In these days of expanded World Cups, bloated Champions League competitions and saturated television coverage, most football aficionados are used to seeing regular clashes between the world’s current top two footballers, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, at club and international level, and can use the evidence of their eyes to debate about who is really the greatest of all-time.
Surely, though, this title is a misnomer: neither has won a World Cup and both play for sides in a European contest that is structured to their advantage and in a domestic league where the biggest teams rarely lose. Arguably, the two players with an equal claim to be the greatest would be the two stars who shone throughout the decade of the 1960s, Pelé and Eusébio, whose clashes were so infrequent that they only met in 1962, 1966 and 1975.
Both men carried the weight of their respective nations expectations on their shoulders and played in an era where star players were not protected by match officials to the extent they are today. Even now, the mere mention of their name evokes an immediate aura of respect amongst supporters of all ages across the globe. The impact that they made on world football is immeasurable.
Up until the 1960s, those considered to be the best players were predominantly white, and no black footballer had scored in a World Cup final until Pelé in 1958. He was undoubtedly the first Black global superstar of football. Eusébio became the first non -white footballer to win the European Footballer of the Year award in 1965 and the first African-born player to shine in a World Cup.
The internationally respected World Soccer magazine conducted a poll amongst its readers in 1999 to judge who they considered the best players of the century. Pelé came first, and although Eusébio was only 10th, he still polled more votes than Bobby Charlton, Roberto Baggio and Lev Yashin.
Pelé and Eusébio rarely had the opportunity to face each other in a competitive match. Their paths crossed for the first time when their respective clubs, Santos and Benfica, met in the Intercontinental Cup in 1962. Four years later they faced each other again as Brazil met Portugal in the World Cup at Goodison Park. Their paths didn’t cross again until they clashed at the Nickerson Field Stadium in New England as Pelé’s New York Cosmos took on Euéebio’s Boston Minutemen in the North American Soccer League.
Pelé was born on 23 October 1940 in Três Corações in the province of Minas Gerais in Brazil. He started his career with a local junior side Bauru before signing for Santos at the age of 15. He netted on his professional debut for the club in September 1956, quickly establishing himself as a prolific goal scorer and helping Santos, a hitherto unremarkable outfit, to success both domestically and across the continent.
In 1962, Santos defeated Peñarol in the Copa Libertadores final with Pelé scoring two goals in a 3-0 win, one which saw them lift the title for the first time in their history and secure a date against European champions Benfica in the Intercontinental Cup.
Eusébio was born on 25 January 1942 in Maputo, Mozambique, which was then a Portuguese colony. The acclaimed Benfica manager Béla Guttmann had been tipped off about this African prodigy by Carlos Bauer, a Brazilian who had played in the 1950 World Cup. During a conversation in a barber’s shop in Lisbon, Bauer, who had just taken a Brazilian side on tour to Mozambique, eulogised about Eusébio’s talent.
Guttman, who had previously brought another outstanding player in Mario Coluna from Mozambique, took the plunge. He bought the 19-year-old from Mafala for the paltry sum of just $20,000. It was one of the great transfer bargains in history.
At the end of his first full season, Benfica played Real Madrid in the European Cup final in 1962, with Eusébio powering in two goals to cement a 5-3 victory for his side. At the end of the game, Ferenc Puskás, the magical Magyar of Real, who was now 37, acknowledged the passing of the guard, handing his shirt over to the Portugal international. For the second year running, Benfica would contest an Intercontinental Cup final. It was the first time that Pelé and Eusébio, the young tyros, would meet.
Unfortunately for Benfica, the manager who had signed Eusébio and who had led the club to consecutive European trophies was no longer with them. Guttman had signed a contract which had not included a bonus for winning the European Cup, but understandably, he expected the directors to offer him one as a reward. When no such recompense was forthcoming, he asked the club for a wage increase of 65 percent, but again they declined. Despite desperate pleas from the players, Guttmann decided to walk.
As Guttmann departed Benfica, mythology has stated that he placed a curse on the club, claiming that Benfica wouldn’t win the European Cup for the next hundred years. Judged as a mere act of pique at the time, the “curse” has acquired a certain solemnity over the decades as Benfica lost three of their next European finals.
In 1990, Benfica were to play AC Milan in the European Cup final in Vienna, the city where Guttman was buried. Eusébio placed a rose at the graveside of his former mentor and asked for the curse to be lifted. Guttman wasn’t listening: Benfica lost 1-0.
Santos normally played at the Estádio Vila Belmiro, which held only 30,000 spectators. The clash between Santos and Benfica, with the added attraction of Pelé taking on Eusébio had gripped the country’s attention. Most Brazilians had considered Real Madrid to be the best Europe had to offer so they were desperate to see the team that had defeated them. As a result, the decision was taken to switch the match to the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro to satisfy the demand for tickets.
On 19 September 1962, a crowd of 85,459 packed into the stadium to watch the biggest game, not only in the history of Santos but of Brazilian club football. Just two months earlier, the national side had proved they were the best in the world by winning the World Cup; now Santos could prove that they were the best club side.
Benfica had a new manager, Fernando Riera, who had taken Chile to third place at the recent World Cup. The Portuguese side went into the match full of confidence after their destruction of Real Madrid. and with such players as Coluna and Eusébio in the side, they would prove a handful for anyone. Most neutrals wanted to see the master, Pelé, who was still only 21, take on the challenge of the marginally younger pretender, the Black Pearl, Eusébio, a year younger.
In front of the Brazilian fans, Pelé laid down his marker. He was the conductor of every move Santos made and opened the scoring after 31 minutes. Santos dominated proceedings and deservedly went into the interval with that one-goal advantage. Benfica responded in the second half and equalised through Santana on 58 minutes, the game now on a knife-edge.
Santos reacted and Coutinho put the home side ahead again six minutes later. The score remained at 2-1 until the final five minutes when Pelé notched another goal for Santos in the 85th minute. Perhaps thinking the game was safe, the São Paulo side relaxed and allowed Santana to score again two minutes later to set up a nervy finale.
Pelé could justifiably claim the honours for the first meeting: he had scored two goals, his side had won and Eusébio had failed to make a mark. The pretender still had much to learn from the master.
Benfica went into the second leg full of confidence. Goal difference wasn’t used to separate teams in the Intercontinental Cup, therefore a win would level the tie and, more importantly, ensure that any playoff decider would take place in nearby Spain as competition rules stated that any such match must take place on the same continent as the second leg.
On 11 October 1962, 73,000 fans packed into the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon for the decisive showdown. In his last competitive appearance in Europe four years earlier, Pelé had announced himself on the global stage with two stunning goals in the World Cup final. Now he relished the opportunity to put Eusébio in his place and show the continent that he was more than a flash in the pan.
After the opening exchanges, with Santos under an increasing amount of pressure as Benfica were urged on by their vociferous support, the Brazilians suddenly clicked into gear. On 15 minutes, Pelé turned in a cross-shot to open the scoring. Five minutes later, he dodged one tackle and then skipped past two despairing defenders to unleash a left-footed shot off the post to put his team 2-0 up. It was a Brazilian masterclass and Benfica were lucky to go in at the interval with just a two-goal deficit.
Pelé continued the second half in the same vein, beating four defenders after the restart to set up Coutinho for the third. Sixteen minutes later, Pelé confirmed who was the world’s best in the most decisive manner. Taking possession of the ball, he outrageously nutmegged Eusébio, then beat three more defenders to complete his hat-trick. The crowd spontaneously broke into applause; they knew they were witnessing a master of his craft.
Pepe added a fifth before Santos took their foot off the gas and allowed Benfica to score two consolation goals in the last five minutes, one of which was from Eusébio. At the end of the match, Alberto da Costa Pereira, the Benfica goalkeeper said: “I arrived hoping to stop a great man, but I went away convinced that I had been undone by a man not born on the same planet as the rest of us.”
If there had been any doubt regarding who was the best player in the world, Pelé had settled it in the most emphatic fashion. Incredibly, he was still only 21.
Goodison Park, 1966
Liverpool in 1966 was the football capital of England. Liverpool were league champions and Everton the FA Cup winners. Still, fans couldn’t believe their luck as Brazil were drawn to play all their games at Goodison Park during the World Cup. Pelé was coming to the Gwladys Street. Even better, their final match was against Portugal, which meant that fans could savour the prospect of Pelé playing against Eusébio.
Brazil had won the last two tournaments and strongly fancied their chances of a triple crown. However, as holders, they hadn’t had to go through a qualifying process since 1958 and some wondered whether this could work against them, the team often chopping and changing throughout a series of largely meaningless friendlies.
Portugal were making their first-ever appearance at the World Cup finals, and with the core of the team based around the successful Benfica side, fans were quietly optimistic that they could progress to the next stage. Portugal came top of a difficult qualifying group featuring the previous World Cup finalists Czechoslovakia, Romania and Turkey. Eusébio had been in devastating form, scoring six out of their total of nine goals. Indeed, they didn’t lose a game in which he scored.
Both teams had been placed in the 1966 Group of Death alongside Bulgaria and Hungary. Brazil started their defence of the Jules Rimet emphatically, defeating Bulgaria 2-0 with goals from Garrincha and Pelé. However, the Bulgarians targeted Pelé every time he had the ball, and he was subjected to some vicious tackling which went unsanctioned by West German referee Kurt Tschenscher.
The lack of protection afforded to the striker frustrated all decent football fans who had come to enjoy Pelé’s skills rather than seeing him constantly hacked. As a result of the punishment that the cynical Bulgarians dished out, Pelé was unable to play in their next game to Hungary; the Brazilians lost 3-1.
Over at Old Trafford, Portugal showed their capability immediately. They disposed of a talented Hungary with a 3-1 victory, featuring an assist from Eusébio, who then scored his first goal of the finals in a 3-1 win over Bulgaria.
And so it transpired that Brazil were to play their old colonial masters in the final group game, which they had to win to stay in the competition. Merseyside was rife with anticipation as Brazil revealed that Pelé had recovered from injury and would be playing. In addition, the local crowds would have their first glimpse at his heir apparent – Eusébio.
Brazil vs Portugal
On the evening of 19 July, a crowd of 58,479 packed into Goodison Park to witness the showdown, representing the largest World Cup attendance outside of Wembley. The Samba drums started their incessant beat hoping that Pelé could inspire his team to victory. Portugal flags were evident, too, as their supporters hoped that their side could continue their winning ways with goals from Eusébio.
After the treatment that Pelé had received from the Bulgarians, Brazil’s football association asked for a strong referee to ensure their star player was protected. Instead, they got the ineffectual Englishman George McCabe, who had been a linesman in the Bulgaria game.
Realising drastic measures were needed to combat an in-form Portugal, Brazil featured nine changes from the team that played against Hungary, with World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gilmar replaced by Manga, who was untried at this level. Before the game, Pelé noticed how nervous Manga was, continually crossing himself in the dressing room. It wasn’t an encouraging sign. Even more ominous was the fact that Pelé himself was clearly not fit.
In contrast to Brazil, Portugal chose five players – Augusto, Coluna, Eusébio, Perreira and Simões – who had played for Benfica in their European Cup win of 1962. The Brazilians appeared to be in disarray before a ball had even been kicked, their opponents looking physically and mentally stronger.
From the get-go, it was obvious what the Portuguese tactic was: stop Pelé. Within the first few minutes, two Portuguese defenders crunched into Pelé almost simultaneously. It was a foretaste of what was to come as the back four appeared to take turns at hacking Pelé at every opportunity – but McCabe took no action apart from awarding a free-kick.
Portugal seized the initiative. After 14 minutes, Manga fluffed a speculative cross from Eusébio, almost placing it on the head of the advancing Simões to allow him to score. Brazil had recalled veteran midfielder Orlando, who was making his first appearance for the team since 1958, to deal with the threat of Eusébio. It didn’t work. Eusébio was rampant, his speed and strength a constant source of torment to the defenders. This was his moment and he knew it. During the match, he unleashed a phenomenal 17 shots on goal. He scored his side’s second goal after 25 minutes with a header at the near post.
Then, as Pelé tried to take on the Portuguese defence on the edge of the penalty area, defender João Morais scythed him down at the knee. As the Brazilian made a brave attempt to get up, he chopped him down again, right in front of the referee. Pelé lay on the grass, motionless and forlorn. One can only speculate as to how many acrobatic rolls and blood-curdling screams Neymar would have produced in a similar situation. The Brazilian players were awaiting some form of sanction from McCabe; they watched incredulously as he declined to take any action, failing to impose a scintilla of discipline.
Five players were sent off during the World Cup, four of them from South America. It seemed to many neutrals that European players were being granted an unduly excessive amount of leeway. Pelé was carried off the pitch but, after lengthy treatment, he returned with his leg heavily bandaged below the knee. Sadly, he was reduced to hobbling on one leg before the first half hour had finished, seeking sanctuary from his assailants by playing on the wing.
The game was effectively over, with Brazil effectively reduced to ten-and-a-half men as no substitutes were allowed. Hobbling on the wing and unable to use his bandaged leg, Pelé somehow managed to string together a few dangerous passes and the Brazilians dragged themselves back into the game in the second half as Rildo, the young left-back, smashed in a shot from the edge of the area after 75 minutes.
As Brazil rallied, though, so Eusébio responded. He brushed aside his marker as he blasted a 40-yard howitzer that Manga just managed to turn over the bar. With five minutes remaining, he struck the decisive blow, firing a shot on the half volley from an impossible angle into the corner of the goal. It was a man of the match performance from the player of the tournament as Eusébio announced himself on the world stage in the most emphatic fashion.
Brazil’s players slumped to the ground at the final whistle; it was the first World Cup game they had lost since 1958 and their worse performance in the competition for over 30 years. Pelé cut a forlorn figure as he left the pitch. In a touching moment, Eusébio went over to console him and wrapped his arm around his shoulders.
Pelé couldn’t believe the way he’d been treated in this World Cup and the lack of protection he had received from the European match officials., vowing never to play in a World Cup again.
Eusébio’s star was on the rise and in an incredible quarter-final tie with North Korea, he single-handedly rescued his side as he inspired their comeback from three goals down to win a sensational match 5-3, helping himself to four. The overriding memory of the match is watching Eusébio contemptuously brushing aside the North Korea defenders with his strength, power and pace. It was arguably the greatest performance by a player in a World Cup tie.
Eusébio scored again in the semi-final but Portugal lost 2-1 to eventual winners England. They finished in third place with Eusébio finishing as the top scorer with nine goals. Only one player, Gerd Müller with 10, in 1970 has surpassed this total since. The boy from Mozambique had proved himself on the world’s biggest stage.
At the age of 24, Eusébio had reached his footballing pinnacle. Benfica never won another European Cup and Portugal didn’t qualify for a World Cup again until 1986. In contrast, Pelé inspired Brazil to win another Jules Rimet in Mexico in 1970, scoring in the final himself. Approaching his 30th birthday, the king had regained his throne.
At the age of 34, Pelé had effectively retired from competitive football after playing his final game for Santos at the end of the 1973/74 season. The fledgeling North American Soccer League was looking for a global superstar to sell the game to a reluctant home audience, and Pelé was the man they wanted to do that. The league put together an outrageous multimillion-dollar deal that led to Pelé coming out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos in June 1975.
Whilst the signing of the Brazilian grabbed headlines across the world, the lesser-known Boston Minutemen had completed a transfer of their own, but without much of the fanfare – something their own superstar would’ve been more than comfortable with. Eusébio had almost sneaked into the USA unnoticed and his salary was a mere fraction of what Pelé was awarded. Within a month of their respective arrivals, they were due to face each other in a league match.
Amazingly, the two superstars of the 1960s had not met each other in a competitive game since that World Cup encounter at Goodison Park nine years earlier. Both were now showing the effects of age with Eusébio, in particular, lacking mobility due to several knee operations. Of all the stadiums in all the world, nobody expected the next meeting of these two footballing colossi to take place at Nickerson Field, a 12,500-capacity college ground in New England on the campus of Boston University.
Given the American reputation for glitz, glamour and putting on a show, it seemed the nascent NASL was somewhat unprepared for Pelé taking on Eusébio for the first time in almost a decade. The last time they’d met, over 58,000 crammed into Goodison Park and the game was transmitted across the globe. Now, no television cameras were present and Nickerson Field, which was adequate for the Minutemen’s average crowd of about 4,000, would prove to be totally unsuitable.
Both Pelé and Eusébio were struggling for fitness had only played one league game for their new clubs. Somehow the NASL hadn’t fully digested the significance of the meeting and failed to publicise it accordingly. Nevertheless, word swiftly went around the local Portuguese community that their own football deity was in town, which culminated with the fanfare generated by Pelé’s recent arrival at the Cosmos.
Minutemen vs The Cosmos
The hosts sold 18,000 tickets for a stadium which struggled to hold 14,000. Two hours before the scheduled 8pm kick-off, there wasn’t a single parking space left within a mile of the stadium, and by 7pm, the ground was packed to capacity. Supporters spilled over onto the pitch surroundings, standing six deep behind the touchlines.
Despite being restricted by a knee injury, Eusébio opened the scoring with a free-kick with 12 minutes remaining of the game, at which point several groups of fans ran onto the pitch to hug him. After the celebrations had subsided, just a minute later, Pelé scored an equaliser and the stadium erupted as masses of fans invaded the pitch from all sides.
In the melee that followed, few realised that the referee had disallowed the goal. Fortunately, Pelé’s personal bodyguard managed to get him off the pitch before the mob got too disruptive and he took no further part in the game.
When order was eventually restored from the ensuing chaos, the match resumed. Mark Liveric equalised for the Cosmos two minutes before the end of normal time. As per NASL regulations, which did not allow matches to be drawn, the game continued into overtime, but without Eusébio, who had been withdrawn. Boston went on to win 2-1 thanks to a Wolfgang Suhnholz goal.
Eusébio and Pelé did meet on other subsequent occasions in the NASL but no other encounter matched the drama of this match.
Pelé became the man the NASL built their hopes around, and he didn’t need a rival. The Cosmos management were outraged by the lack of protection offered to their players and immediately demanded that the result be overturned. The NASL commissioner, Phil Woosnam, upheld the appeal by the powerful Cosmos, who had threatened to withdraw Pelé from any future games, with the match was rescheduled for August.
Boston won the replay 5-1 but neither Pelé or Eusébio were fit enough to play. In fact, at the ages of 34 and 33, their best days were firmly behind them. As a reporter from the Boston Globe stated: “Age has transformed them from deities to choreographers.” Eusébio failed to impact upon the New England psyche as he was traded to Toronto at the end of the season, a move that went almost unreported. Pelé, though, remained the poster boy for the NASL.
Despite that, Eusébio wasn’t quite finished yet. He led his new side, now renamed Toronto Metros Croatia, to the 1976 Soccer Bowl, scoring in a 3-1 victory to give him one last hurrah. The following year, Pelé played as the Cosmos won the Soccer Bowl in his last competitive appearance in football. Even approaching 37, Pelé still wore the crown in America and would be forever credited with the boom of soccer in the 1970s.
Pelé and Eusébio were undoubtedly the two best footballers in the world in the 1960s. Only a few thousand people are still alive today who saw them play in the World Cup at Goodison Park in 1966. I was one of them and those memories will stay with me forever. They were the footballing gods. To me and millions of others, they are the greatest footballers of all-time.
By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan