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Apr 5, 2012

Eagles fly to London

In 1961-62, Benfica were the team to beat. European Cup winners the previous year, boss Bela Guttmann had lifted them to the top of the game and they were favourites to take home the trophy again. On April 5, they travelled to London for the first time to face the best team in England - Bill Nicholson's double-winning Tottenham - and lost in the semi-finals. However, the Portuguese side still progressed on aggregate having won 3-1 in the first-leg and then beat Real Madrid in a thrilling final to claim their second European Cup in as many seasons.

Benfica's rise to become one of the greatest teams of all time had been a long and arduous journey. The club had an illustrious history in the Portuguese domestic league but had never won a continental competition before 1960, although the building of the famous Estadio De Luz in 1954, coupled with the ambition and increasing wealth of president Mauricio Vieira de Brito, put them on a new footing at the turn of the decade.

De Brito had managed to lure the great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann to the club in 1959, prising him from champions and rivals FC Porto. As historian David Goldblatt asserts, it was a decision that would shape everything the club would become: "Guttmann brought new levels of sophistication and attention to detail in the club's preparation and organisation. He transformed the training regime of the squad and introduced them to the tactical and positional innovations of Hungarian football. Where WM [a 3-2-2-3 formation devised by Herbert Chapman in the 1920s] or even more antiquated systems had been the norm, Benfica began to look like a modern football team with a flat back four and attacking midfielders."

The 1950s had seen Benfica fail to make a mark on Europe, but under Guttmann's guidance they would win the European Cup within only two years. Having won the league in his first year in charge, the 1960-61 season saw Benfica storm through the opening rounds and score at an average of over three goals a game. In what was described as a 'fierce and furious' final against Barcelona in Berne, they triumphed 3-2 and held off some intense Spanish attacks to be crowned champions, with goalscoring veteran captain Jose Aguas lifting the trophy - the first player not from Real Madrid to do so.

Establishing themselves as a power in European football once more, the side still lacked something: a spark, a character and, above all, a world-class finisher who could help them to the next level. The stories over how Guttmann first met young Mozambican forward Eusebio da Silva Ferreira are numerous, but whether he signed the player based on information he picked up while getting a haircut or not is largely irrelevant - the important fact was that he beat Sporting to his signature in 1960.

The player who is viewed as the greatest ever to play for Portugal felt at home immediately. Indeed, the nucleus of the side that had beaten Barcelona in the final was of African descent, with goalkeeper Costa Pereira, inside-forwards Joaquim Santana and Mario Coluna and captain Aguas all from the continent. Ahead of the 1961-62 season, Eusebio was introduced to the side against Pele's Santos in the Paris Tournament. The 19-year-old netted a hat-trick, even outshining the Brazilian legend; his impact would have far reaching implications for the Portuguese side and he quickly became a fixture in the first-team.

Benfica, chasing back-to-back European titles, had struggled away from home but had been carried through to the semi-finals by some stunning home form. FC Austria held them to a 1-1 draw, but lost 5-1 in Lisbon in the first round, while Benfica then fell 3-1 away at Nurnburg only to turn the tie around with a commanding 6-0 win at home.

For their part, fellow semi-finalists Tottenham were the English team to beat. Having won the league and FA Cup double under Bill Nicholson, they had begun their journey into the European Cup with a 4-2 defeat to Polish side Gornik Zabrze but turned it around 8-1 at White Hart Lane. They then saw off Feyenoord and Dukla Prague to eventually advance to meet the current champions.

After the draw was made, The Guardian's headline suggested that the 'Winners may well take European Cup' - making light of an ageing Real Madrid side who would surely beat Standard Liege - while a Tottenham-focused report by David Gray read: "A match against Benfica can almost be considered a match against Portugal, for the Lisbon club provide most of the members of the Portuguese national team... Ten members of the side are internationals and Eusebio, their inside right, is one of the most brilliant and dangerous forwards in Europe."

The Czech newspapers had been effusive in their praise of Tottenham after dispatching Dukla, maintaining that they were "the best side in Europe" and that all their success was "high and richly deserved". Ceskoslovensky Sport argued that Spurs' main threat was not the brilliant technique of the players but rather the ''fighting spirit, which bowed to no-one".

As he revealed in the Daily Express days before the game, Guttmann was fearful of Dave Mackay, whom he described as "their inspiration, a great worker, very tough, very strong. He is the true leader of the team. Stop him and you are halfway to victory". But the coach had a plan and the paper remarkably laid out exactly how he was going to beat Nicholson's men the day before the game.

"Tottenham are a good side, but you can beat them and this is how you will do it," he said in a teamtalk that was transcribed. "Move the ball quick to the wingers, who will centre the ball low and fast. They are certain to use the same defensive game as they used against Dukla. They will pack their defence and there will be close man-to-man marking. That must not depress you. We can win if Jose Augusto is on the right wing... has he not already scored 12 goals? ... and Rafael Simeos, on our left move swiftly. But remember, this is a team job. I want no flashy solos."

The 3-1 first-leg thrashing they gave out suggested that Guttmann's plan had worked. Simeos scored once and Augusto twice, but Desmond Hackett wrote in the Daily Express that it was ''heads high and shoulders back" for Spurs, who could still make the final. The Guardian reported that ''Tottenham's spirit remained unbroken'' despite the defeat, which could have been averted if goals from Jimmy Greaves and then Bobby Smith had not been ruled out for questionable offside decisions.

Ahead of the return leg, Guttmann slammed his players for a lack of confidence as they stumbled to a 1-1 draw with Porto. On the trip to London, he turned the air blue and the players were said to have arrived ''tired, travel-worn and grim-faced'' after their ticking off at 20,000ft. A war of words over a White Hart Lane pitch that Guttmann described as ''one big puddle'' only added to the tension, although it hardly showed once the game began.

In front of 64,000, the early jitters of the Eagles were quickly dispelled as Eusebio ran the show and fed Jose Aguas to score after 15 minutes, leaving Tottenham 4-1 down on aggregate. Tottenham's fightback came largely through Mackay, who ''played like a man possessed by a demon" and hit the post, while another Greaves goal was ruled out for offside. Soon after it was back on, as Smith finally broke down the excellent defending of Germano de Figueiredo to lob goalkeeper Pereira for the equaliser.

Benfica - "strong, imaginative and tremendously versatile", according to The Guardian's Eric Todd - continued to threaten and Aguas also hit a bar, while Tottenham were looking increasingly unlikely to break through. However, it was 2-1 just after the break as Coluna barged over John White in the box and Danny Blanchflower stepped up to slot the penalty home.

With one goal needed to give Spurs another chance in a replay, Nicholson urged them to attack as ''Benfica had seemingly lost all interest in scoring another goal". The rearguard action, though, was impressive, as Germano (one time with the aid of his arm, not spotted by the referee) and Pereira held firm to deny wave after wave of attack and Mackay's last-gasp header flew within inches of salvation. As the effort grazed the top of the bar, Tottenham's fans knew their European dream was over and Benfica deservedly advanced to the final.

Despite the hosts' sorrow, Spurs chairman Fred Wale told the Daily Express after the game: "I think you know that we are a club that doesn't boast too much, but we're going to be all right next season. And then we're going to win the European Cup." They didn't, but then neither did their Portuguese conquerors and, according to legend, Guttmann, who resigned in a row over pay after the final, left the club uttering the curse: "Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever win a European Cup."

What happened next? Benfica won the trophy in one of the most thrilling European Cup finals ever as they beat Real Madrid 5-3. They reached three finals in the next six years but were not able to get another win and, although they won seven titles and two cups in quick succession, they have never won another European title. Tottenham's next match in the competition was 48 years later.

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