Willie Henderson pays tribute to friend Eusebio

FORMER Rangers winger Willie Henderson spoke last night of his grief on hearing the news that his great friend Eusebio had passed away aged 71.

Eusebio meets up with Willie Henderson in Glasgow in 1972. Picture: Eric McCowat
Eusebio meets up with Willie Henderson in Glasgow in 1972. Picture: Eric McCowat
Eusebio meets up with Willie Henderson in Glasgow in 1972. Picture: Eric McCowat

He said: “I was devastated, and the people of Portugal will be devastated to have lost a great hero. The word ‘legend’ is bandied about too often these days, but Eusebio was definitely a legend, not just in his own country, but throughout the world.”

Henderson, 69, who spent 12 successful years at Ibrox and was capped 29 times by Scotland, enjoyed a close relationship with the Portuguese star which lasted almost 50 years after they first became team-mates in an international squad.

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“Our friendship began in 1964,” he recalled. “The German manager, Helmut Schoen, picked a Rest of the World team to play in a match against Denmark in Copenhagen. My Rangers clubmate Jim Baxter and I were both fortunate enough to be chosen for the squad.

“After checking into our hotel, we went in for lunch and I found myself sitting next to Eusebio. Of course, I knew who he was, but had never met him. I didn’t speak any Portuguese and he knew just a little English, but we managed to strike up a friendship that day, went for a night out together after the match and remained close friends.”

Henderson has been working on a new TV show for STV, due to be broadcast later this year, in which he interviews football’s great players, and Eusebio was due to be one of his first guests.

“On Saturday night, I was looking out some DVDs and memorabilia, and came across some photographs of Eusebio and myself, so it was ironic that, just a few hours later, I received a phone call to tell me that he had died. It came as a hammer blow.

“We had played against each other a few times, most memorably when Benfica came to Glasgow to play in a friendly match against Rangers. We won 3-2, and I’d put it in the top ten of all the games I played in my career.

“We also appeared in opposite sides when I was asked to play for a Rest of Europe team in a testimonial match for Mario Coluna, who had won the European Cup twice alongside Eusebio for Benfica.

“My final match for Scotland was a European Championship qualifier against Portugal at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon. Eusebio played against us, we lost 2-0 and afterwards he presented me with his jersey, which he had signed. It remains one of my most treasured possessions.

“The last time we met was in Glasgow when Benfica came over to play against Celtic in the Champions League last season and we exchanged many great memories. He even showed me the scars on his legs from the injuries he had picked up during his playing career. He had a permanent limp as a result of a knee injury which emanated from a tackle from behind that he received during that 1966 World Cup in England – the type of challenge that players just wouldn’t be allowed to get away with in modern-day football.

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“Many people will remember Eusebio for his fantastic skill, but he was also such a strong physical player.”

While acknowledging that Eusebio’s performance in that 1966 World Cup shot him to fame in the UK, it was an earlier match which stands out more vividly in the Scot’s memory.

“The 1962 European Cup final,” he said, recalling the 5-3 victory over Real Madrid in Amsterdam, when Eusebio outshone Puskas, Di Stefano, Gento, Santamaria, del Sol et al, as Benfica recovered from being 2-0 down and Eusebio scored their fourth and fifth goals.

“He played at a time when Pele was the best player in the world, but for a wee stage, I think Eusebio might just have held that mantle himself.

“But most of all I remember him for being a really nice guy.”