Mario Coluna: Footballer whose majestic gifts made him the ideal foil for Eusebio in the great 1960s Benfica and Portugal sides

 

Mario Coluna was one of the world's most influential and comprehensively gifted midfielders throughout the 1960s, majestically bestriding the European football scene as captain of Benfica and Portugal, operating for both club and country as the ideal foil for the revered Eusebio, his fellow Mozambican, who died in January. Though he was not a tall man, the muscular Coluna exuded an aura of effortless command, combining formidable physical authority with an elegant style and delightfully subtle skills which seemed somehow unexpected in one so powerful.

Best remembered in England as captain of the fine teams which lost respectively to Alf Ramsey's men in the last four of the 1966 World Cup and to Matt Busby's Manchester United in the European Cup final two years later on the same Wembley turf, he also knew the taste of triumph, listing two European Cup wins and ten Portuguese championships among his principal achievements.

Inevitably, perhaps, Coluna basked in less of the global limelight than he deserved due to the phenomenal goalscoring exploits of Eusebio, but close observers of the game recognised his immense worth. In Portugal he was dubbed O Monstro Sagrado ("The Sacred Monster"), an appropriately imposing sobriquet.

Born in Lourenco Marques, now known as Maputo, to a Portuguese father and Mozambican mother, Coluna was always an exceptional all-round athlete, becoming the national high-jump champion at the age of 17 and excelling also at boxing, basketball, running and long jump; but it was as a footballer that he shone the brightest. After he impressed locally with Desportivo de Lourenco Marques, his talents were sought by several leading Portuguese clubs, but with Desportivo being a regular feeder to Benfica, he was always destined for Lisbon's Stadium of Light and duly he signed for the Eagles as a 19-year-old in 1954.

Though he struggled at first to adapt to big-city life, the intelligent, industrious newcomer made an immediate impact on the pitch, his perceptive passing and endless stamina augmented by an explosive left-foot shot. He was called up rapidly to the senior team by the new Brazilian coach Otto Gloria, netting twice on debut in the 5-0 drubbing of Vitoria Setubal and collecting his first title medal in his introductory campaign.

Initially he was employed at centre-forward, then as an attacking inside-left alongside spearhead Jose Aguas. But soon he dropped deep into midfield where he influenced every aspect of the game so successfully that he was described as "The Portuguese Didi", after the famous Brazilian play-maker.

Coluna collected the first of his 57 full caps in a 3-0 defeat by Scotland in a Hampden Park friendly in May 1955, and rose to new heights of effectiveness with Benfica following the arrivals of the Hungarian Bela Guttmann as Gloria's replacement in 1959 and the young Eusebio a year later.

There was an immediate bond with the extravagantly gifted rookie, who carried with him a letter from his mother asking Coluna to look after her fresh-out-of-Africa boy in the bustling Portuguese capital. A friendship blossomed and soon their co-operation on the pitch was bearing bountiful dividends as the Eagles embarked on an era of lofty eminence.

In the spring of 1961, Benfica became the first club other than Real Madrid to lift the European Cup as they beat Barcelona 3-2 in Berne, with Coluna contributing a long-range scorcher. Twelve months on in Amsterdam, they emphasised their status in spectacular manner, retaining the trophy with a sumptuous 5-3 triumph over Real, with Coluna once more scoring from distance, then heeding the polite plea of his junior comrade to allow him to take the penalty which put the Eagles 4-3 in front.

Benfica's attempt to register a European Cup hat-trick in 1963 foundered only after Coluna was injured by a cynical foul against Milan at Wembley, the Italians prevailing 2-1 against 10 fit men in the era before substitutes were permitted. There were further defeats in the final of Europe's premier competition, against Internazionale in 1965 and Manchester United in 1968, despite colossal personal efforts by Coluna on both occasions, and there was crushing international disappointment when two brilliant goals by Bobby Charlton eliminated Portugal in the World Cup semi-final of 1966.

Still, even after receiving his last cap in 1968, his ability as creator, enforcer and all-round inspiration remained compelling – and he continued with Benfica until 1970, when he was in his mid-thirties.

There followed fleeting stints with Olympique Lyonnais in France and as player-coach with Estrela de Portalegre in Portugal. Later he coached back in Mozambique, where he became president of the national football federation, then sports minister. Mario Coluna was an inspiration to the last.

Mario Esteves Coluna, footballer and administrator: born Inhaca, Mozambique 6 August 1935; played for Desportivo Lourenco Marques 1951-54, Benfica 1954-70, Olympique Lyonnais 1970-71, Estrela de Portalegre 1971-72; capped 57 times by Portugal 1955-68; died Maputo, Mozambique 25 February 2014.

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