Heartbreak again for Benfica on Wednesday night as two fluffed penalties by Rodrigo and Óscar Cardozo cost them the penalty shoot-out in the Europa League final, their second consecutive final defeat in the competition. As Águias coach Jorge Jesús might have thundered that his side was the better one and deserved to win, but it’s hard to begrudge Sevilla their victory. Even though they were on the back-foot for long stretches of the 120 minutes, they carved out a fair number of chances on the counter-attack themselves, with Croatian playmaker Ivan Rakitić majestic in the middle of the park, and Colombian Carlos Bacca could well have won the match for them outright in extra time when he shot a bit too hastily with the goal to Oblak’s right gaping in front of him. The composure with which the Andalusians approached the penalty shoot-out also gave the lie to the old saw that penalties are a lottery –– nine times out of ten, it is the mentally stronger team that wins, and, after two hours, that was Sevilla on Wednesday. Unai Emery’s men, despite being in financial turmoil, have now capped off the club’s most successful period since the 1950s, having won the UEFA Cup/Europa League three times and the Copa del Rey twice since 2006.
But what of Benfica? The defeat in Turin was undoubtedly disappointing but the Lisbon giants have already sewn up a 33rd Portuguese title, the League Cup and face Rio Ave (whom they already beat 2-0 to win the League Cup) in the Taça de Portugal final on Sunday. When I was at the Estadio da Luz for the Europa League semi-final first leg against Juventus, friends and other Benfica fans were all saying that, once the league was in the bag, anything else was a bonus extra. Being top dog at home is what really counts but it hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that Benfica have lost eight European finals since becoming the first team to wrestle the Champions Cup off Real Madrid in 1961 and 1962.
The story goes that the Hungarian manager who led them to those two triumphs, Béla Guttmann, put a curse on the club when his demands for a bonus and a new contract were not met. More specifically, he said that no Portuguese team would again be European champions twice and that Benfica would never win a European competition again for 100 years. Porto’s triumphs in 1987 and 2004 have already proved the first half of the curse wrong but people still cleave to the truth of Guttmann’s malediction, given Benfica’s serial lack of success in eight finals. Eusébio once visited Guttmann’s grave in Vienna before the 1990 final against Milan and prayed to him to lift the curse.
Now, before embarking on a debunking of the ‘curse’, I suppose I should admit the ridiculousness of even having to do so, but belief in curses endures worldwide across numerous sports and these curses are usually a desperate attempt at rationalising something that is, for most clubs, the norm –– years without winning a trophy. Curses are usually indicative of entitlement among sports fans –– the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Red Sox, Clare hurlers and Benfica have all been afflicted by curses, but not, surprisingly, Rochdale Football Club, without a single trophy of note in its 107-year history. A dry run is not so uncommon, and Benfica’s should be put down simply to bad luck, and, in a wider sense, to a fairly shambolic organisation over the past two decades.
Guttmann was clearly not so fazed by his own curse, as he took the reins of the club again, for the 1965-66 season, which finished trophy-less but in between two European Cup final appearances. Benfica’s five Champions Cup final defeats would probably have more to do with the calibre of opposition they faced than any curse –– four times they fell to one of the greatest teams of the day, Nereo Rocco’s Milan in 1963, Helenio Herrera’s Inter in 1965, Matt Busby’s Manchester United in 1968 and Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1990. Only a shoot-out defeat to PSV Eindhoven in 1988 came against a more modest adversary. Had Benfica the fortune to face an internally squabbling Bayern Munich or a rather ordinary Monaco, as Porto did when they won their European titles, things might have been very different. The three UEFA Cup/Europa League defeats were all different –– a narrow aggregate defeat to Anderlecht in 1984, a last-minute loss to Chelsea last year after dominating the Londoners for much of the game and now this year’s defeat to Sevilla. The ‘curse’ may, naturally, have its psychological toll but all three finals were well within Benfica’s grasp.
If anything, Benfica should be grateful they have reached so many finals at all since their glory days of the 1960s and 1970s. The club’s domestic dominance came to be seriously challenged by Porto after the fall of the Estado Novo regime in 1974. Benfica, while by no means a club tied to the Salazar regime (Lisbon rivals Sporting were more popular with government bigwigs and the bourgeoisie) did enjoy a privileged status on account of its international success. That privilege was lifted after the Carnation Revolution. The club soldiered on well enough until the 1990s when a rot set in that has only really been tackled since the arrival of Jesús from Braga five years ago. He has won two of the club’s three titles since 1994 (Giovanni Trapattoni won the other in 2005). Benfica have played second and often third fiddle to Porto, and most humiliatingly, Sporting, in that time, with the nadir being a sixth-place finish in 2001. Sport Lisboa e Benfica was a byword for institutional incompetence and on-field calamity for the best part of two decades. Next to that, the curse of Béla Guttmann looks pretty harmless stuff. Jesús is also, amazingly, only the third Portuguese manager to win the title for Benfica –– Portuguese coaches boast only five championship wins for the club, compared to ten by Hungarians, of which there have been seven at the helm, including Guttmann.
Jesús, a former journeyman player, came to the club after impressing with Lisbon’s third club, Belenenses and Braga, and has restored it to both a level of functional excellence and credibility on the field. He is pretty much untouchable now, even if his Benfica side has shown a recurrent tendency to lack the killer punch to add to their frenetic but highly technical and entertaining game –– the 2012 Champions League quarter-final second leg against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and the Europa League final against the same opposition a year later are cases in point where Os Encarnados dominated without seriously troubling the opposition. Still, he has shown tactical nous –– the Europa League semi-final second leg against Juventus was a masterpiece of expedient defending –– and the way Benfica bounced back after losing the League, the Cup and the Europa League all to last-minute goals in the space of a week last year shows that he has instilled in his players a steel that has for long been missing at the Estadio da Luz.
Posted by Oliver Farry