Eusebio: How Africa Changed Football

Written by: Peter Alegi

Primary Source: Football is Coming Home

On Sunday, January 5, Eusébio died of heart failure in Lisbon at the age of 71. Born Eusébio da Silva Ferreira in 1942 in what is today Maputo, Mozambique, he became the first African player to acquire global fame. Portugal has declared three days of national mourning in his honor. As per Eusébio’s wish, his coffin was carried to the center of the pitch at Benfica’s La Luz Stadium in an extraordinary ceremony on Monday (see video above). Fans created a memorial that enveloped his statue outside the stadium.

The striker’s standing in the game’s history was celebrated in two excellent obituaries published in today’s New York Times (read them here and here). Many would agree though that the most poetic tribute to Eusébio comes from Eduardo Galeano (click here to listen to the author read it).

Like most African boys, Eusébio grew up kicking makeshift footballs in the streets. As a teenager, he failed a trial with Desportivo, Benfica’s Mozambican subsidiary, because he showed up without proper boots so he joined rival Sporting instead. His big break came when he scored twice against Ferroviara de Araraquara from Brazil, which was touring Mozambique. José Carlos Bauer, the Ferroviara coach and a former member of Brazil’s World Cup team recommended Eusebio to Bela Guttmann, the legendary coach of Benfica. Guttmann was an ardent believer in overseas players and a globetrotting emigrant himself.

In 1961 Benfica signed Eusébio for £7500. Fast and strong, he had that rare combination of mobility, long-range shooting ability, and a striker’s instinct close to goal. These qualities, according to David Goldblatt, made him “perhaps the archetype of the modern football player.” He won 7 league titles , 2 Portuguese FA Cups, and a European Cup. In 1965 he was crowned the best player in Europe, three decades before Liberian striker George Weah, and was top scorer in the 1966 World Cup with nine goals.

He was idolized in Portugal and throughout Africa. His statistics spoke volumes: 317 goals in 301 matches with Benfica; 41 in 64 for Portugal—a record Cristiano Ronaldo has yet to surpass. Together with Pelé, Eusébio was instrumental in elevating the status of black players in world football. He “destroyed the nonsense that Africans could not play soccer—or rather could not learn to harness individual flair for the good of the team,” wrote Rob Hughes in the New York Times. He also exemplified how African labor benefited Portuguese football by providing athletic talent at affordable prices and making it more cosmopolitan.

“Eusébio represented a confident, glamorous, mobile new Africa on the world stage,” Sean Jacobs and Elliot Ross noted in their poignant tribute for Al Jazeera America. “But his remarkable historical achievement was to be the face of not one but two emerging continents. He helped, in his own way, to reshape the idea of Europe itself.”

This post draws on material from my book African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game (Ohio University Press, 2010).

Suggested Viewing/Reading:

Eusébio – Um Jogador de Todos os Tempos (documentary, in Portuguese)

Farewell Eusébio by Sports Illustrated’s Planet Fútbol

“Remembering Eusebio’s brief time in the NASL” by James Tyler with Shep Messing

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Peter Alegi
Peter Alegi is Professor of History at Michigan State University. He is the author of Laduma! Soccer, Politics, and Society in South Africa (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004) and African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game (Ohio University Press, 2010). With Peter Limb, Alegi hosts the “Africa Past and Present” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @futbolprof.
Peter Alegi

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