Continuing with our series on the greatest footballers of all time, here’s No. 14 on our list.
No. 14 – Eusebio
While the views of a team-mate can sometimes be skewed by bias, they are often better barometers of a player’s caliber than statistics, no matter how jaw-dropping those stats may be. Eusébio’s Benfica and Portugal teammate and friend António Simões provided a candid sound-byte on his teams’ talisman, when he said: “With Eusébio maybe we could be tri-European Champions; without him maybe we could win the League.” And Eusébio has the stats to back that up too: with him in the team, Benfica won 11 league titles in 15 years, and reached 4 European Cup finals.
Known as ‘the Black Panther’, ‘the Black Pearl’, or simply ‘O Rei’ (The King), Eusébio scored 733 goals in 745 competitive games in his career. He played for Benfica for 15 years out of his 22 as a footballer, and is the team’s all-time top scorer with 638 goals scored in 614 official games. Given today’s football culture, that record does not look like it will ever come close to being breached. At Benfica, he won a staggering 11 Primeira Liga titles, 1 European Cup title, and also helped them reach three additional European Cup finals. He was also the European Cup top scorer in three editions. Along the way, he won the Primeira Liga top-scorer award seven times. He was the first ever player to win the European Golden Boot award, in 1968, a feat he later replicated in 1973. He won the Ballon d’Or award in 1965 and was runner-up in 1962 and 1966.
Blessed with frightening pace and a thunderous, accurate right-footed shot, he was one of the first global stars to emerge from Africa. Although he was born in Mozambique to an Angolan father, Eusébio had no option but to play for the Portuguese team, since both of the African countries were Portugese territories and, by extension, their inhabitants were considered Portuguese.
As is the case with most great football stories, however, a slight change in the unfurling of events during Eusébio’s youth could have completely changed the landscape of his story. As a young player in Mozambique, Eusébio trained at Sporting Lourenço Marques, which was a subsidiary of Sporting Clube de Portugal. When Benfica made the move to sign the youngster, the two rivals disputed the legality of the transfer. These are Eusébio’s own words on the issue: “I used to play in Sporting’s feeder club in Mozambique. Benfica wanted to pay me in a contract to go while Sporting wanted to take me (to Portugal) as a junior player for experience with no monetary reward. Benfica made a nice approach. They went to speak to my mum, my brother, and offered €1,000 for three years. My brother asked for double and they paid it. They signed the contract with my mother and she got the money”.
Benfica reaped the reward of their decision in Eusébio’s first full season at the club. He scored 12 goals in 17 league matches and even though the club finished third, they won the Portuguese Cup, with Eusébio scoring two goals in the final. More importantly, however, Benfica won the European Cup, with Eusébio also scoring two goals in the final against Real Madrid in a 5–3 win. Thanks to his fine form and eye-catching displays, he finished second in the 1962 Ballon d’Or, in his first full season as a professional.
Benfica were also European Cup runners-up in 1963, 1965 and 1968 with Eusébio in the team. While his play ensured that he was worshipped by the Benfica faithful, he was also a favourite for the neutrals, not only because of his football skills, but also because of his enduring sportsmanship which he displayed even on the most competitive of stages. In the 1968 defeat to Manchester United, for example, with the scores tied at 1–1, he came close to winning the game for Benfica in the dying seconds of the game, only to have his shot foiled by a spectacular Alex Stepney save. Despite this, and the fact that the English side went on to win 4–1 in extra time, he openly congratulated Stepney for his effort throughout the game, even stopping to applaud Stepney as he threw the ball back into play.
Far from a powerhouse at that time, Portugal managed to qualify for the 1966 World Cup in England. At the quarterfinal stage, Portugal played against Korea DPR, who had defeated and eliminated the fancied Italians in the group stage. Portugal found themselves trailing 0–3 by the 25th minute, before Eusébio pulled off one of the greatest rescue acts ever seen, scoring four consecutive goals, two on either side of the half time interval. His last goal in that match came from a penalty when two North Korean players attempted to tackle him after a fast run from the middle of the Portuguese half pitch all the way into the opposition’s penalty area. Portugal ended up winning 5–3.
The Portugese fell short against England in the semi-finals, but their success against Russia in the 3rd place play-off meant that this tournament marked Potugals’s best performance at a World Cup till date. Eusébio scored in both those matches as well, finishing the tournament with 9 goals. This was to be Eusébio’s only appearance at a World Cup tournament.
In that same year, Eusébio just missed out on the Ballon d’Or, trailing Bobby Charlton by a single point. Eusébio said: “A Portuguese journalist voted first place for Bobby Charlton and second place for me. Charlton finished with 81 points and I finished with 80. If he had voted for me, it would be the opposite: me with 81 and Charlton with 80. He always told me he had voted for Charlton because he thought I would win with a great advantage. If he had voted (for me), I would be the first player to win consecutive Ballon d’Ors”. While this statement makes the journalist’s deciding vote sound like an innocent turn of fortune, there was widespread speculation that Eusébio’s refusal to give an interview to the journalist made him vote for Charlton.
With all the bickering and controversy often characterizing discussions on “great” players, few have anything negative to say about Eusébio. He was a true great, a fantastic finisher, a great team player, and a humble human being to boot. The last of those virtues is perhaps the most commendable in a world of Mario Balotellis and Cristiano Ronaldos.
To see more of the Black Panther, you can have a look at this documentary piece:
Here are the other players who have made it so far:
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: