Let’s regain Eusebio’s spirit of the game
One of the perks of being a referee years ago was that you had the opportunity of being a steward at Wembley Stadium for the big matches. There was no remuneration apart from a packed lunch. However, when you had finished showing spectators to their seats or trying to coax them to stand two deep on the concrete terracing, you could always find a place to watch the match. It was an opportunity that I took advantage of many times and I was there more than once when history was made. I witnessed England’s first defeat by a foreign team at Wembley against Ferenc Puskas’s Hungarian side, the magical Magyars as they were known. I was also a steward for all England’s games at the 1966 World Cup finals, except for the final itself for which I had a ticket. I was working in the three guinea stand for that wonderful semi-final, England against Portugal, dominated by two great strikers, Bobby Charlton and the great Eusebio who died last week. I was also present at Wembley for the European Cup Final, Manchester United against Benfica. I’m sure many of you will have seen the television recording of that notable occasion in the game after United keeper Alex Stepney bought off a brilliant save to deny Eusebio what looked certain goal. Instead of cursing his luck or holding his head in his hands, Eusebio stood and applauded Stepney. I don’t quite know what you would call his action, fine sportsmanship perhaps but I think it was a little more than that. It showed respect for an opponent, respect for the spirit of the game.
I think that this is what FIFA is trying to achieve with its Respect programme. Many think that Respect is aimed at player’s reaction to referees. There is no doubt this was how it started in this country with the FA concerned about the sharply declining numbers of referees, triggered by the abuse and worse heaped upon referees, not only by players but by spectators right down to parents at youth football. Now it is aimed at the attitudes that Eusebio showed, respect for the referee yes but also respect for opponents, respect for fans, and respect for the very game itself. We seem to be so often very far from these ideals. I remember reading how Steve Morrison, who went on to play Premier League football and become a Welsh international, explained how he had been toughened up after making the transition from non-league football to play for Millwall in the Football League. In one of the club’s match videos he was seen by the then manager Kenny Jackett to be smiling and apologising to an opponent after they had collided. ‘What Jackett said to me turned out to be a defining moment,’ said Morrison. Jacket told him that he was now playing for Millwall and what he should have said to his opponent was ‘don’t come near me again, or I will snap you in two.’ The sad thing for me was that Morrison considered that to be good advice. We all expect players to be competitive but do they have to be confrontational? We see little touches of this all the time at every level when a little respect would make the game just that bit better for all.
Eusebio had a very even temperament despite sometimes being subjected to racist remarks. His way was to ignore it, shrug it off and get on with the game. Did his game suffer? Not when you think that in the Portuguese Premier League he scored an incredible three hundred and seventeen times in three hundred and one games and his sixty four international caps brought him forty one goals. That’s something we can all respect.