Legendary Portuguese forward Eusebio left a mark on football that will serve as a shining example of professionalism mixed with undisputable footballing quality.
He scored an astounding 733 goals in 745 professional fixtures and was top goalscorer at the 1966 FIFA World Cup. During his career, he showed true sportsmanship and epitomised the way the beautiful game should be played.
Eusebio was born into poverty on the 25th of January, 1942 in Lourenco Marques, Mozambique – a Portugese colony. His only real hope to escape this life was to get an education – virtually impossible at the time, or live out the fantasy of becoming a professional footballer against all odds.
As a child, he played barefoot on the streets and the ball was made out of newspaper and rolled up socks.
After impressing for his local side, Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques, Eusebio was scouted by a number of clubs across Europe, including Italian giants Juventus, but his mother denied them her 15-year old son’s services.
She was afraid that her son would not adapt to the European lifestyle in Lisbon coming from the harsh realities of life in the relatively small East-African city.
However in 1960, Benfica came knocking she approved of the move but only tentatively so.
Eusébio first made an impact in a friendly against Santos, Pele’s club, scoring a hat-trick as a substitute. By the end of 1962, he was a regular in the starting line up of Benfica and never looked back from there. His searing pace, thunderous right foot and deceptive skill earned him the nickname “The Black Panther”.
He featured in a golden era of football. Those lucky enough to watch him in the 60s and 70s would’ve seen the Portuguese forward face-off against the likes of George Best, Gianni Rivera, Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano. Even in such illustrious company, Eusebio was arguably the finest player of his generation.
The 1966 FIFA World Cup saw him score 9 times for the Selecao, and was enough to see off World Champions Brazil along the way. They were paired together in both sides final match of the group stage – with Brazil needing a victory to qualify for the quarter finals after losing to Hungary.
This clash would showcase Eusebio’s talent on the biggest stage of all. He dismantled Brazil, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory and sent the defending champions packing from the competition.
Portugal had finished Group 3 at the top and would face the runner up of Group 4, North Korea. The game started at a frenetic pace, and was met with frustration and thoughts of impending doom from a Portuguese perspective. The first 25 minutes saw North Korea raced out to a 3-0 lead.
But with a talent like Eusebio in your ranks, even three goals down is not a mountain you cannot conquer. He scored four times as well as assisting the final goal for Augusto in a 5-3 win.
They were then knocked out 2-1 against an England side on home soil, Bobby Charlton and Eusebio with the goals – but as a 24 year old, he had officially arrived.
Undoubtedly the best team in Portugal, Eusebio had a great supporting cast at Benfica too. He had Mario Coluna and Jose Augusto in midfield, with the formidable presence of Costa Pereira as goalkeeper. The foundation was set for Benfica to dominate Europe the next decade and beyond that.
After defeating Real Madrid 5-3 in the final of 1962’s competition, they entered a period of frustration. Falling short in the final on three occasions to AC Milan, Inter Milan and Manchester United.
Despite these disappointments in European competition, Eusebio was always the beacon of fair play.
During the extra-time loss against Manchester United in 1968, the scores were locked at 1-1. Eusebio blasted a goalbound shot towards United goalkeeper Alex Stepney, which he saved. With the final whistle nearing ever closer, Stepney had denied Benfica a win.
Eusebio took a step back and allowed the goalkeeper to throw the ball out and applauded him.
Then, as Stepney walked backward to his goal-line, Eusebio gave him the thumbs up. Eusebio recognised the qualities of his opponent in a show of true sportsmanship when it would’ve been easier to do otherwise.
His popularity both domestically and abroad became such that Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar passed a decree that prevented Eusebio from moving away from the country. This came after Inter Milan made a lucrative offer for his services.
The reason that Salazar gave? Because Eusebio was a “national treasure”.
Such sentiment seldom exists in the modern game.
Benfica’s dominance with Eusebio continued until 1975 when he called time on his career at the Portuguese club.
He went on to play for various clubs in the North American Soccer League as well as Monterrey in Mexico.
In life after football, he took up an ambassadorial role at the Portuguese Football Federation whilst regularly contributing to charities in his native Africa. They aim to bring football to those living in poverty, like he did as a boy.
He is survived by his wife, Flora, two children and grandchildren.