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The ace in Portugal's pack

Published: Wednesday 2 February 2011, 10.30CET
Born in Mozambique, Eusébio became a revered figure in his adopted home country with his scoring exploits for SL Benfica and Portugal in the 1960s.
by António Florêncio
The ace in Portugal's pack
Eusébio with Portugal at the 1966 World Cup finals ©Getty Images
Published: Wednesday 2 February 2011, 10.30CET

The ace in Portugal's pack

Born in Mozambique, Eusébio became a revered figure in his adopted home country with his scoring exploits for SL Benfica and Portugal in the 1960s.

To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Portugal chose Eusébio da Silva Ferreira as their Golden Player.

On 25 January 1942 in the Mafalala district of Lourenco Marques, the capital of Mozambique, a boy was born who would become one of the greatest footballers of all time with SL Benfica and Portugal.

His debut with his club side, against Santos FC at the Parc des Princes in Paris, was auspicious indeed. "I came on and scored a hat-trick. Pelé was playing against me that day and came over to congratulate me. Despite the goals, Benfica still lost," he recalled. The opposition, which included Zito, Coutinho and Pepe as well as Pelé, were leading 5-0 when Benfica decided to introduce a slender 18-year-old striker. The rest is history.

However, the Eusébio story starts in Lourenco Marques, in the former Portuguese colony from where a generation of footballers were sent to Portugal. The first to impress was Matateu followed by Mário Coluna, and then Eusébio emerged to write himself into Portuguese football lore.

An exceptional man, Eusébio has a modest, considerate nature that is still apparent today. "When I arrived at Benfica, I was in awe of José Águas, Mário Coluna, Germano de Figueiredo and José Augusto and called them 'senhor' - even in the European Cup final against Real Madrid in Amsterdam. In the second half I said to Coluna: 'Senhor Mário, let me take this free-kick so I can score.'"

The 'senhores' soon realised that with Eusébio in their ranks they were destined for glory, and it was after Benfica's second consecutive European Champion Clubs' Cup success – Eusébio's first – against Madrid in May 1962 that defender Fernando Cruz passed the now legendary comment: "Eusébio is the ace in our pack."

Eusébio's reputation as an exemplary sportsman and world-class talent is global. His goals against Korea DPR in the 1966 FIFA World Cup, his tears at Wembley after losing the semi-final of that tournament to England and his general play typified by dramatic acceleration and intuitive shooting, are well-documented images of his career. He also tells a good story.

"When the Dutch crowd carried me on their shoulders in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam following our victory over Real Madrid in the 1962 final, I was scared that I might fall. I had Alfredo Di Stéfano's shirt stuffed down my shorts and I thought somebody would try to pinch it!" he said.

Described by the Portuguese leader of that era, António de Oliveira Salazar, as a national treasure, the 'Black Panther' scored more than 700 goals for Benfica and 41 in 64 appearances for Portugal. After five knee operations the Lisbon club somewhat unceremoniously brought his career with them to an end, although good relations were later restored.

Today he remains the only figure in Portuguese football who receives a tumultuous welcome wherever he goes, and is still revered the world over. In February 2010, UEFA president Michel Platini presented him with the UEFA President's Award for 2009 in recognition of his achievements. Eusébio said: "The first player to receive this was my childhood hero Alfredo Di Stéfano, then there was another great player – Bobby Charlton – so it's a great honour for me."

A humble response from the man known to millions of Portuguese simply as 'The King', who was mourned when he died on 5 January 2014.

Last updated: 5 January 2014

Last updated: 05/01/14 12.19CET

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