Football knows no borders.
Talent is not contingent on the place of birth. When someone is truly special at what they do, they will bring joy and beauty to their activity no matter where they do it, or where they came from. Today, we follow the journey of the first African-born player to make an impression (and what a good one) in the world football scene, putting an European country on the map for good. Ironic, isn’t it? The Black Panther, they called him.
Eusébio da Silva Ferreira grew up in a poor neighborhood in Lourenço Marques (nowadays called Maputo, capital city of Mozambique). Back then, in 1942, the region was still a Portuguese overseas colony, but already a place where football scouts from all over Europe snuck in to search for diamonds in the rough – looking for the physical and technical abilities that didn’t flourish so easily in their home countries. Eusébio’s father, a railroad worker, died of tetanus when he was only 8 years old, leaving his mother with the full responsibility of raising four kids on her own.
He got with a group of friends and created an amateur club called Os Brasileiros (The Brazilians), skipping school in order to play barefooted, with a ball made out of rubber and cloth, in his hometown streets. Little did he know that he would spark a bitter rivalry concerning his acquisition – a fierce battle between Lisbon’s top teams: Benfica and Sporting. Both of them had subsidiaries in Mozambique and there, Eusébio tried Benfica first. Rejected. Sporting Lourenço Marques signed him and quickly noticed his abnormal goal instinct, shining amongst older players until the age of 18. Then, a surreal whirlwind of events would change his fate, and the fate of Portuguese football, forever.
The story about how the legendary striker ended up in Benfica is shrouded in mistery and dubious allegations from both sides, so it is incredibly hard to be factual on that subject. Apparently, Sporting Lisbon intended to bring him in (by boat) when he was already being targeted by big clubs like São Paulo and Juventus. An employee from Benfica was able to convince his mother and lure him out to Benfica, spoiling Sporting’s initial plans. He travelled to Lisbon (by plane) under the alias Ruth Malosso (yes, much like an espionage novel, there were actually codenames involved and everything). Sporting found out about the sabotage and resumed intense contacts in order to sign him, escalating the numbers involved up to enormous amounts. In response, Benfica sent Eusébio to a hotel in the Algarve (southern Portugal), shielding him from the deal, and were able to introduce him at the Estádio da Luz towards the end of the 1960-61 season.
And the rest is history.
Playing alongside José Águas, Coluna (also brought from Mozambique a few years earlier), José Augusto and other Portuguese stars of the time, Eusébio was an unstoppable force and Benfica enjoyed its brightest period in the 1960’s. He left everyone speechless: the speed, the strength and, above all else, the thundering power of his right-foot shot made it near impossible to shut him down. His deserved international recognition reached new heights in two pivotal moments: first, the 1961-62 European Cup (nowadays, UEFA Champions League) that Benfica won for the second year in a row; then, the 1966 World Cup campaign – Eusébio showed the whole world his sheer quality, scored 9 nine goals (including 2 against favorites Brazil and 4 against North Korea in a heart-stopping 5-3 comeback) and led Portugal to a historical 3rd place in the competition. In national competitions, opponents never found a solution and his reign was long – he is one of few players in history to have a goal ratio of over 1 goal per match in his entire career. He was the Primeira Liga top goalscorer in seven (!) seasons.
Towards the end, Eusébio’s path was a bit of a rollercoaster. He felt multiple injuries creeping in, but had a hard time letting go. He wanted to keep playing; he wanted to keep fulfilling his undying love for scoring goals. Between 1975 and 1979, he went back and forth between both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and served short spans in multiple clubs: Boston Minutemen, Monterrey (Mexico), Toronto Metros-Croatia (the most successful of his short spells, winning the NASL in 1976), Beira-Mar and União Tomar (back in Portugal), Las Vegas Quicksilvers and New Jersey Americans.
The memories of those who watched him play remain very vivid until today, because his legacy is too beautiful to forget:
- 440 matches, 473 goals
- 11 Portuguese Leagues
- 5 Portuguese Cups
- 2 UEFA Champions League titles (European Cup at the time. Even though Eusébio wasn’t allowed to play in the 1960-61 edition, he was already part of the squad)
- 1 Ballon d’Or (1965, runner-up in 1962 and 1966)
- 7 Silver Ball awards (Portuguese League Top Goalscorer)
- 2 Portuguese Footballer of the Year awards
- 2 European Golden Boot awards (1968 and 1973)
- 3 times European Cup Top Scorer
- 64 matches, 41 goals
- 1 Golden Boot award (Top Goalscorer in the 1966 FIFA World Cup – 9 goals)
- Picked for the 1966 FIFA World Cup Dream Team
Portugal has had three legends that represent three different football generations: Eusébio was the first one. Figo followed in his footsteps…and I’m pretty sure you can guess the third. Even before his death in 2014, Eusébio was always fondly remembered by the majority of the football community. Unlike many genius talents that had conflictive temperaments, the Portuguese legend was widely regarded as a kind, calm, peace-and-love type of individual. He brought people and nations together – isn’t that what football is supposed to do?