Portuguese football, the unexpected guest


Vamos para longe, e a luz que vem grande, vem menos grande.

Fernando Pessoa

All things Portuguese own a special blend. At the far West of Europe, Portugal is a special place, an unlikely part of Iberia, never united to Spain and never subject to annexing wars. Like estranged relatives, Spanish and Portuguese stand shoulder-to-shoulder, each staring at different horizons.

The Portuguese are not a product of Europe. They are a product of the sea. Travelers for necessity, the necessity to escape a narrow piece of land between the mountain and the Atlantic, the Portuguese turn their face westward, whereas the other European nations stare at themselves with anger, often losing time in bloody wars, from which Portugal, due to its geographical position, is excluded.

The Portuguese language itself, though descending from Latin, holds a unique musicality. The sentences go one after the other as it was an only music. There is no space between the words. It is one sound, elegant, elusive, that the Portuguese people can’t help reproducing in other languages.

Such a peculiar place could not develop a football like any other. Portuguese football mixes melancholy and class, the physical strength of the people from the islands and from Africa, with an introverted soul, that gave life to fado and to the strange talents of Fernando Pessoa and his many heteronyms.

Compared to other European countries, Portuguese football does not seem to care about such earthly things as the necessity to attack, to defend, to show muscles. Whereas the English show a continuous, often chaotic vitality, the Italians are obsessed with the need to defend and the French and the Spanish put in place their vanity, Portuguese football is a shy version of all these, having often an incredible talent, but hesitating, almost feeling arrogant if they ever had to show their real value.

Historically, Portugal does not have scorers. Portuguese players love too much the ball, they love their thought, meddling in the middle, wasting time, and disregard the art of scoring, as though that was not important.

Great midfielders, a bit too inclined to hold the ball in their feet. Great vision of the game, capable to easily integrate in teams thanks to a friendly predisposition of spirit, the other European countries always underestimated the Portuguese, until Benfica put the Lusitania country on the map in 1961.

Benfica represented the birth of a new decade, after Real Madrid had dominated the previous 5 editions of the Champion’s Cup. People didn’t know them, they did not figure in the great rivalries of continental Europe. Maybe a bit against Spain, but not really.

Therefore, when Benfica rose to predominance, few knew about Portuguese football, but all the others had to learn quickly. And the name they had to learn, was that of a young Mozambican who combined technical and physical characteristics unseen before: Eusebio.

Eusebio’s name in the history of Portuguese football is matched only by the one of Cristiano Ronaldo. Fast, tall, with an incredible technique and a modern football mind, Eusebio dominated European Football for almost a decade. A flagbearer of Benfica, the player who embodies the values of the club, the conscience, Eusebio brought for the first time in Europe an African champion, a new way of thinking and living football.

And Portugal was the perfect door to his rising. A strange colonialism, the Portuguese one, not so imperialistic. The Portuguese established marketplaces, not necessarily colonies. They extended on the coast, but did not get deep in the African land. Only in Brazil they conquered a vast country, only to lose it in the XIX century. In Africa, their colonies resisted until 1975, but kept deep ties with the country that once dominated them.

Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, constantly exchanged players. The Portuguese understood before all the European countries the potential of the African players and quickly integrated them in their play.

After all, Fernando Pessoa, Portugal iconic and most famous writer, grew up in Africa, in South Africa, exactly, where he learnt his perfect English. There he also developed his first heteronyms, his many personalities which he called his “inexistent fellows”. Pessoa as a writer had many souls, all of which contained in one person: the epicurean Ricardo Reis, the futuristic Alvaro De Campos, the master Alberto Caeiro, and many others.

Portuguese football rose to prominence by assembling different souls, that the Portuguese personality was able to contain thanks to its natural disposition to openness, capable to absorb, to welcome, and to let express all the different personalities it was able to get in the years.

That is why Portuguese football is unique in Europe, it’s like no one else. It’s elegant, it’s open, it’s white and black, it seems to be slow and bored, then hits like a snake while you think it’s absent.

And that is why we did not see it coming, focused as we were on Central Europe, while the novelty was coming from the sea, when we were distracted and Portugese football stormed the continent, bringing, first, the inner freedom of the 60s on the football fields.

Like many other teams of the time, in Benfica’s history a Hungarian played a key role in making the team emerge. Bela Guttman, a man whose history would take several volumes, was hired by Benfica after a successful career as a player, even in the USA, and as a coach all over Europe.

Virtually every successful team of the 50s and 60s has a bit of Hungarian in itself. Puskas in Real Madrid, Kubala in Barcelona, Erbstein in the “grande Torino” that won 5 titles in Italy soon after the war, Kocsis and Csibor, that played alongside Kubala in Barcelona.

A direct descendant of the unique intellectual milieu of the Austrian Empire, Hungarian football showed the world a different kind of play. Its teams and players, in a modern version of the Champions League, would have won everything in the 50s. Talent, teamwork, a modernity of thought, made Hungarian football the most important in the world.

Unfortunately, the cold war put Hungary in the area of influence of Sovietic Union, and its most important athletes decided to leave the country, often in adventurous ways. This exodus spread the knowledge of Hungarian football all over the world.

Bel Guttman himself, before Benfica, coached in Brazil, where he created the 4-2.4 scheme. In this way he could exploit the Brazilian players’ skills, so much that it became the frame with which Brazil won the World Cup in 1958.

Benfica played the 1961 final against Barcelona and the 1962 one against Real Madrid.

When they found a scorer, though, they became almost unstoppable.

Eusebio, a product of Mozambique, Portugal’s only real colony in Africa, was a force of nature for Benfica. He led the team to their second Champion’s Cup, being too young for the first one, and remained in the forefront of the team for a decade.