Saturday 21 October 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Eusebio was treasured on two continents

You wonder just how great Eusebio might have been had he been surrounded by the likes of Gerson, Rivelino and Jairzinho
You wonder just how great Eusebio might have been had he been surrounded by the likes of Gerson, Rivelino and Jairzinho

Eamonn Sweeney

Pele, like Shakespeare or Christy Ring, is one of those rare people regarded almost unanimously as number one in his chosen field. But different generations have had different ideas about who's next in line to the great Brazilian. For people of my age, it's Maradona, for the generation after us, it's probably Lionel Messi, for my father's generation, it tended to be Eusebio.

The one thing that sticks out when you look at clips of the great Portuguese striker, who died last week at the age of 71, is his flair for the spectacular. No doubt there were a few tap-ins among the 358 goals he amassed in 365 games for Benfica and Portugal but the typical Eusebio goal seemed to involve a swashbuckling run in which he beat several defenders, or a ferocious shot from long range. Sometimes they involved both.

He burst onto the scene in 1962 with a bravura performance in one of the greatest club games of all time, Benfica's 5-3 European Cup final victory over Real Madrid in Amsterdam. Eusebio was only 21 at the time and had just broken into the first team at Benfica, whose win the previous year had ended a run of six in a row by Real.

Normal service looked likely to be resumed when the Spanish giants led 3-2 at half-time thanks to a hat-trick from the magnificent Hungarian Ferenc Puskas. Yet the second half saw a changing of the guard as Puskas, the greatest European player of the 1950s, was overshadowed by the young striker who would fill that role in the '60s, Eusebio scoring the final two goals of the game.

Benfica would not win the European Cup again but they made it to three more finals, losing to AC Milan in 1963, Inter Milan in 1965 and Manchester United in 1968. Eusebio's goals played a huge part in getting them to those deciders. In 1965 and 1968 he was the competition's top scorer, as he was in 1966 even though United knocked Benfica out in the quarter-finals.

He ranks ninth on the all-time European Cup/Champions League scoring list but this is misleading as the new elongated competition with its group stages gives modern players more opportunities to increase their tally. Eusebio's 47 goals came in 64 games, Raul's record 71 goals took 144 matches to achieve.

In domestic football Eusebio was well nigh unstoppable, winning the Golden Boot for top scorer in European League football in 1968 with 43 goals and in 1973 with 40 goals. Only Lionel Messi has won the award three times. He topped the Portuguese League scoring charts six out of the seven years between 1964 and 1970. Unsurprisingly, Benfica won 11 league titles in his 14 seasons at the club.

Yet the 1966 World Cup remains perhaps his finest hour. It was his one chance to strut his stuff on the big international stage. In an era when only 16 teams made the World Cup finals and a mere four the finals of what was then the European Nations Cup, great players were not guaranteed an outing in a major championship. George Best never got his chance and Denis Law's came at the end of his career. Eusebio made the most of his one shot. He had to drag the team there for the first time ever by scoring seven goals in six qualifying games as Portugal edged out Czechoslovakia.

Going into the tournament as reigning European Footballer of the Year, he helped Portugal send shockwaves through world football with two goals that gave them a 3-1 victory over a Brazil team seeking a Jules Rimet Trophy hat-trick. Portugal topped their group and Brazil, for the only time in history, didn't make the knockout stages.

It all looked likely to be for nought four days later when a North Korean side who'd already knocked out Italy went 3-0 up at Goodison Park inside 25 minutes. Eusebio, not for the first time, put the team up on his back, scoring two goals before half-time and another pair after the break as Portugal won 5-3 to set up a semi-final showdown against England.

He scored in that one too but Bobby Charlton went one better and England went on to win the tournament. Yet to a large extent Eusebio had written his name all over the 1966 finals, his total of nine goals remains the fourth best in tournament history.

Four years later, Pele, eclipsed by his Portuguese counterpart in 1966, came back to win the World Cup with Brazil. Portugal weren't at that tournament, having finished bottom of a qualifying group won by Romania. You wonder just how great Eusebio might have been had he been surrounded by the likes of Gerson, Rivelino and Jairzinho rather than the members of a fast-declining Portugal side.

There is a great irony surrounding Eusebio's career, one underlined last week when the government in Lisbon called for three days of national mourning. And it's that the most famous Portuguese sportsman of all was not Portuguese. Not unless you think James Joyce or Michael Davitt or indeed Michael Cusack were British.

Because while Eusebio was nicknamed O Rei, he was in fact a colonial subject who couldn't play for the actual country of his birth because it was ruled by a foreign power. He was born in Mozambique, the son of a mother from that country which was then known as Portuguese East Africa and a father from Angola who died from tetanus when young Eusebio da Silva Ferreira was just eight. The European Pele was in fact the African Pele, the first sporting superstar from that continent.

The great Portuguese team of 1966 wasn't all that Portuguese either. Its second best player, midfield general Mario Coluna, was also from Mozambique as were centre-back Vicente Lucas and left-back Hilario. And Eusebio's years playing for Portugal coincided with the Mozambican War of Independence which only ended with the granting of independence in 1975 and was followed by a decade and a half of civil war .

Mario Coluna became president of the Mozambican Football Federation after independence and Minister for Sport a couple of years after the end of the civil war. Eusebio, however, did not return to live in Mozambique though he frequently visited. There is no record of how he felt about the War of Independence.

Yet we can imagine that, with almost 90,000 people, the majority of them civilians, losing their lives in the conflict, it must have been a troubling situation for a native of Mozambique who wore the jersey of

Portugal on the international stage. Especially one who came from the slum of Mafalala in the capital city of Maputo which produced many members of the FRELIMO independence movement.

Adding to the bitter irony is the fact that Eusebio was not allowed to leave Benfica by the fascist dictatorship which ruled Portugal up until 1974 on the grounds that he was "a national treasure".

The fine South African sportswriter Donald MacRae, interviewing Eusebio in 2006, thought he discerned a man haunted by the past who explained that whenever he flew back home to Mozambique, "I get very tense. I'm in the air all night and I remember that this journey goes the other way to the one I took at 19. I was leaving home then. You don't forget those feelings, even when you are 64."

But even though Eusebio steadfastly refused to talk about his own experiences with racism, his actions spoke louder than words. In 2010, he launched a series of anti-racism initiatives in the build-up to the first World Cup finals to be held in Africa.

Then he went back to his sister's house in Maputo to watch Manchester United play Benfica in the Champions League. He always respected United and one player in particular, saying, "Best was the greatest ever number 7 and when he died I sent his family a fax in Belfast. I told them what George meant to me. Whenever I went to England I always see the man inside George Best. I knew that George -- not the famous man with his troubles on the outside."

And now Eusebio, like George, is gone. But like Best he added plenty to the store of happiness and beauty in the world.

Isn't that a great thing to have done with a life?

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