Branislav Ivanovic’s looping header three minutes into injury time gave Chelsea a 2-1 win in Wednesday’s UEFA Europa League final and spelt further late heartbreak for Benfica. After all, it was only four days ago that As Águias’ hopes of winning the Portuguese Liga suffered a huge blow when they went down to a similarly late goal against title rivals Porto.
These two setbacks are merely the latest in a long run of misfortunes to beset the Lisbon giants. This stretches all the way back to 1962, the year in which Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann steered the club to their second successive European Cup triumph only have his contract terminated, supposedly because of a failure to agree financial terms.
Angry at his dismissal, Guttman uttered a sentence that has hung over the club ever since and reverberated once more on a dramatic Wednesday evening at the Amsterdam ArenA: “In the next 100 years no Portuguese team will win two European titles and Benfica will never be champions of Europe again without me.”
Those were the words Guttman spoke as he stormed out of the club, and though they have not proved entirely correct, with Porto having been crowned European champions in 1987 and 2004 and having won two UEFA Cups since the turn of the millennium, the fact remains that his Benfica have not won another continental title since his departure.
How can we explain it? There’s no logical reason why we’ve lost two such big games right at the end.
It has not been for the want of trying. After conquering the continent in 1961 and 1962, Guttmann’s former club have appeared in five European Cup finals (in 1963, 1965, 1968, 1988 and 1990) and two UEFA Cup/Europa League finals (in 1983 and this season). Remarkably, they have lost the lot.
The most recent of those defeats has been one of the hardest to bear. Though up against last season’s UEFA Champions League winners, Benfica more than held their own, dominating most of the first half and creating the majority of the chances.
After then falling behind to Fernando Torres’ solo effort on the hour mark, their Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardozo restored parity seven minutes later from the penalty spot, raising hopes among the fans that Guttman’s curse would finally be broken.
Cardozo almost won it for As Águias with a late dipping volley that Petr Cech did well to tip over, and when Frank Lampard struck the bar with a swerving drive two minutes from time, all the indications were that Benfica would have the chance to end their continental losing streak in extra-time.
Just as it did last Saturday, however, luck deserted them in the closing seconds. While Kelvin proved their nemesis at the Estadio do Dragao at the weekend, scoring a goal that brought Benfica coach Jorge Jesus to his knees and allowed Porto to replace them at the top of the league table with one round of games remaining, this time it was Ivanovic who broke their hearts, arcing the ball over the head of the despairing Artur.
“I can’t explain it,” said the disbelieving goalkeeper afterwards, still unable to comprehend his side’s fate. “How can we explain it? There’s no logical reason why we’ve lost two such big games right at the end. We did what we had to do against Chelsea and we just lacked that little bit of luck.”
Logical or not, the fact is that Guttmann’s fateful parting words that distant day 51 years ago remain lodged in the minds of every single Benfica fan, who pray that the curse he placed on the club he took to glory will one day be lifted.