Portugal football legend Eusebio was a pioneer for African athletes

Voted the third greatest player of the 20th century, Ian Hawkey remembers Benfica and Portugal’s record-scoring forward, who died yesterday at his home in Lisbon, age 71, of heart failure.

Benfica legend Eusebio, left, runs past AC Milan player Giovanni Trapattoni during the European Cup final at Wembley Stadium in 1962/63. It was the second of  four European finals Eusebio played in for the Portuguese club, though he would only win the competition once, in 1961/62. Getty Images
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In Mozambique, southeast Africa, in the 1950s, the sort of football being played was so unique it developed its own specialised vocabulary.

A celebrated poet, one Jose Craveirinha, then living in Lourenco Marques, capital of what was a Portuguese colonial territory, made a study of its terms.

Half a century later they evoke wonderful, inventive manoeuvres, craftiness and great physical prowess.

Craveirinha noticed that footballers and fans had created a sort of creole, inserting words drawn from the local African language, Ronga, into Portuguese to describe certain skills and tricks: the “beketela”, when the man on the ball, anticipating a challenge, slows the momentum of the ball subtly and suddenly, so his opponent fouls him; or a “wupfetela”, a sort of tease on the goalkeeper when a striker duels, one-on-one with him, hesitating before scoring; or a “tchimbela”, which Craveirinha interpreted as “shooting the ball directly at the opponent with such force he is intimidated in later moves”.

Alas, film footage of football matches in Mozambique in the 1950s is scarce. It sounds as if it were richly entertaining to watch.

Certainly, it was the fertile nursery for one of the sport's giants, Eusebio, who died at his home in Lisbon, at age 71, in the early hours of yesterday morning after suffering heart failure .

He was voted the third-greatest player of the 20th century by respondents to a Fifa poll, behind only co-winners Pele and Diego Maradona.

Eusebio came from a working-class district of Lourenco Marques, now Maputo, called Mafalala, and was still in his early teens when he enlisted at the Mozambican satellite club of Lisbon’s Sporting.

He became the subject of a heavyweight transfer battle between what were then two of the leading clubs of Europe, Sporting and Benfica.

Both clubs, like the poet Craveirinha, had seen something unique, a combination of power and invention, and skills beyond ordinary description, in the way he approached the game.

The battle for the right to unleash Eusebio on European football would take the Lisbon rivals all the way to Portugal’s highest court in 1960.

Eusebio was brought up with the educational deprivation typical of black Africans in Portugal’s large empire and had limited say in choosing his destination. But his and his family’s circumstances certainly improved on moving abroad.

Benfica would become his employers for 15 years, between 1960 and 1975. He would shape that club’s history and come to define the Portugal national team for more than a decade.

“He was gold, gold, gold,” the Benfica coach of the early 1960s, Bela Guttmann, would say of Eusebio, who arrived at a club who had just ended Real Madrid’s five-year dominance as European champions and immediately made Benfica even more potent.

He scored twice in the 1962 European Cup final, in Amsterdam, in Benfica's 5-3 victory over Madrid.

Winning the European Cup, he would later say, was the greatest moment of his career. Finishing runner-up in it, as he would three times with Benfica, would seem especially cruel for the greatest centre-forward of his era, and one rewarded as such with the Ballon d’Or, European Footballer of the Year, of 1965.

He had breathtaking speed at his peak, reputedly capable of clocking 11 seconds over 100 metres. He had powerful spring in his calves and thighs, and a forceful header.

He needed ruggedness, too, in a period of little protection from referees, brutal tackles and, in his case, the attention of dedicated man-markers almost wherever his Benfica or Portugal played.

He possessed the great sportsman’s instinctive gift of timing, peerless in how sweetly he could strike a volley.

In 1966, Eusebio shone at the World Cup, elevating the Portuguese national team to heights they had never previously known. He was the leading scorer, with nine goals, at the tournament, including two in the defeat of Brazil, and four against North Korea. His team lost a riveting semi-final against the hosts and eventual winners, England, a greater heartbreak, he would later recall, than the trio of silver medals in the European Cups.

His statistics provoke awe. Forty-one international goals from 64 caps; 473 goals in 440 competitive matches for Benfica, who are making arrangements for his body to lie, as if in state, at the Stadio da Luz, for supporters to pay tribute in the coming days.

Tributes will be heard from far beyond Portugal. Eusebio, nicknamed “Black Panther”, was an icon in Europe and Africa, above all, and considered a pathfinder for black achievement in a period of history when colonialism was ending, but prejudice was still widespread.

Though he seldom promoted himself as a social or political figurehead, and usually carried himself with a dignified humility, his deeds touched and inspired millions across the globe.

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