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Iconic Performances: George Best v Benfica, when a Great became a God

Manchester United’s 5-1 demolition of Benfica in 1966 is fondly remembered as one of the greatest away wins in European Cup history. A victory that settled old scores, healed deep wounds, and created a new global superstar.

In March of 1966 the Swinging-Sixties were in full-flow. It was the height of hedonism, the apogee of optimism – a time when anything seemed possible. Public opposition to the Vietnam War stepped up a notch, with demonstrations in major cities across the globe. Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots Are Made for Walkin” let out a clarion call on behalf of ‘60s feminism, while “Beatlemania” reached its apex, with John Lennon controversially proclaiming the group “more popular than Jesus”.

March of ‘66 was indeed a month punctuated for numerous reasons, but for any European football fan, the month is marked by one momentous event – the arrival of George Best.

At the tender age of 15 the Belfast native was discovered by Manchester United scout Bob Bishop who, having sent a telegram to manager Matt Busby, reported that he had unearthed a ‘genius’ of a talent. Four years later, in Best’s second season with the first team, he helped secure the 1964-65 First Division title, chipping in with 10 goals from midfield. It was an astounding return for the 19 year-old, but just a glimpse of things to come. The following season, in the 1966 European Cup quarter final, Best would produce one of the finest individual attacking displays on record.

The 1965-66 season saw United competing in their first European Cup campaign since the Munich air disaster in 1958 – a plane crash that claimed 23 lives, including 8 of the so-called ‘Busby Babes’.

His squad decimated, Busby rebuilt the team around a core of survivors, adding impressionable talents like Best to the mainstays of Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg. Having reached the semi-final of the competition twice, in 1956-57 and 1957-58 (the latter run being cut short by the traumatic accident), the crusade for the European Cup had become an obsession for the club. In Best, Charlton and Scotsman Dennis Law, United had a trio of players that would one day claim this holiest of grail.

When Busby’s side were drawn against Benfica in 1966 they were given little chance of progressing to the semis. Despite winning the first leg at Old Trafford 3-2, thanks to goals from David Herd, Law and centre-half Foulkes, their fragile lead was deemed insufficient by the press.

There were jibes in the Portuguese media, with United’s loss to Sporting Lisbon in the European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final two years earlier highlighted. On that occasion Sporting turned around a 4-1 home deficit from the first leg, hammering United 5-0 in the reverse. This time around the return leg in Lisbon represented the greatest challenge a club side could face in the 60’s – a match against Benfica at the impenetrable fortress of Estádio da Luz.

Benfica, who had reached the European Cup final four times in the previous five years, were the undisputed European powerhouses of the early 60s. This O Glorioso (The Glorious One) squad, who achieved back to back wins in the competition in ‘61 and ‘62, comprised the majority of the Portuguese national team.

This tightly-knit group of players remained largely unchanged throughout the decade, and included: Germano, a Rolls-Royce of a defender, aptly named ‘6”3 striker José ‘The Kind Giant’ Torres, outside left António Simões – a player many considered to be the finest in his position, as well as ageless midfielder anchor Mário Coluna. Hungarian manager Béla Guttmann had a wealth of riches at this disposal.

Leading these giants of Portuguese football was Benfica’s talismanic striker and 1965 European Footballer of the Year, Eusébio. The silky Mozambique-born forward was the shining light of European football throughout the 60s. He reached his zenith during the World cup later that summer, where his tally of 9 goals in the competition secured him the tournament’s Golden Boot award.

On this fateful night in 1966 the Benfica hierarchy, exercising some gamesmanship, delayed the kick-off by 15 minutes so that Eusébio could be presented with his Ballon d’Or on the pitch – one last reminder of the task facing United. With over 75,000 screaming Lisboetas behind them, it was hard to see anything other than a win for the high-flying Eagles.

The match kicked-off with a deafening roar and both sides feeding off the electric atmosphere. While Law and Charlton jostled to get a grip on the midfield in the early stages, the ungainly Nobby Stiles man-marked Eusébio – a role he would reprise in the World Cup semi-final between Portugal and England later that summer. Best had a lively start, terrorising the Benfica defence with his movement and close control. The Northern Ireland international came tantalisingly close to latching on to Herd’s inviting through ball, only to be denied by Benfica goalkeeper and team captain, Costa Pereira.

A couple of minutes later and Best was tormenting Benfica again, with lethal effect. After knocking the ball away from Portuguese veteran Coluna on the edge of his own box, Best carried the ball through the midfield, before being dispossessed by Germano. The ball ran loose, into the path of Charlton who was fouled by Ferreira Pinto near the touchline. From the resulting free-kick Irish left-back Tony Dunne whipped in a precision cross and, with a majestic leap, Best rose to nod home the opener. The partisan home crowd fell silent.

With Benfica still reeling from The Red Devil’s lightning-quick start United, smelling blood, went for the jugular. After a fantastic piece of play down the right by Herd and Law the ball was played infield to Charlton. The United fan favourite cut the defence open with an incisive pass, finding an unmarked Best, who duly slotted home from close range. But alas, the goal was instantly ruled out for offside by the referee’s assistant – a poor decision on the evidence of the replays. VAR would’ve had a quick turnaround on this one – Best was well-onside. Despite the goal being chalked off it still had a demoralising effect on the Portuguese side. Just moments later they would concede a second.

With 12 minutes on the clock the reliable Gregg launched a long, accurate ball picking out an unmarked Herd midway inside the Benfica half. The lanky forward cushioned a header down, finding a waiting Best, with a glint in his eye. The wing wizard burst on to the ball and, as renowned journalist David Meek put it, effortlessly “sliced through the Benfica team as if they were statues”. Best passed by Ferreira Pinto, Fernando Cruz and Germano in quick succession, before driving the ball confidently into the far corner of the net.

The United players, in disbelief at what they had just witnessed, swarmed all over their young starlet. With the aggregate score now at 5-2, United had a seemingly insurmountable lead. With Busby’s boys in full pomp and the home fans stunned, a cheeky chant of “easy, easy, easy” rose up from the small pocket of travelling United fans.

“I didn’t get too many goals with my head but this was a very important one. The second one was quite a good goal, I remember picking the ball up just over the half-way line. Quite soon after I nearly scored a third – I think if I had have scored, I would’ve walked off then”

– George Best.

Best’s manager Busby later remarked, “Out this kid comes as if he’s never heard of tradition and starts running at them, turning them inside out. I ought to have shouted at him for not following instructions. But what can you say? He was a law unto himself. He always was”.

It was a truly remarkable solo run, a piece of youthful impudence that flew in the face of his manager’s wishes. Busby had told his side to play it tight for the opening 20 minutes but Best, as Busby joked, “must have had cotton wool in his ears”.

The Belfast boy was running riot, showcasing his immaculate close control and finding space in between the lines with ease. As Best’s teammate Pat Crerand put it – “George went daft”. Crerand, who had an eventful evening, had smashed a massive mirror to smithereens pre-match while kicking a ball against a wall in the dressing room. There was no evidence of resulting bad luck so far.

Just five minutes after Best’s second, the tie was effectively over, with John Connelly firing past helpless ’keeper Costa after collecting a clever touch around the corner from Law. Busby’s side were now an implausible three to the good. Those United fans lucky enough to travel looked at each other incredulously. Legendary BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme claimed, “not even the most enthusiastic, optimistic United fan could’ve imagined this”. It was perhaps the greatest 45 mins by a Manchester United team ever, one that had virtually assured their progression.

Into the second half and Eusébio, who had hit the post from 25 yards in the first half, tried in vain to rally his troops. Though Os Encarnados pulled a lucky goal back through a Shay Brennan own goal in the 52nd minute, it was but a shadow of a hope. Twenty minutes later Law sent Crerand through to score United’s fourth. You could’ve heard a pin drop in The Stadium of Light – but for the cries of a few hundred away fans yelling “United, United, United”. No sooner than that chorus had ended, another began – this time “we want five!, we want five!, we want five!”.

As the home crowd started to leave the stadium in their droves Charlton put the icing on the cake, or as Wolstenholme put it, “the pink ribbon on this luscious box of chocolates”. With one of his trademark majestic runs the dynamic midfielder pierced the opposition’s defence and added the requested fifth. Benfica, the team feared throughout the continent, had been dismantled. As defender Crerand reflected, “We’d done them, and they knew it”.

There was still time for one last piece of brilliance from man of the match Best. In the dying embers of the game the ‘supreme cheeky chappy’ tore down the left-wing with effervescence. Holding off Germano, a much larger man, he turned on a sixpence, cut the ball back from the byline and moved infield. With a slew of Benfica defenders trying to keep up, Best spotted Connelly in space and, with an audacious back heel, almost found his teammate. Had Connelly been on Best’s wave length he would have surely been in for the sixth, but no-one was on Best’s level.

When Italian referee Concetto Lo Bello blew he final whistle the pitch was invaded by the partisan home fans and some unsavoury scenes ensued. It was the first time the locals had tasted European Cup defeat, and they were not taking the result well. Bobby Charlton had his shirt ripped off, Crerand lost a crucifix he wore around his neck, one fan ran onto the pitch with a knife and made his way towards Best, before being brought to the ground. It was later discovered that he had intended to appropriate a lock of the United man’s luscious hair.

The disgruntled home fans in the stands above vented their anger by raining cushions from the seating down onto the pitch – but the United players below cared not. They had just succeeded where they were destined to fail. The ghosts of Lisbon two years earlier had been exorcised, in the best possible manner. In the aftermath of the match the Portuguese media ripped Benfica and their lacklustre approach apart, while simultaneously heaping praise on the outstanding performance of Best. The anger of Benfica fans was perhaps exacerbated when Eusébio et al invited their rivals out for a post-match meal. The gesture showed amazing sportsmanship in the face of such a hefty loss.

The next morning, en route to the airport, Best purchased an oversized sombrero. The Portuguese press had dubbed him ‘O Quinto Beatle’ or ‘The Fifth Beatle’, a tag the Northern Irishman was delighted to adopt. As he stepped off the plane on his return to England he was greeted by a wall of photographers, and so the British media dubbed the leather-clad Best – ‘El Beatle’.

“With my hair and, I played with my shirt out, like Denis [Law] did – that’s when the press picked up on the 5th Beatle thing. I wore a sombrero and a leather jacket because I knew I was going to have my picture taken. I loved it. I loved the publicity. I loved reading about myself in the newspapers. Unfortunately it became a monster – which was probably the start of my downfall.”

– George Best

Before his untimely passing in 2005, Best reflected on the occasion in an interview. With a cheeky wink, and the arrogance of his youth intact, declaring:

“We went there, where they were virtually unbeatable at home and actually annihilated them … I think I felt at the end of the game when I came off, for the first time, I had the potential to become whatever I wanted to be. I knew I could do things that other people couldn’t do. Not because I was better person, but because I was born with something – a gift. I had gone and played one of the great sides, played like a kid, and beat them … basically on my own”.

United, who were favourites to go all the way to the final, lost to Partizan Belgrade in the semi-finals. Unfortunately for Best, who carried an injury into the first leg, he missed the return fixture to have an operation. The absence of Best made United look like a spectre of the team that walloped Benfica. A landmark second league title for United in 1967 came as some comfort, but Best and co. still had unfinished business in Europe. However, they wouldn’t have to wait long to get their hands on that big eared trophy they so desperately craved.

In 1968 United would overcome Benfica once again, with a 4-1 win in extra-time at Wembley claiming the elusive European crown that had evaded them for so long. Best, who had a remarkable campaign, added the European Player of the Year award to his ever-expanding collection of personal accolades. More significantly, United had gone from the brink of disappearing from the football map entirely, to the champions of Europe – in just 10 years. This was the winning mentality that laid the foundations for long-term success at this mighty club.

“On nights like that, good players become great players, and great players become gods,” Best later recalled.

Best was an extraordinary footballer, so far ahead of his time. He inspired United’s triumph over Benfica that balmy night in March of ‘66 – one of the finest performances by an away side in Europe. That match heralded the birth of a bona fide legend of the game. That night a great became a god.

Read – Golazo Merchants: Eric ‘The King’ Cantona

Read Also – Iconic Performances: Roy Keane’s superhuman display v Juventus

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