Pitchside Europe

How the great Eusebio struck fear into the heart of Italian football

Eusebio

Only the other day, I was reading the biography that Gianni Rivera, the AC Milan great, wrote with the journalist Oreste del Buono in 1966. In it, he talks at length about the European Cup final he played against Benfica at Wembley three years earlier.

I mention it because it meant that the exploits of Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, the respect and awe he was held in, were fresh in my mind when the news broke on Sunday morning that he had passed away aged 71.

Milan feared him. The whole continent did. In 1962, the first final Eusébio played in, he clinched it for Benfica, retaining the trophy for them. Another legend, Ferenc Puskás, had put Real Madrid 2-0 then 3-2 up in Amsterdam. Mário Coluna equalised, but it was Eusébio who gave Benfica the lead for the first time from the penalty spot before putting the game beyond the Spanish giants with another goal five minutes later.

He was just 20.

Stopping him, so the thinking went, would be the difference between Milan winning the first of seven European Cups and Benfica making it three in a row. The task of engaging the player known as ‘The Black Panther’ fell to Víctor Benítez. Too often, though, in the early stages, he let Eusébio get away from him. In the 19th minute of the first half the Benfica striker put the holders in front. Rivera asked himself: “Is it all over?”

After retrieving the ball for a goal-kick, Milan captain Cesare Maldini and goalkeeper Giorgio Ghezzi were seen in conversation, the topic of discussion once again: how are we going to stop Eusébio? Plan A hadn’t worked. It was onto Plan B.

They agreed that Benítez, tired and not as aggressive as usual, should swap positions with the in-form Giovanni Trapattoni, who was wasted marking the less-threatening José Fontas. Not only did Trap shackle Eusébio, he released Milan by finding Dino Sani in midfield through whom his team began to exert more influence on the match.

As decisive, if not more so, was Gino Pivatelli’s crunching tackle on Coluna, his side’s playmaker. Ringing out like a shot just before the hour-mark, in the absence of substitutions it reduced Benfica to 10 men. Milan incidentally had levelled the score moments earlier, Rivera setting up Jose Altafini as he did so again soon afterwards to make it 2-1.

That was the first of three finals that Eusébio would lose. Those defeats did nothing to diminish the his aura. His reputation, as we’ll see, was instead only enhanced. And besides, from '62 onwards Benfica were playing under a hex in the European Cup.

A lot has been made of the so-called curse former coach Bela Guttmann had placed on Benfica following his dismissal at the end of the previous season: "Not in a 100 years will they win another European Cup." Eusébio himself even prayed for it to be lifted at Guttmann’s graveside ahead of the final in Vienna in 1990. Alas, Benfica were beaten again by Milan, the Arrigo Sacchi vintage.

After '63 the next final Eusébio himself was involved in as a player came in 1965 against Helenio Herrera’s Inter, a team he could have played for. Owner Angelo Moratti had attempted to sign him the previous year, only for Portugal’s dictator Antonio Salazar to veto the move. Undeterred, he’d try again before the World Cup in England in 1966 where Eusébio would finish top scorer. This time Moratti thought he’d got his man.

In an interview with Guerin Sportivo not so long ago, Eusébio revealed he’d signed a contract and had even chosen a house in Milan. Unfortunately for Interisti, he never got to live in it. Italy’s humiliating elimination from the World Cup at the hands of Korea led the FIGC to close the door to foreign players until 1980. The deal collapsed.

And so while in England many of the tributes to Eusébio have focused on the sporting round of applause he gave Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney during the 1968 final, in Italy, as an aside to celebrating his wonderful career, they have concentrated on this question of what if? Might Inter have overcome Celtic in 1967 with Eusébio in their ranks and in Lisbon of all cities too? Questions like these are a projection of a desire to have seen him in Serie A, one that’s undoubtedly shared in other leagues.

They say that if you want to know the measure of a man, you simply count his friends. In football, you count their admirers. Eusébio had them all over the world.

James Horncastle - @JamesHorncastle