KEIR RADNEDGE RECALLS: Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, who has died in Lisbon at 71, was the first great African footballer to make a mark on the world game.
The former Benfica legend was born and brought up in Mozambique when it was a Portuguese colony and its promising footballers were swept away to Lisbon and Oporto and spearheaded not only Portugal’s great clubs but its national team. He had been suffering from heart trouble for some years.
Most notably Eusebio was nine-goal leading scorer when Portugal finished a best-ever third at the 1966 World Cup in England. He scored more than 700 goals in a career which took him on to the United States and the North American Soccer League in the mid-1970s.
At club level he won the European Champions Cup in 1962, was a losing finalist three times, won 11 Portuguese league titles and five domestic cups. He scored a then record 41 goals in 64 internationals, was seven times league top scorer and European Golden Shoe winner in 1968 and 1973.
The young Eusebio, ironically, was a nursery product not of Benfica but of their great Lisbon rivals, Sporting. But when Sporting summoned him for a trial in 1961 he was virtually kidnapped off the plane by Benfica officials and hidden away until Sporting, having all but forgotten about him, had lost interest.
Bela Guttman, a veteran Hungarian, was coach of Benfica at the time and had a high regard for the talent offered by both Mozambique and Angola. The nucleus of the Benfica team which Guttmann had guided to European Cup victory in 1961 had come from Africa but Eusebio would prove the greatest of them all.
Guttmann introduced Eusebio to the first team at the end of the 1960-61 season. He was a reserve when Benfica went to France to face Santos of Brazil – inspired by Pele – in the famous Paris Tournament. At half-time Benica were losing 3-0. Guttmann, with nothing to lose, sent on Eusebio. Benfica still lost but Eusebio scored a spectacular hat-trick and outshone even Pele. He was still only 19.
A year later Eusebio scored two cannonball goals in the 5-3 victory Benfica ran up against the Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas in the European Cup Final in Amsterdam. This was a springboard from which Eusebio went on to become European Footballer of the Year in 1965 and explode on his one and only World Cup appearance in England in 1966, most notably with four goals in the astonishing quarter-final against North Korea.
Goal No9 was Portugal’s penalty winner against the Soviet Union and the great Lev Yashin in the third place play-off. By now he was nicknamed the Black Panther though it was a label he told this writer he disliked because of connotations of the socialist revolutionary activists in the United States in the late 1960s.
Football was always Eusebio’s life and when the North American Soccer League offered him the chance of a lucrative extension to his career he flew west to play for the Boston Minutemen, the Toronto Metros-Croatia and finally Las Vegas Quicksilver.
Finally, Chilean Fernando Riera – oen of his early coaches at Benfica – brought Eusebio to Mexico’s Monterrey in 1975 but injury meant he played only 10 matches.
Benfica’s faithful had mixed feelings about his self-imposed exile in North and Central America but any ill-feeling was soon forgotten when he returned to Lisbon to take up appointments as television analyst, assistant coach and the honoured public face of Benfica.
Fans around the world took Eusebio to their hearts not only because of his ability but because of the sportsmanslike way in which he played the people’s game. At Wembley in 1968 Eusebio very nearly won the European Cup Final for Benfica against Manchester United in the closing minutes of normal time only to be foiled by the intuition of goalkeeper Alex Stepney. In response Eusebio patted Stepney on the back, applauding a worthy opponent.
A statue of Eusebio in action now dominates the entrance to the Estadio do Benfica: no eagle of Lisbon ever flew higher in world football than Eusebio.
Eusebio remembers (in 2008):
What was your best goal?
Maybe one in 1965 against Chaux-de-Fonds. I played a one-two with Antonio Simões and I chipped the ball over the defender and then over another defender without the ball touching the ground before volleying it first-time from the edge of the penalty area. After the ball hit the net, the goalkeeper actually came and shook my hand and told me he had no chance of saving such a shot. We won 5-1.
What is your best memory of Bela Guttman?
He meant everything to me. He had the greatest influence on me. When I arrived in Lisbon, I had problems adapting to the cold weather as it was winter but he helped me to find my feet. He was the one who also told my older team-mates to help me because he saw the potential I had.
What do remember of the 1962 European Cup Final?
It was the match which launched my career. To beat Real Madrid in the final and for me to score two goals after we had been losing, it was fantastic. That was the game that made me believe that I could be a world class player, so I really started working hard to be the best I could be.
What was your greatest regret?
That we did not win the World Cup in England in 1966. We could have beaten England had we played the semi-final at Goodison Park because there we had already beaten Brazil and we had that magical win against the Koreans, but it was switched to Wembley and we paid the price. We were staying in a hotel in the centre of London before the match and this really disrupted us.