Footballers, fans mourn the death of Eusebio, Portugal's original football hero before Figo and Ronaldo came along
Until Cristiano Ronaldo came along, no Portuguese footballer had a bigger impact on the English game than Eusebio, who died of cardio-pulmonary arrest yesterday morning.
Had fortune smiled rather more favourably on one of the finest strikers of all time, Portugal may have been the country that now looks back on those grainy images of 1966 as their greatest day. England may have had to wait another nine years to crown their first European Cup winners.
Instead, in this country, Eusebio will chiefly be remembered for two things — being the star of the team England defeated at Wembley to reach the World Cup final, and two years later, a remarkable act of sportsmanship.
When Man United ’keeper Alex Stepney kept out a Eusebio shot in the 1968 European Cup final en route to Matt Busby’s men beating Benfica, the striker’s reaction was to applaud the United man’s efforts.
Yet those two days — beaten and broken — do scant justice to one of the greatest players of all time, voted 10th in the list of 20th century stars by the influential World Soccer magazine.
Born in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, to a poor family, Eusebio’s football skills allowed him to move to Lisbon in his late teens.
After scoring a hat-trick on his debut for Benfica in a friendly in 1961, Eusebio quickly established himself with the Eagles, going on to find the net on a record 317 goals in 301 Portuguese league appearances. His tally of 41 goals in 64 caps for his country compares favourably with Ronaldo’s 47 in 109 appearances.
Although he played for eight clubs in total, all his significant achievements came during a 15-year stint with Benfica, winning 11 Portuguese titles, five domestic cups and the league’s top scorer on seven occasions. He also won the European Cup once — scoring twice in the 5-3 win over Real Madrid in 1962 — and featured in another three finals.
Nicknamed the Black Panther, Eusebio was noted for the power of his shot, but also his speed and athleticism. As Stepney could testify, in addition he was a fine sportsman.
Crowned European Footballer of the Year in 1965, Eusebio was Golden Boot winner at the World Cup 12 months later, scoring nine times in just six games, including four in an incredible quarter-final win over North Korea, when Portugal came back from three goals down, an individual haul exceeded only once in the competition’s entire history.
So popular had he become that Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar passed a decree that prevented Eusebio leaving the country to take up a lucrative offer from Inter Milan.
“I explained to (Salazar) that I had the chance to earn a lot of money but he said, ‘No, you’re part of the patrimony of Portugal — you can’t leave’,” Eusebio recounted in an interview with Four Four Two magazine in 2008. “Looking back on my career I can’t say I am sad about it.”
A great loss: Luis Figo
Eusebio retains a special place in the affections of English football, although it is in Portugal where his loss will be most keenly felt. “Always eternal Eusebio, rest in peace,” said Ronaldo on Twitter.
“The king! Great loss for all of us! The greatest! His death is a great loss ... for everything he represented globally. He was close to national players, always ready to help and offer words of comfort. He leaves behind a great void,” said Luis Figo, who has 127 Portugal caps. Eusebio is survived by his wife, Flora, two daughters and several grandchildren.
No of goals Eusebio scored for club and country (in 715 appearances)
Eusebio’s goals-per-game ratio. He was also known as ‘The Black Panther’