On the approach to Benfica’s impressive Estádio da Luz you cannot fail to be in awe of the Portuguese champions’ fitting tribute to one of football’s greatest players. One of their own, Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, or Eusébio as the world knows him, scored over 600 goals in a scintillating 15 year spell for the Eagles. The love and adoration the Portuguese people show towards their greatest sporting son is mirrored in the encased statue sitting yards from the scene of Saturday night’s showpiece event for club football.
The Champions League final will be a celebration of Spanish football and a celebration of the Spanish capital thanks to Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid ensuring the first derby match on European football’s biggest stage. Its location will ensure the host nation will play a bigger part than usual, too, making it an all-Iberian affair when the world tunes in at 7.45pm.
The Black Panther, as Eusabio was affectionately known, will be central to it. The former Portugal international died in January aged 71 after suffering a heart attack and his legend will be present in abundance around the Estádio da Luz and around the Portuguese capital this weekend. His statue, captured celebrating a goal and surrounded by scarves and tributes, will undoubtedly be a calling point for the majority of the 65,000 in attendance.
His legend will not only be limited to the stands, either. The 22 players that take to the perfectly-cut pitch will remember Eusabio and some are likely to partly dedicate their possible success to their former hero, not least Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who returns to his home country and returns to a city that helped carve him into the player he is today.
The 29-year-old spent six years at Sporting Lisbon, Benfica’s city rivals, coming through the youth ranks before spending one impressive season in their first team. That sole season was enough to see Sir Alex Ferguson take his talents to Manchester United and the rest, as they say, is history. The Ballon d’Or winner has won the competition before but this time he could win it in the all-white of Madrid, in his home country and in a city that means so much to him.
Ronaldo is the usual star man and the additional romantic nature of the match will put the spotlight on him even more, but he’s not the only player who will have an extra-special edge about him. Angel Di Maria and Fabio Coentrao are also likely to start for Los Merengues and the pair also plied their trade in Lisbon and graced Saturday night’s pitch. The Estádio da Luz is a stadium the pair know well.
Di Maria, who has been one of Madrid’s star performers of the season and tops the assist charts both domestically and in the Champions League, had a huge weight on his shoulders when he arrived at Benfica to replace former club idol Simão, the Portugal international who started his career with Sporting before making the switch to their rivals and going down in their history books. He never felt that weight, however, comfortably filling the shoes of his predecessor on the wing before earning his move to Madrid.
Coentrao also played for the Eagles at the same time, staying a year longer before moving to the Santiago Bernabeu. His four years in the Portuguese capital hold fond memories and those memories could be greater if he lifts what would be his first European Cup on Saturday night. He and Marcelo will be going head-to-head for the left-back role but Coentrao’s performance in the semi-final against Bayern Munich may give him the edge.
It’s not just Carlo Ancelotti’s men that have ties to Lisbon. Atletico midfielder Tiago could line-up in Diego Simeone’s starting eleven and would return to a city that served him well when he played for Benfica between 2002-04. The 33-year-old former Chelsea man will relish the opportunity to help La Liga’s newly-crowned champions to an historic double in his home country and at the home of his former club.
The quartet’s involvement will mean the neutrals inside the stadium may be anything but neutral and the extra Portuguese influence at Real Madrid could give Ancelotti’s men the edge in support. Both clubs have received just over 13,000 tickets each for their supporters but the Portuguese fans in the neutral areas are likely to edge towards a Los Merengues side expected to be led by Ronaldo, a man who will also lead his country in this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. The presence of Coentrao and Di Maria will also help that support and Pepe, although a former Porto man, will be a crucial cog in Portugal’s World Cup campaign, too.
It will be the first time Benfica’s new stadium has hosted the final of the Champions League after being constructed for the 2004 European Championships, a competition that saw a Portugal side including Ronaldo fall at the final hurdle in the most unexpected of circumstances. Felipe Scolari’s side beat England and the Netherlands on their way to a final against Greece in Saturday night’s venue and the underdogs shocked the hosts with a 1-0 win that left Cristiano and company in tears on the pitch.
Former Blancos man Luis Figo captained Portugal that night and the attacker, another Portuguese sporting icon alongside Eusabio and Ronaldo, will be in the stands as Madrid look to claim their much sought-after ‘Decima’. The Lisbon-born legend won the competition with Madrid in 2002 when goals from Raúl and Zinedine Zidane gave them a 2-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park. That was Los Merengues’ last European triumph and Figo will be hoping to see his former side make it ten in his hometown.
Jose Mourinho, who grew up not far from Lisbon in the small town of Setúbal, was just one game away from facing his former club with Chelsea before Atleti cruised to a 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho failed in his quest to land Madrid’s ‘Decima’, falling at the semi-final stage in all three of his years at the Bernabeu, but he will at least be in attendance on Saturday night doing media work.
Spain may currently rule football with its two capital clubs competing Saturday’s final and Sevilla winning the Europa League, not to mention the national side being World Cup and European Championship holders, but Portugal will play a big part in the 2014 Champions League final, too.