As one year ends and another begins, the football world looks back on the marvels of Atletico Madrid’s La Liga triumph and Germany’s 7-1 rout of Brazil.  Here in southern Africa, the landmark event of 2014 was the death of our region’s greatest-ever player.

I did not think about Eusebio when I used to go to Mozambique.  In the mid-nineties the country, wearily emerging from years of civil war, seemed far removed from the world of football stars.  Skull-and-crossbones signs, tacked to trees, marked the margins of the Beira Corridor, the Tête Corridor, and the spectacularly cratered road from Ressano Garcia to the capital.  The signs declared, not a country devoted to Orlando Pirates, but one riddled with landmines.

It is a short distance from South Africa to Maputo.  Still, having reached the Indian Ocean, it could take a week to clear a load from the Frigo customs yard in the city.  While one waited, there were chances for exploring.  Much remained from the old LM, the place Eusebio knew in his childhood.  There was the shabby bullfighting arena, where the Portuguese had enjoyed their Iberian brand of macho.  One could walk along the palm-lined Marginal, gazing out on the Bay, with lateen-sailed boats forever drifting on the horizon.  Boys scaled palms and cashew trees, as Mario Coluna did in his youth.  The late afternoon was good for a slow Laurentina beer at a reed-roofed taberna somewhere along Costa do Sol.  There would be youngsters kicking a ball about on the sand.  Even then, I don’t believe I really thought of Eusebio.

Of course, I knew that he had grown up here – though not how fortuitous that fact was.  It was much later that I learned a more complete story, and much of the lore connected with Eusébio da Silva Ferreira …  How the bootless teenage prodigy from the poor Mafalala district was turned down for a proper assessment with Benfica’s Lourenço Marques feeder club Desportivo …  How he then joined Sporting’s local nursery side, hugely impressing with a brace against a touring Brazilian club …  How the coach of the tourists, former World Cup player Carlos Bauer, enthused about the virtuoso youngster to a friend in a Lisbon barber shop …  How the friend, Benfica coach Béla Guttman, then travelled to Mozambique to see for himself …  How Benfica managed to stave off Sporting for Eusebio’s contract.  Then, the Benfica glory years, the ’66 World Cup, and so on.

Eusebio in action

Eusebio in action during the 1968 European Cup final against Manchester United.

Now that Eusebio has died, the precise nature of his huge talent seems somehow quite elusive.  Despite his mindboggling 733 goals in 745 professional games, tributes have largely focused, not on the player, but on the sort of person he was: gentle, a gentleman, a true sportsman, an ambassador, a kind soul with time for everybody, and, despite the blandishments of success, a relatively humble man.

Abel Xavier, another Mozambican who went on to play for Benfica and Portugal, says in a BBC interview that the real example of Eusebio is to be a great human being.  In an age when footballing celebrity and moral excellence can seem mutually exclusive, it is refreshing to learn Eusebio remained a decent person long after his joints had surrendered.

Yet, stacks of nice people die without banners and fanfare, without three days of national mourning being declared.  For those of us who did not actually see him in his heyday, grasping what Eusebio was as a player involves a bit of sleuthing.  I mean no disrespect, but what counted on the pitch was surely not his charisma but his synergy with other players, not his modesty but his speed, not his popular canonisation but the cannon of his right foot.

That he was something incredibly special – unique even – is evident from the fact that Guttman was willing to pursue him in that distant outpost of Portugal’s empire, Lourenço Marques.  In contrast with Sporting, to whom his childhood friend Hilario had recommended him, Benfica did not require Eusebio to come on trial; they wanted to sign him on the spot.  Bauer and Guttman knew the great players of the era, and, in many cases, had played with, or coached them.  When Bauer spoke about the Black Panther, Guttman listened.  If a friend, not prone to sensationalism, showed you where he had seen a real melanistic black leopard, and you had searched all your life for that near-mythical creature, you might well go to the spot marked ‘X’ on the map.  Guttman did, and he found a real Bagheera.  “He was gold, gold, gold,” said the Benfica coach.

When you study the film clips and action photographs of Eusebio’s heyday, or listen to the wistful veterans talking of the visitation they saw in their youth, three things sing out at you: that right foot, his exceptional speed, and an intuitive connection with teammates.  He was, of course, also very skilful on the ball and had a range of finishes with either foot, but those three things were what set him apart.

For his right-footed shooting, take the iconic image of Eusebio scoring the first goal in the 1963 European Cup final, which preserves much of the powerful magic: his body levitates and jackknifes in the shot, his torso swivels while his arms preserve perfect balance, and his head points like a gunsight at the target.  It is similar with the third of his four goals against North Korea at the ’66 World Cup, preserved in the classic colour film of the tournament.  Here, though, the lithe movement and unstoppable force are actual, not merely inferred.  Eusebio flashes in from the right flank and shoots with the precision of a laser and the impact of a mortar.  Was such pinpoint devastation ever inflicted on a goal net, before or since?  At his least accurate, the ball might hit the crossbar and rebound beyond the 18-yard box.

As a youngster, Eusebio could do the hundred metres in eleven seconds flat.  In his prime, he was easily a ten seconds-something sprinter.  Such raw pace, in itself, does not make a potent footballer, however.  There are many kinds of speed in football: the vector speed, or sheer velocity, of a great wide player bursting down the flank before cutting in, or crossing from the by-line; ability to dribble at pace, without going down easily in a challenge; change of pace, or swift acceleration, with the capacity to leave defenders for dead.  Eusebio possessed all of these in large measure, as footage of his play quickly reveals.  Yet, there was something else, as his contemporaries are at pains to stress.  Pachin, the Real Madrid defender, speaks in the Football’s Greatest series of Eusebio’s “supernatural speed.”  Teammate José Augusto says, in the same show, that he was “catlike in the way he played; so fast and imaginative.  To get past his marker, he showed incredible strength.”

With the third of Eusebio’s outstanding attributes, his acute awareness of teammates, perhaps character and skill were inseparable.  The Benfica and Portugal sides of the time resembled a Portuguese Man-of-War: a composite animal in which the individuals each assume special roles.  We can easily take this for granted, but football at its best is about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  That ideal is realised only where work ethic and skill are complemented by humility.  “He always listened to me,” said Eusebio’s club and international teammate Antonio Simoes, remembering his friend.  Many others echo this memory of a player always attuned to the team.  A modest temperament clearly is a footballing asset, and no less so in a player endowed as Eusebio was.  The birthplace of that spirit was the milieu of 1950s Lourenço Marques, where the Black Panther kicked a ball for the first time.

In his autobiography Memories at Low Altitude, Jacinto Veloso, a Mozambican revolutionary who had successful trials with Benfica during his university years, says of Lourenço Marques football during that era:  “Sociability on the sports field was an interesting feature of the colonial period. … It should be recalled that colonial society was clearly discriminatory and racist, but sport was where humiliation and racism were least felt.  What counted most was sporting skill.”  He also remembers that his “neighbourhood sports field was that of Munhuana, where many football stars – such as Barata, Vicente and later Eusébio – played.” Eusebio benefitted from this egalitarian environment.  It infused his footballing psyche, making him the ultimate team-player in an age of inequality.

Eusebio scores against North Korea

Eusebio scores against North Korea in the 1966 World Cup quarter final at Goodison Park.

Sometimes it is said that in the 1960s Portugal plundered its African territories for star players.  One doesn’t have to be a Salazar apologist, though, to see this is a dodgy version of events, as the background of the Benfica stars of the period reveals.  Jose Águas from Angola was white.  Mario Coluna, from Inhaca in the Bay of Maputo, had a white Portuguese father.  Eusebio’s father, who died of tetanus when he was just eight, was a white Angolan railway worker.  It could be argued that Europe and Africa had equal claim to these players.  As for the other colonial imports, Portugal represented opportunities they could not expect at home in Africa.  The pioneering Matateu and his brother Vicente, from Alto Maé in Maputo, became legends for Belenenses and Portugal.  Hilario, from the same district, joined Sporting and played all Portugal’s matches at the ’66 World Cup.

By contrast, did any African talent from Britain’s former empire have the prospect of an international platform at the time?  David Julius, a South African of colour from Cape Town, actually went to Maputo to improve his prospects of a big move.  The gamble paid off:  He became Julião of Sporting, and a Portuguese international.  Outside of Brazil, itself ambivalent about race, there was no environment so enabling for black players as Maputo.  Several Portuguese clubs had a scouting system in the city, and clamoured for the pick of the players in the local league.  Eusebio, who never made much of the tag of victimhood, was in fact extremely fortunate to have been born there, and at just the right time.  His ‘lucky break’ in signing for Benfica wasn’t quite that, because if the Lisbon giants hadn’t got him, their bitter rivals Sporting or another Portuguese club most certainly would have done so.

On balance, though, it was best for Eusebio that Benfica succeeded where others missed out.  That discussion as Guttman and Bauer had their hair trimmed really was in the best interests of Eusebio, because of what, or rather who Benfica offered him.  Because the player was underage, his mother signed his contract with the Eagles.  She also wrote to local hero Mario Coluna, who had been at Benfica since 1954, asking that he mentor her son.  The bond that developed between Coluna and Eusebio, on and off the pitch, was pivotal in the younger man’s adaptation to life in the Portuguese capital, and to his outstanding success for club and country.

Among the most poignant of the eulogies following Eusebio’s death was Coluna’s:  “Eusebio was like a son to me.  I’ll always be biased when it comes to talking about him.  I welcomed him with open arms in Portugal when he left Mozambique.  I was responsible for bringing him to Benfica and for him reaching the top in Portuguese football.  I feel very, very sad.  May God bless his soul.”

Had he lived beyond its first week, one senses that Eusebio would have found 2014 a strange old year.  Within two months, Coluna himself was dead in Mozambique, the country that had remained his homeland, and where he served as a government minister during the early period of Frelimo rule.  Benfica, despite overdue domestic success, failed in a continental final once again, when Sevilla prevailed over them on penalties to claim the Europa League title.  For some, this eighth successive finals loss in European competition lent credence to Béla Guttman’s fabled curse when he left the club.  The Mozambique national side, replete with players from Maxaquene and Desportivo de Maputo, the modern incarnations of the old Lourenço Marques clubs, failed in the CHAN tournament and in the AFCON qualification campaign.  Since the Golden Age of Lourenço Marques football, relatively few native Mozambicans have made an impression beyond their country’s borders.  Mozambique-born coaches such as Carlos Queiroz, Paulo Fonseca and Roger de Sa are, however, a reminder of the tiny enclave of footballing quality that the Indian Ocean port city once was.

Eusebio would, one feels, have felt at home in Salvador, setting for Portugal’s first group game of the 2014 World Cup.  It is a city not unlike Maputo in its combination of African and Portuguese influences.  The outcome of the match with Germany was humiliating, however.  After Pepe’s red card, the outcome was never in doubt.  The Germans sauntered to a 4-0 win, the platform for their tournament triumph and Portugal’s abject group-stage failure.

A year after his death, it is possible that we have not yet actually found Eusebio.  We know that he was a fantastic player and a pleasant person, but inevitably the debate circles around his place among the all-time greats.  Perhaps, though, all we really need to know is that Eusebio was the product of a strangely enabling place and time, could kick a ball like nobody else, could run faster and more intelligently than almost any mortal, and exemplified the essence of the beautiful game.  If we grasp these things, then I think we may understand what made him so special.

By Lindsay Christison

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona