Graceful footballer was one of the greats
Portuguese football legend Eusebio, playing for Benfica at a match against Arsenal in 1971. Photograph: Getty Images
Eusébio, who has died aged 71, was the greatest African footballer in the history of the game. He moved from his native Mozambique to the Portuguese club Benfica in 1961, blazing a trail from poverty to stardom that scores of young African footballers would follow, though none since has played with such grace or reached the benchmark he set.
He was the prototype of a complete 21st-century striker, decades ahead of his time; a superb athlete (he ran the 100 metres in 11 seconds at the age of 16) with explosive acceleration who could leave defenders trailing in his wake. He could also dribble, was good in the air and possessed a fearsome and highly accurate right foot.
His scoring record was astonishing. In 15 years at Benfica he scored an incredible 473 goals in 440 competitive games, plus many more in friendlies. He was top scorer seven times in the Portuguese league and was European Golden Boot winner twice. In his only appearance in the World Cup finals, in England in 1966, he won the Golden Boot for top scorer of the tournament, with nine goals in six games.
Eusébio da Silva Ferreira was born in the colonial capital of Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), the son of Laurindo António da Silva Ferreira, a white Angolan railroad worker, and Elisa Anissabeni, a black Mozambican. His father died when he was eight, and he was brought up in poverty before being signed by Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques, a feeder club of Sporting Lisbon, at the age of 15.
Word of the prodigy soon spread beyond his home town. A coach from the Brazilian club São Paulo, touring Mozambique and later Portugal, told Benfica’s legendary coach, Béla Guttmann, about Eusébio; he was so impressed that he flew to Mozambique and persuaded the young man’s family to let him sign for Benfica.
Eusébio scored a hat-trick on his Benfica debut, in June 1961. Two weeks later, in a friendly match in Paris, the team faced the Brazilian club Santos, and their great striker Pelé.
With Benfica losing 4-0 and with no chance of winning, Guttmann brought on Eusébio in the second half. Within 20 minutes, he had scored another hat-trick.
Pelé, along with everyone else watching, sensed the arrival of a future great.
Benfica were then reigning European and Portuguese champions, but Eusébio forced his way into their formidable side the following season. At the end of that season the club retained the European Cup, defeating the mighty Real Madrid, unbeaten in their previous five finals and led by Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo di Stéfano, Eusébio’s boyhood idol.
The 19-year-old scored the last two goals in the 5-3 victory, and at the end of the game swapped shirts with Puskás, who had scored a hat-trick, a symbolic exchange between the game’s greatest goal scorer and his heir apparent, before Benfica supporters carried their new king from the pitch on their shoulders.
Mozambique was a Portugues colony until 1975, so Eusébio played his international career for Portugal.
In England in 1966, he lit up the World Cup, scoring twice in the 3-1 win over reigning champions Brazil, a game that set up the famous quarter-final with North Korea. The underdogs were winning 3-0 until Eusébio almost single-handedly led the Portuguese recovery, scoring their first four goals in the eventual 5-3 victory.
In the semi-final, Portugal faced England at Wembley – though most English histories of the tournament gloss over the fact that this match had been scheduled for Goodison Park, where Portugal had already played twice and felt at home, until the English authorities connived to switch venues, forcing the Portuguese to catch a train to London the night before the match.
Eusébio was nullified by Nobby Stiles and England won 2-1, with Bobby Charlton scoring twice. He never again played in the finals of the World Cup, but two years later was back at Wembley to face Manchester United in the European Cup final. Once again, Charlton scored two goals and once again Stiles marked Eusébio out of the game – rather more violently on this occasion.
In 15 years with Benfica he won 11 league titles, five Portuguese cups and was European Player of the Year.
In retirement he continued to live in Portugal, though he frequently returned to Mozambique, where he was hero- worshipped, acting as a football ambassador for both Portugal and Benfica, where he is immortalised in a statue at the club’s stadium, the Estádio da Luz.
He is survived by his wife, Flora, two daughters and several grandchildren.