With the passing of Portugal great Eusébio on Sunday, football has lost not only one of its all-time talents but also an important figure who trailblazed a path for African stars to make a living from the game in Europe.
During an illustrious career in which he established himself as one of the outstanding players of his generation, the forward enjoyed a remarkable career in which he scored an incredible 727 times in 715 appearances for Benfica, with whom he spent 15 years at the vanguard of their offence.
Having been born in Mozambique to an Angolan father and Mozambican mother, Eusébio was something of a novelty not only because of his talents, but also because of his background. When he made his breakthrough for the Lisbon club in the early 1960s, there had never before been such a European superstar hailing from the continent of Africa, and when he struck a hat-trick against a Santos outfit containing Pele in only his second outing for Benfica’s senior side, he probably had no idea that influx of talent he was smashing down the door for.
Today it is rare for any top level European side to be without at least one player who can trace their ancestry back to Africa. Without Eusébio, there would have been no Abedi Pele, George Weah, Marcel Desailly or Didier Drogba.
Nevertheless, ‘the Black Pearl’, as he quickly became known, would turn out for his adopted country at international level, where his legend would only grow. In total he scored 41 times for Portugal – a figure only recently bettered by Cristiano Ronaldo, who has yet to wrestle the mantle of the nation’s greatest ever player away from the Benfica icon – achieved in only 64 outings and at a far superior rate to his modern-day counterpart.
If comparisons against Ronaldo still broadly favour Eusébio, he is often unfavourably associated with Pele, who scored many of his 1,281 goals against second-rate state opponents when the Portuguese was busy competing against the world’s best on a regular basis in Europe.
Eusébio and then Manchester United player Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008. Via Zimbio
While fans of Pele, Marco van Basten and the Brazilian and Portuguese Ronaldos may argue otherwise, there has probably never been a more complete forward in history than Eusébio. Brilliant with both feet and in the air, bull-like strength, lightning-pace, a lethal finisher and perfect technique – the striker boasted every attribute in the game.
Back in the days when you would only find synthetic balls in petrol stations and corner shops, Eusébio was – along with Rivelino, Gianluigi Riva and Peter Lorimer - one of the very few players who could strike the hard leather footballs with frightening force. Goalkeepers and wall-makers would be wild with fear facing a Eusébio free kick.
Physically, Eusébio was decades ahead of his time. In the 1960s, professionalism and fitness was not what it was today. The 'Black Panther', as he was also known, was the perfect physical specimen – he was so much faster, stronger, fitter and better conditioned than the rest of his generation that opponents simply didn’t stand a chance. Had Eusébio been born 50 years later, he would have had no problem shining in today’s age of running, pressing and transitioning.
Eusébio’s honours list is the envy of anyone. During 15 years at Benfica, he won 11 Primeira Ligas, five Portuguese Cups and a European Cup – establishing the Eagles as one of the best sides in Europe throughout the 1960s. He was one-half of the famous Mozambican-born couple with the equally outstanding centre midfielder Mario Coluna in a Benfica team brimming with quality such as Antonio Simoes, Jose Aguas, Jose Augusto, Germano and Jose Torres. This Benfica generation reached five European Cup finals in seven years, winning two.
Like all great players, Eusébio rose to the big occasion. He was the star of the show in the 1962 European Cup final, scoring twice and running riot against legendary Uruguayan centre back Jose Santamaria as Benfica defeated the Real Madrid of Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Francisco Gento 5-3 in Amsterdam. After the game Puskas handed Eusébio his shirt, symbolising the passing of the torch. Eusébio scored in the final again the following year at Wembley as Benfica aimed for three consecutive European Cup wins but playing with 10 men following an injury to Coluna, AC Milan emerged 2-1 victors.
Internationally, together with his Benfica colleagues, Eusébio lit up the 1966 World Cup in England in what was Portugal’s only major finals appearance until 1984. The marksman struck nine times to win the Golden Boot, delivering a string of memorable performances as Portugal finished third – still their best-ever performance in a World Cup. The most noteworthy included the final Group 3 game against Brazil where Eusébio devastated the ageing double reigning champions with two goals. The 3-1 win eliminated the Selecao from the tournament and sent an injured Pele into temporary retirement.
In the quarter-finals at Goodison Park, Portugal found themselves 3-0 down in 25 minutes to Italy’s surprise conquerors North Korea. Eusébio then awakened to crush the East Asians, firing home four goals as Portugal recovered to book a semi-final meeting with hosts England. Eusébio would depart the pitch in tears as an inspired Bobby Charlton led England to a 2-1 win on the way to World Cup glory. Inevitably, Eusébio scored – just as he did in the third-place play-off victory over Lev Yashin’s Soviet Union.
His achievements saw him win the Ballon d’Or in 1965 and twice finish runner-up, while he twice bagged the European Golden Boot in 1968 and 1973. He was also European Cup top-scorer on three occasions.
Tributes have been pouring in for Eusébio following his passing. Cristiano Ronaldo tweeted that his countryman would remain "always eternal", FIFA president Sepp Blatter noted that while "Football has lost a legend, Eusébio’s place among the greats will never be taken away". But perhaps Luis Figo summed it up best when he tweeted that Eusébio was "The king!! A great loss for us all! The greatest!!"
In terms of completeness, there has never been a centre forward as great as Eusébio. He was a panther, a pearl and a pioneer.
As a compliment, stream Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano's reading of Eusebio in which he celebrates Portugal's greatest player, below.