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Europe mourns death of its best soccer player, Eusebio

Date

Ian Hawkey

Tributes left by fans near a statue of late Portuguese football player Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, also known as the 'Black Panther', outside the Luz stadium in Lisbon on Sunday. Eusebio died at the age of 71. Click for more photos

Portuguese soccer star Eusebio dead at 71

Portuguese soccer star Eusebio, voted one of the 10 best players of all time, has died of heart failure aged 71. Photo: AFP

Around the statue of Eusebio at Lisbon's Estadio da Luz on Sunday were festooned scarves, flowers and some simple, handwritten messages of gratitude. For those wishing to pay a more intimate tribute, the body of the club's emblematic player, who died in the early hours of the morning, aged 71, was brought to the stadium before his funeral.

Far beyond Portugal, whose national team he led to unprecedented heights in the 1960s, Eusebio's passing was vividly mourned, his death serving as a powerful reminder that, among his many achievements, his constituency as a sporting hero stretched across continents. He may be Europe's greatest 20th century soccer player, as well as the finest to come from Africa.

In Mozambique, where he was born and lived until his late teens, the former president Joaquim Chissano spoke of ''losing a friend'', and recalled their shared childhood encounters on the pitches of Maputo, then known as Lourenco Marques, capital of Portuguese East Africa.

Eusebio leaps high after scoring Portugal's second goal in its World Cup match against Bulgaria in Manchester, in July 1966.

Eusebio leaps high after scoring Portugal's second goal in its World Cup match against Bulgaria in Manchester, in July 1966. Photo: AP

Eusebio grew up in a poor family, the son of an Angolan railway worker and Mozambican mother. By his teens, he could sprint 100 metres in 11 seconds. Early reports of what he could do with a ball, a plaything which as a child he would sometimes fashion from rolled-up newspaper, focused not just on his physical forte but an element of audacious improvisation. In one-to-one duels, he liked to hook the ball, direct from the ground up over an opponent's head and snake around his rival to collect it.

Word of this prodigy spread quickly beyond the working-class suburb of Mafalala, his home, and into the privileged districts of the city, where a thriving league maintained high standards. The ''Phenomenon of Mafalala'' would quickly elevate it further. A fierce tug-of-war ensued between Benfica and Sporting, the dominant clubs of Lisbon, and both European heavyweights in the 1950s and 1960s, for his talent. After Benfica won in the courts, Eusebio's mother signed his first contract because the law deemed him a minor.

''He was gold, gold, gold,'' said Bela Guttmann, the Benfica coach who travelled to Lourenco Marques to assess him. He joined a club already thriving on African excellence, more than three decades before that continent became a focus for European scouts. Benfica defended the European Cup in 1962 with two Mozambicans and an Angolan in the line-up, Eusebio making the difference in a 5-3 win over Real Madrid in Amsterdam. He scored twice that night, and threatened to usher in a period in which his club would dominate the competition as much as Alfredo Di Stefano's Madrid had done until 1960. Benfica came close. Eusebio led its forward line in three more European Cup finals - a runner-up in each - the last against Manchester United at Wembley in 1968.

English soccer had him on a special pedestal by then, thanks chiefly to his performances at the 1966 World Cup. Eusebio emerged as the tournament's outstanding individual, Europe's answer to Brazil's Pele. The tournament put on the widest display of his many assets. Besides the speed, he had a powerful spring and power in the air. He had the upper body strength to protect himself in possession, in an era of more laissez-faire refereeing, although his ankles and knees would later suffer, chronically, from the sometimes brutal attention of dedicated man-markers. What many contemporaries remember as much as the skill on the ball, though, is how sweetly he almost always struck his volleys.

In England in 1966, he galvanised the Portuguese, with two goals in a 3-1 win over defending champion Brazil, four against North Korea. He cried when England eliminated his country at the semi-final stage. That, he later said, was the most heartbreaking moment of his professional career.

His impact on Portugal was immense. The country had never gone so far in a World Cup before and would wait 40 years to do again. Fifty-eight years on, the Portuguese government on Sunday declared three days of national mourning. ''We have lost one of our most loved and admired sons,'' said the president of the republic, Anibal Cavaco Silva. As a player, he had been thought a treasure so important he should be nationalised. The prime minister, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, apparently intervened directly to forbid Eusebio from leaving Benfica in favour of a big-money offer from Inter Milan.

In the 1960s, he could not help but be a symbol. His nicknames, the ''Black Pearl'', and later the ''Black Panther'', drew attention to him as a pioneer. He became a global icon in a period when other European nations were ceding independence to their African protectorates, while Portugal stubbornly would not.

He maintained strong links with the country of his birth, though was careful never to comment publicly on Portuguese-Mozambican relations during the often-savage war of independence that endured until the mid-1970s. ''The Mozambican people were proud of him,'' said Chissano, his childhood friend and later a freedom fighter, ''and through sport he was one of our ambassadors.''

In the hours after his death, his greatness was being abundantly acknowledged. He ranks, according to a broad FIFA survey at the beginning of the millennium, as the third-greatest player, after Pele and Diego Maradona, of the 20th century. That makes him Europe's best. And Africa's.

Telegraph, London

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