stadium of his first club bears his name to this day. There also remains a permanent exhibition of memorabilia dedicated to the player in the Caso do Benfica in Olhão. Benfica played the rest of their home games that season in black and dedicated their Pyrrhic title success to Luciano’s memory.