Eusébio, who has died aged 71, was the greatest African footballer in the history of the game. He moved from his native Mozambique to the Portuguese club Benfica in 1961, blazing a trail from poverty to stardom that scores of young African footballers would follow, though none since has played with such grace or reached the benchmark he set.
He was the prototype of a complete 21st-century striker, decades ahead of his time; a superb athlete (he ran the 100 metres in 11 seconds at the age of 16) with explosive acceleration who could leave defenders trailing in his wake. He could also dribble, was good in the air and possessed a fearsome and highly accurate right foot.
His scoring record was astonishing. In 15 years at Benfica he scored an incredible 473 goals in 440 competitive games, plus many more in friendlies. He was top scorer seven times in the Portuguese league and was European Golden Boot winner twice. In his only appearance in the World Cup finals, in England in 1966, he won the Golden Boot for top scorer of the tournament, with nine goals in six games.
Eusébio da Silva Ferreira was born in the colonial capital of Lourenço Marques (present-day Maputo), the son of Laurindo António da Silva Ferreira, a white Angolan railroad worker, and Elisa Anissabeni, a black Mozambican. His father died when Eusébio was eight, and he was brought up in poverty before being signed by Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques, a feeder club of Sporting Lisbon, at the age of 15.
Word of the prodigy soon spread beyond his home town – in fact his destiny was determined in a Lisbon barber shop. It was there that a coach from the Brazilian club São Paulo, who was touring Mozambique and later Portugal, waxed lyrical to an old friend about a young Mozambican he had spotted. The friend was Benfica’s legendary coach Béla Guttmann, and he was so impressed with what he heard that the following week he flew to Mozambique and persuaded Eusébio’s family to let him sign for Benfica.
This happened right under the noses of Benfica’s rivals, Sporting, who disputed the legality of the transfer. Such was the ill-feeling between the two Lisbon clubs that, on Eusébio’s arrival in Portugal in December 1960, Benfica had to hide him in a fishing village in the Algarve and ordered him to stay in his hotel room. It took Benfica five months of legal wrangling to register him, but as soon as the ink on his contract was dry, the footballing world learned what all the fuss had been about.
Eusébio scored a hat-trick on his Benfica debut, in June 1961. Two weeks later, in a friendly match in Paris, the team faced the Brazilian club Santos, and their great striker Pelé. With Benfica losing 4-0 and with no chance of winning, Guttmann brought on Eusébio in the second half. Within 20 minutes, he had scored another hat-trick. Pelé, along with everyone else watching, sensed the arrival of a future great.
Benfica were then reigning European and Portuguese champions, but Eusébio forced his way into their formidable side the following season. At the end of that season the club retained the European Cup, defeating the mighty Real Madrid, unbeaten in their previous five finals and led by Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano, Eusébio’s boyhood idol. The 19-year-old scored the last two goals in the 5-3 victory, and at the end of the game swapped shirts with Puskas, who had scored a hat-trick, a symbolic exchange between the game’s greatest goal scorer and his heir apparent, before Benfica supporters carried their new king from the pitch on their shoulders. Europe’s football writers voted him the continent’s second-best player in his first full season as a professional.
Mozambique was a colony, Portuguese East Africa, until 1975, so Eusébio played his international career for Portugal. In England in 1966, he lit up the World Cup, outshining Pelé as the star of the tournament – though that was thanks partly to the brutal tackling of Eusébio’s Portuguese team-mates, who literally kicked the Brazilian out of the tournament.
Eusébio scored twice in the 3-1 win over the reigning champions, Brazil, a game that set up the famous quarter-final with North Korea at Goodison Park. The underdogs were winning 3-0 until Eusébio almost single-handedly led the Portuguese recovery, scoring their first four goals in the eventual 5-3 victory.
In the semi-final, Portugal faced England at Wembley – though most English histories of the tournament gloss over the fact that this match had been scheduled for Goodison Park, where Portugal had already played twice and felt at home, until the English authorities connived to switch venues, forcing the Portuguese to catch a train to London the night before the match.
Eusébio was nullified by Nobby Stiles and England won 2-1, with Bobby Charlton scoring twice. Eusébio wept at the end of the game, and the occasion is still remembered as Jogo das Lágrimas (the Game of Tears) in Portugal. But even in defeat, Eusébio was the sensation of the World Cup.
He never again played in the finals of the World Cup, but two years later he was back at Wembley to face Manchester United in the European Cup final. Once again, Charlton scored two goals and inspired his team to victory, and again it was Stiles who marked Eusébio out of the game – rather more violently on this occasion.
Eusébio did have a chance to win the game in the dying minutes with a close-range shot on goal, but hit it straight at the United goalkeeper, Alex Stepney. It was typical of a man who always played in the Corinthian spirit that, even at a critical moment of such an important match, he put an arm around Stepney’s shoulder to praise him for the save.
This was Eusébio’s third European Cup final defeat in six years, after losing to AC Milan in 1963 and Inter Milan in 1965, and his last on the big stage, but he continued to win trophies and score goals for Benfica for another seven years. In 15 years with the club he won 11 league titles, five Portuguese cups, was European Player of the Year and the first player to win the European Golden Boot award in 1968, and again in 1973.
In the mid-70s Eusébio followed the well-trodden path then taken by ageing world-class players, to the burgeoning North American Soccer League, for one last lucrative payday. He turned out for Boston Minutemen, Las Vegas Quicksilvers and Toronto Metros-Croatia, helping the last to win the NASL title in 1976.
He lived in Portugal for the rest of his life (although he frequently returned to Mozambique, where he was hero-worshipped), acting as a football ambassador for both his adopted country and Benfica, where he is immortalised in a statue at the club’s stadium, the Estádio da Luz.
He is survived by his wife, Flora, two daughters and several grandchildren.