Debates on the greatest soccer player leads our columnist to his number one man

Top level secrecy used to bring maestro to world stage

By Liam Murphy

There’s so much soccer on TV these days that it’s hard to keep track of the games. It is great to able to watch your favourite team at home or in the pub but for me it comes nowhere near to attending games live. When the subject is aired – who’s the best footballer you ever saw? – I restrict myself to players I have had the pleasure of observing in the flesh. I have watched Henrik Larrson play for Celtic many times and he never failed to amaze me. I saw George Best hooking the ball from Gordon Banks in Windsor Park only to have his goal disallowed. He was awesome, but I had the pleasure of watching one individual four times, three at the World Cup finals in Wembley in 1966 in my role as a painter/sweeper (with the brush) and the following year in front of 40,000 spectators in The Oval against Glentoran in the European Cup. He is regarded as a top player by most observers and was my number one but strangely very few know his surname. The story of his entry into football reads like a detective novel.

Bela Guttman, a Hungarian Jew, took over as manager of Benfica in 1960. He had managed Porto to win three consecutive league titles and had previously managed clubs in Holland, Italy, Argentina and Brazil. He immediately sacked 20 first team players and opted for youth. In his first season with Benfica he won the league but it was the signing of a Mozambique 17 year old untried youth which would make the headlines.

For Bela Guttman, the story started with a haircut in a barber’s shop on a trip to Brazil. By pure chance, Jose Carlos Bauer, whom Guttman had known from years before when he managed Sao Paula, was having his hair cut at the same time and place, and it was in the barber’s shop that Bauer told Guttman about the boy, living on another continent, thousands of miles away who had something about him, a bit of potential and could play a bit. Bauer had recommended him to a couple of clubs but no one would take the chance.

Guttman returned to Lisbon with his mind made up. Cautious by nature, he decided to get some information on the player. He liked what he heard. He could cover 100 metres in 10.8 seconds, just a tenth of a second outside the world record, had good ball control, a fierce shot, and was big and as strong as an ox! He was registered with Sporting de Lourenco Marques, a feeder club to Sporting Lisbon, who had reached an agreement to sign the striker for no fee. Guttman had other ideas. He approached the Board and the most secret of plots was conceived.

Effectively stealing a young player from your greatest rivals would always be controversial. There would be outrage across the city and no end of press controversy, but then again Guttman relished that. However, he realised that if he was to succeed, then he had to move swiftly and with the greatest secrecy. His board agreed to back him, and it was decided that to ensure that their plans would be kept confidential, they would never mention the player’s name in communications and instead they agreed on a code name, and that is how project Ruth Malosso came into being.

Hastily, Guttmann proposed a contract that would have put the unproven, impoverished kid on pay parity with Mario Coluna, the Mozambique-born midfielder who was firmly established as one of the finest players in Europe. He went straight to the family home and convinced the player’s widow mother to deal. When the player’s brother fancifully demanded double, Guttmann agreed without hesitation.

In order to preserve anonymity, Guttmann returned to Lisbon on a later flight than Ruth Malosso. At Maputo airport the player was disguised and brought to the aircraft by car so that he would not be recognised. He was immediately sent to a hotel in the Algarve hundreds of miles south of Lisbon while Benfica representatives brokered a compensation deal with his former club. Sporting Lisbon were completely unaware of his arrival in Portugal as were the officials of the feeder club in Mozambique. Although he arrived before Christmas, Ruth Malosso would not be registered until May when he played in a friendly and scored a hat-trick. Everyone at the club knew of his talent.

Benfica had a 3-2 win over Barcelona in the European Cup final. Benfica were invited to play in the Tornio International de Paris.

In the final they played against a team containing the most famous footballer on the planet and by half time, they were on the wrong end of a 4-0 score line. Soon after half time that score went to 5-0. Guttman brought Project Malosso from the subs’ bench and in a blistering 17 minute spell between the 63rd and 80th minute, the young substitute scored a hat-trick and won a penalty, which the taker failed to convert. Guttmann’s team eventually lost the tie 6-3.

However, L’Equippe who had been covering the glamorous tie, more or less ignored the winning team and their star player, the magazine just wanted to know who in God’s name was this substitute? One team sheet gave the name as Da Silva, another report said Ferreira. L’Equipe put the young man’s face on its cover, and made his surname redundant for ever more by simply declaring his first name in bold print. The prestigious publication’s headline neglected to illustrate a 6-3 Santos victory. Instead, it read: ‘Eusebio 3-2 Pele’.

Eusebio made an immediate impact in his first year helping the team to a second European cup and amazingly, in his first full year as a pro, he was runner up in the European Footballer of the Year competition. He would be runner up a further two times, and the winner in 1965.

In the 1962 European Cup Final, Madrid were winning 2-0 before Benfica went on to win 5-2, with Eusebio scoring twice. At the end of the game, Ferenc Puskas took his shirt off and handed it voluntarily to the young Eusebio— almost the passing of a baton!

In all he played for Benfica 614 times scoring 638 goals in the process.

Against England in the 1966 World Cup finals, Alf Ramsay ordered Nobby Stiles to man mark Eusebio. Eusebio scored. So, too, did Stiles after 90 minutes on that July evening – the Manchester United workhorse shed a staggering four kilos (8.8 lbs) chasing Eusebio around the Wembley turf!

Glentoran played Benfica at the Oval in September 1968. This was probably the best Glentoran team of all time. Player manager John Colrain fired the Glens into the lead with a ninth minute penalty. Tommy Jackson did a good job shackling Eusebio who also shipped a fair amount of punishment. A penalty awarded after a collision (ahem) was driven wide and just when it seemed that Benfica were beaten the maestro struck. With just five minutes left The Black Panther pounced to smash in an equalizer. For me he was the best!

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