Béla Guttmann and the barber’s trip that helped Benfica win the European Cup | Football

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Win a major sporting trophy once, and the naysayers will dismiss the success as random luck. Win it twice, and the same people are forced to eat their words. The 1961-62 season was when Benfica’s Béla Guttmann wrote his name in the pantheon of coaching greats.

A chance meeting in the unlikely venue of a barber’s shop, several months before the first European Cup victory, also with Benfica, had paved the way for further success. Guttmann bumped into José Carlos Bauer, a former Brazil international, who was coaching Ferroviária in his native country, and whom he rated as a shrewd judge of the game.

“He greeted me happily, saying they were on a tour [in Lisbon] and they’d soon go to Africa,” recalled Guttmann.

“I told him: ‘Listen to me, old man, if you see a talented player for me, someone who was born in Portugal, keep his name in mind.’ A month after this conversation, I was at the barber’s again, and as if I was telling you a joke, Bauer came in again. ‘What’s up? Have you found anyone for me?’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I saw a black lad in Mozambique … I wanted to get him for myself … but those fools are asking for $20,000 for him!’ ‘What’s the lad called?’ His face was being lathered as he blurted out: ‘Eusébio!’”

Eusébio da Silva Ferreira had been playing for Sporting de Lourenço Marques. Sporting Lisbon regarded their namesake in Mozambique’s capital as their feeder club, and went berserk when they found out that Guttmann had usurped their supposed rights, signing the highly promising striker for their bitter rivals instead.

A Sporting director turned up at Eusébio’s door and offered him 500,000 escudos, a huge sum of money for an 18-year-old, to change his mind. “He put the money on the table and told me that it was mine if I signed for Sporting,” Eusébio recalled. “I told him that it was a low thing to do, that I wasn’t mad and I wasn’t going to sign two contracts.”

Guttmann had stolen a march, and not by sheer luck either. The master networker had spent decades building up his contacts, and one of them had led him to this future star.

He tenaciously held on to his advantage. Eusébio was hidden in Lagos in the Algarve for 12 days for fear that Sporting would try to swoop again. “I sent three bodyguards to hang around him and I told them my orders,” said Guttmann. “Eusébio cannot be left alone, not for a minute, and he can only stay at the Benfica house.”

When Eusébio did emerge for his first Benfica training session in early 1961, Guttmann stood on the sidelines, purring with pleasure at his sly capture, transfixed by Eusébio’s devastating acceleration, explosive shot and ability to glide past opponents. Unable to con-tain himself, he eventually turned to his assistant Fernando Caiado, shouting “O menino é ouro!” (The boy is gold!).

Eusébio made his debut in a domestic friendly match the week before the 1960-61 European Cup final where Benfica beat Barcelona 3-2, scoring a hat-trick. He scored again on his league debut a couple of weeks later, before being named as a substitute against Pelé’s Santos in a close season international tournament in Paris in June 1961.

With his tired team 4–0 down at half-time, Guttmann looked to the bench and called for his new gem. “I sent him on and he scored three goals, all of them from a 20–25 metre distance,” he said.

The next day, the French sports newspaper L’Équipe ignored the result of the match, instead running the headline “Eusébio 3 Pelé 2”.

Guttmann now had his passport to footballing immortality.

He had transformed the Estádio da Luz into an impregnable fortress, and his team into a force that inspired fear throughout the continent of Europe.

If the route to the 1961 final had been relatively straightforward, the hurdles this time round continued to get steeper. In the semi-final came Tottenham Hotspur, who had the previous season become the first team in the 20th century to win the English League and FA Cup double, and who had already taken apart Poland’s Górnik Zabrze and Czechoslovakia’s Dukla Prague.

Guttmann knew he had to be at his absolute best to get his team through, and he didn’t disappoint. The eventual outcome of the tie between these two great sides, a narrow victory for Benfica, owed much to the box of wily tricks he had assembled during 30 long years as a coach throughout the world. His adversary, the relatively inexperienced Bill Nicholson, lost out in the battle of the small details, a fatal defeat in such an evenly matched confrontation.



Béla Guttmann with journalists in London before his Benfica side’s European Cup semi-final second leg against Tottenham. Photograph: Keystone/

Nicholson failed to prepare his team psychologically for the inevitable early onslaught in Lisbon. Goals by Simões and José Augusto put Benfica two up within 20 minutes, before Spurs had even settled into the game. Even though Spurs dominated the second half and Smith got one back, another goal from the inspired José Augusto meant that Benfica were to bring a 3–1 lead to London for the second leg.

A good lead, but one which Guttmann knew could evaporate in just a few minutes of frenzied action at a packed and raucous White Hart Lane, with the home fans electrified by the possibility of their team becoming the first English representative in a European Cup Final.

He did everything in his power to stop that happening. His main weapon was the media. “When I go to the press conference before the game,” José Mourinho once said, “in my mind the game has already started.” “At a press conference you need to come out as the winner,” agrees Alex Ferguson. Football analysts routinely point to such comments as evidence of these coaches’ acute awareness, their ability to sense the subtle influence of media messages on the psychology of players. Béla Guttmann was doing exactly the same thing more than 50 years ago.

A large English press pack were camped at his team’s base at the Park Lane Hotel to cover a game which had captured more public attention in England than any against a foreign team since Hungary’s visit in 1953. To allow his tense players to rest and relax in private, Guttmann’s opening move was to shift the spotlight to himself. He reiterated his intention, first hinted at a few months before, to leave Benfica at the end of the season. As usual, he was less than fully honest about the reasons, which would only become apparent later, claiming that he had taken the team as far as he could and craved a fresh challenge.

Next, he sought to sway the course of the game more directly. He worried that his Portuguese players were insufficiently accustomed to the typically British physicality of players like Dave Mackay and Bobby Smith. “I told the journalists that I expected a bloodbath and they, in turn, went to Poulsen, the Danish referee, and told him Guttmann did not think he was strong enough to handle the match,” he later recounted. “It was an old ploy, but it worked. Poulsen kept a close check on those players, and we got more than our share of free-kicks.”

In those days, the two teams would come out for the start of the game separately. Whereas Guttmann allowed Spurs to come out first in Lisbon, where they were made to wait for their opponents amid the din like gladiators in the colosseum, he made sure his own team would not suffer the same fate in London. “I locked the dressing-room door and only let Benfica go out at the last minute, with the referee and linesmen,” he said. “The game started before the crowd got at us.”

Benfica went one up after 15 minutes at White Hart Lane, with Águas converting a cross from Simões. Smith levelled the score on the night before half-time, and Blanchflower converted a penalty early in the second half. Spurs were just one behind on aggregate, and the crowd scented blood.

Eusebio chose to join Benfica despite a late attempt by Sporting Lisbon to sign him.



Eusebio chose to join Benfica despite a late attempt by Sporting Lisbon to sign him. Photograph: Keystone/

The Benfica team, however, was to show the same resolve that had got them through in Bern against Barcelona. With Costa Pereira making save after save, and Germano once again a rock in the centre of defence, they reached the final by the skin of their teeth, owing a considerable debt of gratitude to their maestro, soon-departing, coach.

Guttmann had decided to leave because of money. Having brought Benfica and Portuguese football unprecedented glory, he believed that the directors of the club should be bending over backwards to keep him, not quibbling over salary demands and minor expenses.

He asked for a salary increase of 65% if Benfica were to win the European Cup a second time, only to be met by a non-committal response. As time drifted on, he was further irritated by an incident after the quarter-final in Nuremberg. His wife, Mariann, had gone with him and the team to Germany – a rare occurrence. Back in Lisbon a few days after the game, Guttmann received a bill from the club – for half the cost of his hotel room.

In spite of his clear brilliance, it seemed that old attitudes were not shifting easily. The club hierarchy still couldn’t quite believe that a coach could be so important, and their penny-pinching reflected a foolish insouciance. “I am the most expensive coach in the world, but looking at my achievements, I’m actually cheap,” Guttmann said a couple of years later.

Just as there was a push factor for him leaving, there was also a pull. There was an attractive offer on the table from Uruguay, his next port of call.

By stubbornly insisting on his value, we can say that Guttmann set in motion an upward ratchet in coaching pay that is continuing to this day. But before his eventual departure from Lisbon, he was to face the biggest single game and greatest challenge of his coaching career.

On 2 May 1962, in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, Benfica took on the mighty Real Madrid in the European Cup final.

Again, Guttmann’s team were underdogs. Real had won the Spanish league. They had annihilated Standard Liège in the semi-final. And their team contained the ageing but still brilliant duo – Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano.

Guttmann’s mastery of human psychology was evident once more. Everything he said before and during the final was calculated to counter the inevitable fear, with one message to the fore: they are history, you are the present, you will win. “Straight after the semi-final against Tottenham, he was building us up, telling us: ‘We are going to be champions again,’” recalls António Simões.

In the dressing room just before the kick-off, he sat his team down, and told them about his experiences at the 1924 Olympics. “I had the opportunity to meet some well-known celebrities, including the Finnish idol, Paavo Nurmi,” he said. “He ran the 5,000 metres in what was regarded then as a superhuman time, 14:31. In the 1960 Olympics, an unknown New Zealander [Murray Halberg] beat his time by almost a minute.” In sport, he was at pains to convey, time does not stand still.

Benfica needed all the self-belief they could muster. They were down early on by two goals, both scored by Puskás. Again, they rallied. Águas got a goal back after Eusébio’s free-kick hit a post. Then Cavém rifled a long-distance shot into the top corner. A frenetic half of football ended with the deadly left foot of Puskás restoring Real’s lead.

Benfica’s goalkeeper, Pereira, collects the ball as Ferenc Puskas, right, looks to steal in during the European Cup final in which the Real Madrid player scored a hat-trick.



Benfica’s goalkeeper, Pereira, collects the ball as Ferenc Puskas, right, looks to steal in during the European Cup final in which the Real Madrid player scored a hat-trick. Photograph: Topham Picturepoint/PA

There was work to do in the dressing room at half-time. Guttmann may be best known for his teams’ attacking talents, but he was no slouch in defensive organisation either. In order to isolate Puskás and deprive him of service, he told the versatile Cavém to stick closely to Di Stéfano.

With tactics out of the way, and less than 15 minutes to play with at the interval, he moved to the mind. He had told his players before the kick-off that they would win against their older opponents if they were only two down at half-time. Now, it turned out, the deficit was only one.

“Guttmann said to us: ‘Gentlemen, we’re going to win, we’re stronger than Real Madrid!’” recalls José Augusto. “The important thing about those words was the belief and conviction with which he said them, and that conviction transferred to us. He gave so much strength because he spoke with such force. It was as if a divine force had entered us!”

Simões echoes his former team-mate’s recollections.

The Greatest Comeback, The Story of Béla Guttmann is published by Biteback Publishing.



The Greatest Comeback, The Story of Béla Guttmann is published by Biteback Publishing. Photograph: Biteback Publishing

“We really had the belief we could win the game. I remember Guttmann in his own special language, a sort of mix of Portuguese and Italian, telling us: ‘Mister, sit down, mister, sit down, Real Madrid tired, Real Madrid tired, Real Madrid old, old, old, they cannot win, Real Madrid cannot run, Di Stéfano dead.’ That moment really struck us.”

After five minutes of the second half, it was 3–3. For the second European Cup final in succession, Coluna had scored a spectacular goal with his weaker right foot. From that moment on, it was to be the Eusébio Show, as irrepressible youth triumphed over ageing experience. Running from his own half past tiring defenders, the so-called Black Pearl waltzed into the Real area and was brought down. Leo Horn pointed to the spot, and Eusébio himself calmly dispatched the penalty.

Five minutes later, it was all over. Eusébio’s deflected shot ended up in the corner of the net to make it 5–3. Real Madrid knew they were beaten. They were gone – tired, old and dead.

Guttmann was carried off the pitch by his players. At the winners’ banquet that night, Guttmann was in his element, sharing memories at a Hungarian-speaking table. How satisfied and content he must have felt, the 63-year-old two-time European Cup winner, chatting the night away with friends and colleagues from his now illustrious career. Some guests at the banquet approached Guttmann and begged him to stay in Lisbon. But angered by the directors’ intransigence and parsimony, and with the world at his feet, he was having none of it. With a wave and a curse, he was gone.

This is an edited extract from The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide To Football Glory, the story of Béla Guttman, by David Bolchover. It is published by Biteback Publishing on 18 May



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