The European Cup, The Black Panther & The Curse – Benfica In The 1960s

Benfica has long been one of the world’s most renowned football clubs as part of Portugal’s big three alongside FC Porto and cross-city rivals Sporting Lisbon. One of the club’s most successful periods came during the 1960s, a time of political and cultural change in Portugal when Benfica would enjoy success on both European and domestic fronts. This success was 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 of football and the two major clubs that represent the city are two of its most important: S.L. Benfica and Sporting Clube de Portugal. These clubs’ histories are intertwined having shared 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. After a while, they concluded that they should form a club for the young Portuguese men of Lisbon to enhance their cultural and social circle.

After competing in a friendly against CIF Internacional, 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 and its symbol, the eagle, were decided upon. This bird was chosen as it represented nobility, independence and authority – all values the club has tried to live up to (though not always successfully).

However from this group a splinter offshoot 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 quite the opposite to 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 Portuguese titles have been shared out. Porto had the gracious honour of securing the first title of the newly-formed Campeonato da Liga da Primeira Divisão, but Benfica wasted little time after that going on to secure the next three and setting the platform to become the most successful club in Portugal – currently boasting 36 league titles, 26 Taças de Portugal, 7 Taças de Liga and the two European titles they secured during the 1960s.


For all of the domestic trophies that Benfica secured, European success – with the exception of the Latin Cup in 1950 – evaded their grasp until an enigmatic Hungarian manager took the reins, ironically leaving then champions FC Porto whom he had just helped guide to the title. Guttman was a maverick figure, brash and often outspoken, but credited with helping so many clubs throughout his career. 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. Throughout his own career he never lingered with one team for more than three years, and the Benfica role was the longest tenure he served.


The club had taken great leaps under the tutelage of Brazilian Otto Glória who led the side between 1954 and 1959. He raised standards and produced the platform from which other managers could build upon. Scouting was 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 secured two league titles and three Portuguese cups during his tenure before he departed without conquering that final hurdle of European success. He would later return to the club and lead them to the 1968 Final which ended in defeat to Manchester United.

Real Madrid was already building its name during the late 1950s and ‘60s as the leading football club in Europe by winning the first five trophies in Europe’s premier competition. As other clubs sought to wrangle the power from Los Blancos, Barcelona and Benfica emerged as the primary challengers.

And it was fitting that in 1961 this pair participated in the first Final not to feature Real Madrid. The final was held in Bern and Benfica would go onto triumph by a 3-2 margin, without Eusébio, who had only just started to force his way into the first team. This was an all Portuguese international team which contained many great players: alongside the great Eusébio, there was Mário Coluna. A central midfield player of Mozambican descent, who would play more than 350 games for the club and earn upwards of 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, Águas led the line selflessly for the club over 13 seasons and helped to build the base on which the club would secure all its success during the decade. 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 just one season later. Benfica would go on to defeat Madrid 5-3 in the final with the burgeoning superstar Eusébio adding two goals to his already impressive tally for the season. At the final whistle he was warmly embraced by Madrid’s Hungarian striker Ferenc Puskás and the pair swapped shirts before he was 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 effortless cruise there to meet their Iberian rivals in what was, without doubt, their toughest game of the tournament. The 1962 tournament draw saw Benfica having to conquer a number of Europe’s elite sides before ultimately defeating Real Madrid. One classic encounter was the semi-final tie against Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs were led by stars Jimmy Greaves, John White and Dave Mackay and had become the first English club to complete a League and FA Cup double the previous season. Now they were clamouring to be the first British side to triumph on the European stage.

The first leg was hosted in Lisbon at the Estádio da Luz and Benfica triumphed 3-1 roared on by an intimidating 86,000 home crowd. Guttman had prepared his side to go at the opposition from the first kick and Benfica were rewarded for their endeavours with early goals from Simões and José Augusto 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. The scorers 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 but was determined to make amends for the second leg. In an even and closely-fought game which featured a penalty, goals disallowed for both sides and plenty of chances, Spurs could only muster a 2-1 victory. Benfica would carry this momentum forward, triumph in the final and write a new chapter of history that would never be forgotten.


Benfica under Guttman had triumphed in both the European finals in which the club had featured. After securing the second trophy, legend has it that Guttman went to the board to request the bonus that had been agreed upon when he had joined the club. Guttman was denied the money and reputedly ‘cursed’ the club. No-one to this day knows quite what was said but the most popular version suggests: “Not in 100 years from now will Benfica win a European Cup”.

Guttman departed soon afterwards 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 – the latest of many final losses 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 to no avail when Benfica lost their last Champions League final in 1990 to AC Milan. Guttman left a wonderful team and his successors carried on the legacy of success the club had built with another six league titles and three Taça de Portugal trophies during the 60s.

But without their enigmatic Hungarian coach, Benfica could not clinch that elusive third European title, despite reaching three further finals in the 1960s alone. The 1968 final was a case in point of how the curse seemed to have taken hold, psychologically at least. With the game deadlocked late on, Eusébio was presented with a clear chance to score only to see his effort brilliantly saved by Manchester United goalkeeper, Alex Stepney. Manchester United went on to win in extra-time.

As the years passed, no manager though could properly establish himself in the job and Jimmy Hagan was only incumbent during the 1970s to stay for three consecutive seasons. This coaching turnover did not stop Benfica remaining as the most successful club in Portugal however, winning three consecutive league titles and losing only five league games during that run.


Benfica’s most famous player remains Eusébio. Born in Mozambique to an Angolan mother and Mozambican father, the young striker joined Benfica from the claws of city rivals Sporting CP whom he seemed destined to join having played for their feeder club, Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques.

As often with life, only the smallest twist of fate led to a significant change in the fortunes for the two clubs. It was a chance encounter at a barbershop which helped bring the forward to Benfica and the rest, as they say, is history. Guttman was visiting the shop one day when he bumped into an old friend by the name of 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 Benfica manager 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 on 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 while helping his side win three successive domestic titles in 1963, 1964 and 1965.

Eusébio was a marvel: the archetypal modern player. He was astonishingly quick and a skilful dribbler capable of beating his marker and opposing defenders with ease. He was a deadly finisher with his goal return speaking for itself: 473 in competitive games leading him to finish as the top goal scorer in the Primeira Liga no fewer than seven times. To this day Benfica has honoured the legacy of the greats from the 1960s by claiming more domestic titles than any of its rivals, but European glory continues to evade its grasp.



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