Monday, 6 January 2014

Tribute to a true legend: Eusebio - By Jim Black

(First published in the Scottish Daily Mail
HE was born Eusebio da Silva Ferreira into poverty in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique on January 25 1942.
To the rest of the world he was simply Eusebio - aka The Black Panther and the Black Pearl.
The latter nickname fitted him best, for he was a sparkling gem in a generation encrusted with great players.
Unquestionably one of the greatest of them all, Eusebio died yesterday at the age of 71 of heart failure.
He had been in ill-health for some time with heart and respiratory problems and his passing was not entirely unexpected. But the news that the beautiful game had lost one of its most talented entertainers came as a shock all the same.
But while the football world mourns the passing of one of the sport’s true gentlemen it will also take time to reflect on the skills and remarkable achievements of a man who whose ready smile and modest personality instantly endeared him to all who had the good fortune to encounter him.
I was not one of those fortunate enough to know Eusebio but I had the privilege to see him perform in the flesh, as it were, when Celtic were drawn to play Benfica in the European Cup in November 1969 on their way to a second final.
That was in the days before I became a fan with a typewriter and it was perhaps only my second visit to Celtic Park.
I had gone there from my home in Arbroath with a close pal and died-in-the-wool Celtic fan not to offer my support to the Hoops but simply to marvel at the skills of a player who 18 months earlier had thrilled millions of TV viewers in a classic final against Manchester United.
History records that the Red Devils beat The Eagles 4-1 in extra-time after Eusebio had the chance to snatch the winner in regulation play.
But my abiding memory of that May evening at Wembley was not of Eusebio’s missed opportunity but rather his graceful acknowledgement of Alex Stepney’s remarkable save when he stopped to applaud the goalkeeper in recognition of his accomplishment.
They say that it is sometimes best never to encounter your heroes up close and maybe there is some truth in that, for, regrettably - for whatever reason - the Eusebio who faced Celtic that evening at the age of still only 27 did not light up the stadium in his customary fashion.
Perhaps by then he had been hacked down once too often in his career by unscrupulous defenders hell bent on negating his threat by fair means or foul.
The Black Panther was still blessed with an electrifying burst of speed, wonderful technique and athleticism, but it turned out to be an occasion when dour defending won over God-given skills.
Celtic were simply devastating and Benfica were forced to withdraw Eusebio at the interval so as to switch to a defensive formation in an effort to contain their rampant rivals.
In the end, they settled for three goals, but with Eusebio sparking a shock revival in the return in Lisbon by scoring the opener, Celtic’s fate rested on Billy McNeill guessing correctly on the toss of a coin!
It later transpired that Jimmy Johnstone had tried to persuade Eusebio to sign for Celtic.
The thought of Eusebio gracing Scottish football’s stage in partnership with Jinky makes the hairs on the back of one’s head stand up even now.
For Eusebio later said in praise of the winger: “I am sure I would have scored many more goals with Jimmy supplying the crosses, because he was one of the best players in the world.”
Eusebio also formed a close friendship with another great Scot, the late Jim Baxter adding credence to the suggestion that the man voted the ninth best player of all time in a millennium poll liked a drink and knew how to enjoy himself away from the pitch!
But it is as a footballer player of rare genius that Eusebio will best be remembered for his many achievements in a 15 year career with Benfica, whom he joined in 1960 from Sporting de Lorrenco Marques, a feeder club for the Portuguese giants.
His many honours are too long to list individually here but among his achievements were 11 league titles, five Portuguese Cup triumphs, the European Cup in 1962, in addition to three other finals, European Player of the Year in 1965 and Europe’s Golden Boot winner in 1968 and 1973.
Eusebio also scored a staggering 679 goals - most with his ferocious right foot - in 678 official matches in a 22 year career, which included a spell in North America before a persistent knee injury forced his retirement. He is also Benfica’s all-time record scorer with 638 in 614 appearances.
He played for Portugal on 64 occasions, scoring 41 times, and helped his country to third place in the 1966 World Cup finals in England where they lost to the host nation in the semi-finals.
Eusebio, who began playing the game in his bare feet at the age of eight, was also top scorer in the tournament with nine goals, four of them in one game against North Korea
From his retirement until his death at his Lisbon home in the early hours of Sunday he was one of the football’s foremost ambassadors, praised worldwide for his sense of fair play and humbleness.
Last night as the legends of the game queued up to pay tribute to one of their own, the words of Eusebio’s Benfica and Portugal team-mate and close friend Antonio Simoes summed up the man’s brilliance, influence and phenomenal goal-scoring prowess.
“With Eusebio we could be European champions,” said Simoes “without him maybe we could win the league.”
It is an indication of the esteem in which Eusebio is held the Portuguese government has decreed three days of national mourning with flags flying at half mast.
As a further mark of respect Eusebio’s coffin was taken to Benfica’s Stadium of Light to allow his tens of thousands of fans to pay homage to “Africa’s first great footballer and the greatest ever.”