As a child, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho would get a shirt, a ball and a boot from Eusebio every year on his birthday, a day after the legend’s own on January 25. There’s a special poignancy to Mourinho’s verdict on Eusebio, who passed away at 71 on Sunday: “I think guys like him never die. History doesn’t let them die.” The “Black Panther” scored 733 goals from 745 competitive matches, and 638 in 614 official games for Benfica. He took Portugal to the semi-finals of the 1966 World Cup — finishing third, the best ever Portuguese performance till date — with nine goals and the Golden Boot. But those who watched Eusebio play could never forget the lightning acceleration, the dribbling that hypnotised opponents and the lethal rightfoot that finished the job. This ranked him with Pele and Bobby Charlton, long before Luis Figo’s “golden generation”, or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Eusebio da Silva Ferreira’s story is an irony of colonialism. Had his native Mozambique not been a Portuguese territory, without the right to field a national side, Eusebio wouldn’t have played in the World Cup. The legendary match against North Korea in 1966, where he pulled the Portuguese back from a 0-3 trail to a 5-3 victory, and his goals against the two greatest goalkeepers ever — England’s Gordon Banks and the Soviet Union’s Lev Yashin — in back-to-back matches wouldn’t be in the records.
Eusebio’s sense of fair play and his role as a football ambassador are part of his enduring legacy. But to understand what Africa’s first great footballer meant for the sport, just this illustration would suffice: at the 1968 European Cup final, Alex Stepney, the Manchester United goalie, denied Eusebio a sure goal from his 15-yard shot and Benfica, a win in regulation time. How did Eusebio react? He saluted Stepney, patted him and gave him a thumbs up.