The Lisbon Lions – Football’s First David And Goliath Tale

The Estadio Nacional is the most prestigious stadium in Portugal. Adored by the people, it’s a multi-nationality stadium adorning a rich history. Since 1946, the stadium has been the venue of the Portuguese Cup final, apart from certain offshoot times when they were hosted someone else. While the stadium remains a national prestige for the country, perhaps the most famous match it has ever housed was one sunny afternoon, way back on 25th May 1967.

Witness to 45,000 people, was an event that would reshape the footballing mind. That would go on to have magnanimous impact on the aspirations of teams and philosophies that would go on to embody the beautiful game. We talk of fairy tales today. Of dream endeavours and myths, and this event although true, has since then become folklore.

Like a legend, something unimaginable and beyond our grasp of time. Yet, this was the event that changed the football world. This, is the story of how a young man with a bunch of his boys changed the beautiful game. This, is the story of the Lions who roared the loudest in Lisbon.

The story begins on a warm sunny afternoon on March 1965, when a man in a leathered suit walked the halls of Celtic Park for the first time. It was a first for the club too, shifting from its religious grounds for this man was the first Protestant to take charge. Till then, the club had meagre ambitions, satisfied with domestic good going. The man, had other ideas. An ambition to change the way people saw the game in Scotland. And he did it right. John “Jock” Stein took charge of Celtic.

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Over the course of history, we often see varied accounts of different clubs showing off home-grown talents. From the Busby Babes to the Class of 92 to the graduates that have continually come out of the famed La Masia, there have been many batches of players playing for their hometown club and leading them to riches. But very few tell a tale as glamorous as that narrated in the green half of Glasgow.

At a time when blockbuster multi-millionaire moves for football’s biggest stars were a rich man’s distant dream, Celtic started building a team from scratch, using almost scratch. Neither did they have the means to lure big names, nor did they have the brand value that could have appealed to the top players in the world at that time.

Funny as it may seem today, Stein wasn’t really a believer in big buck signings either. Falling into the bracket of the old school managers, he started shopping locally. Recruiting players who would play for the batch instead of their own pockets. Probably the smartest bit of business done in the history of the game. Zero investment that paid dividends in the form of trophies aplenty and records and the reception of the ultimate prize.

Celtic is known for having one of the most passionate home supports in football. Despite not being able to measure up to the standards of the highest levels of European football, the crowd always remains at fever pitch, getting behind the team every single time, irrespective of the opponent. Acting like a twelfth man for the team, the fans are one of the most vital cogs in their machine. It was this spirit that spurred Celtic’s resurgence.

Every player that donned the green and white shirt was born within a fifteen-mile radius of the club grounds, except for Bobby Lennox, who was born thirty miles away at Saltcoats. However, that didn’t stop him from blindly backing his club with every last flesh and blood. The team that would create history, the squad of 1966-67, composed of all individuals who represented Scotland on the international stage, except Charlie Gallagher, who represented Ireland.

The club was basically made of players who played for the club with their every last breath. Not professionals with little attachment to the great institution, but local lads who had grown up idolizing the previous generations that had left behind legacies to live up to.

These were boys who used to run around in green and white shirts in their own backyard kicking the mud when they were kids. They were fans, playing for the club, they adored, they worshipped, they love. And they were prepared to give their life for it, if needed. Jock Stein had personally nurtured every last one of them.

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Needless to say, the club went on to lift the title in one fell swoop. But that’s not what makes this side of Stein, one of the greatest the world has ever seen. That win sparked a run that would not stop for another nine years. Nine successive titles. One might talk of dominance, it doesn’t get any better than that. And every club requires a talisman. One stand-out player around whom, the rest of the team operated. For the Hoops, it was none other than the charismatic Jimmy Johnstone.

A small outside right continuously giving defenders the eye and making the right-wing an absolute dunce, Jinky quickly became a favourite among the faithful of Glasgow green. Quickly becoming the apple of Stein’s eye, Johnstone didn’t have the most astute build of them all, standing at a tiny 5 feet 2 inches and a frail structure. But that never stopped him from becoming the best in the land and one of the very best all across the globe. With Jinky leading from the front and Stein masterminding from the touchline, everything culminated in one sultry afternoon in May, 1967. An afternoon when history would redefine itself.

From the tiers of the cavernous Estadio Nacional, forty-five thousand people stand with their hairs on end, eyes fixated on the happenings few meters below them. A hushed silence ensues across the grounds as leather on leather battle it out on the lush green. Battle it out, for greatness, for glory. For the ultimate prize.

1967 European Cup final. Celtic’s dream run culminating in a nightmarish final against the mighty Grande Inter of Helenio Herrera. With their world-famous catenaccio, Inter Milan had laid siege over the whole world. Their creative short-comings had been covered by their defensive prowess. Although not a treat for the eye, but it was extremely effective and a methodical brilliance. It was a mountain to climb for the little green and whites from Glasgow.

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The game kicked off with the men in black and blue shifting to fifth gear from the very go. The first chance of the game came down the right-wing when an inimitable Renato Capellini went on one of his classic runs, crossed it for Sandro Mazzolla to head it against a stretched leg of Simpson. Somehow, the ball failed to go in but the Nerazzuri were setting the tempo early on.

Before Celtic could gather themselves, Capellini was at it again. This time, a folly by the Hoops captain Jimmy Craig. A misplaced tackle inside the box and the ball was sitting on the spot. The taste of the chewing gum had gone stale inside Stein’s mouth. This was the grand stage, and his boys simply had to live up to the occasion. Mazzolla lined up to take the shot. The score-board read six minutes on, Inter lead 1-0. On way to their third European Cup title and continue their scourge.

Having made a clean sweep of all the major laurels domestically, Celtic had carried forward their stunning form into the Europe. Having made easy passage till the semi-finals, the Hoops finally met their match against Dukla Prague. Led by the brilliant Josef Masopust, the Czechoslovakian side were one of the toughest team in the continent.

Knowing, they couldn’t beat Masopust’s army in physicality, Jock Stein resorted to his philosophy of swift counter-attack down the sides. After a fierce battle on the pitch, shocking the whole world, Celtic had overpowered their superior, entering their first ever European Cup final. This was the promise.

A motley crew of misfit warriors ready to take on the world. Celtic’s style was the antithesis of the cynical, but highly effective, defensive style of Inter. Jimmy Johnstone described the team’s style as “like the Dutch speeded-up.” Across the high seas, a fire was spewing, a revolution was brewing, under Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff. Total Football was about to be born.

Disaster struck Celtic Park when their main striker Joe McBride was taken off the roster with a long-term knee injury. It was a head in hands moment for Stein. It all seemed so near and yet so far away. But he wasn’t ready to give in just yet. Destiny was weaving a rueful tale. A harsh tale of submission and an end to the game, a bitter end. But sometimes. Just sometimes, we rise above all that. We make our own destiny. We write our own tales.

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One particular fan who had lived to see that day, recounts today of a strange encounter he was witness to involving his uncle and their parish priest. In a heated argument, the uncle vehemently worked the case of declaring Stein a saint, despite him being a professed Protestant. He recollects memories of his father reminding him to ask for blessings for Stein in the same sentence as asking for blessings for his own family members. Stein had become a father to all and he was simply not ready to throw in the towel. Not anymore.

An entire nation had got behind the team to spur them the extra mile. Ernie Wilson, one of the most vital cogs of Stein’s machine recollects, “When Celtic got through we just couldn’t believe that our team was going to play in the European Cup final. Even if we didn’t win, the thought of just being there was just terrific. Even friends who were Rangers supporters were wishing me luck when they heard that I was going. They told me not to come back to Glasgow without the trophy.”

This was it. The night before the game, Billy McNeill quotes Stein as saying, “You know it’s been a wonderful season and this can be a season that we can all look back on with great fondness. It can be the best season of our careers. So, lads, go on out there and live your life. Enjoy. That’s all we’ve ever done and that’s what we’ll be doing today.”

The match was tipped as a battle between two contrasting styles – Inter’s uber-defensive approach, Catenaccio vs Celtic’s free-flowing approach, which had the single objective of scoring goals. It was all set up to be an enthralling battle of wits, as two tactical masterminds commanded the technical areas of both sides.

Fast forward to half-time. Business as usual for the Nerazzuri and things happening as they had been predicted. Herrera’s Inter lead by a goal to nil and going by their style, they were not going to bottle, even more so, it being the European Cup final. Inter had grown quite a reputation of seeing single goal leads through and it didn’t seem any different this time round.

Nothing lasts forever. Celtic had two shots off the crossbar, and 39 other attempts on goal, 13 of which were saved by Italian goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti, seven were blocked or deflected, and 19 were off-target, until finally they found an opening. With the barrage of attacks pouring down on the likes of Domenighi, Fachhetti, Picchi, a sudden sixty third minute thunder-strike from Tommy Gemmell was too hot to handle for Giuliano Sarti. The Celts had equalized. Game on.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Gemmell’s strike ignited the Hoops as they started sailing into uncharted waters. With a singular intent on going in for the kill, they were not going to stop until they achieved what they deserved.

The clock read eighty-four and the world was going to be witness to history. Shot by Bobby Murdoch. Deflected by Stevie Chalmers. Silence. And eruption. The world had burst forth in excitement and exhilaration. Celtic led 2-1 against the mighty Grande Inter. Catenaccio had fallen, Inter were in doldrums.

Herrera couldn’t do anything but watch his majestic empire crumble in front of his eyes to a small unknown village gang from countryside Scotland. The monument of Jock Stein was established in the history of the game. The final whistle blew to usher in a new era of football. Celtic 2-1 Inter Milan. The underdogs had prevailed.

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A motley crew of misfit warriors, they had never learnt to surrender. Playing with their hearts worn to their sleeves, they had realized the dreams, of not just their own, but of an entire nation. Pitch invasion. Celtic had accomplished the unthinkable. They had realized the impossible. The quintuple was theirs, and along with that, everlasting glory as one of football’s most glorious chapters of all time.

Speaking after the match, Herrera said, “We can have no complaints. Celtic deserved their victory. We were beaten by Celtic’s force. Although we lost, the match was a victory for sport.”

There’s a legend that after the game had got over and the celebrations being carried on by the Dudley boys, Stein had retired to his own office, for a moment of recollection and repose. That’s when his telephone received a certain ring. With messages of heartiest congratulations filling in from all over the world and family members greeting one another, this call didn’t seem any different from the rest. Yet, it was. On the other side was none other than Bill Shankly. He said just four words and hung up. “You’re immortal now, John”.

Even today, as little Jimmy sits on the terraces of the Jock Stein stand, he recollects with utmost fondness, how his grandfather told him about greatness. About how, the world fell in love with the lions. The Lisbon Lions.


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Akash Ray

A United faithful with an uncanny passion for digging up stories from the days gone by.

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