Obituary: Eusebio, footballer

Born: 25 January, 1942, in Maputo, Mozambique. Died: 5 January, 2013, in Lisbon, Portugal, aged 71

Eusebio. Picture: Getty
Eusebio. Picture: Getty
Eusebio. Picture: Getty

Eusebio, the Portuguese football star who was born into poverty in Africa but became an international sporting icon and was voted one of the ten best players of all time, has died aged 71.

Eusebio died at home of heart failure, his biographer, Jose Malheiro, said. Eusebio was admitted to hospital several times over the past year for the treatment of heart and respiratory problems.

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Eusebio da Silva Ferreira became affectionately known as the Black Panther for his athletic prowess and clinical finishing that made him one of the world’s top scorers during his heyday in the 1960s for Benfica and the Portuguese national team.

Perhaps his biggest accomplishment was to lead Portugal to a third-place finish at the 1966 World Cup, but his agility and speed made him one of Europe’s most dangerous forwards for most of a career that lasted two decades.

He was awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1965 as Europe’s player of the year and twice won the Golden Boot – in 1968 and 1973 – for being top scorer in Europe. According to football’s world governing body Fifa, he scored 679 goals in a total of 678 official games.

The Portuguese government decreed three days of national mourning, with flags flying at half-mast. The Portuguese Football Federation ordered a minute’s silence ahead of Sunday’s Portuguese Cup games.

Tributes poured in from around the football world. Fifa FA president Sepp Blatter tweeted: “Football has lost a legend. But Eusebio’s place among the greats will never be taken away.” German great Franz Beckenbauer also took to Twitter to comment: “One of the greatest football players ever has passed away.”

Eusebio played several times in Scotland, where he always received a special welcome, even when playing against the national side. On 31 October, 1971, in front of 58,612 fans in a Euro ’72 qualifying match at Hampden, Scotland, managed by Tommy Docherty, beat Eusebio’s Portugal 2-1 with goals from big John “Solly” O’Hare and wee Archie Gemmill.

But Eusebio’s goal a few months earlier, in Portugal’s home ties in Lisbon, had already helped seal the fate of a Scotland team managed by Bobby Brown. In the end, neither Scotland nor Portugal went through to the finals, while tournament hosts Belgium did by winning the group.

When Eusebio first played at Hampden, it was in a friendly match on 18 June, 1966 when Eusebio and Portugal were warming up for the World Cup finals down south three weeks later.

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Despite the efforts of Billy Bremner and the great “Slim” Jim Baxter – as well as 23,321 home fans – Portugal prevailed 1-0 with a goal from Eusebio’s Benfica team-mate José Augusto Torres. Both Eusebio and Torres would go on to shine in the World Cup that year.

None of Eusebio’s goals were more famous than those he netted against North Korea in the quarter-finals of the 1966 World Cup.

With Portugal trailing 3-0, Eusebio inspired his team’s turnaround with four goals and an eventual 5-3 victory.

While Portugal went on to lose to host and eventual champion England in the semi-finals, Eusebio became even more popular at home when he wept openly as he left the field following the defeat.

He finished as the tournament’s top scorer with nine goals. In 1998, a panel of 100 experts gathered by Fifa named him in its International Football Hall of Fame as one of the sport’s top ten all-time greats.

“Look, there are only two black people on the list: me and Pele,” Eusebio commented on the honour, referring to the Brazilian great who was a friend.

“I regard that as a great responsibility because I am representing Africa and Portugal, my second homeland.”

Eusebio was born in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, during the Second World War when the south-east African country was still a Portuguese colony. He came from a poor family but sparkled for his local team and was lured by Benfica to Portugal when he was 18.

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Known for his unpretentious and easy manner as well as his courage and ball skills, his popularity in Portugal was such that in 1964, when Italian clubs offered to buy him for sums that were astronomical for the time, the country’s then-dictator, Antonio Salazar, decreed that the player was a “national treasure” – meaning that he could not be sold abroad.

“A football genius and example of humility, an outstanding athlete and generous man, Eusebio was for all sports fans and for all Portuguese an example of professionalism, determination and devotion to the colours of the national jersey and of Benfica,” said Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

In a playing career unparalleled in Portugal, Eusebio was a cornerstone of the Benfica team that won back-to-back European titles in the early 1960s.

In an epic European Cup final against Real Madrid in 1962, when a first-half hat trick by Ferenc Puskas looked like it would be enough to secure the trophy for the Spanish club, Eusebio scored the last two goals as the Lisbon team came back to win 5-3 and clinch Benfica’s second straight continental title.

With Benfica, he won 11 Portuguese league titles and five Portuguese Cups, and remains the club’s best-known player. A bronze statue of him, poised to kick a ball, stands outside Benfica’s Stadium of Light where fans began laying flowers after his death was announced.

But his display in the game against North Korea had already immortalised him to most Portuguese fans.

In that quarter-final at Goodison Park in Liverpool, Portugal made a nightmare start and were three goals down after 23 minutes.

“We were taken completely by surprise,” said Eusebio at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where the Portuguese had a second meeting with the North Koreans 44 years after the first.

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“I remember very clearly what (team-mate Antonio) Simoes said when we were 3-0 down. He kept saying, ‘As long as we don’t go four goals down, we’re still in with a chance,”’ Eusebio said. “And he was right.”

Eusebio led Portugal’s legendary comeback by repeatedly charging at the Korean defence, scoring four goals in just over 30 minutes.

After his first two goals, he picked the ball out of the net, ran back to the halfway line and placed it in the centre spot for the restart. He completed his hat trick with a 56th-minute equaliser before scoring his fourth from the penalty spot as North Korea’s defence fell apart amid the onslaught.

“That was the best game of my life in a Portugal jersey,” Eusebio said. “It left its mark on me.”

Eusebio scored 41 goals in 64 games for Portugal. After five knee operations, he played his last game for Benfica in 1975.

Eusebio then moved to North America where he spent the last years of his career playing for the Boston Minutemen, Toronto Metros, Las Vegas Quicksilver and Buffalo Stallions through 1980. Eusebio stayed on at Benfica as an assistant coach after his retirement and travelled widely with the Portuguese national side as a paid “soccer ambassador”.

Eusebio is survived by his wife, Flora, two daughters and several grandchildren.