When Tottenham Hotspur overcame Manchester City on away goals to reach a UEFA Champions League semi-final against Ajax, the club matched its previous best performance in Europe’s premier competition. EiF looks at the remarkable story of the European Cup semi-final between Bill Nicholson’s Spurs and Eusébio’s Benfica in 1962.
Tottenham Hotspur’s startling progress to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals in 2019 recalls the club’s previous high-water mark in the competition known as the European Cup from 1955 to 1992. As winners in 1960-61 of the domestic “double” comprising the English First Division title and the FA Cup, Tottenham entered continental competition for the first time the following season, overcoming Polish side Górnik Zabre in the preliminary round of the European Cup with a resounding 10-5 aggregate victory. After 4-2 aggregate wins over both Feyenoord in the first round and Dukla Prague in the quarter-finals, Spurs faced the tall order of a semi-final against reigning European champions Benfica, with the first leg played at the imposing Estádio da Luz in Lisbon on 21 March 1962:
The Times, 22 March 1962
The Portuguese hosts featured a 20-year-old Eusébio, who had broken into the first team at the start of that season and had quickly gained recognition across Europe as an outstanding talent: he finished second behind Josef Masopust of Dukla Prague in the ranking for the 1962 Ballon d’Or award. Eusébio contributed three goals as Benfica recorded high-scoring aggregate wins over FK Austria Wien and 1. FC Nürnberg to reach the semi-finals. The official attendance of 60,000 for the first leg against Bill Nicholson’s double winners belies the various first-hand reports of a passionate crowd of around 85,000, and indeed the visitors were initially overawed as Benfica surged into an early two-goal lead.
After only five minutes captain José Águas resolved a goalmouth scramble to put the hosts ahead, and fifteen minutes later José Augusto, following a winding run on the right wing, took advantage of more poor defending to score from close range and put his side in firm command of the tie. Jimmy Greaves, who remains Tottenham’s record marksman with a tally of 266 goals, saw a goal disallowed for offside as Spurs pushed for a breakthrough but failed to reduce the arrears before the interval. Benfica then kept their opponents waiting at the start of the second period until the referee’s intervention, but Spurs soon hit back with a goal to inspire the few hundred visiting supporters in Lisbon.
Centre forward Bobby Smith headed past goalkeeper Costa Pereira from captain Danny Blanchflower’s cross on 54 minutes, with Spurs growing into the game and carving out numerous second-half chances. Yet ten minutes later, Augusto scored his second of the night with a far-post header to restore Benfica’s two-goal lead. Tottenham’s persistence looked to have found its reward with just eight minutes remaining as Greaves broke through the defence once more and his shot was turned in by Smith. Yet to the bemusement of observers, with two Benfica defenders reportedly on the goal line, this effort too was ruled out for offside; one of three disallowed Spurs goals across the two legs of this extraordinary semi-final.
Defeated by three goals to one, Tottenham had suffered against the artful Portuguese champions, but a combination of goalkeeper Bill Brown’s fine saves and a brave second-half offensive display kept Spurs alive in the tie at the half-way stage. Remarking on a difficult start to the match for the travelling side, the football correspondent of The Times employed the symbolism of both clubs to capture the essence of a pulsating evening:
It seemed as if the Benfica emblem of an eagle with its wings spread was going to be symbolic. But by 11:30 on a dark night, with the clouds shutting out the stars, the Tottenham cockerel had escaped from the cruel claws and had begun to crow on its own account in a second half which saw them fight back magnificently.
Crucially for Spurs, defender Dave Mackay in his battle with Eusébio was able “to hold this genius within reasonable bounds,” and the young star’s name was kept off the scoresheet. The scene was now set for the return leg at White Hart Lane, where Tottenham would have the chance to mount a comeback and reach the European Cup final at their first attempt. The Times remarked: “We await the second leg. London will thrill to it if we have a repetition of this fine match.”
The second leg of the semi-final, played out in the searing atmosphere generated by a tense and hopeful 64,000 crowd at White Hart Lane, remains one of the most storied matches in Spurs history. The club’s ethos is in part founded on the famous comment, attributed to Blanchflower, that “the game is about glory”; a phrase that now adorns the new multi-million-pound stadium on the site of the old ground, and which in turn originates in occasions such as this most glorious of failures on the European stage.
Already facing a two-goal deficit from Lisbon, Spurs fell further behind after just fifteen minutes at the Lane, when Águas slid in at the far post to turn António Simões’s cross past Brown. Three goals without reply were now needed to force a play-off; four to progress. The task was improbable, but according to the Times correspondent, whose heart had “never beaten quite so hard for 90 minutes of any match,” the “temperature of the night” only continued to rise after Benfica’s opener. On 25 minutes, the home side’s pressure told and Greaves volleyed home from ten yards, but the goal was disallowed upon the referee’s consultation with the linesman and despite the protests of Greaves and his teammates.
Ten minutes later Spurs did find themselves on level terms on the night, after Smith chested down John White’s lobbed pass in the penalty area and struck a fierce shot past Pereira. And just as in Lisbon, Tottenham again scored soon after the interval, this time from the penalty spot. When Mário Coluna fouled White in the area on 48 minutes, it gave Blanchflower the opportunity to put Spurs within one goal of parity in the tie, with The Times neatly expressing the tension of those moments:
The referee pointed implacably to the penalty spot and Blanchflower faced perhaps the most difficult moment of his career. The ball on the spot; Pereira 12 yards away and so much hanging by a thread. This truly was face to face. But Blanchflower, cool as ever, sold a dummy perfectly. It was 2-1 to Tottenham, and now but a goal behind. Could they pull it off?
Spurs continued to push with “all-out committal to all-out attack,” hitting the woodwork and forcing saves from Pereira, before at the very end of the game left back Ron Henry floated a ball towards the penalty spot, and Mackay’s looping header glanced agonisingly off the crossbar. The moment was emblematic of how close Tottenham came over two legs, but the Portuguese were the deserved winners, seen throughout as the more imaginative, versatile, and skilful of the two teams.
In Amsterdam the following month, Benfica would go on to lift the famous trophy for a second consecutive year, and the club went on to contest three more European Cup finals in the 1960s, albeit unsuccessfully. Spurs had succumbed narrowly to one of the great sides of European football and were left to wonder what might have been. Blanchflower would go on to remark that “playing in the European Cup has been the greatest emotional experience of my career.”