Love Letters To The European Union: A Call To Arms

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. This week we’re heading to the Iberian Peninsula, and the home of port, sardines, and custard tarts. It’s the hottest country in Europe, home of the most widely supported football club in the world. No-one does dour tournament finals quite like them – it’s Portugal.

 

The Player: Vitor Baia

baia

Before Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Darius Vassell made a career out of disappointing England supporters, the term ‘Golden Generation’ had been exclusively reserved for the talent factory churning out world class footballers in Portugal. First emerging at Euro ’96 after a ten year absence from major international tournaments, The Navigators boasted one of the most exciting, technically proficient squads in Europe, with the burgeoning talents of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa, Joao Pinto and Fernando Couto flaunting their ability and reaching the quarter-finals of the competition. Four years later they went one better, with Nuno Gomes and Sergio Conceicao the latest in a long line of graduates to impress with the national team. Throughout this period, Portugal’s vast array of star quality was backed up by one of the most underrated goalkeepers of the modern game. A stopper so good, that Sir Bobby Robson tried to take him wherever he went.

When talk turns to the best players of the 90s, Vitor Baia rarely gets a mention. Peter Schmeichel, David Seaman, Oliver Kahn, Andoni Zubizarreta, Gianluca Pagliuca, Fabian Barthez; all names that will get tossed around to fill the #1 jersey. But none were as consistently successful as Baia. Signed up by FC Porto at the age of 14, Baia had forced his way into the first team squad before he’d tuned 20, just four years after being advised to quit football following a serious arm injury. A tremendous athlete with lightning reactions, unparalleled agility, and a centre of gravity that would turn Tyrion Lannister green with envy, he’d been marked out as a special talent before he’d passed his driving test. By the beginning of the 89/90 season, Baia had become Artur Jorge’s number one at the Dragao, forcing Polish ‘keeper Józef Młynarczyk into retirement. In his first full season, Baia conceded just sixteen goals in thirty-four games,  earning himself the Portugese Footballer of the Year award, and helping Porto to the league title, the first trophy in a career full of more silverware than your nan’s display cabinet.

Awarded international recognition for the first time in 1990, Baia would become a mainstay between the posts for Portugal for the next twelve years, missing just one game in three tournaments, and saving a penalty against Turkey at Euro 2000 to help his nation reach the semi-finals.

Two league titles and a Portuguese cup followed in the early 90s, but it was under Bobby Robson that Baia’s form would flourish. Robson was drafted in halfway though the 93/94 season, and would steer Porto to another cup victory, before back-to-back Primera Liga titles restored the Dragons as Portugal’s dominant side. Nicknamed ‘Bobby Five-Oh’ thanks to his knack for winning games 5-0, Robson made the short hop, skip and jump over the border to take the top job at Barcelona, and his first piece of business was to bring Vitor Baia with him.

In his only season as first choice at the Camp Nou, Baia added the Copa Del Rey and Cup Winners Cup to his medal collection, but the underhanded replacement of Robson with Louis van Gaal spelled the beginning of the end for the Portuguese’s time in Catalonia. Preferring the Dutch custodian Ruud Hesp, Baia was sidelined for the following campaign, making just two league appearances as Barcelona won the league. By the beginning of the 98/99 season, Baia was back at Porto.

Not that he let this setback temper his insatiable appetite for shiny things. Though no longer a guarenteed starter for Porto, Baia nonetheless made sixteen appearences on the way to winning another Primera Liga title. At the beginning of the 99/00 season, with Robson newly installed at Newcastle United, Baia was offered the chance to join his former boss at St James Park, but instead decided to stick with the club that had given him his first opportunity in football.

At the age of 31, with his career seemingly beginning to wind down, Baia missed the entirety of the 2000/01 season with injury, only returning at the tail end of the following campaign – coincidentally these would be the only two years throughout a nineteen year career that Baia would not win a trophy. In 2002, however, a management change at the Dragao would provide the stopper with the two best seasons of his career. Jose Mourinho had worked with Baia for most of his career in his role as Robson’s translator and trusted sidekick, and upon his arrival The Special One restored Baia as Porto’s #1. In Mourinho’s first season, the Dragons won the league, cup and UEFA Cup, and the following season the Champions League was added to the trophy cabinet, making Vitor Baia one of only ten players to have won all three European club competitions.

As Mourinho parted for Chelsea, Vitor Baia’s career slowed to a stop. There was still time to add five more trophies to a bulging collection, taking the goalkeeper’s career haul to thirty, and making him one of Europe’s most decorated footballers. Since retiring, Baia has turned his attention to the charity set up with his wife, dedicated to helping underprivileged children. Meanwhile, Peter Schmeichel is still flogging bacon.

 

The Game: Portugal 5-3 North Korea, 1966

 

Aside from a plucky host nation boring, scrapping and cheating their way to their first Jules Rimet trophy, the 1966 World Cup is best remembered for the performance of unknown quantities North Korea. Arriving in Middlesbrough amidst national suspicion, the boys from Pyongyang quickly earned a place in the hearts of the locals, with hundreds of spectators flocking to watch their training sessions, and actively supporting Chollima for their games in the north east. A shock victory over Italy took North Korea into the quarter-finals, where they would meet a Portugal team that had left a big impression on the other side of England.

Like North Korea, Portugal were making their debut at the tournament, but arrived with a squad full of elite European pedigree. Coach Manuel da Luz Afonso had been appointed following his work as Benfica’s Head of Football during O Glorio’s Golden Era, and was tasked with taking the Navigators to their first major tournament. Among the 22 players named in Afonso’s squad, seven had been part of that Golden Era, whilst eight members of the Sporting team that had won the Cup Winners Cup in 1964 also joined the party. The main man, however, was Eusebio.

Born in Mozambique in 1942 and spirited away to Lisbon as  an 18 year old, Eusébio da Silva Ferreira was eligible to represent Portugal thanks to the colonisation of his native country. Originally destined to play for Sporting, Benfica had gazumped their neighbours at the eleventh hour at the insistence of coach Bela Guttmann. By 1962, Eusebio was a hero at Benfica, scoring twice as the Eagles retained the European Cup against Real Madrid and earning the nickname ‘The Black Pearl’. Already a regular fixture for the national team, the qualifying campaign and subsequent tournament in 1966 would cement his place as a Portuguese legend. A hat-trick in the opening qualifier against Turkey set the tone for Eusebio’s campaign, and solitary goals in Ankara and away at group favourites Czechoslovakia put Afonso’s side in the driving seat. Eusebio would go on to score both goals at home to Romania that effectively secured Portugal’s place at the tournament.

If Portugal were to make an impact in England, they’d have to do it the hard way. Drawn in a group with holders Brazil, heavyweights Hungary, and Bulgaria, Afonso deducted that attack was the best form of defence. In their opening game, they got at Hungary from the off, with Benfica winger José Augusto scoring in the opening minute. Pegged back on the hour by Ferenc Bene, Augusto would restore the lead seven minutes later, before Jose Torres made sure in stoppage time. The second game, against Bulgaria, looked an altogether simpler task, and so it proved. Eusebio netted his first of the tournament in a 3-0 win, and anything but defeat against Brazil would see Afonso’s team into the knockout stages. An out-of-sorts Pele, who’d received barbaric treatment in the defeat to Hungary, was unable to impose himself on the game, as Portugal themselves resorted to roughhouse tactics, and it was his heir apparent that emerged as the star of the show – two more goals for O Rei Eusebio secured a 3-1 win.

All of which meant that Portugal would meet North Korea at Goodison Park. Much to the surprise of the Portuguese, supporters arrived en masse from Middlesbrough to support their adopted side, and the partisan atmosphere clearly knocked Eusebio and co off their stride. From kick-off, the typically industrious Koreans harried their illustrious out of possession. With the ball out on the left-flank, Pak Seung-zin patiently waited on the edge of the box before firing an effort into the top corner. Sixty seconds gone, and the underdogs were in the lead.

Misgivings surrounding Portugal’s defence had been allayed by their relentless attacking style of play, but North Korea were all too happy to punish some haphazard defending in the early stages of the game. On 22 minutes, José Pereira flapped at a cross after Korea had got in behind Portugal’s defence, pushing the ball into the path of Li Dong-Woon, who gleefully lashed into an empty net. Three minutes later, Yang Song-guk danced unchallenged into the penalty area and slid the ball into the bottom corner. 3-0 North Korea, and Portugal falling apart. With glory in their eyes and adrenaline in their veins, the Koreans were caught cold just two minutes later, as Eusebio poked the ball under Li Chan-myung to reduce arrears. The next target for North Korea was to get to half-time with their two-goal cushion intact, but with Eusebio growing into the game they failed. Coarsing through on goal, the striker was tripped from behind, and dusted himself off to dispatch the proceeding penalty kick. 3-2 at the break.

The gallant approach of Chollima in the first half was a stark contrast to the side stricken by fear in the second. Unable to cope with the pace of Portugal’s frontline, they soon succumbed to the sensational Eusebio. Ten minutes after the break, the King completed his hat-trick with a thunderous finish into the top corner to tie the scores. Unable to stop him by fair and legal means, the Korean defence took to kicking the #10, and a thundering, mistimed tackle gave Portugal the perfect chance to take the lead. Eusebio, getting up a little more gingerly this time, was still able to dispatch the penalty. Comeback complete. Augusto would make the result safe ten minutes from time, with plucky North Korea’s resolve suitably crushed.

Portugal themsevles would exit the tournament in the following round, as Bobby Charlton and England proved one obstacle too many to navigate. Eusebio would score another penalty in the semi-final, before adding his ninth of the tournament in the third place playoff to earn Portugal bronze, and himself the title of top goalscorer. Unfortunately he would not get the chance to repeat the feat, as Portugal failed to qualify for the next twenty years. They would meet North Korea again in 2010, though on that occasion were met with less resistance. A 7-0 victory in Cape Town failing to match the drama of Goodison Park in 1966 – the greatest World Cup comeback of all time.

 

 

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