Belfast Telegraph

World mourns Eusebio

By Steve Tongue

The Portuguese government has announced three days of national mourning around the funeral tomorrow of the country's greatest sporting hero, Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, who died yesterday, shortly before what would have been his 72nd birthday.

Fellow countrymen Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Jose Mourinho led the tributes, which included many from old British adversaries, notably those of Manchester United.

Eusebio's global popularity stemmed from an endearing combination of the natural talent that brought 733 goals in 745 games and the sportsmanship summed up with his instinctive congratulation to United's goalkeeper Alex Stepney for saving the shot with which Eusebio should have won the 1968 European Cup final.

It was one of the few regrets of a spectacular career that so many of Eusebio's most bitter disappointments should come at Wembley, where his Benfica side lost that final, five years after unexpectedly going down 2-1 at the same ground to Milan. In between times a pair of goals by Sir Bobby Charlton eliminated Portugal there in the 1966 World Cup semi-final. "The only stadium where I've scored but never won," Eusebio once said.

Even in days of minimal television coverage and insular newspapers, his reputation preceded him to the 1966 World Cup, which he would finish as leading goalscorer.

Portugal, reaching the final stages for the first time, were based in the North-west and impressed the crowds at Old Trafford and Goodison Park in scoring three goals in every group game against Hungary, Bulgaria and the holders Brazil to top their section. That meant remaining on Merseyside for the quarter-final against North Korea, when Eusebio produced what Charlton has called "one of the best individual performances you'll ever see".

The Goodison crowd of almost 52,000 naturally sided with the Asian underdogs, who had sensationally knocked out Italy and now caused further disbelief by taking a three-goal lead in the first quarter of the game. The remaining three-quarters belonged to one man. By half-time Eusebio had retrieved two of the goals and in little more than quarter of an hour added another two before Portugal finished 5-3 winners.

The team were nevertheless weary victors and in the semi-final – which they still believe was switched to Wembley to favour England – Eusebio was shackled by Nobby Stiles. His late penalty in the 2-1 defeat was his eighth goal of the tournament and a ninth followed in the successful third-place match against the USSR; only Gerd Müller (10) has subsequently scored more.

Two years later he would be back at Wembley for the last of his four European Cup finals and a third successive defeat. His winning one, however, is widely considered to rival the 1960 final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt as the best ever. It came in 1962, when the 20-year-old Eusebio completed his first full season with two goals as Benfica destroyed Madrid 5-3 despite a hat-trick for the Spanish side by Ferenc Puskas.

He had arrived from his native Mozambique, a Portuguese colony, a year earlier after a bitter tug of war Sporting Lisbon. Benfica had offered his widowed mother more money.

The following month he was introduced as a substitute against Pele's Santos, the world champions, with Benfica losing 4-0 – and scored another hat-trick, in 17 minutes.

His scoring rate at club level bettered Pele's, averaging more than a goal per game, and helping Benficawin the Portuguese League 11 times and second three times in his 14 seasons. After that he played for a while in the US, Canada and at a lower level in Portugal, despite increasing knee problems. From the late 1970s, he remained an ambassador for Benfica and the Portuguese FA.

Some years ago, Eusebio said that he hoped one day his funeral procession would pass the statue of him outside Benfica's Stadium of Light and make its way into the ground as "I know a lot of people will come". That wish is now assured.

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