O Glorioso Benfica: Stolen from Africa

This is part 3 of a 3 part series

Read Part 1 : European Cup: Early Iberian Successes

Read Part 2 : La Época Dorada del Real Madrid: 1955-60

As incredible as Real Madrid’s five consecutive trophies were, it was inevitable that they would be toppled. Amongst an extremely competitive playing field, were an impressive Hamburg side, inspired by Uwe Seeler, arch-rivals Barcelona with their skilful Hungarian imports and the newly-crowned 1959/60 champions of England, Harry Potts’ Burnley side. In order to bolster his squad Potts made his first cash signing for the Clarets before the 1959/60 season. He splashed out £5,000 to secure the services of Alex Elder. He wouldn’t make a cash signing again for eight years. Anyway, I digress. The side that stepped up to the plate and took the European crown were the leading club from the other Iberian capital, Lisbon.

Benfica became the second side from the Peninsula to make their mark on the European Cup, quickly establishing themselves on the international stage as a formidable opponent. To this day the Portuguese side boast one of the highest memberships of any club in the world, and enjoy a huge national and international fanbase on the basis of their all-conquering twice European Champions side. The Lisbon club went on to contest five European Cup finals in the 1960s (more than any other club in that period, Internazionale and Real Madrid having played in three).

eusebio guttmann

Eusebio pictured with Bela Guttman and Mário Coluna (right)

Their success was built upon a number of factors, not least the forward-thinking tactical acumen of Bela Guttmann. If Real were astute in bringing Hungary’s finest player to their club in the late fifties, Benfica’s decision to hire (arguably) Hungary’s most innovative coach, Guttman was certainly no less influential.

Guttmann, a Jewish Hungarian, acquired his ideas during a playing career that began and finished predictably with two of the top Jewish clubs of the time (Budapest’s MTK Hungaria and Hakoah Vienna). In between two spells with the Vienna club Guttman even played in the American Soccer league turning out for the Brooklyn Wanderers and the New York Giants in the twenties, and winning honours with both.

Guttmann’s career would really take off, however, as a manager. Guttman’s arduous and nomadic apprenticeship saw him manage (in this order) Hakoah Vienna, Enschede (now FC Twente), Hakoah Vienna (again), Újpest, Vasas, Ciocanul Bucharest, Újpest (again), Kispest, Padova, Triestina, Quilmes (Argentina), Peñarol (Uruguay), APOEL Nicosia, Milan, Vicenza, Honvéd, São Paulo and Porto from 1933 to 1959, in between fleeing Nazi persecution before and during the Second World War.

Clearly not one to get too romantically attached to one place, Guttmann employed a synthesis of styles carefully honed during his frequent travels to trial and successfully incorporate the 4-2-4 system that would successfully conquer Europe for Benfica.

A formidable front-line of central strikers Eusébio da Silva Ferreira and José Águas, flanked by José Augusto and António José Simões would terrorise the defences of Europe during the 1960s.

After the 1962 triumph, Guttmann became all too acutely aware of his value to the operation, duly beginning negotiations to up his salary to a level commensurate with his value and contribution to the club. Guttman, however, was not noted for his modesty. In fact he could be seen as an early precursor to the great Brian Clough or José Mourinho in the egomaniac stakes.

Benfica’s hierarchy, operating in a nationalistic environment, were never likely to grant Guttmann his wish, and as the Hungarian’s history suggests, he was happy to move on once again to pastures new. Upon leaving Guttmann felt fit to offer his skills as a clairvoyant in assessing ‘os encarnados’ chances for the forthcoming century in the following infamous statement:

Nos próximos 100 anos, o Benfica não voltará a ser campeão europeu (In the next 100 years Benfica won’t be the champions of Europe again)

As is well known and documented, to date, this has proved true with Benfica ending as losing finalists in 1963, 1965, 1966, 1988 and 1990 (not forgetting 1983 and 2013 of course) respectively.

If the wily Guttman’s accrued tactical nous was pivotal in Benfica’s triumph then the influence of the geo-political factors that allowed the Lisbon club to pluck the finest talent from the countries ‘overseas provinces’, specifically Angola and Mozambique, must also be acknowledged and analysed.

As most of the colonial powers retreated from empire in the aftermath of World War II, António de Oliveira Salazar clung on to Portugal’s splintered empire by means of rebranding its subjugated colonies as a single national state spread across continents.

Salazar’s one-party corporatist authoritarian Estado Novo (new state) was fiercely criticised by the international community. The regime’s brutal repression of civil liberties and political freedom gave rise to decades of closed isolationism, poverty and repression for the Portuguese people.

Indeed, up until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 the Estado Novo ensured that Portugal pursued an integralist path privileging monarchism, conservatism, steep hierarchical structure and Roman Catholicism and systematically marginalising all its opponents ranging from Anti-Colonialist movements,  Trade Unionism, Marxism, Womens’ Movements, Social Democracy, Secularism, Progressivism or any other pluralist tendency with the potential to encourage diversity or social equality.

Logically enough, any such authoritarian regime could not function without a sinister underhand secret service with the sole objective of protecting the regime through a combination of terror tactics and victimising known organised opposition. The PIDE (Policia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado – International and Defence of State Police) took charge of ruthlessly eliminating ideological opponents of the regime. Political prisoners were taken to Tarrafal (Cape Verde) where they were routinely torture and often never seen again..

Against this backdrop the (economically and mentally) impoverished Portuguese masses needed an outlet for their frustrations and some escapism from the horror of everyday life. As a result of the political travails, the successes achieved by Benfica were a release valve for the entire nation, not only in the capital Lisbon. This explains, in large part, a phenomenon that is clearly reflected in the incredible number of Benfiquistas both nationally and internationally today. If one club can be said to have embodied Portugal socially and culturally, it could only be Benfica.

The socio-political situation in Portugal was inseparable from the rise of Benfica. Just a couple of months after even Conservative leader Harold Macmillan had begrudgingly conceded the death knell of English colonialism with his Cape Town ‘wind of change’ speech, Benfica were fielding a side featuring a spine of players plucked from Portuguese East Africa (modern-day Mozambique) and Portuguese Angola.

Beyond dispute is the fact that the Salazar regime left Portugal as a pariah state in Western Europe. Right-wing dictatorship in Spain and Portugal comfortably outlasted its equivalents in Germany and Italy, and inevitably left a stronger imprint on Spanish and Portuguese Society respectively.

Portugal’s long colonial history had left behind a mixed legacy, not only at home but also abroad. Vasco Da Gama’s voyages during what Europeans call the Age of Discovery were eulogised in Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) by Luís Vaz de Camões and Portugal’s place in history was secured. Portuguese colonial history differed fundamentally from that of other European powers as they were more prone to miscigenação (miscegenation).

According to eminent Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre this was, in great part, down to the historical miscegenation in Portugal, dating back to the Moors and the Romans. Freyre spoke of a Lusotropicalism in the following idealistic terms:

‘Given the unique cultural and racial background of metropolitan Portugal, Portuguese explorers and colonizers demonstrated a special ability – found among no other people in the world – to adapt to tropical lands and peoples’

The Portuguese colonizer, basically poor and humble, did not have the exploitive motivations of his counterpart from the more industrialized countries in Europe. Consequently, he immediately entered into cordial relations with non-European populations he met in the tropics. This is clearly demonstrated through Portugal’s initial contacts with the Bakongo Kingdom in the latter part of the fifteenth century. The ultimate proof of the absence of racism among the Portuguese, however, is found in Brazil, whose large and socially prominent mestiço population is living testimony to the freedom of social and sexual intercourse between Portuguese and non-Europeans’

Freyre’s romanticised multi-racial theories were long ignored by the Portuguese regime, as they touched on truths inconvenient to a fascist regime’s ideology.

In the early 1950s, however, looking for justification for a prolonged Portuguese presence in Africa, a simplified and decidedly nationalistic slant on Lusotropicalism , re-branded as Portugalidade (Portugueseness), was opportunistically appropriated by the regime and the Estatuto da Indigena (Statute for Indigenous peoples) was quickly rushed out to formalise the rights of indigenous people in Portugal’s colonies. Hitherto they were neither recognised with citizenship nor benefitted from any civil or legal rights. Even after this, as will be seen later, the rights of those in the ‘provinces’ were still significantly inferior to those of metropolitan Portuguese, as one might expect in a Fascist dictatorship.

The Machievelian attempt to re-brand Portugal’s empire as one big happy family may have convinced a domestic audience with access to a limited amount of information, but in Africa, in the wake of several successful independence movements in neighbouring countries, a revolutionary consciousness was beginning to develop.

In Guinea-Bissau revolutionary socialist Amilcar Cabral was stirring the masses towards liberation. Cabral and many of his freewheeling milieu spoke of a battle not against Portugal and its people, but against Portuguese colonialism. Inspired by leaders advocating Pan-Africanism like Ghanaian independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, the seeds were sown for a long battle for independence.

The early sixties also provided a literary angle to the revolutionary struggle. In Lourenço Marques (the Portuguese name for Maputo), Mozambican writer Luis Bernardo Honwana wrote Nós Matámos o Cão-Tinhoso ,1964 (We killed the mangy dog), a subtle metaphorical social critique which belies its rather simple title.

The ‘mangy dog’ represents the decadent system of Portuguese Colonialism. Honwana’s collection of short-stories exposes the crude racial hierarchy operating in Portuguese colonial society. The characters represent their respective positions in the divisive social hierarchy, namely branco (white), assimilado (assimilated), indígena (indigenous) and mestiço (mixed race), all with their attendant rights and status. Honwana depicts a Portuguese Colonialism worlds apart from the idealism of Freyre, which so suited the needs of the dictatorship back in Portugal.


Luis Bernardo Honwana, an influential writer and FRELIMO militant

A number of Portuguese African writers began to articulate a multitude of issues ranging from the treatment of women to the need to change the economic and political systems within the countries. Agostinho Neto was so popular that he met Che Guevara and became Angola’s first post-independence leader. Paulina Chiziane became the first Mozambican woman to publish a novel. Jose Craiverinha became attached to the Négritude movement that had gathered pace in Francophone Africa.

However, significantly from a footballing perspective, the statute for indigenous peoples allowed the assimilation of ‘culturally Europeanised’ indigenous people. The idea of the mixed race pluricontinental state free from prejudice, seems rather undermined by the premise that in order to reach the highest cultural level, it is necessary to Europeanise culturally, but this is the perverse logic of a fascist dictatorship. In any case this law opened the door for a number of Portuguese Africa’s finest footballers to ply their trade in Europe, a move that would prove pivotal in Benfica’s emergence as a power of European football.

This thinly veiled prolongation of colonialism meant that Portuguese teams were able to draw upon (read: steal) from a large catchment area of untapped African talent, a situation that has only intensified rather than disappeared in the supposedly post-colonial world we inhabit today.

One of the great pioneer African players in European football was Larbi Ben Barek. The Maghrebi superstar was hugely successful in both France and Spain enjoying memorable spells with Marseille and Atletico Madrid among others. It’s worth noting that the introduction of African born players to Portuguese players pre-dates Eusebio by some time.

One of the first ‘culturally Europeanised’ players, Sebastião Lucas da Fonseca, better known as Matateu, was the first import of note. Spotted playing in his native Lourenço Marques (modern-day Maputo). The man they called a oitava maravilha do mundo (the eighth wonder of the world), was a prolific goalscorer in Portuguese football, scoring 218 times in 289 outings for Belenenses and twice securing the prestigious Bola da Prata (Silver Ball) awarded to the leading goalscorer in Portuguese Football. He also represented the Portuguese national team, again scoring 13 in 27 goals, proving his prowess on the international stage. This successful foray into Portuguese East Africa encouraged other Portuguese clubs to cast an eye over the best their colonies (or overseas provinces) could offer.

The eventual emergence of Eusebio in African football can be traced back to Hilário, (not Chelsea’s 3rd goalkeeper but rather Hilário Rosário da Conceição) who offered to arrange a trial for Eusebio with Sporting Clube de Portugal (Sporting Lisbon), where he had been playing since 1959.


Salazar and Franco

Hilario knew of Eusebio through the Sporting Lourenço Marques club. Eusébio, naturally, was flattered and very much interested in the move. When he arrived in Lisbon it quickly became apparent that Sporting were not the only team interested. Legend has it the young Mozambican fled to a quiet village in the Algarve while the ensuing battle for his signature unravelled.

Why he instead signed for Benfica, is subject to intense argument and counter-argument, insult and counter-insult. What is for sure, is that Sporting’s loss was Benfica’s gain. The legendary marksman made an instant impact at the Estádio da Luz where he would score an incredible 462 goals in 437 appearances. His legend was made, however, on the European stage, where Benfica would reach two consecutive finals in 1961 and 1962.

In the 1961 final Barcelona, with two prominent members of the Aranycsapat (Kocsis and Czibor) at their disposal, were unable to contain a Benfica side with a beautiful balance of guile, brute force and stamina. Mário Coluna, fittingly, would score the decisive goal, adding to an unfortunate own goal attributed to Barcelona goalkeeper and captain Antoni Ramallets and an early equaliser from Benfica skipper José Águas. The victory sparked wild celebrations in Lisbon, as the Portuguese side announced their arrival on the international scene.

A year later, in the final, against Real, a classic of European Football was witnessed. The five times champions, battled their way to the final with a number of survivors from the great 1950s squad, including Puskas, Di Stefano, Santamaria and Gento. A clash between the five times winners and the defending champions, appeared mouth-watering, and wouldn’t let down an expectant public.

The man from Mafalala (a suburb of Maputo which would go on to be a flashpoint in the nascent struggle for Mozambican Independence) struck twice at Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium to deny Real’s veteran hitman Ferenc Puskas who had scored a first half hat-trick for the Madrid club. Benfica toppled Real 5-3 in a classic topsy-turvy final,

On both occasions Benfica were unable to crown their European victory with an Intercontinental Cup victory, falling to the Peñarol of Alberto Spencer in 1961 and the Santos of Pelé and Coutinho  in 1962.

Eusebio, in fact, first figured on Pelé’s radar when Santos met Benfica in 1961. The Brazilians ran out 6-3 winners thanks to the brilliance of Coutinho and Pelé, but Benfica’s young substitute caught the eye, grabbing a 20 minute hat-trick after coming off the bench.

His debut in Portugal was also marked with a hat-trick. Luckily, such was his quality, he continued to dazzle, eventually gaining the title ‘O Rei (the King). Not a bad title for a black African in a fascist dictatorship.

Of course, one man does not a team make. The African contingent in the Benfica side also included the not inconsiderable presence of Mario Coluna in the midfield, Alberto da Costa Pereira in goal (plucked from Clube Ferroviário de Lourenço-Marques, the capital’s railway team) and the Angolans wing-forward José Águas and Joaquim Santana, who both hail from the port town of Lobito.

Added to that, the tricky, diminutive António Simões, who was known in Portuguese football circles as the giant gnome. Simões is currently assistant to Carlos Queiroz, who looks on course to take the Iranian national team to Brazil 2014.

Coluna was known as ‘o monstrous sagrado’ (the sacred monster – doesn’t translate so well). His physical presence, stamina and strength made him (literally) an enormous asset in midfield. Comfortably transcending the narrow stereotype of the modern African midfielder, Coluna possessed a rare poise in the middle of the field. His elegant control of the ball gave himself time to rifle in powerful long-range efforts or pick out dangerous passes to play in a team-mate.

Coluna’s significance doesn’t end with his on-field ability though. The gentle giant from Mozambique personifies the international, universal appeal of Benfica. During the prolonged struggle for Mozambican Independence, Coluna joined FRELIMO (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique – Mozambican Liberation Front) to fight against the Portuguese. He speaks about his experience:

“Convidaram-me para ser membro do Partido FRELIMO e deputado da Assembleia da República. Aceitei. Atribuíram-me a ‘Ordem Eduardo Mondlane do Terceiro Grau’, a mais alta condecoração do Estado, mas não se recordam em devolver o meu prédio, que comprei com dinheiro de futebol” (They called me up into FRELIMO. I accepted, they gave me the Third Grade Eduardo Mondlane Order, which is the highest state decoration, but they didn’t remember to return me my house. The one I bought with the money I earned playing football) Mário Coluna

Coluna’s remarkable life saw him move from being twice Champion of Europe living in a right-wing dictatorship to being a relatively wealthy citizen in a fledgling independent nation swinging dramatically to the left under staunch Marxist Samora Michel. Mozambique became a strong ally with Cuba, and the country that he left was no longer recognisable to him.

“Nasci em Magude e depois vim para Lourenço Marques (hoje Maputo) aos 4 anos. Quero fazer chegar ao meu Governo que voltei a Moçambique porque nasci aqui. Sou bem-vindo no Benfica de Portugal com direito à casa e dinheiro, mas preferi voltar para minha terra” (I was born in Magude, and then I moved to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) at 4 years old. I want my government to know I returned to Mozambique because I was born here. I am welcome at Benfica with rights to a house and with money, but I preferred to return to my homeland.

Coluna however, remains in Mozambique, loyal to his homeland. In sharp contrast, Eusebio, pragmatically and diplomatically, has opted for the relative comfort of life in Portugal.

Eusebio is, beyond any reasonable doubt, Portugal’s greatest ever player, not only because he was part of the great Benfica side that secured Portugal’s first European Cup triumphs but also because he brought his form onto the national stage. The recent pretender Ronaldo, of course, has also reached a World Cup Semi Final, but he has not lit up a World Cup in the way that Eusebio did in England in 1966.

Eusebio took the Golden Boot for his 9 goals, including 4 in a memorable comeback from 3-0 down in the Quarter Final against North Korea. He also won the heart of the Portuguese public in the Jogo das Lágrimas (Game of the Tears) against England in 1966. The young striker broke down in a Gazza-esque outburst at the end of the game, clearly displaying his loyalty to the motherland. To this day the Portuguese complain bitterly at the eleventh-hour change of venue which allowed England to remain in London and meant Portugal had to travel down from Liverpool to face their opponents.

Incidentally, in the same game, in an act of conspicuously un-Corinthian spirit, Jackie Charlton handled the ball on the line (in much the same way as Luis Suarez did in South Africa) but was greeted by a shamelessly unrepentant ‘oh Jackie Charlton had to do that’ from Kenneth Wolstenholme. Any possibility of controversy was buried by the fact that Eusebio (unlike Asamoah Gyan) comfortably tucked away the resulting penalty, but the incident was symptomatic of the English double-standards that reigned under Stanley Rous, and continue in our parochial mentality to this day.

Portugal, of course,  would enjoy a revenge of sorts, deservedly edging out England in consecutive Penalty Shoot-Outs after 2-2 draws in 2004 and 2006.

The great Portuguese returned to Wembley in 1968 to face Manchester United. In the dying minutes, with the sides deadlocked at 1-1, the deadly finisher par-excellence uncharacteristically hammered his shot directly at Alex Stepney, who gratefully collected, allowing United to re-group for Extra Time, where they ran out comfortable 4-1 winners thanks to the genius of Best, Charlton and Law. More characteristically, the assimilated Portuguese gentleman generously congratulated the Englishman on the save, ensuring a continuance of jolly Anglo-Portuguese relations, an enduring diplomatic alliance, which began with the Windsor Treaty of 1386.

When the great Real Madrid and Benfica sides of the early days of the European Cup are remembered, two of the three best remembered players in the Madrid side hail from outside of Europe (and others besides), whilst the Benfica side boasted four or five key players that were born in Africa. Without these key additions it is dubious whether the Iberian Peninsula could have denied the rest of the continent a success in the opening seven years of the tournament.

Whilst there is much to celebrate and admire in the respective histories of Real Madrid and Benfica it is important that the overarching themes of the era are not lost in the annals of history. At a time when the legacy of Civil War, dictatorship and colonialism is hotly contested, it is important that a balanced picture of history, and by extension footballing history, emerges.

Recently Madrid has seen the unveiling of Margaret Thatcher Street and the removal of a monument celebrating the role of International Brigade Volunteers on the Republican side. Knowing the pettiness of Spanish Politics it is not inconceivable these two moves be reversed once again the next time the left takes power.

What is surely more important is to be able to view history in a detached balance way, without airbrushing inconvenient truths out, such as the manifest racism towards the great majority of people in Portugal’s colonies at the time of Benfica’s rise. The fact that Coluna fought against Portugal in his country’s war for independence makes him no less of a hero at the Estádio da Luz. It is simply historical fact. The Benfica team were aided greatly by the intransigent undemocratic leadership of that era, though the country surely suffered greatly.

The importation and integration of players from ex-colonies has long been an advantage for Spanish and Portuguese clubs, and remains so today, owing to linguistic and cultural common ground with the world’s second great footballing continent. The accompanying ease of gaining dual nationality for players from ex-colonies has served them well in comparison to. English clubs, for example, who have been unable to benefit to the same extent as each of their significant colonies has, if not actively rejected football, then certainly embraced other sports to a greater degree, and thus haven’t proved fertile ground for the importation of players. Even with the insane wealth of Manchester City, it is unlikely that, given the choice, the next Neymar or Messi would opt for England over Mediterranean Europe. Allied to this is the role of tactical innovation and re-invention of the sides that has best allowed the players from other continents to express themselves.

Real Madrid and Benfica can thank, in no small part, their early European victories for their hegemonic position in their respective countries. Their aloof, aristocratic position in the hierarchy, if anything, will probably be protected, rather than challenged by the disingenuous FFP initiative. It stands to reason that the status quo will only be protected by a rule that allows the biggest clubs to continue spending their immense gains from gate receipts and merchandising and the smaller clubs to struggle by on their meagre earnings. The hugely unequal distribution of television monies on the Iberian Peninsula can only exacerbate this, meaning the only clubs under any threat are the nouveau riche who are spending considerably beyond their means, and don’t have the guaranteed revenue streams of the traditional clubs.

Regarding Africa and Latin America, the plundering of the best talent ensures that national leagues in those continents are blocked from reaching anything like the standard of those in Europe and means that the countries’ only chance of putting one over on their ex-colonial masters is in international competition. This fact, in large part, explains the disparity in passion for the national team between African and Latin American countries, where it represents the only chance to put one over on the old world, to Europe, where international football is increasingly viewed as a nuisance, particularly in countries where the national side is mired in mediocrity, that is only magnified by the presence of the world’s finest talent in the club league.

Of course, there is never a shortage of people happy to criticise our larger football clubs for their exploitation of the flagrant inequalities that govern the common migration patterns we see with players today. Realistically, however, the problem starts and ends where football and society intersect. The existence of gross infrastructural and economic inequalities are not the fault of football clubs, but rather generations of politicians, people and companies with their cronyism, clientelism, corruption and exploitation.  An intransigent, corrupt, bloated organisation like FIFA doesn’t help, but the real problems lie with our governments. Until they are tackled clubs like Benfica and Real Madrid will continue to sweep up the best talent from wherever they are allowed to by the socio-economic conditions.

5 thoughts on “O Glorioso Benfica: Stolen from Africa

  1. Very enjoyable article. I grew up in Angola, when it was under Portuguese rule.
    I find it interesting that the current Portuguese senior and junior national teams have a number of players who have heritage from Angola, Cape Verde or Guinea Bissau but not many with ties from Mozambique (unless I’ve searched poorly)

  2. thanks liam. i think you’re right ref mozambique, though i’d be lying if i said i had much knowledge of the junior sides coming through. what cape verde have done in recent times is astonishing really, given the population is only half a million or so. growing up in angola must have been interesting….

    • Hi, nice and very thorough article, I’m not however thrilled with the word choice for the title. I find it demeaning both for the players, club and countries involved.
      The truth is that regardless of the social injustices they and others have suffered, sports-wise it was a win-win situation. The world gained some exceptional players, which careers would have been dimmed or even never take place.
      Still today many players from former colonial territories evolve in Portugal, as you point out, and again these are players that would have minor international careers and visibility should they stay at or go back to their original motherland. And we are talking about people who would still be allowed to live in Portugal, regardless of their careers, so its not even as if they were allured, least of all stolen. I believe that “grafted from Africa” would better describe the situation.
      We should be thankful for Coluna, Eusebio, Zidane and many others, which legacy should not be tainted. They are giant figures that made 2 countries proud and the world awe.

  3. Pingback: La Época Dorada del Real Madrid: 1955-60 | Café Futebol

  4. Pingback: European Cup: Early Iberian Successes | Café Futebol

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