Soccer fans called him the Black Panther, in the manner of the day, because he was from Mozambique, playing for Portugal, but there was little feline about Eusebio. He was big in the beams and solid around the middle even when he was 24 and, for a few magical weeks, the most captivating player of the 1966 World Cup.
He was the center of gravity in that tournament. It was his time. He personally willed Portugal back from a shocking 3-0 deficit to North Korea, the strangers who had already stunned Italy into a tomato barrage back home. Eusebio da Silva Ferreira — known as Eusebio in the Latin soccer single-name fashion — died on Sunday in Lisbon. He would have turned 72 on Jan. 25. His death was announced on the website of his longtime club, Benfica, and confirmed by his biographer, Jose Malheiro, who said he died of heart failure. Eusebio carried Portugal to a third-place finish at the World Cup in 1966, after seven failures to qualify. In 1998, a panel of 100 experts gathered by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, named him one of the sport’s top-10 greats. He was awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1965 as Europe’s player of the year and twice won the Golden Boot — in 1968 and ’73 — for being the top scorer in Europe. His death led Portugal to declare three days of national mourning.
Measuring only 5 feet 9 inches, and weighing 160 pounds in his prime, Eusebio somehow seemed much bigger. Perhaps that was because he stood up tall and did not waste motion or energy. He was dignified, in a sport that encourages nasty little shoves and exaggerated stumbles, in search of the slightest advantage. Eusebio played down racial and national politics, praised others and denied stories about him that could have been turned into legend.
Born in Mozambique on Jan. 25, 1942, to an Angolan father, he belonged to Portugal because those countries were still considered colonies. The rumor grew that he had been kidnapped by Benfica, the great power of Portuguese soccer, until he signed a contract. “These are all lies, pure and simple!” Eusebio said in a 2008 forum at fourfourtwo.com. “Some people aren’t honest, but me and my family are. My mother signed a contract with Benfica for 250 contos [around $1,700] and she insisted on a clause which read, ‘If my son does not adapt, the money is deposited in the bank in Mozambique and not one penny will be taken from it.’ I had return tickets when I arrived.”
Eusebio’s legacy is best seen and heard in the documentary, “Goal! The World Cup,” issued in 1967, with commentary by Brian Glanville. In the third match of the first round, a Portuguese player steamrollered the sport’s greatest star, Pelé, already playing with an injury. Eusebio stood by Pelé as the medics attended to him. The rumor was that Eusebio chastised his teammate, but he said, no, he stood by Pelé because “He is my friend.” Portugal eliminated Brazil, but then fell behind, 3-0, to North Korea in the first 25 minutes. However, Eusebio scored four goals, and Portugal won, 5-3. “That was the best game of my life in a Portugal jersey,” Eusebio said. “It left its mark on me.”