The great Eusebio has died at the age of 71.
While I carelessly allowed the passing of one of my favourite novelists, Elmore Leonard, to go unmentioned last year, I have to say something about the first great African footballer, the man who opened the door for thousands of black players who followed him to European clubs.
During a chance meeting in 1961 between the coach of Sao Paulo and Benfica coach Bela Guttmann, who happened to be setting next to each other in a hairdresser’s in Lisbon, the Brazilian told the Hungarian about a gifted youngster he had seen in Lourenco Marques in east Africa.
Within a week Guttmann had flown to Mozambique and signed the 19-year old forward, whose father, a railway mechanic, had died leaving a wife and five children.
Mainly, I have four memories of Eusebio: Wembley, Old Trafford, Wembley and Prague.
At Alleyne’s Grammar School, Stevenage, where we played rugby and hockey, I used to read about Eusebio in World Soccer and glimpse him on TV, usually scoring with explosive shots from prodigious distances or narrow angles.
The lad who sat next to me in 5A, Mitch Mitchell, played for Stevenage Athletic Under-16s, along with Dave “Woggy” Rogers, who sat at the desk behind us. Those boys got me interested in football by suggesting that I come down to watch them play. Their team was managed by Mr Mitchell, the father of the centre-half who sat next to me.
After that Woggy and I talked a lot about football and I wrote the match reports, on a form supplied by the North Herts League, and sent them to the Herts Express & Stevenage Gazette, so I started writing about football at the same time as I started watching it.
In 1963 I bunked off school with Woggy to go and see European champions Benfica play AC Milan at Wembley, a final that was played in the afternoon.
We were behind the goal when Eusebio unleashed a scorching shot that flew low into the net in front of us. The velocity of that shot was shock to us â€“and to millions of Italians. Then Milan’s destroyers kicked playmaking left half Coluna out of the game, Altafini scored two goals, and Milan became the first Italian club to win the European Cup.
One day in February 1966 four of us were sitting in the canteen at Manchester University Union, talking about a match that was to be played that night.
My friends played for the university first team and I travelled everywhere with them, reporting their matches for the fortnightly student newspaper.
It was late afternoon and we talking about a European Cup tie between Manchester United and Benfica when we suddenly realised that …we could go to the game!
We immediately ran out of the building and down the steps and raced down Oxford Road to a music college on the corner and caught a bus to Old Trafford. We were on the terraces and the excitement of that pulsating match caused many of the 64,000 fans to cascade down and across the terraces, so we were soon separated.
Looking back almost 50 years later, what I’m describing sounds dangerous but I never felt scared and was never hurt in a throng of stumbling bodies. I always made sure that I didn\’t fall over and get trampled on.
What was scary was when the ball went near Eusebio.
When the ball went to Eusebio, or near him, the Manchester crowd was absolutely terrified ; it was as if electric current of fear seemed to join every supporter together. Somehow, Stiles, Foulkes and Stepney prevented this explosive black striker from scoring and United, with a forward line of Best, Law, Charlton, Herd and Connelly, managed to beat United 3-2 in that first leg. In Lisbon, Best was electrifying and United won 5-1.
In the summer of 1966 the Portuguese national team played England in the World Cup semi-final and I still had one year to do at Manchester.
I’d paid about £20 for a booklet of tickets which included all the games at Wembley and one at White City and stayed with my friend Simon in Battersea.
When I turned up for that semi-final at Wembley I somehow, freakishly, bumped into Dave Rogers and we watched the semi-final together.
Once again, it was Nobby Stiles versus Eusebio, though Stiles, who played in Bobby Moore’s position for Manchester United, was used as a midfield ball-winner for England : a masterstroke by Alf Ramsey. We had not seen each other since I left school and we saw Bobby Charlton play out of his skin, scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory.
Eusebio scored a late penalty after handball by Jack Charlton
Excited by England\’s progress to the World Cup Final, we arranged to meet again on a day that was to become historic.
Decades later I was the only British journalist present in Prague to report Portugal\’s bid for the 2004 European Championships.
Rob Hughes and Keir Radnedge couldn\’t make it. Spain were strong favourites to land the tournament, Portugal had never hosted anything huge, and Austria & Hungary wanted to co-host it.
At an extravagant dinner I sat at a big table with journalists from all over Europe as bid host Carlos Cruz, the Des Lynham of Portuguese television, made a very persuasive case for his country.
It was huge fun for me to see ambassador Eusebio on the stage, reunited in sporting friendship with silver-haired Czech legend Josef Masopust, who had played for a fabulous Dukla Prague team.
They had been two of Europe’s greatest footballers and it was moving to see those two heroes given a framed black & white photo of themselves as young men, one presenting the other with a Golden Ball trophy.
I also remember having lunch with Carlos Cruz on a sunny afternoon by the river, and being joined by journalist Antonio Florencio and Eusebio. Antonio was Eusebio‘s lifelong friend and we talked about United and Nobby Stiles, with the modest old star remembering his rival fondly.
Then I mentioned the 1966 World Cup, where Portugal kicked Pele out of the tournament in the most brutal manner, beating the reigning world champions by 3-0.
After the pain and tears of that traumatic day, and a negligent display by cowardly English referee George McCabe, Pele swore that he would never play in a World Cup again.
I said, “What Morais did to Pele was absolutely disgraceful.”
Pointing to Eusebio, Antonio said, “Yes, but he was the first one to tell Morais that he shouldn’t have done it.”
That was typical of a humble guy with a lot of empathy. A gentle, good-humoured character, Eusebio often applauded a keeper who saved one of his rocket shots and sometimes cried when his team lost a game.
He was a phenomenal footballer who won eleven league titles with Benfica and became the European Footballer of the Year in 1965. In 64 games for Portugal he scored 41 goals.
Eusebio played in three European Cup finals and helped to end the Spanish monopoly of that competition.
Real Madrid, with Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, had won the first five European Cups but in 1961 they were knocked out in the semi-final by Barcelona, who were then beaten by Benfica in the final.
Real Madrid bounced back the following season, when they reached the final and faced Benfica, the champions, in Amsterdam. Puskas scored a hat-trick but Benfica beat them 5-3, with Eusebio scoring a cannonball free-kick and a penalty.
Afterwards Puskas, always a fine sportsman, presented Eusebio with his shirt. That tells me how great Puskas thought Eusebio was.