That day at Wembley sixty years later. Milan and Benfica, what a struggle!
It was May 22, 1963 when the Rossoneri became the first Italian football team to win the Champions Cup
It's around 4.15 pm on 22 May 1963 and in London's Wembley Empire Stadium, Milan and Benfica are playing the final of the eighth edition of the Champions Cup. If someone had gone to read the competition's roll of honor that day, he would have discovered that the Big Eared Cup, invented by the French in 1955, had never left the Iberian peninsula. The first five tournaments had in fact been won by the Invencible Armada Blanca of Real Madrid by Alfredo Di Stéfano and Francisco Gento, by Raymond Kopa and José Santamaria, by Héctor Rial and Ferenc Puskas. The tyranny of the blancos, of Franco's president Santiago Bernabeu, was then replaced by Benfica, who triumphed for two consecutive seasons.
The Lisbon Red Eagles were a magnificent team, innervated by formidable champions from the African Portuguese colonies: some, like the goalkeeper Costa Pereira and the center forward José Aguas were sons of Portuguese who grew up, respectively, in Mozambique and Angola; others like the Mozambican Mario Coluna and the Angolan Joaquim Santana were to all intents and purposes African footballers, the first ever to impose themselves as great champions in European, national and international tournaments. Above all, however, shone the star of Eusebiusborn in Lourenço Marques, but from an Angolan father, the greatest talent in Portuguese football before the advent of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Benfica had beaten Barcelona in the final in the 1960-61 edition and, the following year, Real Madrid. If in Spain the triumphs of Real made the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, in absolute power since 1939, the pride and approval of the international successes of Benfica in Portugal took advantage of the repressive policy of the Estado Novo, established since 1932 by President Antonio Salazar. However, these were also the years in which Salazar's conservative authoritarianism was beginning to be put to the test by the independence revolutions of the overseas colonies. Benfica's African footballers in those years became a symbol of a possible political redemption by insurrectionary movements. The writer Antonio Lobo Antunes recalls, speaking of the years of independence guerrilla warfare in Mozambique and Angola: "When Benfica played in Portugal, we hung loudspeakers, set to full volume, outside the camps. It was a way to let the guerrillas of the liberation movement, very supporters of Benfica, whose star was the Mozambican Eusebio. The fighting then stopped for 90' and not even a rustle was heard from the forest. After the match, we started shooting at each other again. And the intensity of the fire depended on the result".
On the bench of that victorious Benfica sat the Hungarian Bella Guttmann, histrionic globetrotting coach who, in the mid-1950s, had also led Milan for just over a year and without great results, except for the merit of having Cesare Maldini bought from Triestina. After the second European Cup victory with Benfica, Guttmann was relieved of his duties due to a contractual dispute. Legend has it that the Hungarian cursed him: "Benfica will never win a European Cup without me!" An anathema that already scored from the following season.
It is therefore the 13th minute of the second half at Wembley, on that May afternoon and the result sees the Portuguese, holders of the title, leading 1-0. The ball arrives on the backline to Rivera, who tries a left footed shot from afar. The shot bounced off a defender and ended up between Altafini's feet in the middle of the area. José turns quickly and slingshot into the bottom corner, uncatchable for Costa Pereira. Milan 1, Benfica 1.
The Portuguese had started strong, but after falling behind the Rossoneri, in the white jersey, who at first had seemed disoriented in the face of the gusts of red eagles, gradually returned to the game. Right on José Altafini's feet at least three good chances had happened to restore parity, but he had missed them all. The Brazilian disconsolately spread his arms and, turning to his companions who began to sacrament, seemed to say: "I don't know what's happening to me today". And who knows what Gipo Viani, the general manager of Milan, was thinking in the stands, who, despite all the goals – many more than a hundred – that Altafini had already scored in the Rossoneri shirt since, with the nickname “Mazzola” – because he remembered the great Valentino – he had arrived from Palmeiras five years earlier, in the 1958-59 season, and despite the two championships he won – 1959 and 1962 – thanks to his goals he continued to believe that the Brazilian didn't have enough courage. In fact, he had renamed it Rabbit.
And yet that day, on the lawn at Wembley, Jose didn't spare himself. The weight of the attack rests on his shoulders. Nereo Rocco, the coach, and Gipo Viani decided on the eve of giving up second striker, left wing Paolo Barison, and inserting a halfback, the expert Gino Pivatelli. Pivatelli has the task of shadowing Eusebio, the Lusitan champion. But poor Gino can't do it. The Black Panther ran away from him from all sides, just like in the 18th minute of the first half, when he entered the area with a two-hundred-meter progression and beat Ghezzi with a lightning bolt. Luckily for the Rossoneri, however, the only disadvantage goal remained.
In the locker room Rocco raises his voice, but in his own way. From Paròn, but also from father. Unlike Gipo Viani, he dotes on that lunatic José, who persists in calling Jose. Jose is so mad that on the eve he said to his teammates: "I have good sensations, I'm a lucky player but you will see that my real ass hasn't come out yet so far. And tomorrow I will prove it to you". To tell the truth, and seeing all the chances that good José ate up in the first half and also at the start of the second half, his teammates began to despair.
The chronicles tell that the fate of that final of the Champions Cup, between the favorite holders Benfica and Milan, will be decided in three moves. The first is the change of marking on Eusebio, decided on the field, in the middle of the first half, by the captain, Cesare Maldini: let Giovannino Trapattoni think of Eusebio, from Cusano Milanino, product of the Rossoneri youth; and that Pivatelli crosses the movements of Mario Coluna, the beacon of the Lusitan midfield. The second is precisely Altafini's equalizer, quite random compared to the three chances we had previously, which makes us suspect that José was right, regarding his "ass". The third, which the more mischievous consider decisive, is that "poor Gino Pivatelli", an old tradesman, redeems himself from the initial doll and trims a splint on Coluna's ankle. If Eusebio was the implacable arm, Coluna, known as the Sacred Monster, was the superfine mind of that formidable team. At that time there was not even a mention of substitutions and so the captain and guide of the Eagles was forced to scamper along the out line, and for the rest of the match his presence was only a signing honor.
Six minutes go by and on 21' of the second half, Altafini's "ass" shows itself to the world. Rivera steals the ball in midfield and throws José who has a prairie in front. He runs and runs without anyone catching him and, entering the area, shoots. However, he shoots at Costa Pereira on the way out. However, the teammates who watch the action from a distance don't have time to curse before the ball, by a miracle or by asshole, returns to José's feet and this time he makes no mistake. Mario David runs to embrace him and says: "If you were wrong this time too, I swear I'll kill you". It's 2-1. And 2-1 will remain until the end. At the end of the game, Italian fans invade the pitch to steal their idols' shirts and shorts: Rivera will celebrate the award ceremony in the stands wearing an improbable trench coat recovered from who knows who. AC Milan at Wembley are the first Italian team to win a European Cup and to break the all-Iberian, and somewhat fascist, hegemony of the first seven editions of the tournament.
In that May 1963 Antonio Tabucchi was twenty years old. He would write long after that until then what the Italians knew of Portugal, the extreme western edge of the European continent, was reduced «"to the miracle of Fatima (whose Third Secret, if revealed, in turn promised extraordinary things); a unknown Lisbon cheia de encanto e beleza, full of enchantment and beauty, as we had learned from the extraordinary voice of Amália Rodrigues; and to Eusébio, extraordinary footballer".
And, again in that May 1963, in Bologna, another almost unknown twenty-year-old clarinet player began his career by participating in the Cantagiro. Many more years would have passed, sixteen to be exact, Milan and Benfica entered the verses of a song by him. What champions, what a cup! And what an effort!