In this age of spoiled, petulant, over-paid brats on the football field, we salute a true hero of the game.
The Telegraph carries an outstanding appreciation by Ian Hawkey:
For those wishing to pay a more intimate tribute, the body of the club’s emblematic player, who died in the early hours of the morning aged 71, was brought to the stadium ahead of his funeral.
Far beyond Portugal, whose national team he led to unprecedented heights in the 1960s, Eusebio’s passing was vividly mourned, his death serving as a powerful reminder that, among his many unique achievements, his constituency as a sporting hero stretched across continents. He may be Europe’s greatest 20th century footballer, as well as the finest to come from Africa.
In Mozambique, where he was born and lived until his late teens, the former president Joaquim Chissano spoke of “losing a friend”, and recalled their shared childhood encounters on the pitches of Maputo, then known as Lourenco Marques, capital of Portuguese East Africa. In the 1950s, he might have added, the region turned out to be one of the most fertile football nurseries on earth.
Eusebio grew up in a family of very limited means, the son of an Angolan railway worker and Mozambican mother. By his teens, he had developed the athletic talent to sprint the 100 metres in 11 seconds.
Early reports of what he could do with a ball, a plaything which as a child he would sometimes fashion from rolled-up newspaper, focused not just on his physical forte but an element of audacious improvisation. In one-to-one duels, he liked to hook the ball, direct from the ground up over an opponent’s head and snake around his rival to collect it.
Word of this prodigy spread quickly beyond the working-class suburb of Mafalala, his home, and into the privileged districts of the city, where a thriving league maintained high standards. The ‘Phenomenon of Mafalala’ would quickly elevate them further.
A fierce tug-of-war ensued between Benfica and Sporting, the dominant clubs of Lisbon, and both European heavyweights in the 1950s and 1960s, for his talent. After Benfica won in the courts Eusebio’s mother signed his first contract because the law deemed him a minor.
“He was gold, gold, gold,” Bela Guttmann, the Benfica coach who had pushed for his recruitment and travelled to Lourenco Marques to assess him. He joined a club already thriving on African excellence, more than three decades before that continent became a focus for European scouts and academies dedicated to exporting talent.
Benfica defended the European Cup in 1962 with two Mozambicans and an Angolan in the line-up, Eusebio making the difference in a 5-3 win over Real Madrid in Amsterdam.
He scored twice that night, and threatened to usher in a period in which his club would dominate the competition as much as Alfredo Di Stefano’s Madrid had done until 1960. Benfica came close. Eusebio led their forward line in three more European Cup finals – a runner-up in each – the last against Manchester United at Wembley in 1968.
English football had him on a special pedestal by then, thanks chiefly to his performances at the 1966 World Cup. Eusebio emerged as the tournament’s outstanding individual, Europe’s answer to Brazil’s Pele. The tournament put on the widest display of his many assets.
Besides the speed, he had a powerful spring – as photographs testify – and power in the air. He had the upper body strength to protect himself in possession, in an era of more laissez-faire refereeing, although his ankles and knees would later suffer, chronically, from the sometimes brutal attention of dedicated man-markers deployed by a majority of Benfica or Portugal’s opponents. What many contemporaries remember as much as the skill on the ball, though, is how sweetly he almost always struck his volleys.
In England in 1966, he galvanised the Portuguese, with two goals in a 3-1 win over defending champions Brazil, four against North Korea. He cried when England eliminated his country at the semi-final stage. That, he later said, was the most heartbreaking moment of his professional career.
His impact on Portugal was immense. The country had never gone so far in a World Cup before and would wait 40 years to do again. Fifty-eight years on, the Portuguese government yesterday declared three days of national mourning.
“We have lost one of our most loved and admired sons,” said the president of the republic, Anibal Cavaco Silva. Once upon a time, as a player, he had been thought a treasure so important he should be nationalised, the prime minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar apparently intervening directly to forbid Eusebio from leaving Benfica in favour of a moneyed offer from Internazionale in Italy.
In the 1960s, he could not help but be a symbol. His nicknames, ‘the Black Pearl’, and later ‘the Black Panther’, drew attention to him as a pioneer. He became a global icon in a period when other European nations were ceding independence to their African protectorates, while Portugal stubbornly would not.
He maintained strong links with the country of his birth, though was careful never to comment publicly on Portuguese-Mozambican relations during the often savage war of independence that endured until the mid-1970s. “The Mozambican people were proud of him,” said Chissano, his childhood friend and later a freedom fighter, “and through sport he was one of our ambassadors.”
The ambassadorial role, heading delegations for Benfica or the Portuguese Federation, would be one he settled into in his later years. Like Pele, he had seen out his playing career mainly in the North American Soccer League and retired in 1979, frustrated his knee problems had not allowed him to continue into his forties, to add to an already towering statistical legacy as a goalscorer.
Eusebio remained sharply analytical, even in his later years, when he suffered respiratory and heart problems and his mobility was limited. He was a declared admirer of Cristiano Ronaldo, the one Portuguese footballer who might achieve comparable sporting status, though he did point out, firmly, when Ronaldo matched Eusebio’s total of international goals last October, that he, Eusebio, had played fewer games for his tally, adding “and none of them were against the likes of Liechtenstein or Azerbaijan”.
In the hours after his death, his greatness was being abundantly acknowledged. He ranks, according to a broad Fifa survey of the beginning of the millennium, as the third greatest footballer, after Pele and Maradona, of the 20th century. That makes him Europe’s best. And Africa’s.