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May 17, 2006

Can Eusebio lead to a Portuguese pipeline?

There are few significant memorials to soccer players in the United States. Fortunately, the bronze Eusebio statue at Gillette Stadium sets a standard for aesthetic taste. The statue stands at ground level -- not on a pedestal -- behind the lighthouse goal, and depicts Eusebio cocking his right leg in preparation to strike the ball, faithful to the form which allowed him to score 733 goals in the Portuguese League and win the Champions Cup with Benfica in 1962.

But it is not apparent to everyone why the Eusebio statue ended up in Foxborough, Mass., on the grounds of what is primarily a National Football League stadium.

In the early 1990s, Boston businessman Vitor Batista, an Azorean immigrant, commissioned a statue of Eusebio, who symbolized a wide range of mostly positive things in Portugal. Batista's father was a Benfiquista (Benfica supporter) and passed on his connection with the club to Vitor. The plan was to donate the Eusebio statue to Sport Lisboa e Benfica, which would display it at Estadio da Luz in Lisbon. While they were at it, Vitor decided to cast a copy, which New England Sports Hall of Fame director Dick Johnson displayed until offering it to the Kraft family when they were replacing Foxboro Stadium in 2002.

The Krafts accepted the offer, partly on the advice of Tony Frias, a concrete contractor whose company had contributed to much of the new construction in Boston, plus the Krafts' new stadium. Frias had also been instrumental in bringing Eusebio to the U.S. to play in the North American Soccer League, Eusebio's last hurrah being a Soccer Bowl championship with Toronto Metros Croatia in 1976.

For a while, nobody knew what to do with the statue, and it was placed in storage. Several months after the stadium was completed, the statue was mounted on a concourse near the south entrance. It must confuse New England Patriot fans to be greeted by Eusebio, whose local history includes having played in the first soccer game at Foxboro Stadium (a Benfica-Sporting exhibition in 1972) and seven games with the Boston Minutemen in the NASL.

Though Eusebio da Silva Ferreira is an icon of soccer world-wide, he is not considered a part of the local sporting scene -- unless one slips outside the mainstream to the community of Vitor Batista and Tony Frias. There, you will discover an affection and allegiance to Benfica similar to that of Chivas supporters in Southern California. But the Benfiquistas are not only passionate, they are capitalistically so.

And that is one reason why Eusebio arrived at a New England Revolution game two weeks ago as part of a formal dedication of what he calls his "brother." The Benfica contingent included club president Luis Filipe Vieira, who considered the trip important enough to miss his team's final game of the regular season. The statue stop was only part of the visit. The rest of the time was spent in recruiting new subscribers to the club's "Kit Socio" package, the goal to double Benfica's 150,000 members. This is an ambitious program, an attempt to sell another 150,000 subscriptions at $55 each. Do the math and you get an idea of Benfica's influence in New England and the New York/New Jersey area.

Benfica believes it has something like 12 million supporters world-wide, and many of the most affluent and passionate reside in the U.S. Eusebio reminds everyone of the glory days, Benfica defeating Barcelona and Real Madrid for the Champions Cup in 1961 and '62 and Portugal reaching the World Cup semifinals in 1966. But these fans do not need Eusebio to display their colors. When Benfica won the Portuguese Superliga last year, parades were held in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey. Few other teams can arouse that kind of organized, widespread and visible support.

Now, the trick is to figure out how to tie Benfica to the MLS. A Benfica-Revolution relationship makes sense, the teams already symbolically related because of the Eusebio statues. Even though this appears to be a natural tie-in, the Revolution mostly have failed to tap into the Benfica connection, or to the Portuguese connection in general.

The Revolution have never contracted a top-flight Portugal-born player. The closest they came was in 1997, when the Revolution had Chiquinho Conde, like Eusebio Mozambique-born, an effective forward who had been recommended by Carlos Queiroz. The subject of buying a Portuguese player was raised at a round-table discussion with MLS commissioner Don Garber and deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who suggested it would be better if a player would emerge from the local Portuguese community. But that has already happened, players such as Paulo Dos Santos, Narcisco Fernandes, Jair, Carlos Rocha making their way into the MLS. The goal now should be to take a serious look into developing a relationship with Benfica that might provide opportunities for player exchange. Benfica has its eyes on the U.S. -- it offered $5 million for Eddie Johnson last year. The MLS previously has not set its sights on Benfica or Portugal.

There is no Eusebio successor on the horizon, though Luis Figo has expressed interest in moving to England or the U.S., so the MLS would have to be resourceful to produce the right fit of a Portuguese player with the Revolution or New York.

The latest prominent Portuguese player to be placed on the market is Sporting striker Sa Pinto, 33, who has been offered to MLS teams but with no takers, so far. Another possibility is midfielder Nilton, 27, from Penafiel. Last year, striker Joao Pinto became available and ended up performing well for Boavista.

Garber and Gazidis believe the MLS had been burned in the past by playing the ethnic card or investing in big names. But that is what buying soccer players is about -- you simply have to research your potential buy, and there is no foolproof method for doing that. Both Benfica and the MLS would have a stake in mutual player development. Eddie Johnson will go to Europe someday, so why not Benfica? And, maybe, the MLS gets either Nuno Gomes or Joao Tomas in exchange.

CLARIFICATION: Thanks to Angelo Bratsis for noting that U.S. referees worked at World Cups previous to 1970, both Prudencio Garcia (1950) of Missouri and Leo Goldstein (1962) of New York functioning as linesmen. Goldstein's story is particularly interesting. Goldstein, listed as being from Israel by FIFA, had been literally marching toward execution at a concentration camp when he volunteered to referee a game between two German teams, according to Jack Rollin's "Soccer At War 1939-1945." Goldstein continued refereeing upon moving to New York after the war.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.