Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, who died last Sunday at the age of 71 of a heart attack after a few years of poor health, was nicknamed “the King” (O Rei) in his adopted homeland of Portugal.
He was born in Maputo in 1925 to a white Angolan railway mechanic and a black Mozambican mother. Eusébio’s father died when he was eight, and he developed a passion for football, playing barefoot with a ball stuffed with stockings and newspapers on dirt pitches in Maputo.
At 15, he signed for the local Sporting Club, earning himself the sobriquet: “The Phenomenon of Mafalala”. Explaining his natural talent, Eusébio later noted: “I just took a few kicks at the ball, and it seemed the ball and I took a liking to each other.”
He joined Portuguese and European champions, Benfica, in 1961 aged 19 for a paltry $1 700. However, since Eusébio had played for Sporting Lisbon’s feeder-team in Maputo, the deal triggered a massive row between the two Lisbon giants: Benfica and Sporting. Upon his arrival in Portugal, Eusébio spent two weeks in the fishing village of Lagos in the Algarve, instructed by Benfica officials not to leave his hotel room.
This led to charges by Sporting that the teenager had been “kidnapped”. The tussle was only resolved in court after five tortuous months.
Eusébio was a lightning-paced striker nicknamed the “Black Panther” due to his blistering acceleration, agility, and clinical finishing. He was athletic and stocky at 1.76m, and built like a sturdy bull with the speed of a cheetah.
He had dazzling dribbling skills that allowed him to ghost past defenders at pace, and a thunderous right foot unleashed with deadly force. He scored with pile drivers, delicate lobs, and guided missiles. He was the complete striker, ahead of his time in terms of his talent, technique, pace, and power.
Eusébio had a fierce determination to succeed, was fearless, and had an incredible belief in his own abilities. Even as a newly-arrived 19 year old, he calmly announced his intention to break into the first team of the European champions, Benfica.
In an early game for the club against Brazilian superstar Pelé’s Santos in 1961, as Benfica was losing 4-0, Eusébio came on as a second-half substitute to score a hat-trick, serving notice of his arrival on the global stage. In his first full season with Benfica, he led them to win the European Cup, scoring two goals in the famous 1962 final against Spanish giants, Real Madrid, which had earlier won five consecutive European cups between 1956 and 1960.
The Spanish team included Eusébio’s idol, Argentinian legend, Alfredo di Stéfano, as well as the Hungarian maestro Ferenc Puskás. After the game, Puskás and Eusébio swapped shirts: an act which many saw as a generational passing of the torch from the deadliest striker in Europe to his heir apparent.
The Afro-Portuguese guided Benfica to three more European cup finals, all of which they lost to AC Milan (1963), Inter Milan (1965), and Manchester United (1968).
Eusébio's self-confidence was infectious and rubbed off on his teammates. He effectively transformed decent Benfica and Portuguese national sides into great teams through sheer willpower and a towering presence. Eusébio would establish his immortality among the pantheon of football deities alongside such names as Pelé, Diego Maradona, Johann Cryuff, and Franz Beckenbauer through his stellar performances at the 1966 World Cup in England.
He scored two goals in a 3-1 win over Pelé’s Brazil; and another in a 3-0 victory over Bulgaria. He often showed great determination even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. With Portugal losing 3-0 at halftime against North Korea, Eusébio scored four goals in a dazzling second-half display, picking up the ball from the net after his first two goals and placing it on the centre spot to restart the game. He scored the lone goal in the 2-1 semi-final loss to eventual winners, England, and scored another goal against the Soviet Union to help win the third place match.
Eusébio famously burst into tears after the semi-final loss to England later saying: “I looked at the sky and said, ‘Lord what have I done to deserve this?’ “ This match entered into Portuguese sporting folklore as Jogo das Lágrimas (the “Game of Tears”).
Eusébio was the top goal-scorer in the tournament with nine goals, and Portugal has never reached such dazzling heights in a World Cup since.
This virtuoso performance was immortalised with a wax statue of the Mozambican prodigy at Madam Tussaud’s museum in London. Eusébio would eventually score 41 goals in 64 games for Portugal.
The Afro-Portuguese superstar went on to win the league title with Benfica 11 times, becoming top scorer of his domestic league a record seven times. He also won five Portuguese cups and the Ballon d’Or – the European player of the year – in 1965, as well as being runner-up in 1962 and 1966.
Only one other African player – Liberia’s George Weah in 1995 – has won this prestigious accolade. Eusébio also won the “golden boot” as the highest goal-scorer in Europe in 1968 (with 48 goals) and 1973 (with 40 goals). He would eventually score an astonishing 733 goals in 745 professional games. He was named among the 10 greatest footballers in a 1998 poll conducted by the world football federation, Fifa.
After 15 years with Benfica, Eusébio played out his final days mostly in the new North American soccer league, which an equally ageing Pelé was trying to popularise.
The two greatest black players of African descent of their generation and good friends, were thus reunited. Both lusophone superstars had been used by autocratic governments in Lisbon and Brasilia for propaganda purposes. Underlining the exploitation of top African players by European clubs that still sometimes continues today, Eusébio earned four times more a year in North America than he had earned with Benfica. He led the Toronto Metros-Croatia to a North American soccer league title in 1976. A long-term knee injury would, however, eventually force him to hang up his boots two years later, after a glittering two-decade career.
Eusébio remained largely apolitical throughout his career. The fact that his native Mozambique was a Portuguese colony until 1975 meant that he did not even have a choice but to play for Portugal if he wanted to experience international football. The Iberian nation was ruled by the iron-fisted right-wing dictatorship of António Salazar between 1932 and 1968. This resulted in Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, and Guinea-Bissau waging wars of liberation against an incompetent and poorly-resourced imperial power. Under the policy of lusotropicalism, Salazar had argued that Portugal’s multicultural, multiracial, and pluricontinental identity justified its perpetuation of its “civilising” mission over its African and Asian colonies.
Constrained by a repressive dictatorship in Lisbon, Eusébio never spoke out in support of the liberation struggle against Portuguese imperialism in his homeland. He was even somewhat uncomfortable with his nickname of “Black Panther” which he thought might have linked him too closely to America’s radical “Black Panther” movement.
After Inter Milan offered to pay Eusébio 40 times his salary at Benfica to move to Italy in 1964, Salazar declared him a “national treasure” and prevented him from leaving the country. The dictator also made Eusébio undergo three years of military service as a further obstacle. Eusébio would later describe Salazar as a “slave master”, explaining that he stayed silent for so long out of fear of being jailed. The Afro-Portuguese, however, visited Mozambique frequently, and noted at the end of his career that “I represented Africa and Portugal”.
In an era of superstars with oversized egos such as Real Madrid’s Portuguese galáctico (superstar), Cristiano Ronaldo, Eusébio’s widely-noted humility, unpretentious nature, and sportsmanship stood out. As Eusébio noted: “I respect the football of today, but the football of my time was better. Football today is just commercial.”
Even though African players have been playing in European leagues since the 1920s, Eusébio was undoubtedly the first global superstar to emerge from the continent. He blazed a trail that makes it possible for today’s African superstars such as Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré, Ghana’s Michael Essien, and Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel to ply their trade in Europe. Despite Eusébio’s African ancestry, there was a strange and lukewarm response to his death from Mozambican officialdom, demonstrating once again the biblical saying that no prophet is honoured in his own homeland.
In stark contrast, the Portuguese government declared three days of national mourning and ordered all flags to be flown at half-mast. A large statue outside Benfica’s “Stadium of Lights” had immortalised Eusébio in bronze in 1992. In a 2009 documentary, he had expressed a wish that his funeral cortège stop in front of his statue and make its way around the stadium before going into the giant ground. He expected there would be a lot of people present to witness the scene, while hoping that God gave him a few more years to live.
This scenario was played out last Sunday just as Eusébio had wished. Tens of thousands of people turned out to bid farewell to Portugal’s greatest player, who was also the brightest star to have come out of Africa. Portugal’s prime minister Pedro Coelho described Eusébio as “a football genius… an outstanding athlete and generous man”.
José Mourinho, the Portuguese coach of English club Chelsea, noted that: “I prefer to look upon him as immortal”.
It is Eusébio’s incredible footballing legacy that ensures that even though the King is dead, his name will live on forever.
Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town.
The Sunday Independent