Celtic’s European Cup: Understanding Lisbon

by | May 24, 2017

Just watch the game. You’ll understand.

Even though Celtic completed an unbeaten Scottish Premiership season last Sunday, the focus was far less on the 34 wins and four draws this season than on one win 50 years ago. Likewise, the previous Thursday, when Celtic ran lanes through a disinterested Partick Thistle, in front of a stand-full of fans with banners and flags replicating those carried and waved in Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional on May 25th 1967.

But if you watch the game, you’ll understand.

If you aren’t a Celtic fan, “Lisbon Lions” fatigue possibly set in ages ago. Some old Rangers fans might have had it since 1967, as Celtic’s win overshadowed their European Cup Winners’ Cup Final 1-0 extra-time defeat, six days later, to a Bayern Munich side containing Sepp Maier, Gerd Muller and Franz Beckenbauer. Hell, sometimes even I sigh when I see another Lions tribute or article…and I’m writing another one.

But the commemoration “industry” in general has mushroomed in the intervening quarter-century. I was in Celtic’s London No.1 Supporters Club around the time of the 25th anniversary in 1992. And there was nothing like this.

However, if you watch the game, you’ll understand.

The sides thrillingly drew 3-3 in the 2014/15 Europa League’s last-32. But, by definition, that was no 1967. (The sides’ goalless AGGREGATE draw after 210 minutes in 1972’s European Cup quarter-final was no 1967, either. But it was no Europa League last-32 either). Celtic’s exit, 4-3 on aggregate after a late San Siro goal, showed how far they had fallen. Inter’s exit to Wolfsburg in the next round showed they had fallen too.

So, does constant recall of 1967 simply mask modern inadequacies? Fans likening the Lions to Brendan Rodgers’ “invincibles” are usually dismissed by critics whose “nan” could apparently win the Scottish title. The truth, as ever, lies between the two. But it isn’t easy to justify such a celebration of glory so far back in time and so far away in quality?

Until you watch the game. Then you’ll understand.

There can be few “Lisbon” tales untold. They retain considerable delight as much for the storytellers’ likeability as the stories themselves. I defy anyone, Celtic fan or no, NOT to smile when Bertie Auld gets going.

It can seem like minute-by-minute coverage from Celtic clinching the league with a 2-2 draw at Ibrox to singing “it’s a grand old team to play for” in the Estadio Nacional tunnel, “a move that visibly shocked their opponents,” according to Tom Campbell and Pat Woods wonderful co-authored history of Celtic’s first century, “The Glory and the Dream.”

But when you watch the game, you understand.

The “revisionist” history says Inter were “visibly shocked” long before the final, and injury-hit beyond hope. The long-accepted narrative was established by the BBC match commentary; Celtic’s attacking flair rescuing the European Cup from the grim shackles of Inter’s infamous “catenaccio” (door-bolt) system, as perfected by genius/notorious coach Helenio Herrera, which made them Cup winners in 1964 and 1965.

Much of the revisionism, including Edward Carter’s magnificent Herrera tribute on this very site last week, is based on Inter’s inability to break their own defensive shackles. They used Brazilian winger Jair da Costa as a speedy outlet. But he and “midfield general,” Luis ‘no, not THAT one’ Suarez were missing. Thus, Inter could only play half-catenaccio, which was, in truth, a system of ruthless defence AND ruthless counter-attack.

An ironic modern comparable is Gaelic Football’s “blanket defence,” massed ranks behind the ball, forcing turnovers and breaking at speed. Exhilarating at its VERY best, as practiced by Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland champions. But spirit-draining when practised by lesser sides. And Donegal’s Herrera? Jim McGuinness, current Development squad coach with…Celtic.

This revisionism is hotly-disputed. Not least because Jair played only 15 times that season, and Celtic’s top-scorer, Joe McBride, was top-scorer despite having been injured since December. But could all the revisionism be top-trumped?

Watch the game. You’ll understand.

I would love Sky Sports to repeat the “Monday Night Football” (MNF) treatment given to England’s World Cup Final win as soon as the current year rhymed, in pictures, with 1966. Especially if neither Jamie Carragher nor Gary Neville had seen the whole match before.

They would gasp at the stats. Celtic’s possession percentage out-Barcelona-ing Barcelona. THIRTY-ONE shots, twelve on target to Inter’s three, all on-target but including a penalty. More than the Chelsea/Watford circus with which MNF closed 2016/17. And that’s without counting Celtic’s dozen-or-so blocked efforts, which some stats included…as if the game’s legend needed enhancing.

There might be quibbles at the pace of the game. When Celtic fans sing “In the heat of Lisbon,” they mean it. The game kicked-off at 5.30 in a curiously-designed open stadium, which left the pitch entirely un-shadowed until the final quarter. Celtic were quick, but not by modern standards. And while Inter’s usual tempo was slow, slow, quick, quick, slow, they lacked stages three and four.

But half-time wouldn’t be enough to analyse the first-half, even without Ray Winstone “gambling “responsibly” during Sky’s interminable ad-breaks. A recently-timed a Sky half-time analysis lasted six minutes 54 seconds. That wouldn’t have analysed the first six minutes 54 seconds of the match.

By then, both sides had had good chances. Inter’s Sandro Mazzola headed Renato Cappellini’s cross straight at Celtic keeper Ronnie Simpson from seven yards, a real “really should have scored” moment. While Jimmy Johnstone tested Inter’s man-in-black custodian Giuliani Sarti with a low drive and a header, from one of his trademark “prodigious leaps,” which Sarti acrobatically tipped over.

“Johnstone is the boy that can take the European Cup away from them,” Wolstenholme noted approvingly. But Inter went ahead with Mazzola sent Simpson to the wrong post code with his seventh-minute penalty, an undisputable award after Jim Craig’s nudge on Cappellini.

“Listen to the Celtic fans…and the Portuguese fans,” Wolstenholme suggested as Mazzola ran up. Inter had yawn-inducingly beaten Benfica 1-0 AT HOME to win the 1965 European Cup, despite Benfica losing their keeper to injury in those pre-substitute days and playing with ten men and their centre-half in goal. And Wolstenholme presumed all Estadio Nacional neutrals were embittered, grudge-bearing Benfiquistas.

Some neutrals probably were turned by what followed. Celtic pressed…and pressed…and only stopped for half-time. Initially, they were, as per cliché, “mainly restricted to efforts from distance.” However, the elegantly-influential Bertie Auld shook the crossbar with an 11th-minute left-footer. And Sarti defied physics with a full-stretch left-handed stop from Tommy Gemmell’s magnificent right-foot volley.

Wolstenholme’s commentary was…ahem…’of its day,’ emphasising how foreigners do things differently. “Nine metres, as they say on the continent,” he noted as Celtic retreated at an Inter free-kick. And Scottish commentary legend Archie McPherson’s VERY occasional interjections (if only Robbie Savage said as little) were scarcely better, claiming that Inter had taken the lead “in a sneaky fashion.”

But when Wolstenholme said “they don’t play like that in Italy,” as Celtic swarmed forward for the 94th time, it was true and born of pure admiration. Celtic hadn’t quite got it right before half-time. And Wolstenholme’s periodical insistence that Simpson had had next-to-nothing to do airbrushed Mazzola’s early chance out of history.

Yet when Simpson audaciously back-heeled the ball away from Mazzola on 40 minutes, it was the busiest he had been since the penalty. And when Simpson was later fouled going for a high ball, Wolstenholme wasn’t entirely wrong to suggest it was “the first time an Inter forward has got close enough to foul him.”

As the teams trooped off for the interval, McPherson began the legend. “Heartbreaking game for all those who cherish attacking football,” he bemoaned. “Inter are the very negation of this. Celtic aren’t just taking on Inter, they are trying to end the ice age of defensive European football.” Cross, he was.

Within two minutes of the re-start, Gemmell’s deflected shot had Wolstenholme screeching “It’s a goal, it’s a goal,” as Sarti inelegantly scrambled to prevent an equaliser. Only ten months previously, Wolstenholme was the BBC’s World Cup final commentator. He was thus well-versed in calling goals when the ball was on the line. Sarti made it, just. And this time, the linesman got it right.

“Ah well,” Wolstenholme understated magnificently, not exactly echoing the thoughts of nearly half of Glasgow. McPherson thought it was over the line, “but then I’m a wee bit prejudiced.” He was more prescient in forecasting that Inter’s defence “regardless of their reputation, could crack.”

Celtic’s frustrations were showing, however. Off the field, possibly, as Wolstenholme referenced “a bit of trouble on the terracing,” which, if it was Celtic fans, was left on the cutting-room floor by editors of the legend. And on the field. In those pre-card days, commentators had to guess whether players had been booked. Gemmell probably was and certainly should have been, for an undisguised kick up Gianfranco Bedin’s catenaccio.

Inter seemed more casual, Sarti leaning against a goalpost as a Bobby Lennox shot whistled not that far wide. Yet his top blew when a photographer kicked a Murdoch shot straight back into play, denying Sarti the chance to “manage” a few seconds off the clock. “Sarti, of course, wants to see the ball go 50 yards behind the goal every time,” noted Wolstenholme, correctly.

Then, on 62 minutes, history changed. However hard Gemmell had kicked Bedin immediately beforehand, it was nothing on the right-foot leathering he gave Jim Craig’s pass. The shot arched photogenically flew high past a statue-esque Sarti. And Wolstenholme wasn’t jumping any guns by saying “that could be the goal that wins it for Celtic.”

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill once told Gemmell “that was some goal in the European Cup Final, to which, “without a second of a pause,” he replied “which one, son?” as he also scored in Celtic’s 1970 final loss to Dutch side Feyenoord. But he knew well that this one was the “which one” O’Neill meant.

“Now they’ve got to come out and do a spot of attacking,” Wolstenholme said, his tone implying that he knew they couldn’t. The traffic was even more one-way now. Gemmell, the by-now nominal left-back, was particularly shot-happy. And Sarti enhanced his genuine man-of-the-match claims with some brilliant saves, mostly from Bobby Murdoch, before hauling down Bobby Lennox by the post as Lennox reached for a ball inching towards an unguarded goal.

“There’ll be no extra-time, the way Celtic are playing,” Wolstenholme asserted, on 80 minutes, correctly. Again. Five minutes later, Gemmell’s legs appeared to swivel Elvis Presley-style before he set up Murdoch’s zillionth effort on goal. This one might not have gone in either. But Stevie Chalmers, who narrowly missed a Gemmell shot from about the same place fifteen minutes earlier, diverted the ball into the net to Sarti’s left, the keeper bereft of the energy and conviction to credibly appeal for offside.

Wolstenholme noted that “Inter Milan are looking around for a towel to throw into the ring,” adding “At long last, attacking football has triumphed over the deadly disease of defensive football,” as, ironically, Celtic took the ball to the corner flag late on (there was no injury/stoppage time), their first defensive move of the evening.

The on-field celebrations caught on-camera were a mix of the bizarre and the more-bizarre. Gemmell was resplendent in a bobble hat and Inter shirt, while what looked like John Clark angrily fought off souvenir-hungry crowds, lucky to be able to prove that Scottish men wear something under their football shorts if not their kilts. Wolstenholme was trying to “find a team to give this Cup to,” as players were caught in the fans’ great-natured pitch invasion.

We are now at peak Lisbon Lion-commemoration. For those who want it to be over, it soon will be. Those who want to continue commemorating can and will.

Everyone else? Just watch the game. You’ll understand.

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