‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.’
It is a mantra oft-repeated in football, but putting it to practical use is increasingly rare in a sport where the margins between success and failure are so fine. Portugal are a nation who can proudly boast several pertinent examples of age being nothing but a number. Cristiano Ronaldo made his international debut aged 18 and Renato Sanches is a more recent example of a prodigiously-talented Portuguese teen. There is one name who predated them both by several decades, and made an outstanding impact at an early age: Antonio Simoes.
The former Benfica winger made his full international debut against Brazil just a few months after his 18th birthday, days after winning the 1962 European Cup with the Aguias; indeed he retains the title of youngest European Cup (or UEFA Champions League) winner to this day. That astounding start to his footballing career meant Simoes was by comparison a seasoned veteran by the time the 1966 FIFA World Cup England™ rolled around. Nonetheless, at 22, he was still the youngest member of the Portuguese squad who made their global debut at those finals.
“That game, that day, at that stadium was a very special moment for all Portuguese players,” Simoes told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview, recalling Portugal’s first World Cup game against Hungary at Old Trafford. “When you go to England and mythical stadiums like Old Trafford, you feel like a very important person.”
By then, the winger was used to intense pressure, having featured in two further European Cup finals after the 1962 victory. The World Cup was a different level entirely.
“It is a tremendous responsibility to represent the country,” Simoes smiled. “All the games were shown on TV - that was a consideration for the players. At the same time, it’s a privilege, something special, to be a person that represents millions of people. How many people would like to do that, but never have a chance?”
A 3-1 victory against Hungary, a side steeped in World Cup history, in that opener proved to be a sign of things to come for the debutants. A 3-0 win against Bulgaria followed before their Group 3 finale against Brazil, champions in each of the previous two editions.
“They had incredible players at that time,” Simoes said of their Portuguese-speaking rivals. “That day it was very special, not just because we won. That was a day, and a moment, when things changed a little bit. When I look back, I can say – without arrogance, and with conviction – that we beat them very well. The best team on that day won.”
Simoes scored in a 3-1 win that ended the then two-time World Cup winners’ hopes of a historic triple crown. The victory set up a quarter-final with Korea DPR, fellow World Cup first-timers who had eliminated a former World Cup champion of their own in Italy in their final group game. Incredibly, and against all the odds, after 25 minutes of the last eight clash, Portugal were 3-0 down.
“Today, it’s so easy to say: ‘Well I was never concerned, I knew we were going to win.’ But that’s nonsense,” Simoes recalled. “At that time, we were very concerned. Three-nil? It’s too much. They surprised us with that quality. We were not mentally prepared – we made that mistake.
“But we reacted. We were mad and frustrated. We had a big chat on the field, and at half-time. [Coach] Otto Gloria said some bad words to us. He pushed us to the limit, until we realised that we could not go back home having lost this game.”
Enter Eusebio. The fabled forward had already pulled two back before the interval, but scored two more after the break in one of the most memorable individual performances in World Cup history to drag his side through to a semi-final against hosts England. In that last four clash Portugal “paid the price” for their exertions against Korea DPR, according to Simoes, and were defeated 2-1. Portugal saw off the Soviet Union to finish third, and Eusebio would go on to grab the Golden Boot, with nine goals in six games. It was all down to his lucky No13 – according to an anecdote relayed by his good friend Simoes.
“Before the tournament, we had to draw our squad numbers out,” Simoes said. “No11 was my number, always. But, Eusebio got No11 in the draw, and I got No13. This number is – of course - very unlucky. I said to Eusebio: ‘If you play with the No13 in the World Cup, you’ll be the top scorer, and nobody will ever think again that it’s bad luck. For a whole country, you could demystify the No13 forever.’”
After initial scepticism, Eusebio accepted the swap – and Simoes’ prophetic promise to the ‘Black Panther’ became reality. A fellow teenage prodigy, Simoes remembers the late Eusebio with great fondness.
“He was one of the kings of the game,” Simoes said. “When you watched Eusebio playing, this man could be a great player in any time. The way he approached the game, thought about the game - his relationship with the game was always great. We were together for 14 years, almost 700 games.”
That close bond, borne of their time at Benfica, translated across the squad, making their debut at a major finals. While there were seven Benfica players and eight from great rivals Sporting CP, there was no divide in the camp.
“Our families became friends,” Simoes said of the Sporting members of the 1966 squad. “I used to go out with Eusebio, Hilario and Jose Carlos – those last two are Sporting players! We’d go out with their wives and their kids. Today I think it’s almost impossible. It’s because the fans and the people that run the clubs, they don’t think in the same way. They emphasise that the opponent is an enemy. This is a problem, I don’t agree with that.
“In fact, that atmosphere, that culture [in the 1966 squad] was at least 25 per cent of our success. You cannot win if you are not together.”
Now, as a man who has passed his 70th birthday, the Benfica legend has stepped back from direct involvement in football, but still speaks from a position of vast experience, having played and coached in USA, Portugal and most recently Iran, helping them reach the 2014 World Cup with countryman Carlos Queiroz.
“I want to share my career, my experience, my life with everybody, but especially with young people,” Simoes concluded. “I want to tell them that football is a beautiful sport, it’s a passion, independent of money.”
And when he speaks, they should listen. There is surely nobody more suitable to pass on advice to the younger generation than Antonio Simoes, the original Portuguese prodigy.