Eusébio da Silva Ferreira’s death on 5 January, 2014, from a heart attack, brought an end to the life of one of football’s biggest giants. Jose Mourinho, current Chelsea manager and family friend, said, ‘For us, for you Eusébio is one of the greatest footballers. For Portugal he means more than that. No colour, no clubs, no political sides. For Portuguese people Eusébio is Eusébio’.
However, Eusebio’s life as professional football player was steeped in a period of massive socio-political churning. Born in the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique, he was witness to the final remnants of colonialism. Widely considered the greatest Portuguese player of all time, he was used by Antonio Salazar’s regime as a propaganda tool. Eusebio did refer to Salazar as his and Portuguese society’s ‘slave master’, but admitted that he was afraid to speak out, fearing arrest. Playing for Portuguese giants Benfica, Eusebio led the club through a period of unprecedented success. In fact, despite lucrative offers from many European clubs during his 15 years at Benfica, Salazar didn’t allow him to leave the country.
Born in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), Mozambique, on 25 January, 1942, to a white railway mechanic from Angola and a black mother, Eusebio grew up in raging poverty. According to Simon Kuper of the Financial Times, ‘No great footballer grew up further from great football than Eusébio’.
Playing barefoot on the dirt fields of Maputo, his closest source of inspiration was the crackling radio that aired Benfica’s matches. His story from his humble beginnings to his status as one of the true symbols of world football is remarkable and poignant. While earning massive success and raging popularity in Portugal for his abilities on the ball, Mozambique’s armed struggle for independence against their Portuguese colonisers was at a boiling point.
He was conflicted. He was bothered by the nickname, ‘Black Panther’, which was given to him. The name had obvious references to the radical American Black Panther movement in 1960s. Eventually, he brought closure to this conflict by admitting to British sociologist, Gary Armstrong, when he said, ‘I represented Africa and Portugal.’ Some folks may term this as a convenient form of reconcilement. However, one must not ever underestimate the magnitude of his achievements on the pitch and what it did for football players from Africa, symbolically.
Eusebio, walking into the unknown, with just his raw ability, made a name for himself in a then colonial society, wrapped under the iron first of a dictator, Antonio Salazar. Of course, his talents were exploited for purposes not in sync with the fight against colonial power. But his magnetic personality, ability and achievements established an appeal that breached these confines.
He had always led the charge against racism, post retirement, and despite his stature in world football, he’s maintained a quite sense of dignity and humility rarely seen in players of his ilk. Other greats from the continent, who’ve made a name for themselves, playing for clubs around Europe, such as George Weah, Samuel Eto’O and Didier Drogba owe a debt to Eusebio.
As a player, Eusebio was far ahead of his time. It was reported that at the age of 16, he ran 100 metres in a mere 11 seconds, which is remarkable by any stretch. Allied with a boxer’s physique and immense power in his thunderous right foot that goalkeepers feared getting their hand onto, Eusebio was your modern day, proto-type striker.
It was a chance conversation in a Lisbon barbershop in 1960 that set this individual on the journey from humble beginnings to world domination. A Brazilian coach sang the praises of this extraordinary player he’d seen on a recent tour to Mozambique to the then Benfica coach Bela Guttmann, while they were getting their hair done. On receiving this information, Guttmann travelled to Maputo and signed Eusebio for a bargain.
However, Eusebio at the time was playing for Mozambican franchise, that was a feeder club to Benfica’s great rivals, Sporting Lisbon. On receiving this information, Sporting went berserk and took Benfica to the highest court in the land. In the intervening months, Eusebio was put up in Algrave by Benfica till their dispute with Sporting was laid to rest. Once it was settled, everyone in Europe realised what the fuss was all about.
Scoring a hat trick in his debut match for Benfica in June 1961, it was his performance two weeks later that caught the world’s attention. Playing a friendly, against Brazilian giants, Santos, led by a certain Pele, Benfica found themselves 4-0 down at half time.
With nothing to lose Guttmann sent in Eusebio in the second half, where he went onto score a hat-trick. After the match, Pele reportedly asked, ‘Who’s that guy?’ In the following year in ’62, Guttmann and his Benfica side went onto claim the European Cup, breaking Real Madrid’s hold onto the title, who had won it five times on the spin. With players of the calibre of Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo de Stefano, Eusebio shone the brightest in the 1962 European Cup final, where he scored two goals to confine Madrid to a 5-3 defeat. He went onto lose three finals after that in ’63, ’65 and ’68. For Portugal, he was as lethal. The 1966 World Cup will be remembered for a performance, that England legend and World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton, called, ‘one of the best individual performances you’ll ever see’.
In the quarterfinal tie versus unfancied North Korea at Goodison Park, Portugal found themselves 3-0 down, before Eusebio single handedly notched up four goals, to send Portugal into the semis, where they lost to England.
The 2-1 defeat to England, hurt him badly, especially due to the circumstances that surrounded it. The semi-finals was scheduled to be played in Goodison Park, Liverpool, where Portugal had played earlier, and done well. However, on the day for the tie, the Football Association shifted the venue to Wembley in London, which was a bigger stadium and England team’s base. The Portuguese team had to take an evening train to London on the eve of the match. He famously cried after the final whistle. Describing the moment, he said, ‘I looked at the sky and said, Lord what have I done to deserve this? and that’s when the tears came.’ He never played in a World Cup again. In 1975, he moved to America, which had become a destination for aging European players to earn their last bumper pay check. After six operations on the same knee, he retired in 1979.
Portugal announced three days of national mourning on the day of Eusebio’s death. During his prime at Benfica, Eusebio displayed human qualities that endeared him to teammates and opponents alike. During the 1968 European Cup final with Manchester United, with scores tied at 1-1 in the dying seconds, he was left one on one with United’s goalkeeper Alex Stepney. His powerful shot was saved by Stepney, and in a gesture of sportssmanship pat him on his back and applauded the goalkeeper. In his tribute to Eusebio, Stepney said, ‘He was certainly one of the game’s greats. To score that many goals is incredible. I don’t care who you are, what era you play in, to do that is some achievement.’ According to FIFA’s official statistics, he scored 679 goals in 678 official games. It is what he did. He scored goals and entertained.
The demise of Eusebio last week no doubt sent lovers of the game across the globe into mourning as very few people can match Black Panther’s amazing rise from grinding African poverty to the top of the football world.
World Cup England 1966
Group 3 saw two-time defending champions Brazil bow out in first stage after finishing third behind Portugal and Hungary. This was Brazil’s worst performance in any World Cup till then. Portugal won all three games in group stage, with a lot of help from Eusébio, whose nine goals made him the tournament’s top scorer. In the famous quarterfinal, North Korea looked poised to cause a major upset after going ahead 3-0 within 22 minutes. It fell to Eusébio, to change fortunes. The Portuguese great scored four goals in the match while José Augusto added a fifth to earn Portugal a 5–3 win. The venue of the semifinal between England and Portugal was changed from Goodison Park in Liverpool to Wembley due to Wembley’s larger capacity. This larger capacity was particularly significant during a time when ticket revenue was of crucial importance. Bobby Charlton scored both goals in England’s win with Portugal’s goal coming from a penalty in the 82nd minute after a handball by Jack Charlton on the goal line. The third place finish is still Portugal’s best in World Cup till date.
Eusebio in Benfica
1962 European Cup Final
Eusebio’s Benfica were up against the might of Ferenc Puskas’ Real Madrid. It was the Hungarian great who looked set to steal the show, with a first-half hat-trick to put his side 3-2 up at the break, but Eusebio won the match with two goals in the second half.
1963 European Cup Final
Benfica were back in the final the following season, this time up against AC Milan. Eusebio put his team ahead, but Benfica were denied, with Milan winning the match 2-1.
1965 Benfica rout Real
Goals of Eusebio drove Benfica to a third European Cup Final in four years in the 1964-65 season. Most notable was a dominant 5-1 thrashing of Real Madrid in the quarterfinals. Once again, however, Benfica lost in the final, this time to Inter Milan.
Eusebio on Tour
After ending his glorious career at Benfica in 1975, Eusebio spent the next four years skipping between teams in America, Mexico and back home in Portugal. In 1976, he was influential as the now-defunct Toronto Metros-Croatia were crowned National American Soccer League(NASL) champions.