The Nomad’s Curse

This post was first written as a contribution for the excellent and unfortunately now innactive The Equaliser. The original post can be found here. The picture above was the one initially chosen by Chris to illustrate the post.

It is afternoon in Vienna, May of 1990. Benfica is scheduled to play the great Milan side of Baresi, Rijkaard, Gullit, van Basten and Sacchi the nest day for the European Cup. A black man reaches a grave and kneels. He murmurs a few words with a light weeping voice. He stands and leaves, with a glance at the grave that mixes anguish and love. The name on the grave is that of Béla Guttmann. The man is called Eusébio da Silva Ferreira. Their paths became irrevocably intertwined in Amsterdam almost 30 years earlier. Eusébio, once called the Black Panther, recalls the images in his mind.

It is minute 65 of the final of the European Cup of 1962. Benfica, the holders of the trophy are awarded a penalty kick. If converted it will put the encarnados in front for the first time in the match after the hattrick from Hungarian genius Puskas gave Real Madrid, the greates team in the history of the game, the lead. There steps up a boy in his teens. His name is Eusébio da Silva Ferreira and until just 18 months earlier he had been playing on dirt fields in the portuguese colonial holding of Mozambique and the streets of its capital, Lourenço Marques.

As he approaches the ball Santamaría, the lengendary goalkeeper of los merengues, approaches him and calls him “Maricón”, sissy. Eusébio, a simple boy with no knowledge of the Spanish language, asks his boyhood idol, Mário Coluna, whom he addresses as Mr. Coluna, what it meant. Coluna tells him with firm kindness to dispatch the ball, score the goal, go to Santamaría and call him “Cabrón”, bastard. Eusébio does so, places his club in front and, just three minutes later, adds another with what would become a signature shot: a bullet, close to the ground, to the corner of the goal.

Within half an hour José Águas, the captain of the side, lifts for the second consecutive time the trophy, thus establishing the águias (eagles) as the new dominant force in Europe after the 5 consecutive years of Real Madrid domination. The side showcases talents as Coluna, the captain José Águas, the phenomenon Eusébio and his fellow teenager Simões, defensive bulwark Germano and giant goalkeeper Costa Pereira. The star of the side, however, is manager Béla Guttmann who, a few days later, demands a bonus and a raise for his feats with the club. Having been denied he leaves the club with a threat that became a curse: «Without me, not even in one hundred years will Benfica be European Champion again».

We are back in 1990. Benfica hold their own against the might of the Italian champions. Just one year earlier they had swatted aside Steaua Bucharest in the final by 4-0. There was fear that the Portuguese club would suffer another rout. On the 68th minute a through ball finds Rijkaard running from deep. One on one with the keeper, he buries it and scores the single goal of the match. During the press conference, Sven-Goran Eriksson, the manager of Benfica, is hailed for not having been trounced. A bit farther away stands Eusébio, again the face of resignation, asking his former manager, Mr. Guttmann, why can’t he rest in peace and release them.

Since the fateful day in Amsterdam in 1962, Benfica had gone to five more finals and lost them all. Three of them still in the 1960’s, a time when the power of Eusébio was at its maximum, being showcased for the whole world to see on the World Cup Finals of 1966 in England, where he scored 9 goals, 4 of them in a one man show against North Korea during one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the tournament, and received the name of Black Panther.

Throughout his career, Eusébio’s course is the course of Benfica. Whenever he is successful, Benfica are successful. Whenever he isn’t, Benfica isn’t. The only exception are the European Cup Finals, when the curse takes effect. In 1990, the pilgrimage to the grave of that football nomad, the austro-hungarian jew who revolutionized Brazilian football and made history with Benfica, was made to request the lifting of the curse. To this day, it is still in effect. Eusébio, now 69, only hopes he will live long enough to pronounce the words «Thank you Mister, now we both can rest».

Note: the scene in the graveyard in Vienna is obviously fictionalized. The visit wasn’t.

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