An illustrious list of African soccer players have competed for European clubs in the last five decades.
Long before Abedi Pele, George Weah, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, Yaya Toure and Michael Essien, however, was Mozambique-born Eusebio who was the first African soccer player to earn global recognition.
The top goal scorer in the 1966 World Cup in England with nine goals died last Sunday in Portugal, his adopted homeland. The 71-year-old, who was admitted to hospital several times in the last year for treatment of heart and respiratory problems, succumbed to heart failure.
“A football genius and example of humility, an outstanding athlete and generous man, Eusebio was for all sports fans and for all Portuguese an example of professionalism, determination and devotion to the colours of the national jersey and of Benfica,” Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho said in a statement.
In the 1966 quarter-final against North Korea, Eusebio netted four straight goals to lead Portugal to a come-from-behind 5-3 win.
An inside forward with a strong right foot, excellent control and acceleration which earned him the moniker “The Black Panther”, Eusebio is the only player to have been the subject of a direct comparison with the legendary Pele.
Commenting on the comparison, he once said: “We have this much in common. We both have soccer in our blood and live for the game. But I didn’t dethrone him in the 1966 World Cup. He is still the King.”
Eusebio was referring to the 1966 playoff for third place in which Brazil defeated Portugal 2-1.
Introduced to the Benfica first team at the end of the 1960-61 season, Eusebio was a reserve when the Portuguese club visited France to face Santos of Brazil – which had Pele in its line-up in the Paris tournament. Trailing 3-0 at half-time, Eusebio entered the game in the second stanza and scored a spectacular hat-trick in a losing cause.
A year later, the then 20-year-old netted in a 5-3 Benfica win over Real Madrid in the European Cup final in Amsterdam. In 13 seasons, he helped the club win the league seven times and the Cup twice. He was also the 1965 European Soccer Player of the Year.
After knee injuries halted his career with Benfica, Eusebio joined the then fledgling North American Soccer League and played for three teams, including Toronto Metros-Croatia which he helped win the 1976 crown. He also played for two Portuguese minor league teams and Mexican side, Monterrey.
In 1990, Eusebio – at age 48 – made an appearance for Portugal against Italy in a veterans match-up at SkyDome (now Rogers Centre). He last came to this city in June 2010 in a promotional tour ahead of the South Africa World Cup.
A statue to honour Eusebio was unveiled at the entrance to Benfica’s Estadio da Luz in Lisbon 22 years ago.
Eusebio is survived by his wife, Flora, two daughters and several grandchildren.