LISBON: Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, revered as football’s “Black Panther,” died on Sunday, aged 71, sending fans into mourning for a man who grew up in grinding African poverty before becoming one of the world’s greatest players.
Eusebio, who died of cardio-pulmonary arrest early on Sunday morning, reigned over Portuguese football in the 1960s, bringing glory to both his club Benfica and his country.
His death led to an outpouring of tributes with the Portuguese government decreeing three days of mourning, with flags in Lisbon to fly at half mast ahead of his funeral on Monday where tens of thousands of people are expected to line the streets to pay their respects.
“Football has lost a legend,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter wrote on Twitter. “But Eusebio’s place among the greats will never be taken away.”
English great Bobby Charlton, who helped Manchester United to victory over Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final, said it had been a privilege to have known Eusebio.
“He was one of the finest players I ever had the privilege to play against,” Charlton said at Old Tafford on Sunday, where around 75,000 fans staged a minute’s applause ahead of an English FC Cup game.
“Not only that, he was a true sportsman. His goals record is incredible and stands the test of time.”
Eusebio scored 733 goals in 745 matches and rivalled all-time greats including Pele, Alfredo Di Stefano and Charlton.
“I was the best player in the world, top scorer in the world and Europe. I did everything, except win a World Cup,” Eusebio said in a interview in 2011, recalling his tears after Portugal’s loss in the 1966 World Cup semi-final to England.
From humble origins in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, Eusebio was to emerge as one of the world’s most feared strikers, combining panther-like pace with a ferocious shooting ability.
Born in 1942, the poor boy from Maputo rose to prominence in Mozambique football circles as a teenager through his performances for Sporting Lourenco Marques, a team with links to Sporting Lisbon.
With his exceptional technique, strength and goal-scoring record, it was not long before word of Eusebio’s prowess soon filtered back to Portugal. In December 1960 he was offered trials with Sporting.
Although keen, Eusebio was not willing to risk leaving his beloved mother unless there was the firm promise of a contract. Sporting baulked, creating an opening for Benfica, who snapped up the youngster’s signature.
One-man rescue act
In an early game for Benfica he had outshone Pele in a friendly with Santos, and in 1962 he scored the crucial goals in a 5-3 victory over Real Madrid in the European Cup final.
When Madrid’s legendary Hungarian Ferenc Puskas symbolically handed his jersey to Eusebio after the match, the message was clear — the torch had passed, and in 1965 Eusebio was awarded the Ballon d’Or.
But while Eusebio excelled with Benfica in Europe, it was his exploits at the 1966 World Cup for which he will be best remembered.
Eusebio’s nine goals in England propelled Portugal to a third-place finish, and a succession of opposing teams simply had no answer to the power and pace of his play.
He scored twice in the 3-1 victory which sent holders Brazil out of the competition.
In the quarter-finals Eusebio was unstoppable, pulling off a one-man rescue act after Portugal went 3-0 down against North Korea after just 20 minutes.
The Koreans were blown away by a four-goal display from Eusebio as the Portuguese won 5-3.
In the semifinals against England, Eusebio was effectively marked out of the match but he did find the net again. He scored his ninth of the tournament in the third-place play-off win over the Soviet Union.
He finished his 64-cap career having accumulated 41 goals for Portugal. He also earned European football’s Golden Boot award twice and was Portugal’s top scorer every season between 1964 and 1973.
He helped Benfica to 11 league championships and five domestic cups.
In 1975 he joined the flow of players involved in the ill-fated North American Soccer League, before retiring in 1979 after winding down his career in Mexico and Portugal.
Married with two daughters, in retirement he became an ambassador for Benfica and the Portuguese football federation.
On Sunday, the player’s body was taken to Benfica’s Luz stadium (Stadium of Light) in Lisbon where fans placed flowers and prayed in front of Eusebio’s statue.
“Portugal has today lost one of its most beloved sons, Eusebio da Silva Ferreira. The country mourns his death,” President Anibal Cavaco Silva said.