By Andy Brassell
Eusebio earned his place in the football pantheon after playing a starring role for Benfica and Portugal in the 1960s. GettyImages
The passing of Eusebio da Silva Ferreira at 71 years of age will be mourned with genuine feeling throughout the football world, yet that sentiment will be strongest in Portugal. He was more than just arguably the national team’s greatest player. He defined an era, and catapulted club and country into the world consciousness with his power, skill and demeanour.
While Eusebio was an enduringly popular figure as an ambassador for Portugal’s national team in recent years, he will — rightly — continue to be defined by his extraordinary playing career. His honours list is remarkable, including 11 league titles and five Portuguese Cups with Benfica, the Lisbon giants for whom he scored 638 goals in 614 official matches. Yet it is when one considers that this isn’t even half of the story that the full nature of Eusebio’s impact on European football can be considered.
A Pantera Negra (“The Black Panther”) won one European Cup and lost three other finals, all in the 1960s when he, Mario Coluna and Antonio Simoes were central in creating the legend of Benfica, which makes them still the most widely supported club in Portugal today. After winning in 1961 (without Eusebio) and 1962, As Aguias were defeated in the showpieces of 1963, 1965 and the extra-time classic against Manchester United in 1968. Eusebio scored 47 times in 64 European Cup matches.
Even in his later years, he recalled tales of these years with bright-eyed wonder. At the final whistle in the 1962 European Cup final victory over Real Madrid in Amsterdam — a thrilling 5-3 win in which he scored twice — the 20-year-old Eusebio was overcome by emotion, scarcely able to believe how far he had come in such a short period.
He later recounted that during the game, he had addressed his teammate Coluna as “Senhor Mario” when asking his permission to take a free kick. In an interview in Switzerland during Euro 2008, he told of his bashfulness in asking Alfredo Di Stefano for his shirt at the game’s end, and how he subsequently stuffed it down his shorts as pitch invaders chaired him on their shoulders to protect it from being muddied beyond recognition or — worse — snatched away.
If his attitude seemed like that of a stunned lottery winner, it was with good reason. After being rejected from trials as a child due to his then-small size, Eusebio had an agonising wait for his Benfica bow. Joining from Sporting Clube de Lourenco Marques in December 1960, he had followed the trailblazers on that route from Mozambique to Portugal’s capital in the 1950s, primarily Matateu (who scored prolifically for Lisbon club Belenenses) and Coluna.
Yet his integration was held up by red tape. His club had been a feeder team to Lisbon’s other big noise, Sporting, planting the seed of the sometimes recounted “lie” (in Eusebio’s words) that Benfica had spirited him away from their neighbours by foul means. It was simply a case of Benfica presenting him with a better offer, in a transfer negotiated and agreed to by his mother, with Sporting’s protests delaying the ratification of the transfer.
When it finally went through, Eusebio wasted little time. He scored a hat trick on his debut, against Atletico, at the age of 19. “The date is unforgettable,” he told Portuguese newspaper Record in 2008. “May 23, 1961. I finished up putting in a good performance in a 4-2 win and scored three past the former Benfica goalkeeper Jose Bastos. It was the first step on the road.” He scored another treble later that summer in Paris, in a friendly against Pele’s Santos. He was congratulated by his esteemed Brazilian peer at the end of the match, and never looked back.
He was born on Jan. 25, 1942, in the neighbourhood of Mafalala in Mozambique’s capital, Lourenco Marques (now Maputo). Sometimes garlanded as Africa’s greatest player, it is a frequent misunderstanding that he “opted” for Portugal, with Mozambique part of the Portuguese state until independence in 1975, following the previous year’s return to democracy on the mainland. It was not a choice, but Eusebio was always immensely proud of Portugal, while continuing to fully recognise his African roots.
His contribution to augmenting the fame of Portugal’s national team was largely based around the 1966 World Cup in England, in which he finished as top scorer with nine goals. He netted twice in a win over Brazil, but the high point was his four-goal salvo in the quarterfinal, enabling Portugal to recover from 3-0 down to beat North Korea 5-3 at Goodison Park.
He scored again in the semifinal against England at Wembley — the game was switched from Goodison, a move that Eusebio and his colleagues still lamented years later — but Portugal were defeated, and their star man left the field in tears.
Yet Eusebio’s style had already captured the imagination abroad. His efforts in the World Cup, not to mention his brotherly rapport with opposition players, garnered him the 1966 BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year title, which followed the award of European Footballer of the Year in 1965.
He was warmly received when Benfica played United at Wembley at 1968, and his sporting embrace with Alex Stepney after the goalkeeper denied him a late winner in normal time remains an enduring image of his very particular spirit. Eusebio always had a real connoisseur’s feel for the game.
That easy charm and international popularity made his traveling role with Portugal in recent years a very natural one. The national team continued to be a huge passion for him throughout his retirement, and he was delighted when Portugal was granted hosting rights for Euro 2004. “I felt an enormous joy,” he later told UEFA.com. “That for the first time in the history of Portuguese football, we hosted a European Championship.”
It was on his travels with the national team that Eusebio’s health problems really surfaced. He was taken into hospital in Poznan, Poland, during Euro 2012 after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage, but was eager to quickly return to the team’s side, despite doctors’ orders. Despite his good relations with opponents, he was intensely competitive, as was clear in his grimace in the aftermath of the losing Euro 2004 final. In 2008, he reflected: “When I was playing, I always said: ‘We are here to win, not to muck around.'”
Fittingly, it is at the home of Benfica where the tributes will begin. In the coming days, his body will be at the Estadio da Luz for fans to pay their respects.
“Eusebio will never die because his example will remain present among us all,” Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira said on Sunday. Legions of football fans will agree.
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