MADRID: Sevilla will be Benfica’s opponents on the field in tomorrow’s Europa League final yet many of the Portuguese team’s fans believe that other forces will be at work as they attempt to win their first European trophy for 52 years.
After winning the old European Cup in 1961 and 1962, Benfica have gone on to play in seven more European finals and lost them all, a run of failures which many blame on the so-called “curse of Bela Guttmann”.
Guttmann was the Hungarian coach who led Benfica to their two European Cup wins, but on leaving the club in acrimonious circumstances he declared: “Benfica will not win another European final without me.”
Lo and behold, Benfica went on to lose finals to AC Milan (1963), Inter Milan (1965) and Manchester United (1968).
Guttmann died in 1981, yet the run of defeats continued as they lost further European Cup finals to PSV Eindhoven (1988) and AC Milan (1990), and UEFA/Europa league finals to Anderlecht (1983) and Chelsea last year.
The late Eusebio famously prayed at Guttmann’s grave in Vienna, asking in vain for the curse to be broken, and in February, the club unveiled a statue of Guttmann in front of the Stadium of Light, something many observers saw as another attempt to break it.
Underneath the statue is a quote from Guttmann himself which reads: “Only those of us inside Benfica know what mystique really is. There is no other club in the world with a mystique like Benfica’s.”
Coach Jorge Jesus, however, said that experience, hard work and tactics would decide the final at the Juventus Stadium.
“I’m not superstitious,” he told reporters.
“I believe in people’s value and the quality of their work. I believe that the best team does not always win in a final and I also believe that we can be better than Sevilla and win this match.
“It’s the second time we are in one of these finals. We have a better idea of how to deal with the anxiety.”
Sevilla, on the other hand, have played in two European finals and won them both, beating Middlesbrough in the 2006 UEFA Cup final and Espanyol the following year.
“We all thought that Juventus would win this championship. We all know about Benfica and their potential and we’ve seen that they have knocked out Juventus and Tottenham along the way,” Sevilla coach Unai Emery said, suggesting that his side were underdogs.
Fifth in La Liga, Sevilla have had a long, nerve-wracking 18-match route to the final which began at home to Montenegro’s Mladkost Podgorica on August 1.
They won a penalty shootout to beat neighbours Real Betis in the round of 16 and then scored an injury-time goal to beat fellow Spaniards Valencia on away goals in the semi-finals.
Benfica parachuted into the competition’s knockout stage after being knocked out of the Champions League, something which many feel devalues the Europa League. They have played only eight matches in the competition and are unbeaten.
Benfica have bounced back from a disastrous end to last season, when they lost the Europa League final, Portuguese Cup final and were pipped by Porto for the league title, and are on course for a domestic treble.
The Eagles, who boast a large contingent of South American players, have already won the league and League Cup and face Rio Ave in the Portuguese Cup final on Sunday.
“We are in the final on merit and we deserve everything that is happening to us,” said Jesus, who barely survived last season’s collapse and is now lauded as one of the country’s top coaches.
Cole walks off after Cup axe
LONDON: Chelsea left-back Ashley Cole (pictured) announced Sunday he was retiring from international football after being told he’d been left out of England manager Roy Hodgson’s squad for the World Cup.
“I got the call from Roy and agree England team should be about the young players,” the 33-year-old Cole told his Twitter followers.
“We have a great manager and team and I wish them only success. I will be supporting them like a true fan. Thanks to everyone for everything,” the 107-times capped Cole added ahead of Hodgson’s official squad announcement yesterday.
Cole’s words indicated his failure to hold down a regular first-team spot at Chelsea this season, where he has been displaced by Spain’s Cesar Azpilicueta, had cost him his England career.
Former Arsenal defender Cole made his international debut against Albania in 2001 and has been an England regular ever since, starting every tournament game since his finals bow against Sweden at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Back in March, Hodgson said he understood he might have to disappoint a “big name” player when it came to selecting his squad for Brazil and Cole fits that bill.
The fact Cole, who moved across London from Arsenal to Chelsea eight years ago, was pictured crying after the Blues’ final home Premier League game of the season last weekend also raised questions about his club future.
It is understood Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho would like Cole to remain at Stamford Bridge but several clubs in Europe and the United States have reportedly expressed an interest in signing the player. England will face Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica in the group stages of the World Cup which gets under way on June 12.