Plenty of better writers than I will be penning tributes to Eusébio. Devour them, understand them and remember Eusébio. Go on to Youtube and find videos of the man. Admire him. Remember him. Be thankful he kicked a ball in the sport we loved.
All too often when someone dies there is a rush to flood them in superlatives. The mediocre are often elevated to mythic. We see ”legend’ or ‘all-time great’ attached to those who were, in life, did not meet that criteria.
Whilst this is understandable and, to an extent, necessary what it means is that when a real titan – like Eusébio – passes we don’t have words to fit. Words like legend have become so overused we glaze over when we see them. If everyone is a legend then no one is.
But, by any measure, Eusébio is part of football’s pantheon. One of the best footballers of all time. Full stop.
He was a truly global talent and a truly global player. The finest African born player ever to kick a ball (finer, I’d wager, than Weah, Milla, Eto’o et al) and one of the finest Europeans – only, in my view, would you rank Cruijff and Beckenbauer ahead of him. There is a debate – but not for today – how Cristiano Ronaldo and Eusébio compare to one another.
We believe we are living in a golden age at present. We are lucky – truly lucky – to be watching football in the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and their chasing pack of Iniesta, Ribery, Ibrahimovic et al.
But consider Eusébio’s era. He regularly equalled and often bested some of the finest players we have ever seen in the game.
In the early 1960s he faced – and beat – Puskás and di Stéfano. Puskás scored a hat-trick in a European Cup Final but Eusebio’s team won 5-3.
In 1966, he top-scored at a World Cup which brought together players as fine as Pelé, Jairzinho, Garrincha, Tostão, Luis Suárez, Seeler, Moore, Beckenbauer, and Albert. His performance against North Korea scoring four goals to turn around the score from 3-1 to 5-3 is, surely, one of the finest performances in international football. There is a strong argument to say that he was the star player of the tournament – even though FIFA gave him the Bronze Ball. He missed out by one vote on his second Ballon d’Or that year because, apparently, the Portuguese journalist voted for Charlton assuming that Eusébio would win at a canter. Nine goals at a World Cup where he didn’t reach the final.
In 1968, his Benfica team were beaten by Manchester United containing Best and Charlton. History shows a 4-1 win for United and many will believe it to have been a comprehensive victory for the Red Devils. The truth, as we will learn (briefly) over the next few days, is that it was 1-1 at full time. United only pulled away in extra-time.
In normal time the Manchester United goalkeeper, Alex Stepney, performed a fine save from a thunderbolt from Eusébio when the score was 1-1. That would almost certainly have won Benfica the European Cup. That 1968 victory so important for the psyche of English football and for Manchester United doesn’t happen. Football changes forever.
In this day and age the striker would throw himself to the ground screaming at the floor or, possibly, berating whoever passed to him.Eusébio? Well, in a show of sportsmanship typical of the man he applauded Stepney – he realised instantly how important the save was and appreciated the excellence of his opponent. Others will remember him doing similar to Yashin and to Banks at the 1966 World Cup. Could you see Ibrahimovic doing that? Or Ronaldo?
He was a star in an era of stars – probably the greatest flowering of talent in world football’s history. We’ve never seen so many all-time greats playing at the same time. He often outshone them and usually outscored them. He scored at an astonishing rate but he was more than just goals. Rarely will we see a player who was as gifted as Eusébio. Even more rarely we will see a player who played the game with such an appreciation of what the game is, what it is for and with an appreciation for his opponents. We could all learn from him.
The Black Pearl, the Black Panther, O Rei. Thank you, and rest in peace.