Pitchside Europe

Eusebio: Farewell to an eternal great

Eusebio

In the age of the bastardisation of language, the word "great" has become one of the most oft-peddled and devalued in reference to players who pale in comparison to the late Portugal and Benfica striker Eusebio.

Nicknamed the 'Black Panther' for his speed and the fear he instilled in his opponents, Mozambique-born Eusebio helped Benfica reach four European Cup finals, winning the tournament in 1962 and being involved in the classic final in 1968 when Benfica lost in extra time to Manchester United.

He also helped Benfica to 11 Primeira Liga titles between 1961 and 1975, and scored 638 goals in 614 matches.

Not only was he the star of that beaten Benfica team that allowed Manchester United to become the first English winners of the European Cup, he was also the spearhead of the Portugal side that lost in the World Cup semi-final two years earlier.

The debate over the greatest players of all time is littered with far-fetched conjecture and hubris, but there is no doubt that Eusebio's achievements put him up among the greatest players ever to kick a ball.

A criticism often levelled at great players of any generation - not least the current generation - is that they flatter their career statistics by destroying weak sides, but fail to produce their best when it matters most. But nobody could ever level that claim at Eusebio: if greatness is indeed all about being a big match player, then the Portugese genius's claims to be among the greatest are as good anyone's.

His emergence had an almost incredulous, poetic nature to it. The 'Black Panther' graced the front cover of L'Equipe after an exhibition match against a Pele-led Santos at the Tournoi de Paris in 1962.

Having been introduced with his side at a four-goal disadvantage, the Benfica youngster fired a hat-trick and won a penalty as the Águias eventually went down 6-3.

At the time, Pele was far and away the best player in the world - but a young Eusebio wasn’t cowed. Marrying exquisite natural talent and technical supremacy with the exuberance of complete freedom of expression, he announced himself as one of the finest talents in the world.

Central to his myriad of achievements was the 1962 European Cup success with Benfica, culminating in the final against Real Madrid.

Eusebio had been a key player for his club all year in what was only his first full season as a professional, and just as he outperformed Pele in 1962, Eusebio repeated the feat against his boyhood idol Alfredo Di Stefano. Di Stefano put Real 2-0 up early on, but Eusebio grabbed as he masterminded the comeback that culminated in a thrilling 5-3 win that was Benfica's second successive European Cup victory, and confirmed the end of Real's domination of Europe.

If Diego Maradona single-handedly led Argentina to a World Cup win in 1986, then Eusebio -who notched 41 goals in 64 appearances for Portugal - was the blueprint for such individual brilliance inside the realms of team sport.

At the 1966 World Cup he turned up with a heavy burden of expectation, having won the 1965 Ballon d'Or a few months earlier. But once again he responded to the pressure of expectation in emphatic fashion, scoring nine goals in the tournament and looking capable of cajoling the hitherto unfancied Iberian side until they came unstuck against England at the semi-final stage.

Yet despite his abundance of talent and innate genius, Eusebio was always known for his humility – a commodity often rare at the upper echelons of sporting achievement.

Former Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney was among those to witness that trait first hand. Having denied Eusebio with a brilliant save towards the end of the 1968 European Cup final, Stepney turned to see Eusebio applauding and then giving him a pat on the back in appreciation.

"It wasn't like I got a clear view of what he did at the time," recalled Stepney.

"There was not long left in the game and I was fully focused on it. I made the save and out of the corner of my eye I saw him still standing in front of me. It was only afterwards that I saw what he had done.

"The fact he was standing there clapping before running away is a mark of the man.”

His heir apparent at international level, Cristiano Ronaldo, summed up the prevailing view of a wonderful player and man.

Football has lost an eternal great; but everyone who loves the game will be eternally grateful to a man who only ever graced and enhanced the sport.

Eurosport/Reuters