There was a time when it was a sport rather than a merely a business. The scene was Wembley Stadium, on the twenty-ninth of May 1968. In Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring was in full effect. Just a few weeks previously, Dr Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated in Memphis, whilst both Paris and London groaned under the weight of student protest against the establishment and the Vietnam war. A global summer of political tumult lay ahead. Professional football, meanwhile, trundled on, but serendipity had ensured that this year’s European Cup final would be played in London, at the venue which, less than two years earlier, had played host to the host nation winning the World Cup. And now, for the first time, an English club would be playing in the final of this competition.
The benefit of hindsight might now allow us to believe that there was something written in the stars which determined that Manchester United would win the 1968 European Cup. This year was, after all, the tenth anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, which had torn a gaping hole in one of the finest European club sides of the era and has since provided football historians with one of its great ‘what if’ questions – how close might the Busby Babes have coming to becoming the champions of Europe had death not intervened so cruelly when it did? A decade on, Matt Busby was still in charge of the club, while Bobby Charlton remained the engine through which much of the team’s most creative football was channelled and defender Bill Foulkes, another survivor of the tragedy, remained a rock at centre-half. And history records that fate did smile upon Manchester United with a four-one win after extra time, but the the statistics themselves only tell a part of the story of that evening at Wembley.
The difference between success and failure at the top end of professional football, however, can be defined by the thinnest of margins and the outcome of this match came to hinge on one moment as the clock ticked down. Eusebio had already hit the Manchester United crossbar when Charlton, but of course (who else could it be?), gave Manchester United the lead with eight minutes of the second half played with a glanced header, but Benfica cancelled that goal out with a low shot across goal from Jaime Graça and as the players started to wilt under the balmy heat of a humid late spring evening, a further thirty minutes of energy-sapping football seemed likely to lay ahead.
As the match reached its closing stages, though, a golden chance suddenly presented itself to Benfica. It could hardly be said that Eusebio was an unknown quantity. He had already played in two European Cup finals in 1962 and 1963, winning one and losing one but scoring in both matches, and two years earlier in 1966 he had been one of the stars of the World Cup finals in England, finishing the tournament as its leading scorer with nine goals, four of which came during a spectacular performance against North Korea in the quarter-finals at Goodison Park in a match which saw Portugal come from three down to win by five goals to three. Although narrowly beaten by England in the semi-finals, on another day Portugal – who were making their first ever appearance in the finals of the competition – might well have won that match, such was the quality of their team.
Back at Wembley two years later, and with the clock ticking down, Eusebio broke free and suddenly found himself between two defenders and one on one with the Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney. Often a player who preferred power over placement, Eusebio fired a shot like a cannonball which practically knocked Stepney off his feet, but somehow the goalkeeper clung onto the shot and the chance passed. Eusebio’s reaction to this was to seek to offer a handshake to Stepney, and when this was brushed aside, to offer a small round of applause instead. The consummate striker was also the consummate sportsman.
It was Benfica who tired in extra-time and Manchester United won comfortably, with perhaps the most iconic moment of a dramatic evening coming when George Best danced around the Benfica goalkeeper to roll the ball in for United’s second goal. At the full time whistle, the television cameras focused, unsurprisingly, on Busby, Charlton and Foulkes, the Munich survivors who took a decade to finally live out what many had believed should have been the destiny of the team that died ten years earlier. But that moment in the closing stages of normal time still sticks in the memory. One of the greatest strikers in the world of his era, at the end of an exhausting season, taking the time to praise an opposing goalkeeper for the save of a lifetime was unusual enough in 1968. It seems pretty close to unthinkable that such a scene could happen now.
With that moment came end of an era. Benfica, who had at that point already won the European Cup twice, would never quite be the force that they had been in the 1960s again. Portugal would only qualify for the World Cup finals again once until 2002. And Manchester United became the first English champions of Europe, writing a critical chapter in the history of a club which, despite its difficulties on the pitch so far this season, has become one of football’s global juggernauts. More broadly speaking, the Prague Spring was brutally extinguished by Soviet tanks in the summer of 1968, whilst several American cities erupted into rioting, most notably in Chicago during that summer’s Democratic party convention.
Eusebio, meanwhile, would finish his Benfica career with eleven league titles, one European Cup winners medal and five Portuguese Cups in fifteen seasons between 1960 and 1975. He was the top scorer in Portugal seven times, scoring a total of four hundred and twenty-eight goals in four hundred and thirty matches throughout his career. With his passing, we do not merely mourn the passing of a great footballer. We mark the passing of great ambassador for Portuguese football. We mark the passing of – considering that Eusebio himself came from Mozambique and played for Portugal as a naturalised player – one of the first African global superstar players. And perhaps more than anything else, we mark the passing of a gentleman. In many respects, they do not make them like him any more.
You can see highlights of the 1966 World Cup match between North Korea aand Portugal here.
You can see highlights of the 1968 European Cup final between Benfica and Manchester United by clicking here.
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