Sir Bobby Brings Destiny to the Busby Babes: A Remarkable Display of Majesty and Modesty by Jeff Powell

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One balmy evening in Rio four of us who had spoken at a world football conference lingered after dinner on the hotel terrace over-looking the Copacabana.

Bobby Charlton, Eusebio, Hans Henningsen the venerated Brazilian football writer-cum-broadcaster and yours truly fortunate to be there.

With just a little prompting two of the greatest players of all time took to reminiscing.

The careers of Charlton and Eusebio are lexicons of wonder but with some extra urging they focussed on deciding which game each would remember as the performance of his life.

Two of the contenders were mutual. The 1966 World Cup semi-final between England and Portugal in which they scored all three goals between them and the return to Wembley two years later when a brace of Charlton goals outnumbered a single from Eusebio to cement Manchester United’s historic European Cup victory over Benfica.

Bobby Charlton lifted the European Championship in 1968 after Manchester United beat Benfica in the final

Perhaps his second was when England beat Portugal 2-1 in the 1966 World Cup semi-final, with Charlton scoring both goals

Perhaps his second was when England beat Portugal 2-1 in the 1966 World Cup semi-final, with Charlton scoring both goals

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The choice was simpler for Eusebio. Nostalgic though he was about both those epic encounters in which he played magnificently, he acceded to his lifelong friend Henningsen’s reminder that he would be immortalised by his many triumphs, not one of two defeats.

Besides, the night of May 2 1962 in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium could not be surpassed. The young maestro deified in Lisbon as the Black Pearl shone with animated delight at the memory of one of the most stupendous of all European Cup Finals and his decisive part in the winning of it.

Benfica were confronted by multiple European champions Real Madrid, complete with their magical maestros Di Stefano and Puskas along with their dashing accomplices Gento and Del Sol.

Puskas, who in company with Eusebio would score more goals than he played hundreds of matches in his career, pounced twice in first 23 minutes.

The threat of Eusebio opened the way for Aguas and Cavem to haul Benfica level by the 33rd minute. Puskas pounced again to make it 3-2 to Madrid at the interval. Coluna came up with another equaliser early in the second half. The stage was set for Eusebio. Two goals – the first a penalty, the second a thing of beauty – delivered one of football’s most spectacular upsets.

‘We should have been dead at two down against this great team,’ said Eusebio. ‘Gone at 1-3. But we refused to accept it. Unforgettable.’

Eusebio (right) scored Portugal's goal that day and was also in the Benfica team in 1968

Eusebio (right) scored Portugal’s goal that day and was also in the Benfica team in 1968

Charlton’s reflections were more complex. He described thus England’s winning of this country’s solitary World Cup by himself Bobby Moore and the rest of he Boys Of Summer ’66: ‘That has to be my most important achievement. Of course.’

But manager Alf Ramsey had decreed that he restrain his genius and concentrate on neutralising the emergent menace of a young Franz Beckenbauer. That was not the role he had imagined playing in the Final, critical though it proved to be in the extra-time drama which came to a crescendo with Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick.

So it was back to his duels with Eusebio in search of his greatest game. England had come to the World Cup semi-final with a reputation as the most resolute defensive team. Portugal arrived acclaimed as the most brilliant attacking force

Charlton set about reversing those images. So controlling was his influence and intimidating his presence that Portugal failed to mount a meaningful sortie until after half time. Well before then they were one down to Charlton’s opportunist opener on the half hour. 

Come the 79th minute, come a second more typical pile-driver. Game over. Not quite. A Hail Mary high ball into the England penalty wrought such confusion that Bobby’s big brother Jack handled. Eusebio beat Banks with the penalty. Too little too late.

Just as Henningsen nudged Eusebio towards his European Cup glory so I mentioned to Bobby that marvellous though he had been to behold, the Portugal match did not of itself win anything.

So back to Wembley on May 29 1968. To Manchester United v Benfica. To yet more high drama. To the rare headed goal with which Charlton put United ahead in the 53rd minute. To a Eusebio-assisted Garce equaliser in the 79th. On to extra time. To a mesmerising run and exquisite finish by George Best. To a third from Kidd in the absence of the injured Law-man. To a stylish exclamation mark from Charlton.

Then the tears for it all it meant. United were England’s first European Cup winners, ten years after Charlton had somehow survived the Munich air crash which claimed the lives of too many of the other Busby Babes. He had delivered destiny to them all. Some posthumously. With majesty but also modesty.

There was a little moisture about the eyes that evening in Rio as he said: ‘That was the game.’

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