Great Reputations: Portugal 1966 – the alternative champions

ASIDE from the image of Bobby Moore holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft, one of the abiding memories of the 1966 World Cup is of Eusébio in full flight, the leading scorer and the most exciting player of the tournament. If you asked most people who would have been worthy champions if England had not won, the answer would undoubtedly be Portugal, who came through a tough group and captivated the English public with their all-out attacking football.

If England were the official world champions, then Portugal were arguably the most popular alternative. Eusébio was well known to international football afficianados before the World Cup, thanks to his role in Benfica’s European exploits. The Lisbon Eagles had won the European Cup in 1961 and 1962, briefly assuming the crown from Real Madrid as the continent’s top side.

Eusébio arrived at Benfica almost by accident. The club’s manager, Bela Guttmann was having a haircut in Lisbon and the coach of Brazil’s São Paulo told him about an exciting young player from Africa he had come across. Guttmann, ever the opportunist, sought him out and signed him – it was none other than the fresh-faced Eusébio, who was signed for the equivalent of € 2,000.

Portugal’s Eusebio gives an impromptu pitchside interview after emerging from the tunnel. Portugal v North Korea, July 1966

In the second of Benfica’s European finals, Benfica beat Real Madrid 5-3 in Amsterdam and Eusébio scored twice. The team also included António Simões, Mário Coluna and José Augusto, all of whom would play their part in the 1966 World Cup. But the jewel in the crown was Eusébio, a 20 year-old forward from the Portuguese colony of Mozambique.

By 1966, Benfica had lost their crown, falling victims to the hard-nosed and industrialised methods of Italy’s catenaccio experts from Milan. In 1963, AC Milan beat Benfica at Wembley in the final and two years later, Inter won 1-0 in the San Siro. Although Eusébio was joint top scorer in the competition in 1965-66, he was overshadowed by the emerging George Best, who had knocked Benfica out of the competition at the quarter-final stage.


Portugal had never qualified for the World Cup finals before 1966. In the qualifying competition, they were drawn in a group containing Czechoslavakia, Romania and Turkey. They won their first four games with Eusébio netting five goals in the first three, including a hat-trick against Turkey in a 5-1 win. While the Czechs, Turks and Romanians harmed their own chances by beating each other, a 0-0 draw in Porto was enough to send Portugal through to England, finishing top with nine points from six games.

Nobody really saw them as contenders even though they had the advantage of being able to call on talent from their colonies. Almost half the Portuguese team was from Angola or Mozambique.  Portugal were placed in pot three in the draw for the finals, which meant they were destined for a challenging group. Brazil, the holders, Hungary (built around their 1964 Olympic gold medallists) and Bulgaria represented 1966’s own “group of death”. The smart money was not heading towards the Iberian peninsula, despite the presence of Eusébio.

Brazil were not the team of 1962, their squad included Djalma Santos (37), Garrincha (32), Zito (33) and Gilmar (35). Pelé, at 25, was in his prime, but he was also a target for the bruising and methodical Europeans. Brazil, despite winning in Europe in 1958, were a little uncomfortable when they arrived in England and were wary of how European football had evolved in recent years. They were far more cautious than their winning teams of 1958 and 1962.

Some people saw Eusébio as the heir to Pelé’s throne and by the end of the tournament, the Santos forward was being written-off and the football world was singing “the king is dead, long live the King” in praise of the Benfica talisman.

But Portugal, managed by Brazilian Otto Gloria, were more than just Eusébio, although his individual contribution has possibly only been bettered by Diego Maradona in 1986 for Argentina. At the time, Portugal was one of western Europe’s poorest countries and it was also under the rule of a dictatorial regime. Football was an escape for the people.

Portugal kicked-off their campaign with a 3-1 win against Hungary at Old Trafford. Eusébio didn’t score and ended the game with his head bandaged. Portugal scored in the first minute through José Augusto, an easy header from a corner that caught Hungary napping. There was no turning back as Augusto scored again, the beneficiary of a dreadful blunder by Hungary keeper Szentmihalyi, and José Torres headed a third. In between, Ferenc Bene scored for the Olympic champions.

Before Portugal’s next game, against Bulgaria, Brazil had been beaten by Hungary, opening up the group and putting enormous pressure on the holders, who would have to win their last game – and win well – or face going home red-faced to Rio. Portugal won 3-0 with Eusébio getting on the scoresheet.

The meeting between Portugal and Brazil was a pivotal moment in the 1966 World Cup. Not only would it define Portugal’s own credentials, but Brazil’s departure would help clear the path for the host nation, England. Portugal were winning friends in Manchester with six goals in two games, but the meeting with Brazil, who were racing to get Pelé fit, who had received brutal treatment in the first group game against Bulgaria and had struggled to shrug off his injury. If Pelé was missing, Brazil would be psychologically ill-prepared to face a vibrant Portugal – that was the consensus.

Hungarian goalkeeper Antal Szentmihalyi (left) dives but misses the cross which is then headed into the net by Portuguese forward Jose Augusto (centre). Portugal v Hungary, July 1966.

Class and steel

Brazil had spun into a panic, made nine changes from the team that lost to Hungary, including seven players who had not appeared before in the competition.

But Eusébio was in glorious form against Brazil, scoring twice and demonstrating his power, agility and purpose. He also created Portugal’s first goal for António Simões. Eusébio’s second goal, Portugal’s third, was a venomous strike from an acute angle that forced commentators to gasp in admiration. Brazil were beaten 3-1 and Portugal were now being tipped as credible winners of the Jules Rimet Trophy.

Yet Portugal also showed they possessed a hard, cynical side to their nature, with João Morais chopping down Pelé with, to quote Brian Glanville in his seminal work on the World Cup, “a brutal, inexplicable double foul”. Morais went unpunished, which underlined the weakness of referee George McCabe, and the agricultural treatment dished out to Pelé forced him to declare he would never again play in a World Cup. “Football stopped being an art, stopped drawing the crowds by its skills, instead it became an actual war,” was how Pelé described 1966. The Brazilian legend even threatened to quit the game.

If Portugal had shown their class, as well as their steel, the other team that had captured hearts and minds were North Korea, who had shocked the Italians with a 1-0 win at Ayresome Park, catapulting Pak Doo Ik into football folklore. The two countries would meet in the quarter-final at Everton’s Goodison Park and Portugal were overwhelming favourites. In cup-tie fashion, the militaristic Koreans went 3-0 up inside 25 minutes. Portugal stayed composed and by the 60thminute, they were 4-3 ahead and Eusébio had scored all four, including two penalties. “Portugal had shown themselves as sound in temperament as in technique and Eusébio stood in what, until a few days before, had been Pelé’s place,” said John Arlott in his report of the game.

Class had told, but the diminutive Koreans left Liverpool with the crowd chanting their names. Portugal, meanwhile, were bound for Wembley, thanks to a tweak in the schedule, to face hosts England. Sir Alf Ramsey employed Nobby Stiles as Eusébio’s marker. Bobby Charlton said: “Nobby was handed the job of containing the force and talent of a player who was moving towards the zenith of his powers.”

Charlton himself scored twice for England and Ramsey’s team won 2-1, Eusébio netted a very late penalty. The boy from Mozambique was distraught at the final whistle, his tears pre-dating Paul Gascoigne’s semi-final outburst by 24 years. Eusébio remembered, “I was really sad and asked ‘lord, what have I done to deserve this?’.”

Portugal won the third and fourth place play-off and Eusébio, the competition’s leading scorer with nine goals, was named in the all-star team of 1966, along with Vicente and Mário Coluna. But this was not the start of a dynasty, not a signal that a golden era was underway. Eusébio himself became as much as a target as Pelé but remained with Benfica, despite the constant offers from Italy and Spain. Benfica reached another European Cup final in 1968, losing to Manchester United at Wembley. Portugal failed to qualify for the 1968 European Nations Cup knockout stages and then surprisingly missed-out on Mexico 1970 in a group that featured Czechoslavakia, Hungary and Denmark. They would not qualify again for the competition until 1986.

The best teams do not always win World Cups. There are some very obvious “nearly men” – Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974, Brazil 1982. Portugal 1966 and Eusébio, the black panther, the European Pelé, were not too far behind.

Photos: PA








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