The greatest player to emerge from Africa was not Cameroonian or Nigerian or Ivorian, writes Dileep Premachandran

When did you first become aware of African football? Was it in 1978, when a brilliant Tunisian side managed by Abdelmajid Chetali drew with West Germany, the World Cup holder, and beat Mexico? Or was it in 1982, when an Algerian team inspired by Lakhdar Belloumi and Rabah Madjer beat West Germany and Chile, only to be denied a place in the second round by the disgraceful collusion between the Germans and Austria?

What about four years later, when Morocco — with Ezzaiki Badou in superb form in goal — topped a group that had England, Poland and Portugal? Or did the strength of African football only hit home in the 1990s, when Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions and Nigeria’s Super Eagles terrified and beat some of the world’s best sides?

Even now, when we think of African football, it’s Cameroon and Nigeria that first come to mind. Then, perhaps, Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast or Michael Essien’s Ghana. One country you certainly won’t think of is Mozambique, currently 118th in the FIFA rankings. After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, the country has never qualified for the World Cup. Its four appearances at the African Cup of Nations have all resulted in first-round exits.

The same goes for individual players. Africa conjures up images of Roger Milla’s corner-flag celebrations, George Weah’s exploits in an AC Milan shirt or Drogba’s Champions League-winning heroics with Chelsea. Few of us stop to think that the greatest player to emerge from Africa was not Cameroonian or Nigerian or Ivorian. Long before these modern heroes, there was Eusebio, born in Lourenço Marques, now known as Maputo, the capital of modern-day Mozambique.  

After he died last weekend, more than 10,000 turned up at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz — Stadium of Light — to pay tribute to the man who put both African and Portuguese football on the map. When we ponder African football heroes, we seldom consider those that played for other countries because of colonisation. When Eusebio was in his prime, Mozambique was still Portuguese East Africa. Others like Jean Tigana, the brilliant passing metronome at the heart of the Euro ’84-winning French side, and Patrick Vieira, chose France because economic imperatives had forced their families away from the countries of their birth — Mali and Senegal.

But it was Eusebio, even more so than Mario Coluna — his captain for seven years at Benfica, who had travelled from Lourenço Marques to Lisbon six years before him — that was the pioneer, the one who made millions aware of the talent that lay waiting to be discovered on what the unenlightened still thought of as the Dark Continent.

With history, football or otherwise, largely written by the victors — or the English — the 1966 World Cup usually summons up references to the epic final, Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick and the captaincy of Bobby Moore. But the game of the tournament and perhaps the greatest individual performance in a match with so much at stake had come two rounds earlier, when Eusebio’s four goals in the quarterfinal at Ayresome Park turned a 0-3 deficit against North Korea — conqueror of Italy — into a 5-3 victory.

Watch footage from that game, and you’ll see a footballer who combined the pace of a young Ronaldo, the Brazilian original, with the strength of Emile Heskey and the shooting power of Roberto Carlos. Watching him must have been, and still is, a visceral experience.

He won one European Cup with his beloved Benfica, in 1961-62, but is remembered more for the two losses at Wembley. The first, in the 1966 World Cup semifinal, was perhaps expected, given England’s status as home favourite.

Two years later, with Benfica, he had a chance to clinch a famous victory against Manchester United in the European Cup final, but Alex Stepney made a stupendous save in the dying stages, and United romped home with three goals in extra time.

Benfica’s perennial bridesmaid status in the most prestigious club competition — it also lost finals in 1963, ’65, ’88 and ’90 — prompted Eusebio, then 48 and long since retired, to visit the grave of Bela Guttmann in Vienna before the 1990 final. The story goes that Guttmann had walked away from Benfica in 1962 after being denied a more lucrative contract, and had cursed Benfica with a hundred fallow years.

Curse or no curse, Eusebio’s place in the game’s annals is secure. “Mourning the death of Eusebio, a brother to me,” tweeted Pele, perhaps the greatest of them all, who also posted a picture of the two them together from the halcyon years.

Two trailblazers. One of them gone, never to be forgotten.

(Dileep Premachandran is the Editor-in-Chief of Wisden India)

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