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Eusebio: He was a unique force, a human torpedo

Eusebio da Silva Ferreira belonged to a footballing age of flowering individuality.

Eusebio takes a flying kick to score the first goal of the match, 18 minutes into the European Cup final against AC Milan at Wembley in May 1963, although Milan went on to win the match 2-1. Picture: Getty Images
Eusebio takes a flying kick to score the first goal of the match, 18 minutes into the European Cup final against AC Milan at Wembley in May 1963, although Milan went on to win the match 2-1. Picture: Getty Images

He stemmed from the pre-Herrera age when sadly too many, for too long, were indoctrinated into believing that success stemmed from robotic defending, and football accordingly seemed to enter an ice-age of uniformity.

Those of us who were privileged to watch him play then, in an era dominated by southern European sides, could see that even amid existing and brilliant talent, he stood out with embellishments on the field over which we shamelessly romanticised.

Here was a man born into poverty in Mozambique with attributes which were certainly in his genes, but also stemmed surely from developing his skills, bare foot, on unforgiving soil, and all of which were sustained by his obsession to succeed against the prevailing prejudices of Dr Salazar's dictatorship. So, if we were expecting exotica to emerge from these circumstances, and we truly were, then Eusebio, inevitably named the Black Panther, offered it to us in recurring command performances.

He was not classically built as an athlete. He had none of Pele's lean and hungry look nor, in fact, the graceful movement exhibited by many other Brazilian and Spanish players of that era. His build instead immediately suggested toughness, resilience. Nobody could mess about with him.

His thighs looked as if he were training to take part in a 94kg clean and jerk weight-lifting contest. Add to that the ineffable ball skills and you have the almost perfect make-up. When he used them to power his way over the ground, his body upright, and the ball sticking to him even over long runs, as if the magnetism of his personality were keeping it in check, he was undoubtedly the unique force majeure which lifted Portuguese football into universal respect.

All of this was spectacularly revealed to us in the World Cup Finals of 1966 where Eusebio breached defences nine times as top scorer of the tournament.

Will any of us ever forget that astonishing come-back engineered by him when North Korea had gone into a 3-0 half-time lead in the quarter-final of the tournament? Hardly. We were witness to a man who had eventually sussed out the frailty of the Korean defence and produced surges, sometimes from the half-way line, that were like watching a demolition by human torpedo. This was simply typical.

Now, there have been many men who could strike a ball with power, but Eusebio's right foot could make the net look as if it was writhing in pain. Watching his goals scored that way - and there were many of that kind in the 733 he scored in the 745 professional games he took part in - was like watching a man expressing vehemence.

That did not reflect his own personality, for he was scrupulously fair on the field and approachable off it. The only time I can recall a more censorious attitude was when he took issue with some of the international media who harshly criticised the way Portugal treated Pele when they met Brazil at Goodison Park in that same 1966 tournament.

Eusebio scored twice in their 3-1 victory, but the image which was stamped indelibly on the game was that of an injured Pele being helped off the pitch looking as if he had been involved in trench warfare. It is certainly true that the Portuguese defenders did not handle the great Brazilian like the demi-god the world's media made of him, and instantly the victory was ascribed to a war of attrition. But Eusebio insisted that the Brazilian team were scarcely living up to their reputation, and that everybody in the business knew that Pele was largely unfit and should not have been fielded in the first place.

It was a strong defence which was difficult to sell to a media besotted by the need to sustain the now developing myth of Brazilian invincibility, even though in the succeeding game Eusebio's view seemed to be vindicated as they lost 3-1 to Hungary.

Eusebio came away from that tournament with his status greatly enhanced because of the global television exposure, even though he had entered it rightly boasting of great achievements in club football after joining Benfica in 1960 in a transfer operation from which John Le Carre might have gained some plot inspiration.

To avoid rivals Sporting Lisbon getting their hands on him, they had to secrete him into a hotel under the pseudonym of Ruth Maloso.

An apparent transvestite start to his career might have seemed acutely inauspicious. But from there he went on to become the first wearer of the European Golden Boot in 1968, and his goal-scoring feats had helped win the European Cup in 1962 against the hitherto impregnable Real Madrid. He always considered the two goals he scored in that game in the 5-3 victory as the summit of his career.

Losing to Manchester United in the 1968 final, where he could have won the game late on but was defied by an Alex Stepney save, still caused him pain even years later.

It is something he candidly admitted when he met Jimmy Johnstone in Lisbon towards the end of Jinky's life. The wee winger, despite his advanced stage of motor neuron disease, had made a pilgrimage to the scene of his great triumph in 1967 and Eusebio, hearing of his arrival, met up with him outside Benfica's Stadium of Light.

Bertie Auld who was present recalls the long emotional embrace these two players had before they even had spoken a word. Here was a great word-less bond being demonstrated in a mutual display of affection that was more eloquent in its very silence.

Thereafter they reminisced and it turned out to be at least temporary therapy for Jinky, delighted that the great Portuguese player had taken the trouble to meet and offer words of comfort to him.

It epitomised the sensitive and kindly man Eusebio consistently had been in retirement.

In the joshing that then light-heartedly took place, Jimmy told me that Eusebio almost impishly admitted he had a soft spot for Rangers. The world of football will still retain a soft spot for him, as a symbol of an era of constellatory brilliance.

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