In the match of the tournament, Eusebio’s late penalty couldn’t forestall his tears. Bobby Charlton’s double secured a historic, earth-shaking victory England – one a century in the making. After their triumph over the Soviet Union yesterday evening, West Germany will be England’s opponents at Wembley in four days’ time. But for many, tonight’s match was the real final – in spirit if not in arrangement.
These two sides have been the most entertaining over the last three weeks, of that there can be little doubt. Portugal, playing at a first major tournament in their history, have been glorious, free-scoring rogues – just about the most edifying a vanquished team could be. Prior to the tournament, they combed the colonies and returned home with a wonderful mosaic of talent – this success belongs to Angola and Mozambique as much as it does Portugal.
And Eusebio, oh Eusebio… The Black Panther, the bar-raiser, the heir to Pele’s throne. His eight goals thus far – and who knows, he could add to his tally in the third-place play-off – have been the great individual story every World Cup seems to inspire. Surely, he is the player of the tournament, but his awe-inspiring tale didn’t end with a winners’ medal, Nobby Stiles saw to that.
The Manchester United man’s orders were clear: stick to Eusebio like glue. And that he did. The pair of them looked like Siamese twins, uncoordinated and lost out on the Wembley turf. Wherever Eusebio went, Stiles followed. I’d be surprised if he isn’t still tailing the Portuguese now, standing on his toes as he tries to enjoy a consolatory pint at the hotel bar. Whenever the ball fell at the paws of the Black Panther, England’s very own kleptomaniac in white was there to nick it right back off him. He might be famous for his dentures, but Stiles’ performance was far from toothless.
It was hardly Machiavellian, but what Alf Ramsey’s scheme lacked in sophistication it more than made up for in efficiency. Usually so razor-sharp, Eusebio’s presence was blunted, allowing England to turn the match into a battle – and that suited them down to the ground. On the rare occasion that the ball managed to get beyond the curtain wall of Stiles, Jack Charlton and Bobby Moore stood resolute at the heart of defence. Indeed, it was the latter’s long pass – sugar-coated through-ball or aimless punt upfield, you be the judge – that led directly to England’s opener.
Roger Hunt gambled that the ball would dissect the two retreating Portuguese defenders, and it did. He’d have scored himself if his heavy first touch hadn’t allowed José Pereira to scurry from his line and bungle the ball to the last place on earth he’d have wanted it to end up: the feet of Bobby Charlton. Leather met leather; England took the lead.
The Wingless Wonders sauntered through the remainder of the first half looking calmer, more assured of their place at world football’s top table than their opponents. The Iberians were no doubt spooked by the late venue change from Goodison Park – where they had played their last two matches, humbling Brazil and producing that stunning comeback against North Korea – to Wembley, where England were yet to concede. Whenever the Portuguese did threaten, Gordon Banks was there to spider across his line – the eight yards between the posts have rarely had such an incorruptible guardian.
Portugal improved in the second half, Simoes, Augusto and Torres taking advantage of England’s fixation on Eusebio to occasionally slip through the net and spark danger. Luckily for Alf Ramsey’s side, Portugal’s claims for a penalty shortly after the restart fell on deaf ears. It was the toughest test this superb England defence has come up against, but still it wasn’t enough.
It was Stiles’ finest performance in an England shirt, and it just might have been Bobby Charlton’s too. He made it two for England with a little over ten minutes remaining, striking his shot from the edge of the area with such ferocity that the force lifted him off the ground. Before the ball hit the back of the net, his arms were raised in triumph. That – it transpired – would be that.
Eusebio, so quiet all game, still managed to get on the scoresheet and instil the last ten minutes with a sense of jeopardy for the 94,000 fans inside Wembley, dispatching after Jack Charlton handled inside the area. Eager for play to get back underway, Eusebio collected the ball from the net, but on the way back to the halfway line, he made a simple gesture emblematic of why this Portugal side has become so loved on these shores.
Conscious of the fact that Banks had just conceded for the first time in his World Cup campaign, Eusebio gave him an apologetic pat on the back. Sport is a cold-blooded business, painful for both body and the mind. In legacy-making matches like this, ones with such juddering emotional impact, it would be easy to forget the pleasantries. But Portugal were gentlemen till the end, even with time slipping away. The whole match was played in this spirit. Perhaps the plainest example was when Festa attempted to replace a piece of turf he tore up in a tackle. Rarely have we witnessed a match fuelled by such aggression but conducted in such a sporting manner. With the world watching, it was a perfect occasion.
They leave this tournament with their heads held high, but it was England who took the glory. The fans were celebrating even before Eusebio’s tears began to sting. The brilliant Portugal defeated, the World Cup within reach.