There was a moment, towards the end of the 1968 European Cup Final when Eusebio was sent through on goal. With the game level at 1-1, here was the chance to win Benfica a third European Cup. His shot however inexplicably went straight into Alex Stepney’s hands.
As Wembley stadium heaved a sigh of relief at the disbelief of a player of Eusebio’s calibre missing such a
glorious opportunity, the Portuguese striker showed the world his best. He saluted Stepney for his brilliant effort at saving the ball and even when the Manchester United goalkeeper threw the ball back into play, Eusebio was left applauding him.
It showed a difference. Eusebio should have had his hands on his head, frustrated at himself for failing to score. Instead, he chose to appreciate the efforts of an opposition player.
It was not the last time. At the 1966 World Cup, he displayed the same sort of Fair Play. In the semi-final against England, he tucked away Portugal’s consolatory penalty and proceeded to salute Gordon Banks. In the third-place playoff, his opener was a penalty but then again, he applauded Soviet Union’s goalkeeper, Lev Yashin, for guessing the right way.
Here was a player who despite his overbearing greatness carried a humility that made him likeable. His emotional nature saw him tear up in times of joy, and tear up even more in times of defeat. Inconsolable after Portugal lost the World Cup semi-final in 1966, it was striking how it seemed as if he had let his country down rather than him weeping because he had lost the chance to win a World Cup.
His humility probably came from his humble beginnings. Born in Portuguese East Africa, a region that now comprises Mozambique, he was unlucky to lose his Angolan father at the tender age of eight. His Mozambican mother took care of him and the rest of his siblings.
Yet, the boy was obsessed with football and would play it bare footed on dusty fields. At a young age, he was spotted by Juventus but agents from the Italian giants were turned down by his mother.
Still, Eusebio tried to get into Grupo Desportivo de Lourenco de Marques — the feeder club for Portuguese giants Benfica. The inspiration, as was for all Mozambican boys at the time was Mario Coluna who had passed through that same club and found himself starring in front of the the audience at the Estadio da Luz.
He failed to get in but instead found himself at Sporting Clube de Lourenco Marques — a feeder club of Sporting Lisbon. But as fate would have it, he would eventually find himself at Benfica.
The story goes that the then coach of Benfica, Bela Guttman, who had coached in Brazil before moving to Portugal had a chance meeting with Jose Carlos Bauer at a barber shop. The Hungarian manager requested his successor at Sao Paulo to keep an eye out for talent as Sao Paulo was going on an African tour. On returning, Bauer told Guttman of Eusebio.
And while Eusebio was destined for Sporting Lisbon, Guttman pulled the strings that would see Benfica hijack the deal. The controversy of the transfer meant that Benfica could not register him until the 1961-1962 season and further deepened the rivalry between the two Lisbon clubs.
As Benfica conquered Europe in 1961, a nineteen year old Eusebio watched on in the reserves. But as the new season began, he displayed his quality to ensure Benfica’s eagle continued to soar high.
His affirming moment came in the 1962 European Cup Final. Against Real Madrid, the club that had made the European Cup its source of obsession, Eusebio illuminated the field. It was not easy however, as Alfredo Di Stefano dominated the early minutes and Ferenc Puskas notched a brace to give the Madrid-based club a 2-0 lead inside 23 minutes.
That was when Eusebio took the game by its horns and within ten minutes, Benfica were level. But Puskas would complete his hat-trick to send Real Madrid into a halftime lead.
Eusebio would continue to dominate in the second half — creating the space for Coluna to equalise, then picking himself up to score the penalty that saw Benfica in front for the first time. His free kick later would be a mere coup de grace, but it was fitting for a player who had graced such a game.
Di Stefano would symbolically pass on the baton to Europe’s rising star by handing him his shirt after the game. Those feats in that season were so grand that it meant although it was his first professional season in Europe, he would come runners up in the Ballon d’Or Award.
But his star would be slightly dimmed, or rather, put in its place when he faced Pele and Santos in that year’s Intercontinental Cup. While he had already dethroned Di Stefano and Puskas on the European stage, Pele proved to be a bridge too far on the global stage. Coming from a 3-2 defeat in Sao Paulo, it was expected that Benfica could come back in the second leg in the same manner they had as against Madrid.
However, Pele dominated once again as Santos ran out 5-2 victors. The Brazilians fourth was strikingly indicative. Pele received the ball in the middle of the pitch, nutmegged Eusebio and waltzed past Benfica defenders to score. As embarrassing as it was, it seemed to affirm Pele’s position as the world’s greatest. The rising Eusebio star could not displace him on that front.
And while Pele would go on to win World Cups, Eusebio would not have the same luck.
Eusebio however brought Portugal the closest they ever have. At the 1966 tourney, he was the stand out player. His link up play once more with club mate Coluna saw Portugal navigate the group stages.
It was at the quarter finals where Eusebio shone brightest. Facing a North Korean side that had just shocked Italy in the earlier rounds, Portugal found themselves three goals down inside 25 minutes. Eusebio however would score the next four goals of the game, as the game ended in a 5-3 win for the Portuguese who would be knocked out by eventual champions England in the next round.
Eusebio had however put Portugal on the map. It took Portugal 20 years to qualify for another World Cup and even the golden generations that included Luis Figo and Manuel Rui Costa, as well as the current generation of Cristiano Ronaldo and Joao Moutinho are yet to place as high as third place at a World Cup.
Eusebio was probably the greatest Portuguese footballer who ever lived. Since his time, only Pedro Pauleta has come close to being the world class striker that a country craves. Figo on the other hand may have been important for he inspired the current generation while Ronaldo may yet surpass him. But in as far as being a pioneer is concerned, the humble Boy from Mozambique was Portugal’s greatest ever.
[images courtesy of imortaisdofutebol]