There are footballers, great footballers … there are legends …. and there was Eusébio, the Mozambican. When he died on 5 January 2014, aged 71, for those of a certain generation, a little of our youth died with him. Clayton Goodwin pays tribute.
Poignantly, the man who attained his apotheosis in a World Cup competition has passed away in the first days of another year in which the World Cup will be contested. There were World Cups before Eusébio lit up the stage and there should be many more in the years ahead but nobody will be matched to the hour quite so perfectly as Eusébio da Silva Ferreira was in 1966, when for a season he outshone even the great Pelé.
Let us go back in time to appreciate his achievement. Football, though popular throughout the world, was not then the obsession that it has become. The World Cup competition in England had to compete with other sports for media coverage, and that summer two other superstars – boxer Muhammad Ali and cricketer Garry Sobers – were “in town” at the same time and were at the peak of their powers.
Furthermore, Eusébio did not play for the winners, which was England, the hosts. His country, Portugal, was so much on the periphery of media attention that it required something very special for Eusébio to become known as the player of the competition, the player of the decade, and, arguably, the player of all time. This was the only World competition in which he played compared to Pelé, who played in four.
Eusébio started the tournament modestly. In the preliminary rounds, he did not score in the 3-1 victory over the powerful Hungarians and found the net only once in the 3-0 drubbing of Bulgaria. Then came the clash with favourites Brazil before 62,000 spectators at Goodison Park, Liverpool. He scored in 27 minutes to put his country 2-0 up and, after the Brazilians had pulled one back, he made victory certain with a second goal in the 85th minute. The reward was a comparatively comfortable quarter-final against under-regarded North Korea.
Oh dear. The Koreans, who had already knocked out highly-regarded Italy, scored three times without reply in the first 22 minutes. Then Portugal, or, rather, Eusébio for Portugal, struck back – with a vengeance. He hit his first goal in the 27th minute, his second from the penalty-spot just before half-time, his third in the 56th minute, and his fourth, again with a penalty, in the 59th. The Koreans were sent reeling to a 5-3 defeat.
Interest in the semi-final against England was so high that the match was moved from Liverpool to Wembley to accommodate the 95,000-strong, partisan crowd. The Englishmen’s restrained, controlled football offset the brilliance of the Portuguese and cut off their goal-scoring opportunities. With his team 0-2 down, Eusébio scored from a penalty in the 82ⁿd minute – to become the top scorer in the competition – but it was too late to affect the result. He left the field in tears – but acclaimed for his ability to score from almost impossible angles.
It was an outstanding performance by any yardstick but there was more to it. The public loved Eusébio. His happy disposition fitted into the optimism of the age. This summer was still in the “seasons of Camelot”, before delusion set in, when the world seemed on its way to becoming a much better place. There was also an undertone of political sympathy. Eusébio was playing for Portugal because his homeland, Mozambique, where he was born at then Lourenco Marques (now Maputo), on 25 July 1942 was still their colony. The authoritarian Estado Novo had another eight years to run before the Carnation Revolution brought in democracy at home and independence to the colonies.
Eusébio, who was raised in poverty and whose father died when he was 8 years old, moved to Portugal in December 1960. His record of goal-scoring for the leading club Benfica in Portuguese domestic football was outstanding.
He scored 473 goals (and often hit the crossbar), including a hat-trick on his debut, in 440 competitive matches, including his being top-scorer in the Portuguese league seven times and European Golden Boot winner twice. Additionally, the man from Mozambique scored 41 times in 64 international appearances. Two weeks after his club debut, Eusébio was sent on as second-half substitute in a friendly game against Santos (Brazil), including Pelé, and scored three times in 20 minutes.
The following year, as a 19 year-old, he was in the Benfica team which retained the European Cup by beating formidable Real Madrid. He scored twice in the 5-3 victory.
Eusébio did not play in another World Cup competition, because Portugal failed to qualify and not through any failing on his part, but he continued to excel at the highest level of national/continental competition for another decade.
Eusébio is remembered for his speed of foot, electrifying pace and delicate skills, and the awesome power and sudden/fearsome velocity of the kick from his right foot … as well as for only having a restricted international platform. Nevertheless it was enough. Eusébio will be remembered, when so many merely great footballers are forgotten … that is what is important.