by João Sousa André
It is high noon in Vienna, May of 1990. Benfica is scheduled to play the great Milan side of Baresi, Rijkaard, Gullit, van Basten and Sacchi the following day for the European Cup. A man kneels beside a gravestone and murmurs a few words with a light, weeping voice. He stands and leaves with a glance that combines both anguish and love.
The name on the gravestone is that of Béla Guttmann. The weeping man goes by the name of Eusébio da Silva Ferreira. Their paths had become irrevocably intertwined in Amsterdam almost thirty years earlier. Eusébio, the player once called the ‘Black Panther’, recalls the images in his mind.
It is the 65th minute of the 1962 European Cup final. Benfica, the holders of the trophy are awarded a penalty kick. If converted it will put the encarnados in front for the first time in the match after a hat-trick from Hungarian genius Puskas had given Real Madrid, the greatest team in the history of the game, the lead. There steps up a boy in his teens. His name is Eusébio da Silva Ferreira and just eighteen months earlier he had been playing on the dirt fields of Lourenço Marques, capital city of the Portuguese colony of Mozambique.
As he approaches the ball Santamaría, the legendary goalkeeper of Los Merengues, approaches him and calls him “Maricón”, sissy. Eusébio, a simple boy with no knowledge of the Spanish language, asks his boyhood idol, Mário Coluna, whom he addresses as Mr. Coluna, what it meant. Coluna tells him with firm kindness to dispatch the ball, score the goal, go to Santamaría and call him “Cabrón”, bastard. Eusébio does so, places his club in front and, just three minutes later, adds another with what would become a signature shot: a bullet, close to the ground, straight into the corner of the goal.
Within half an hour José Águas, the captain of the side, lifts the European Cup for the second consecutive time, thus establishing the águias (Eagles) as the new dominant force in Europe after the five consecutive years of Real Madrid domination. The side showcased talents such as Coluna, the captain José Águas, the phenomenon Eusébio and his fellow teenager Simões, defensive bulwark Germano and giant goalkeeper Costa Pereira. They were by far and away the finest team on the continent.
The star of the side, however, was manager Béla Guttmann who, a few days later, would demand a bonus and a raise for his feats with the club. After being denied he left the club with a threat that became an infamous curse: “Without me, not even in one hundred years will Benfica be European Champion again.”
We are back in 1990. Benfica hold their own against the might of the Italian champions, this being the Milan side which swatted aside Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in the final just a year earlier. There were fears that the Portuguese club would suffer another rout and, in the 68th minute, a through ball finds Frank Rijkaard running from deep. One-on-one with the ‘keeper, he buries it and in doing so scores the only goal of the game.
During the post-match press conference, Sven-Goran Eriksson, the manager of Benfica, is hailed for not having been trounced. In the background stands Eusébio, his face once again resigned to painful defeat, his thoughts turning to his former manager, Mr. Guttmann, and why can’t he rest in peace and release them from the binds of his curse.
Since the fateful day in Amsterdam in 1962, Benfica have reached five more European Cup finals and lost them all. Three of them came during the 1960’s, a time when Eusébio was at the peak of his powers, his talents being showcased for the whole world to see during the World Cup finals of 1966 where he scored nine goals, four of them in a one man show against North Korea during one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the tournament.
Throughout his career, Eusébio’s career has been mirrored by Benfica. Whenever he is successful, Benfica are successful. Whenever he isn’t, Benfica isn’t. The only exceptions are the European Cup finals when the “curse” takes effect. In 1990, the pilgrimage to the grave of that football nomad, the Austro-Hungarian Jew who revolutionized Brazilian football and made history with Benfica, was made to request the lifting of the curse.
To this day, it is still in effect. Eusébio, now 69-years-old, only hopes he will live long enough to pronounce the words “Thank you Mister, now we both can rest.”
Note: The scene in the graveyard in Vienna has been embellished for dramatic effect but the visit did take place.
Read more of João’s work on his blog, Estação Central.