BY Vince Cooper

JUST how important was Eusebio to world football? Well, he was the first great African import to the European game opening the door for so many to enrich the game in the future, was a real pioneer in many respects and provided proof that brilliance in our game can come from the unlikeliest of sources.

Eusebio da Silva Ferreira was born in 1942 in Lourenço Marques (now known as Maputo) in Mozambique. His father, Laurindo was a white Angolan railroad worker and his mother a black Mozambican. Laurindo succumbed to tetanus, passing away when Eusebio was just eight years old and the youngster was brought up in poverty.

Having honed his skills by skipping school and playing barefoot on the streets Eusebio was signed at 15 by Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques, a feeder club of Sporting Lisbon. He only joined the team after being rejected by Benfica’s team which was where another future Benfica great, Mario Coluna, had started out.

It didn’t take long before the young striker was creating an impression and word was spreading of his prodigious talent. So much so that Juventus tried to take him to Italy, only to be rejected by his Mum. In fact, it was in a Lisbon barber’s shop that his future was decided.

A coach from Brazilian club São Paulo, Jose Carlos Bauer was raving to a friend about the skills of an 18-year-old he had seen in Mozambique. The friend just happened to be legendary Benfica coach Bela Guttmann.

Guttmann obviously took notice of his Brazilian friend because within a week he was on his way to Mozambique to persuade Eusebio’s mother to allow him to take her boy to Portugal and sign not for parent club Sporting but for Benfica.

Eusebio’s mother agreed but Sporting were incensed that a player they considered ‘theirs’ was signing for their greatest rivals. He moved to Portugal in December 1960 but with the legality of the deal still being disputed he didn’t actually sign for The Eagles until May 1961 after five months of legal wrangling.

Benfica were already a European power before Eusebio arrived. In fact, after scoring a hat trick in a friendly he made his debut in a Portuguese Cup tie against Vitória Setubal the day after his team had won the European Cup by beating Barcelona 3-2 in Berne, Switzerland.

Guttmann had already cast his net far and wide to build his European champs with goalkeeper Alberto da Costa Perreira and the aforementioned Coluna born in Mozambique and Angola-born pair Jose Aguas and Joaquim Santana.

European champions

They were already very good – their new player made them great.

The 1962 season saw the newcomer along with another fine player in winger Antonio Simoes quickly incorporated into the line-up. They scored 17 times in three ties – including a semi-final win over Spurs – to reach the European Cup final once again. The final, played in Amsterdam, saw them brush aside the mighty Real Madrid 5-3 with a 20-year-old Eusebio scoring twice.

Due to a November knee operation Eusebio missed the middle portion of the season, which was without a doubt a major factor in his team’s failure to retain the domestic title. But he finished the campaign with 29 goals in 31 games including a brace in the Portuguese Cup final win over Vitória de Setubal.

During the season Guttmann promoted centre-forward Jose Torres to the first team to replace Jose Águas and he along with Simoes and Eusebio would form a formidable front three.

The Main Man

Top players that they were, Torres, Simoes and Mario Coluna were clearly the supporting cast to the star man. Eusebio really did have it all. Capable of running the 100 metres in under 11 seconds, equally adept with either foot, brave and with superb ball control he was the ideal ‘second striker’ but was as adept out wide or as a central striker.

That summer Guttmann asked for a pay rise but the Benfica board turned him down and allowed his contract to expire. He left in some acrimony and placed a curse on the club saying ‘Benfica will never win the European Cup again without me’.  He did return in 1965 but stayed for a single season before moving on again. In total the Austrian coached 23 clubs (and the Portuguese national team) during a 40-year career and surely earns a place among the greatest and most innovative coaches of all time.

After Guttmann’s departure Benfica would – as he predicted – never quite scale the heights of Europe again although his replacement, Fernando Riera led the team to another European Cup final, this time at Wembley against Milan. Eusebio scored in the final, but the Italians got two and dethroned the champs.

Two years later Benfica, now led by Elek Schwartz, reached the final again but this time it was Milan’s city rivals Inter who denied them the trophy, winning 1-0 at the San Siro. Eusebio finished the season as top scorer in the tournament alongside teammate Torres, both finishing with nine goals.

Benfica continued to dominate Portuguese football with ‘Pantera Negra’ (‘The Black Panther’) at the heart of everything good that happened. During his time with ‘The Eagles’ the club won 11 domestic titles and five cups, and Eusebio’s form was such that in 1965 he was awarded the coveted ‘Balon d.Or’, seeing off Inter pair Giacinto Facchetti and Luis Suarez to take the crown.

Eusebio also came close to taking the award again in 1966, missing out by a single point to Bobby Charlton of World Cup winners England.

Whilst England were the star team of that ‘66 tournament there is little doubt that Eusebio was it’s outstanding individual.

Portugal kicked off their bid for the world crown with a 3-1 win over Hungary at Old Trafford. Eusebio’s Benfica teammates Jose Augusto (2) and Jose Torres providing the goals.

Next came a 3-0 over Bulgaria at the same ground with Eusebio getting off the mark for the tournament by scoring the second goal. Torres scored again with an own-goal completing the three.

The third game saw three more goals for the team led by Brazilian coach Otto Gloria. And this time it came against the team from Gloria’s homeland, and ended the participation of the reigning champions.

The match took place at Goodison Park in front of 58,479 fans and, at the time, seemed to indicate the passing of the title ‘World’s Greatest Player’ from Pele to Eusebio.

Portugal started strongly and Eusebio provided the opener when his cross set up Antonio Simoes to score. With Pele coming in for some heavy treatment the European side were on top and it came as no surprise when ‘The Black Panther’ headed home to give his team a two-goal cushion.

Pele was injured in an incident late in the first period and would spend the remainder of the game as little more than a passenger. Still Brazil fought back and they halved the deficit when Botafogo’s Rildo struck with 17 minutes remaining to give them a glimmer of hope.

Then Eusebio took over again, drawing two fine saves from Manga before smashing home the third, ensuring his nation finished the group stage with an unblemished record and condemning the reigning champions to an early exit.

The heavy treatment meted out to Pele replicated the way he was dealt with by Hungary in his team’s previous match and there was speculation that we may have seen the last of the great man on the World stage. As history shows, he was to bounce back and lead his nation to glory in Mexico four years later.

But it was Portugal who marched on in 1966 and they were back at Goodison for the quarter-final against the mystery men of North Korea who had shocked the football world when dumping Italy out in the group stage.

Scoring against North Korea

North Korea scored in the first minute through Pak Seung-zin and after 25 minutes had raced to an astounding 3-0 lead. Then Eusebio took over. He scored four times, including two penalties and generally tore the Korean defence apart with his pace and power. almost single-handedly dragging his team into the last four. Jose Augusto added a fifth with ten minutes remaining and Portugal were off to meet the hosts with a place in the final at stake.

The original plan would have seen the semi-final played at Goodison where the Portuguese had played so well, but FIFA switched the match to Wembley, a distinct advantage to the hosts and a decision that was met with derision by fans, the press and the Portugal team.

The semi was a fine match. England and Alf Ramsey showed Eusebio the greatest respect with Nobby Stiles detailed to man-mark the great man. It was Charlton who gave the hosts the lead when he reacted quickest after a Roger Hunt effort was palmed away by Perreira.

With Portugal looking a clear second-best, England went in at half-time a goal to the good.

After the break there were shouts for a penalty when a Simoes cross appeared to hit the hand of Stiles but the referee waved away the appeals. The game came only three days after Portugal’s dramatic comeback win over North Korea and many felt they would tire late on. This seemed to be confirmed when Geoff Hurst laid the ball back for Charlton to smash home his second with 12 minutes remaining.

But Portugal wouldn’t lay down. Three minutes later Jack Charlton used his hand to prevent a header from crossing the line and Eusebio scored from the spot, the first goal England had conceded in the competition.

The Portuguese still had time for another penalty appeal to be turned down but the hosts held on to make the final and condemn Eusebio’s team to a 3rd/4th play-off match against the Soviet Union. There Eusebio scored, again from the spot, to lead his team to a 2-1 win and to finish the tournament with nine goals, comfortably the leading scorer.

Leaving Wembley in tears

Portugal’s chance at world glory had gone but Eusebio had confirmed his standing as the best player around.

The star man made another appearance on the Wembley stage two years later. Benfica saw off Glentoran (just, a late goal from Eusebio at The Oval saw them progress on away goals), Saint Etienne, Vasas and Juventus to set up a European Cup final against Manchester United.

Benfica scored nine times in their run to the final, Eusebio got six of them.

In the big match Eusebio hit the crossbar early on but United took the lead through Charlton before Jaime Graca grabbed an equaliser.

Late on with the teams locked at 1-1, United goalkeeper Alex Stepney made a crucial save from Eusebio in a one-on-one situation. The Portuguese striker showed his sporting side by applauding his opponent and it was to prove the last big chance in normal time. In the extra period United were clearly the stronger team and goals from Best, Kidd and Charlton saw a first English victory in the tournament.

Eusebio continued banging in goals at club level at a fabulous pace. During his first two full  seasons in Portugal he scored slightly less goals than games played. For the next five years he would outscore the number of matches, eclipsing all in 1967-68 when he netted a phenomenal 42 times in 28 matches. Then in 1972-73 he scored 40 goals in 28 matches.

When his Benfica career finally came to an end in 1975 he had scored 473 goals in 440 official matches for the club, an astonishing record in modern football (even given the fact that the Portuguese League wasn’t by any means the toughest). He also finished his national career in 1972 with a record of 41 goals in 62 games.

Those goalscoring exploits would see Eusebio win two golden boots for the top scorer in Europe to sit alongside the top scorer award in the 1966 World Cup Final, the balon D’or and being chosen as the BBC’s overseas sports personality of the year in ‘66.

Benfica continued to be the leading force in Portuguese football throughout Eusebio’s time with the club. But they continually failed to convert that dominance into European success. On a national-team level, that glorious 1966 run that ended with the great man in tears at Wembley was to be his only trip to the World Cup finals.

In the qualification round for the 1970 World Cup, Portugal surprisingly finished bottom of a group topped by Romania and also featuring Greece and Switzerland. Eusebio scored three times in the six matches but, as with his club, the team was increasingly becoming him and ten others.

Las Vegas Quicksilvers

In 1975, after almost 15 years at Benfica, Eusebio took his talents across the Atlantic to compete in the flourishing National American Soccer League. He would play for Boston Minutemen, Toronto Metros-Croatia (where he scored in the final as his team won the 1976 Soccer Bowl), Las Vegas Quicksilvers and New Jersey Americans. He also had short spells with Monterrey in Mexico and two clubs in Portugal, Beira Mar and Uniao Tomar before finally hanging up his boots in 1979.

After retiring, Eusebio became an ambassador for Benfica as well as being an influence for future Portuguese stars Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Cristiano Ronaldo. He was revered wherever he went, nowhere more so than in Mozambique where he remains a true hero, as in Portugal.

Eusebio lived out his life quietly in Lisbon and passed away at home in Portugal in 2014 aged 71. None other than Alfredo Di Stefano called him; ‘The best player of all time’ and tributes came from far and wide with Cristiano Ronaldo saying he was ‘always eternal’ and Luis Figo calling him ‘the greatest’.

Following his death, the Portuguese government declared three days of national mourning. A year later the road running outside Benfica’s Estadio da Luz was renamed Avenida Eusebio da Silva Ferreira and, in an unprecedented move it was decided by a unanimous vote in parliament that he be interred at the Pantheon, a tribute usually reserved for former state leaders and leading cultural figures. The tribute goes some way to explaining that Eusebio’s legend, and status, goes far beyond the world of football.

There can be little doubt that any time a list of the world’s greatest-ever players is compiled the name of Eusebio will be at or near the top. But his humble beginnings and the path he blazed to the pinnacle of the game lit the way for generations of Africans to follow.

Married to Flora, Eusebio had two daughters, Carla and Sandra. So there was no son to carry on his legacy, but he left one far larger. There were Africans playing top-class football before Eusebio, in France and Spain as well as in Portugal. But he certainly opened the floodgates and was the man who made so many youngsters believe that, with talent, with application and with ambition, anything is possible.