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Jan 22, 2009

The pioneer of Portuguese football

In being recently awarded the prestigious Ballon D'Or, Cristiano Ronaldo became the third Portuguese footballer to be given this glittering prize by France Football magazine. Both he and the second, Luis Figo, now in his dotage at Inter Milan, owe plenty to the first winner from their country; a player who put their country on the footballing map.

Sunday sees Eusébio da Silva Ferreira celebrate his 67th birthday. He remains Portugal's favourite son, the player who took them to the brink of the World Cup Final in 1966 and gave a small nation belief in its ability to compete. At Benfica, he is revered as their greatest player, the man whose goals secured them a second European Cup and inspired them to unmatched domestic success. No-one ever shone brighter at the original Stadium of Light.

A constant presence whenever Portugal and Sport Lisboa e Benfica, to give them their full name, are on the international stage, he continues to be the public face of both. Until the arrival of Figo and Ronaldo on the scene, he was Portuguese football personified.

Not only that, he is often described as Africa's first great player. Born in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique, Eusébio grew up in Portugal's East African colony, then legally as much a part of Portugal as Lisbon. Thus, when his teenage talents were discovered at local club Sporting Club de Lourenço Marques and he began to star in the old country's capital city, he could only play for Portugal. Mozambique's own national team did not even compete until after independence was granted in 1975. However, Eusébio's status as an African pioneer has been questioned by some as a result of his 50-year association with Portugal and his lack of public interest in African football.

Across Europe, in a less politically correct time when far fewer players of African origin were on view, he was known as "The Black Pearl" or alternatively, "The Black Panther". The second of those nicknames better describes his style of play. Speed, trickery, power and guile made him a player feared by defences across the world. Long lung-bursting runs and thunderous finishing often made him a one-man attack and, despite the close marking he faced throughout his career, he plundered an amazing 319 goals in 313 games for his club and 41 goals in 64 games for Portugal.

His arrival at Benfica came almost by chance. In 1961, Bela Guttman, the club's great Hungarian coach, struck up a conversation in his local barbershop. In the chair next to him happened to be the coach of touring Brazilian team Sao Paulo, who enthused about a young footballer he had seen while in Africa. An intrigued Guttman made some enquiries and stole the teenager from under the gaze of Sporting Lisbon, for who Eusébio's Mozambican club were a feeder set-up, even having to hide him in an Algarve fishing village until the coast was clear.

Whether Guttman liked his haircut or not is lost in the mists of time yet he had made the greatest discovery of a long and distinguished coaching career.

Eusébio's qualities can be measured by the fact that he soon broke into a team that were already European champions. And made them even better. The previous year, Guttman's team had broken the hearts of Barcelona in Berne to become the first team apart from Real Madrid to lift the European Cup and the final of 1962 made sure there were no quibbles over who was top dog after Benfica took on the Madrid side in Amsterdam.

A pulsating battle between the Iberian superpowers was level at 3-3 after fellow Mozambican Mario Coluna has equalised for the Portuguese club to peg back a Ferenc Puskas hat-trick. Eusébio, just 20, took destiny into his own grasp when a thrusting run from the halfway line could only be thwarted by Real's concession of a penalty. After, with typical politesse, asking Coluna's permission to take it, Eusébio powered in the spot-kick to give Benfica a 65th minute lead. Three minutes later, he powered in a free-kick from the edge of Real's box to return the trophy to Lisbon.

In beating the Real Madrid of Puskas and Di Stefano, Benfica ended an era of a great team's dominance. Eusébio's two goals heralded a new hero to succeed those two greats. Once announced on the scene, he would lead Benfica to unprecedented success, as they filled their trophy room with ten league titles and five domestic cups.

However, although Benfica continued to bestride the European stage they lost in three finals. In 1963, despite a Eusébio strike, they were defeated at Wembley by AC Milan. The following year they lost by a single goal when facing Inter in Milan. Back at Wembley in 1968 they lost 4-1 to Manchester United, but only after an Alex Stepney save had prevented a Eusébio rocket winning the game before it went to extra time.

Throughout the sixties he was often hailed as the second best player in the world behind Pele, a high accolade considering the legendary names of that decade. The 1966 World Cup cemented that reputation as he was taken to the hearts of English fans for a series of incendiary performances.

In the group stages he even threatened that pre-eminence of Pele when a thrilling brace at Goodison Park ended the reign of Brazil, champions in 1958 and 1962. The quarter-final saw a then-record four goals pull back his team from the abyss of defeat to see off a North Korea team who had been leading 3-0.

Wembley was again where his dream perished. The hosts, with Bobby Charlton needing to be at his best, were narrow 2-1 winners as England's defenders struggled to contain the power of Portugal's star. A typically converted 81st minute penalty saw Alf Ramsey's defenders suffer a torrid last ten minutes before the hosts could go through. Another penalty in a third-place play-off win over the USSR took his tournament tally to nine goals, landing him the Golden Shoe award.

Eusébio's tears at Wembley won him English affection and within weeks he had his own waxwork at Madame Tussauds. They also appreciated his sportsmanship after the next day's newspapers featured him pictured congratulating Bobby Charlton with an embrace. That good nature resurfaced two years later in the same stadium when he shook Stepney's hand after that save had denied Benfica another European Cup.

England in '66 would be his last appearance on the biggest stage as Portugal failed to qualify for the next two World Cups, his last international appearance coming in a 2-2 qualifying draw with Bulgaria in 1973.

The regrets of 1966 would rankle long after his retirement. England had been supposed to travel to Goodison for the semi-final until a FIFA decision to move the game to Wembley. Having won the hearts of the people of Merseyside and after being forced to travel to London on a train at short notice, Eusébio continues to resent a switch he felt gave the English too great an advantage. "Had we played in Liverpool, like we were supposed to, we would have won that game and reached the final. There is no question about it," he has said.

Regrets, he may have a few. Yet this affable man, who retired from football in 1978 after a period playing in American soccer's NASL, continues to be a fine ambassador for his club, country and the game itself.

Twice winner of Europe's Golden Boot (in 1968 and 1973), he served Benfica for a glorious 15 years, scoring 46 goals in Europe for them and winning his Ballon D'Or in 1965. Good as they have been, and in the younger man's case, might be in the future, Figo and Ronaldo should only look and admire the achievements of their country's greatest ever player, a true pioneer.

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