United as one: Charlton and Eusébio

Champions Matchday takes a look back at the 1968 European Champion Clubs' Cup final at Wembley, a memorable match in which two great players took centre stage.

Bobby Charlton and his Manchester United team-mates celebrate their victory in the 1968 final
Bobby Charlton and his Manchester United team-mates celebrate their victory in the 1968 final ©Hulton Archive

Bobby Charlton and Eusébio were arguably two of the greatest footballers of their generation. Both were crowned European Footballer of the Year, both served one club with distinction and, beyond their extraordinary ability, both were natural ambassadors for the game with a penchant for the spectacular goal.

They hailed from humble backgrounds. Charlton was a miner's son from Ashington, who signed for Manchester United FC aged 15, while Eusébio's Angolan railway worker father died when his son was eight. Eusébio was brought up by his mother in Mozambique, with SL Benfica's then coach Béla Guttmann being tipped off about the 18-year-old Maputo prodigy at a Lisbon barber's in 1960.

Charlton and Eusébio crossed paths throughout their careers; they first met when England played Portugal in a FIFA World Cup qualifier at Wembley in 1961, and they both scored in a 1964 friendly in Lisbon.

They went head to head for their clubs in the 1966 European Champion Clubs' Cup quarter-final when United triumphed 8-3 on aggregate, Charlton netting in a spectacular 5-1 victory in Lisbon. They resumed their acquaintance that summer as they shared all the goals in England's 2-1 World Cup semi-final victory.

Stepney and Sadler recall Wembley win
Stepney and Sadler recall Wembley win

Yet, certainly for Charlton, everything paled into insignificance when the clubs met in the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley. Even the date was significant: ten years earlier, the plane carrying United back from their quarter-final with FK Crvena zvezda in Belgrade had crashed at Munich-Riem airport, killing eight team members. Charlton and manager Matt Busby were among the survivors. Busby rebuilt United around Charlton and European silverware remained his obsession.

Busby's dream came true in 1968 when United ran out 4-1 winners in the final. It could have been very different, though. With the scores level at 1-1 going into the 86th minute, Charlton lost possession. Eusébio for once evaded Nobby Stiles, latched onto António Simões's through ball and hurtled towards Alex Stepney's goal.

When United and Benfica had contested a 1967 friendly in Los Angeles, a near-identical situation had arisen. Stepney gambled that Eusébio would shoot hard, as he had done in California. The United keeper stood his ground and blocked the powerful strike. Afterwards, in one of the great European football moments, Eusébio applauded the save. "That's the man he was," Stepney said later.

Typically, Eusébio was sanguine: "I clapped Stepney because it was a great save. On and off the pitch I've always been a believer in fair play. He made a great save, so I applauded him. There was nothing more to it than that."

Matt Busby prepares his United players for extra time
Matt Busby prepares his United players for extra time©Getty Images

Benfica conceded three goals in extra time and United were European champions. Thinking of his fallen colleagues, Charlton wept as Cliff Richard's Congratulations rang around Wembley.

United retreated to London's Russell Hotel where Busby serenaded the revellers with What a Wonderful World. Emotionally and physically exhausted, and due to join his national side in the morning, Charlton had a cup of tea in his hotel room, sent his wife Norma to the festivities and went to sleep.

Both players assumed ambassadorial roles for club and country after retiring and became firm friends. When Eusébio died in January this year, Portugal declared three days of national mourning. Charlton said in tribute: "Eusébio was one of the finest players I had the privilege to play against. I feel proud to have been his opponent and friend."

Champions Matchday is the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League and is available in print or free to download in digital format. You can also follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag. 

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