The life and times of Eusebio

Article by Giorgio Pirelli

Every great football player and ambassador to his club and country should have their contribution to soccer marked by having a statue erected in their name. Thankfully there is a statue erected outside Benfica’s famous Stadium of Light in Lisbon. The statue is of Eusebio, some say the greatest African born soccer player in the history of the game.

Yet ironically, Eusebio, in a career that lasted more than twenty years at the top, relinquished his chance to represent Mozambique, where he was born, to don the red and green soccer uniform of Portugal, and with tremendous distinction Eusebio natural talents were discovered when he was just nineteen and he was brought from Mozambique to Portugal in 1961 by Benfica’s coach Bella Guttmann. Eusebio was not slow to just Guttmann’s faith in him and was soon a regular feature in Benfica’s first team. He really won the hearts of the local fans when he scored a hat-trick in a friendly match against Santos with none other than Pelè in the side. The Iberian Peninsula was the hot bed of European Soccer action in those days, and Eusebio and Benfica were slowly placing their giant footprint there. Eusebio was a key figure in leading Benfica to their second consecutive European Cup win in 1962 where he netted twice against holders Real Madrid, His goals contributed to yet another high scoring Final, with Benfica running out 5-3 winners.

As a no frills attacker, Eusebio enjoyed a remarkable run of success. Blessed with tremendous power and speed with loads of ball playing skills, His record in the Portuguese League speaks for itself. With 319 in 313 appearances winning him six times the title of top scorer in the Portuguese league. With Eusebio leading the line, Benfica won 10 Portuguese league championships as well as five domestic cups.During this decade, Benfica would figure in a further three European Champions’ Cup finals, which they all lost. Twice against Milanese clubs, first against Milan in 1963, and Internazionale in 1968. Signs that Eusebio’s and Benfica’s influence on European Soccer was on the wane was their third successive European Cup Final defeat, against Manchester United in 1968.

However there was no taking away from the fact that Eusebio was a key figure on the European Soccer Stage for more than a decade. During which time he was twice Golden Boot winner (1968 and 1973) and in 1965 he was awarded the Golden Ball as winner of the European Player of the Year.

On the international stage, Eusebio led Portugal in qualifying to the World Cup for their first time in 1966. The tournament, held in England proved to be both dramatic and poignant for Eusebio and Portugal. Their first round grouping included World Cup holders Brazil, and their match kicked off with Portugal very much the underdogs. Eusebio thought differently and he gifted the neutral supporters, most of them coming to watch Brazil, with an unforgettable performance in which he scored two goals in a 3-1 victory. A victory which put Brazil out of the tournament and saw Portugal move on to the knock out stages, where more incredible drama was to follow. Their next game was against the total underdogs of North Korea, and the pundits could see nothing but an easy win for the Portuguese. From the kick off, things looked entirely different, there seemed to eighteen Koreans on the pitch, and they seemed to be scoring at will, leading 3-0 before half time. It was then that Eusebio almost single handedly took the game by the scruff of its neck, and mounted what amounted to a one man attack force against what was turning out to be a worthy foe. He scored a hat-trick in rapid succession and as his third went in, he never stopped to celebrate. Instead he ran into the back of the Korean net, picked up the ball and ran all the way back to the centre circle with it. A sight that will remain in the annals of soccer history forever. It also must have struck fear into the Korean’s hearts as they realized that they were playing against a great player at the peak of his career, which refused to be beaten. Portugal won the game 5-3, with Eusebio adding his fourth and laying on the other.It was on to London to play England in the semi-finals. The task proved too much for Portugal and they lost 2-1 in a dour anti-climax of a match. Eusebio finished the tournament as top scorer with nine goals, yet sadly was never to appear in the World Cup finals again.

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