BY Vince Cooper

JUST how important was Eusebio to world football? He was the first great African import to the European game and was a real pioneer, as well as providing 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 was a white Angolan railroad worker and his mother a black Mozambican. His father passed away from tetanus when Eusebio was just eight years old and he was brought up in poverty.

Mozambique celebrate their hero

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 for 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.

Childhood home in Mozambique 

It didn’t take long before the young striker was creating an impression and word quickly spread 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 Benfica until May 1961 after five months of legal wrangling.

Training with Benfica

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 the club had won the European Cup by beating Barcelona 3-2 in 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 along with Angola-born pair Jose Aguas and Joaquim Santana already in the ranks.

Benfica 1962

They were already very good – their new player made them great. With another fine player, winger Antonio Simon’s also joining the line-up they retained the European Cup in style in 1962 beating Real Madrid 5-3 in the final with a 20-year-old Eusebio scoring twice.

That summer Guttmann asked for a pay rise and the Benfica board turned him down and allowed his contract to expire replacing him with the Chilean Fernando Riera. Guttmann’s departure came with some acrimony and he reportedly placed a curse on the club saying ‘Benfica will never win the European Cup again without me. He actually returned to Estadio da Luz in 1965 but stayed for a single season. In all, the Austria-born coach would take the helm at 23 clubs – plus the Portuguese national team – during a 40-year career and surely earns a place among the greatest, and most innovative, coaches of all time.

Due to Mozambique being a Portuguese colony, Eusebio was eligible to represent his adopted country and he made a scoring debut in October 1961 in a 4-2 World Cup qualifying win over Luxembourg.

Early on in the 1962-63 season Benfica had the chance to prove themselves the best team in the world, and Eusebio football’s new top man, when they met South American champions Santos for the Intercontinental Cup. The first leg was played in Brazil and the Portuguese team’s 3-2 defeat gave them hope.

Benfica and Santos line up for the Intercontinental Cup second leg.

The second leg at Estadio de Luz proved a different story. Benfica again scored twice – Eusebio got one of them – but Santos got five, with Pele grabbing a hat-trick to increase his total to five goals in the two games to run out 8-4 winners. The result seemed to prove that Eusebio, whilst now clearly among the best in Europe, had some way to go before he could match the mighty Pele.

Due to a November knee operation Eusebio missed the middle portion of the 1962-63 season, which, along with Guttmann’s departure was without 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.

Eusebio’s injury provided an opening for centre-forward Jose Torres to the first team and eventually he, Simoes and Eusebio would form a formidable strike force for both club and country.

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

Eusebio shoots against Milan

Riera, with his star man now back in the line-up, led the team to another European Cup final, this time at Wembley against Milan. Eusebio scored in the final, but the Italians scored two and dethroned the champs.

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

With the Balon d’Or

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.

Picking up some Otis Redding in England

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

Portugal 1966

Whilst England were the star team of that 1966 World Cup 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 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.

Pele and Eusebio

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.

Eusebio consoles and injured Pele

Pele was injured in an incident late in the first period and would spent 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 a 100% 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 top-class football may have seen the last of the great man on the World stage. As history shows, he was to bounce back and was a key component in his nation’s march 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, the team that had shocked football when dumping Italy out in the group stage.

Eusebio rushes back with the ball after bringing Portugal back into the game with his first penalty 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 for the hosts and a decision that was met with derision by fans, the press and the Portugal team who travelled down the evening before the match to play just three days after their quarter-final win.

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

With Portugal looking tired and a clear second-best, England went in at half-time a goal to the good and seemingly well on their way to the final.

Eusebio heads for goal against England at Wembley

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 Portuguese now clearly looked to be waning and when Geoff Hurst laid the ball back for Charlton to smash home his second with 12 minutes remaining it appeared all over.

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 at the finals.

Tears after defeat in the World Cup semi

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.

Portugal’s chance at glory had gone but Eusebio had confirmed that he deserved consideration when choosing the best player in the world.

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.

Manchester United v Benfica 1968

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 applauded his opponent after the stop and it was to prove the last big chance in normal time. In the extra period United were clearly the stronger, and fitter, team and goals from George Best, Brian Kidd and Charlton again saw a first English victory in the tournament.

At Estadio da Luz

Eusebio continued banging in goals at club level at a fabulous pace. During his first two full seasons in Portugal he scored slightly less than a goal a game. 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 almost matched that performance, scoring 40 goals in 28 outings.

With a Golden Boot

When his Benfica career came to an end 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 at the time. He also finished his national career in 1972 with a record of 41 goals in 62 games.

Best, Banks and Charlton are among those lining up for Eusebio’s 1973 testimonial.

In 1973 Eusebio was awarded a testimonial match. It saw a World XI, featuring George Best (making another comeback), Gordon Banks and Bobby and Jack Charlton among others, take on a Benfica said and it was a fitting reward for the fine service the Panther had given the Eagles over the years.

Bobby Moore wins Sports Persinality of the Year, Eusebio takes the overseas award

His 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 along with numerous other awards.

Benfica continued to be the leading force in Portuguese football throughout Eusebio’s time with the club. But they continually failed to replicate the European success of the early 1960s. 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 action for Toronto Metros Croatia

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.

Eusebio with wife Flora

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 among others. He was revered wherever he went, nowhere more so than in Mozambique where he remains a true hero, as in Portugal.

Eusebio and Luis Figo

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 simply ‘the greatest’.

Eusebio and Cristiano Ronaldo

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.

The Eusebio statue at Estadio da Luz

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.