By John Brewin
Eusebio leaves the field in tears after defeat in the World Cup semi of 1966. GettyImages
Even with the rise of Cristiano Ronaldo, Eusebio da Silva Ferreira remains Portugal’s favourite son, the player who took them to the brink of the World Cup final in 1966 and the man who gave a small nation belief in its ability to compete. Eusebio, who died Sunday at age 71, was revered as Benfica’s greatest player, the man whose goals secured them a second European Cup and inspired them to unmatched domestic success. No one ever shone brighter at the original Stadium of Light.
A constant presence whenever Portugal and Benfica were on the international stage, Eusebio was the public face for both until his death. Until the arrival of Luis Figo and Ronaldo on the scene, he was Portuguese football personified.
Not only that, he is often described as Africa’s first great player. Born in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique, Eusebio grew up in Portugal’s East African colony, then legally as much a part of Portugal as Lisbon. Thus, when his teenage talents were discovered at local club Sporting Club de Lourenço Marques and he began to star in the old country’s capital city, he could only play for Portugal.
Mozambique’s own national team did not even compete until after independence was granted in 1975. However, Eusebio’s status as an African pioneer has been questioned by some as a result of his 50-year association with Portugal and his lack of public interest in African football.
Across Europe, in a less politically correct time when far fewer players of African origin were on view, he was known as “The Black Pearl” or alternatively, “The Black Panther.” The second of those nicknames better describes his style of play. Speed, trickery, power and guile made him a player feared by defences across the world.
Long, lung-bursting runs and thunderous finishing often made him a one-man attack, and despite the close marking he faced throughout his career, he plundered an amazing 319 goals in 313 games for his club and 41 goals in 64 games for Portugal.
His arrival in world football came almost by chance. In 1961, Bela Guttman, Benfica’s great Hungarian coach, struck up a conversation in his local barbershop. In the chair next to him happened to be the coach of touring Brazilian team Sao Paulo who enthused about a young footballer he had seen while in Africa. An intrigued Guttman made some inquiries and stole the teenager from under the gaze of Sporting Lisbon, for whom Eusebio’s Mozambican club were a feeder program, even having to hide him in an Algarve fishing village until the coast was clear.
Whether Guttman liked his haircut or not is lost in the mists of time, yet he had made the greatest discovery of a long and distinguished coaching career.
Eusebio made his debut for the Portuguese national team against Luxembourg on Oct. 19, 1961, a match his country lost 4-2, and by the time the World Cup of 1966 came around, the striker had already led his club side to European and domestic domination. In his first five years at the club, Benfica failed to win the league only in 1962 and added to their European Cup win of 1961 by winning it the following year and then making it to the final in 1963 and 1965 as well.
In 1965, he was given the honour of European Footballer of the Year, and throughout the ’60s he was often hailed as the second-best player in the world behind Pele, a high accolade considering the legendary names of that decade. However, it was the 1966 World Cup in England that cemented that reputation as he was taken to the hearts of the home fans for a series of sublime performances.
In the group stages, he even threatened the pre-eminence of Pele when a thrilling brace at Goodison Park ended the reign of Brazil, champions in 1958 and 1962. In the quarterfinals, his then-record four goals pulled his team back from the abyss of defeat to see off a North Korea team that had been leading 3-0.
Wembley — the scene of Benfica’s 1963 European Cup final defeat to AC Milan — was again where his dream perished. The hosts, with Bobby Charlton needing to be at his best, were narrow 2-1 semifinal winners as England’s defenders struggled to contain the power of Portugal’s star. A typically converted 81st-minute penalty by Eusebio saw Alf Ramsey’s defenders suffer a torrid last 10 minutes before the hosts could go through. Another penalty in a third-place playoff win over the USSR took his tournament tally to nine goals, landing him the Golden Boot award.
Eusebio’s tears at Wembley won him English affection and within weeks he had his own waxwork at Madame Tussauds. The fans also appreciated his sportsmanship after the next day’s newspapers featured him pictured congratulating Bobby Charlton with an embrace. That good nature resurfaced in 1968 in the same stadium when he shook Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney’s hand after his famous save had helped deny Benfica another European Cup.
England in ’66 would be his last appearance on the biggest stage, however, as Portugal failed to qualify for the next two World Cups, his last international appearance coming in a 2-2 qualifying draw with Bulgaria in 1973.
The regrets of 1966 would rankle him long after his retirement. England had been supposed to travel to Goodison for the semifinal until a FIFA decision to move the game to Wembley. Having won the hearts of the people of Merseyside and after being forced to travel to London on a train at short notice, Eusebio continues to resent a switch he felt gave the English too great an advantage. “Had we played in Liverpool, like we were supposed to, we would have won that game and reached the final. There is no question about it,” he has said.
Regrets, he may have a few, yet the affable man, who retired from football in 1978 after a period playing in American soccer’s NASL, continued to be a fine ambassador for his club, country and the game itself.
Twice the winner of Europe’s Golden Boot (in 1968 and 1973), he served Benfica for a glorious 15 years, scoring 46 goals in Europe for them, and led the way for his country over an international career that spanned 12. Good as there has ever been, Portugal fans still admire the achievements of their country’s greatest player — a true pioneer.
This article first appeared on ESPN.com on May 7, 2010, as part of the FIFA World Cup legends series.
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