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 Atlético 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.

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.

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 in the 1962 European Cup Final 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 final, to retain the trophy they had won in another classic 3-2 victory over Barcelona in Bern 12 months earlier.

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.

On both occasions Benfica were unable to crown their European victory with an Interncontinental 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 Jose Aguas 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 stamina and strength were a huge asset in midfield as was his sheer physical presence. Moving away from 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 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. Eusebio, pragmatically and diplomatically, has opted for the relative comfort of life in Portugal.

Eusebio, beyond any reasonable doubt, is 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. 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 comfortably tucked away the resulting penalty, but the incident was symptomatic of the double-standards that reigned under Stanley Rous, and continue to this day.

Portugal 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 boasts four or five key players from 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, the ease of gaining dual nationality for players from ex-colonies etc. English clubs 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 not 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. The aloof, aristocratic hegemony of the traditional powers from that era, if anything, will be protected by the disingenuous FFP initiative, as 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 theirs. 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.

Regarding Africa and Latin America, the plundering of the best talent prevents national leagues 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. The passion generated by national sides in Africa and Latin America lies in sharp contrast to the prevailing European idea, that watching elite European clubs has superseded international competition as a footballing spectacle. This may be the case, but the appeal of national teams will always be strong in the developing world, as international games provide a rare glimpse of their stolen stars.

By Mark Biram

Benfica biography part one

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona