As the first year the tournament now known as the Copa Libertadores de America – one of the world’s most prestigious club competitions – was played, 1960 was undoubtedly a landmark moment in South American football.
The first winners of the competition originally called the Copa de Campeones were Penarol, genuine exponents of their country’s fabled garra charrúa (Uruguayan fighting spirit). The title also enabled El Carbonero to take part in the first edition of the Intercontinental Cup against a star-studded Real Madrid side, winners of five consecutive European Cups and featuring the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Paco Gento.
“They had a fantastic team that kept us at bay in Montevideo then beat us easily in Madrid,” recalled former Uruguay forward Luis Cubilla, when speaking to FIFA.com. “It was a different time: we took over 30 hours to get to Spain, including several flight changes. We didn’t eat well and we’d barely slept, so they really had an edge. It was a whole new experience for us,” added Cubilla, one of the leaders of that Penarol side alongside his Ecuadorian strike partner Alberto Spencer and defender Nestor Goncalvez.
Beaten 5-1 on aggregate by Los Madridistas, Penarol’s then president Gaston Guelfi was nothing if not bullish in defeat: “Next year we’ll be champions of the Americas again and then we’ll beat the Europeans in the [Intercontinental] Cup. Penarol will be world champions.” And, true to his word, 51 years ago today that particular dream became reality.
Stepping stone to global triumph
With such a weighty objective in mind, the club made important moves in the transfer market in early 1961. Chief among those were the signings of strikers Jose Sasia and Juan Joya, with the pair joining from Argentinian giants Boca Juniors and River Plate respectively. “Those two gave the team more firepower, but without affecting the balance of the side,” said Cubilla. “We were good, but they made us even better.”
Now an established coach, the 72-year-old Cubilla still has vivid memories of that year’s edition of the Libertadores. “It’s true that only eight teams took part, but every single game was tough,” he said. “In the semi-finals we knocked out Olimpia, runners-up the previous year, and in the final we beat Palmeiras, who played really well.”
We knew exactly what we were doing and we wanted to earn respect.
In the latter tie, a Spencer goal gave Penarol a 1-0 first-leg win in Montevideo, which was followed up with a 1-1 draw in Sao Paulo – Sasia finding the net on that occasion – to cement the Uruguayan heavyweights’ continental dominance and enable them to meet Europe’s finest once again.
Opponents to be feared
Against all the odds, Penarol’s opponents for the Intercontinental mantle were not Real Madrid nor their rivals Barcelona – who knocked out Los Merengues in the last 16 of the 1960/61 European Cup. A Blaugrana squad featuring Ladislao Kubala, Luis Suarez and Sandor Kocsis had gone all the way to the final only to lose to surprise packages Benfica, 3-2 winners of the decider played in Berne, Switzerland.
At the helm of the Lusitanian outfit was revolutionary Hungarian supremo Bela Guttmann who, among other innovations, is seen as one of the pioneers of the 4-2-4 tactical system. And while Guttmann did already boast a 17-year-old Mozambique-born forward by the name of Eusebio in his squad, the youngster was not yet a regular in a side. Indeed, his main men were Mario Coluna, Jose Augusto and Antonio Simoes, all of whom went on to star, along with Eusebio, in the Portugal squad that finished third at the 1966 FIFA World Cup™ in England.
“They were seen as the favourites and, even though he’d only just burst onto the scene, taking on Eusebio then was like facing [Lionel] Messi now,” recalled Cubilla. “But you didn’t get chance to scout your opponents in those days and we were no slouches either. We knew exactly what we were doing and we wanted to earn respect. So, when we travelled over for the first leg, we were convinced that, if we kept our heads, we could give them a good game.”
Glory for El Carbonero
Cubilla eventually went down to a 1-0 reverse in Lisbon in the first leg on 4 September 1961, with Coluna netting Benfica’s winner. For the return game, held 13 days later in Montevideo, Penarol boss Roberto Scarone decided to deploy Ernesto Ledesma in a deeper role than usual to man-mark Coluna, and thus nullify Benfica’s main creative influence.
The move worked a charm while Scarone’s attackers also cut loose in a 5-0 whitewash. Strikes from Joya (2), Spencer (2) and Sasia sealed the emphatic win and took the tie to a decisive third game, as goal difference did not count at the time.
Said decider took place on 19 September, with a packed Estadio Centenario once again the venue. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy because they’d had more time to acclimatise [after the second match],” said Cubilla. “There were some tasty tackles during the game and words were exchanged, but that was normal back then.”
Penarol struck first via Sasia, only for the Portuguese team to level via a Eusebio penalty – his first goal in international competition. Yet it was the home side that went ahead once more, a lead they would hold this time, when that man Sasia doubled his account on the stroke of half-time.
“For us it was a real feat to beat Benfica, but that doesn’t mean that it came down to good fortune,” Cubilla concluded. “That was a deserved victory from a team of champions, which then went on to taste further major success. Back then if you wanted to win you had to play well and show a lot of heart. And that Penarol side could do both.”