Opinion

Football star Eusebio dies at 71

Barry Hatton

Mozambican-born football legend Eusebio has died of heart failure aged 71, reports Portuguese media.

Eusébio was born in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, during the Second World War when the south-east African country was still a Portuguese colony. (Reuters)

Eusébio, the Portuguese football star who was born into poverty in Africa but became an international sporting icon and was voted one of the 10 best players of all time, has died of heart failure aged 71, Portuguese media reported.

Eusébio died in the early hours of Sunday, Portugal's national news agency Lusa reported, citing unnamed sources at Benfica, Eusébio's longtime club. Officials at Benfica and at the Portuguese Football Federation, where Eusébio was an ambassador, could not immediately be reached.

Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portugal captain who plays for Real Madrid, commented on his Facebook page, "Always eternal Eusébio​, rest in peace."

Eusébio was admitted to hospital several times over the past year for the treatment of heart and respiratory problems.

Eusébio​ da Silva Ferreira became affectionately known as the Black Panther for his athletic prowess and clinical finishing that made him one of the world's top scorers during his heyday in the 1960s for Benfica and the Portuguese national team.

Perhaps his biggest accomplishment was to lead Portugal to a third-place finish at the 1966 World Cup, but his agility and speed made him one of Europe's most dangerous forwards for most of a career that lasted two decades.

He was awarded the Ballon d'Or in 1965 as Europe's player of the year and twice won the Golden Boot – in 1968 and 1973 – for being top scorer in Europe. According to football's world governing body Fifa, he scored 679 goals in a total of 678 official games.

Eusébio's popularity at home
None are more famous than those he netted against North Korea in the quarterfinals of the 1966 World Cup. With Portugal trailing 3-0, Eusébio inspired his team's turnaround with four goals and an eventual 5-3 victory.

While Portugal went on to lose to host and eventual champion England in the semifinals, Eusébio became even more popular at home when he wept openly as he left the field following the defeat.

He finished as the tournament's top scorer with nine goals. In 1998, a panel of 100 experts gathered by Fifa named him in its International Football Hall of Fame as one of the sport's top 10 all-time greats.

"Look, there are only two black people on the list: me and Pele," Eusébio commented on the honour, referring to the Brazilian great who was a friend. "I regard that as a great responsibility because I am representing Africa and Portugal, my second homeland."

Eusébio was born in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, during the Second World War when the south-east African country was still a Portuguese colony. He came from a poor family but sparkled for his local team and was lured by Benfica to Portugal when he was 18.

Known for his unpretentious and easy manner as well as his courage and ball skills, his popularity in Portugal was such that in 1964, when Italian clubs offered to buy Eusébio for sums that were astronomical for the time, the country's then-dictator, António​ Salazar, decreed that the player was a "national treasure" – meaning that he could not be sold abroad.

Portugal's legendary comeback
In a playing career unparalleled in Portugal, Eusébio was a cornerstone of the Benfica team that won back-to-back European titles in the early 1960s.

In an epic European Cup final against Real Madrid in 1962, when a first-half hat trick by Ferenc Puskas looked like it would be enough to secure the trophy for the Spanish club, Eusébio scored the last two goals as the Lisbon team came back to win 5-3 and clinch Benfica's second straight continental title.

With Benfica, he won 11 Portuguese league titles and five Portuguese Cups, and remains the club's best-known player. A bronze statue of him, poised to kick a ball, stands outside Benfica's Stadium of Light.

But his display in the game against North Korea had already immortalised him to most Portuguese fans.

In that quarterfinal at Goodison Park in Liverpool, Portugal made a nightmare start and was three goals down after 23 minutes.

"We were taken completely by surprise," Eusébio told the Associated Press at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where the Portuguese had a second meeting with the North Koreans 44 years after the first.

"I remember very clearly what [teammate Antonio] Simoes said when we were 3-0 down. He kept saying, 'As long as we don't go four goals down, we're still in with a chance,'" Eusébio said. "And he was right."

Eusébio led Portugal's legendary comeback by repeatedly charging at the Korean defence, scoring four goals in just over 30 minutes.

'Best game of my life'
After his first two goals, he picked the ball out of the net, ran back to the halfway line and placed it in the centre spot for the restart. He completed his hat trick with a 56th-minute equaliser before scoring his fourth from the penalty spot as North Korea's defence fell apart amid the onslaught.

"That was the best game of my life in a Portugal jersey," Eusébio said. "It left its mark on me."

Eusébio scored 41 goals in 64 games for Portugal.

After five knee operations, he played his last game for Benfica in 1975.

Eusébio then moved to North America where he spent the last years of his career playing for the Boston Minutemen, Toronto Metros, Las Vegas Quicksilver and Buffalo Stallions through 1980.

Eusébio stayed on at Benfica as an assistant coach after his retirement and travelled widely with the Portuguese national side as a paid "soccer ambassador".

Eusébio is survived by his wife, Flora, two daughters and several grandchildren. – Sapa-AP

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