Eusebio: Portugal says goodbye to football legend

Story highlights

Eusebio, 71, died from a heart attack, former club says

The striker was considered one of the sport's greatest players

Portugal star was top scorer at 1966 World Cup

Compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo among those to pay tribute

CNN  — 

It started with a haircut.

The year was 1960, and Bela Guttmann sat in his chair at the local barber’s shop.

Guttman, one of the most iconic football coaches of his day, had just led Portuguese club Benfica to the European Cup and achieved legendary status.

But that was not enough for him – he wanted more.

While pondering his plans, a gentleman in the next chair, who happened to be visiting the country as coach of touring Brazilian side Sao Paulo, let Guttmann in on a little secret.

Eusebio statue
Portugal remembers football legend Eusebio
01:56 - Source: CNN

He told the Hungarian about “A Pantera Negra” – the man they were calling “The Black Panther.”

A legend had begun to spread from Mozambique about a young player plying his trade with a youth team in the African country’s capital, now known as Maputo, with links to Benfica’s great rivals – Sporting Lisbon.

The son of a white Angolan railway worker and a black mother from the Mozambique community, Eusébio da Silva Ferreira was the name on everybody’s lips.

Read: Benfica and ‘the curse of Bela Guttmann’

Guttmann took no chances – Eusebio’s mother had already turned down the advances of Italian club Juventus, so he made the family an offer they could not refuse.

The financial incentive worked and the player joined Benfica, much to the dismay of Sporting officials, who had dallied in their pursuit of the player.

The rest, as they say, is history – and what a history: 733 goals in 745 matches confirmed Eusebio’s status as one of the all-time greats.

As Portugal said goodbye to one of its most famous sons Monday, following his death at the age of 71, thousands took to the streets to farewell a man who had brought joy and inspiration to a generation as the government declared three days of mourning.

“As a man, he was quite humble, kind and very down to earth,” said CNN’s Duarte Mendonca, a Benfica supporter who was in Lisbon for the funeral.

“He had a tremendous amount of love for his club Benfica, for whom he served as an ambassador.

“I’ve seen fans from various clubs, including longtime rivals, paying homage to a man they’ve learned to respect for his talent and flair, but also for his personality.

“Only a man such as Eusebio would be able to unify fans in such fashion. That says a lot.”

During an illustrious career in which he won 11 Portuguese league titles, five domestic cups and a European crown, Eusebio became a legend of world football.

From the moment he entered national consciousness by helping Benfica retain the European Cup in 1962, where he scored twice in a thrilling 5-3 final win over Real Madrid in Amsterdam, the country began to fall in love with the man from Mozambique.

His incredible acceleration and lethal right foot helped him take Benfica to the very top of the European game, while he was honored as the continent’s best player by winning the Ballon d’Or in 1965.

But it was at the 1966 World Cup that he became worldwide sensation as he produced a series of performances which brought adulation from from across the globe.

His nine goals, the most by any player at the tournament, helped Portugal reach the semifinal where it was beaten by the host nation England, which eventually went on to win the tournament.

Such was Eusebio’s impact that Inter Milan reportedly offered the striker 40 times his salary to lure him away from Benfica and even approached his wife to sign the contract on his behalf.

The move was scuppered, however, in rather bizarre circumstances though, as Portuguese Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar refused Eusebio permission to leave the country.

Instead, Eusebio remained at Benfica, scoring goals and helping his side reach the 1968 European Cup final, but this time losing to Manchester United at Wembley after extra-time.

It was in that contest that Eusebio’s sportsmanlike qualities shone through.

With the game tied, Eusebio had the opportunity to win the contest but when his effort was brilliantly saved by United keeper Alex Stepney, the striker simply stood and applauded. It was a gesture which would not be forgotten.

That same year, he won the European golden boot as the continent’s top goalscorer – a feat he repeated five years later.

After leaving Benfica in 1975, Eusebio moved across the Atlantic to play in the U.S. before retiring in 1980 following ongoing problems with his right knee.

He continued to work in football as an ambassador for Benfica and Portugal’s national side, meeting with high-profile players on European match nights and attending global tournaments on a regular basis until his death on January 5, 2014. He left behind his wife Flora and their two daughters.

“I think he is immortal,” Chelsea’s Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho told state broadcaster RTP.

“We all know what he meant for football and especially for Portuguese football.

“He was not only a great inspiration but also an important figure in upholding the values, principles and feelings of football, even after finishing his career.”

Eusebio’s status as Portugal’s greatest football player was confirmed by the thousands who flocked to watch his coffin paraded through the streets of Lisbon.

His statue, which stands proud outside Benfica’s Stadium of Light, is adorned with scarves, flowers and banners from fans across the globe.

“I was the best player in the world, top scorer in the world,” Eusebio once said. “I did everything, except win a World Cup.”

Read: Portugal football legend Eusebio dies

That he did not win one does not detract from the impact he made on Portugal and on football around the world.

Within moments of the news breaking that he had passed away following a heart attack, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo were paying tribute to “O Rei” – the King.

In Lisbon, despite the rain, fans continued to line the streets to say farewell as the black hearse moved slowly through the streets.

“Even though my generation didn’t see him play, through archive we were able to witness some of his brilliant skill,” added Mendonca, who grew up listening to tales of Eusebio.

“But even better than that, we were able learn about what he meant as a footballer and person through the stories of our parents and grandparents.

“The way that he exploded on the pitch, with his fast pace combined with the power of his right foot, was simply unreal. His attributes could easily make him a star even in today’s game.”

Though he may now have passed away, Eusebio’s legacy remains.

A trailblazer who overcame poverty and early hardship in Africa to become one of the game’s most talented and recognizable faces.

It would appear that in barber shops in Lisbon, they’ll be talking about Eusebio for many years to come.