There must be something in the water in Alto-Mahe, a suburb of the Mozambican city of Lourenco Marques, renamed Maputo when the country gained independence from Portugal in 1976.

It was in that part of the world that footballing notables such as Matateu, Vicente and Hilario were born and where a certain Mario Esteves Coluna took his first steps on a journey in which he would become one of most gifted players ever to play for Portugal.

Born to a Mozambican mother and a Portuguese father, Coluna was an innate athlete. Regularly defying his parents’ wishes by climbing mango and cashew trees in his formative years, he would develop his all-round skills at Desportivo de Lourenco Marques, a sports club his goalkeeping-father had helped found.

Though he progressed no further than the reserve team as a basketball player, he excelled in track and field, breaking the national high jump record. The football pitch, however, was where he really came into his own.

It was with Desportivo that he began to shape his legend. Barred from playing in the first leg of a cup tie away in South Africa, on account of the country’s repressive apartheid laws, the 17-year-old Coluna exacted heavy revenge in the second leg, scoring seven goals in an easy win for his side.

By this time Portugal’s biggest clubs were already tracking the teenage tyro. Porto came in with an offer shortly after that seven-goal show, followed by Sporting Lisbon, who doubled their offer. His father was waiting on a move from the other member of Portugal’s big three, however, and it was that and Desportivo de Lourenco Marques’ status as a feeder club to Benfica, that would eventually see Coluna, still only 19, make the move to the Estadio da Luz in 1954.

A new role and rich rewards
Arriving in the Portuguese capital after a gruelling 34-hour journey, the new recruit made his way to the Lar do Jogador, a residence where Benfica put up players who had yet to find permanent accommodation in the city. Unhappy in his new surroundings, Coluna struggled to adjust at first.

Though the striker’s prodigious feats in Mozambique had preceded him, Benfica coach Otto Gloria was unsure at first where to play him. With Jose Aguas as his undisputed first-choice centre-forward, the Brazilian coach sought another role for his new star, finally opting to deploy his passing abilities and muscular presence in midfield.

It proved to be an inspired choice. After making his first appearance in the famous red jersey in a friendly with Porto, the Mozambican-born marvel made an instant impact when the 1954/55 season got under way, scoring twice on his official league debut: a 5-0 thrashing of Setubal. Those goals were the first of 150 that he would score in his 16-year association with As Águilas, one that would span 677 games.

His arrival also marked the beginning of a lengthy golden era for Benfica, who replaced city rivals Sporting as the dominant force on the domestic scene and went on to win ten league titles and six Portuguese cups during Coluna’s stay. Glittering success also came their way on the continental front, Benfica becoming the first side other than Real Madrid to win the European Cup when they beat Barcelona 3-2 in the 1961 final, Coluna scoring one of their goals in that ground-breaking triumph.

The talented Mr Coluna
A few months before, at the end of 1960, another gifted player from Lourenco Marques landed in Lisbon, ready to bring his prodigious skills to bear in an already fearsome line-up. His name was Eusebio da Silva Ferreira and he came bearing a letter for the great Coluna.

The families of the two players had got to know each other, and, concerned for her son’s welfare in distant Portugal, Eusebio’s mother had written to Coluna to ask him to look after the timid youngster. The established star did just that, taking the teenager under his wing and looking on as he developed into one of the most devastating forwards the game has ever seen.

As well as opening a bank account for the Black Panther, Coluna also kept an eye on the fledgling’s finances until he found his feet and started a family. As well as forming a solid alliance off the pitch, they were hugely successful partners on it, combining to great effect as Benfica defended their European crown in 1962.

Facing them in the final in Amsterdam that year were the mighty Real Madrid, who had already won the trophy five times. After a first-half Ferenc Puskas hat-trick had given the Spaniards a 3-2 lead at the interval, Coluna struck early in the second half to level the scores. It was then that Eusebio took over.

When Benfica were awarded a penalty with 28 minutes remaining, Coluna collected the ball and readied himself to take it, at which point Eusebio stepped up and politely enquired: “Mr Coluna, may I take the penalty?” Perhaps impressed at his younger team-mate’s courtesy, Coluna stood aside and looked on as the rising star held his nerve to put Benfica in the lead for the first time. Moments later Eusebio scored again to set the seal on a famous 5-3 win.

Eusebio had one more request to make of Coluna before they left the pitch that night. Too shy to summon up the courage to ask his hero Alfredo Di Stefano for his shirt, the two-goal hero implored Coluna to approach him. When the prized garment eventually came his way, Eusebio kept it with him throughout the evening’s celebrations, and still regards it as one of the greatest trophies he collected during his amazing career.

Today Europe, tomorrow the world
Together Eusebio and team captain Coluna would contest three more European Cup finals with Benfica – failing to win any of them – and form the basis of the great Portugal side that thrilled the crowds at the 1966 FIFA World Cup England™.

With national team captain Germano on the bench, it was Coluna who skippered the side at the world finals. His poise and precision in midfield would help the Black Panther finish the tournament as the leading goalscorer and take the team to third place, which remains Portugal’s best-ever FIFA World Cup finals performance.

Returning from England, Coluna would play for three more years at Benfica before leaving at the end of 1969/70 season for French club Lyon. He made an emotional return to Estadio da Luz in December 1970 for a tribute match against a star-studded world XI featuring the likes of Johan Cruyff and Bobby Moore.

After making a farewell 15-minute appearance in the red jersey, Coluna left the pitch to a rousing ovation. And such was his love for Benfica that he then decided against making his scheduled appearance for the world side, preferring to sit on the sidelines for the rest of the game than run out against the team closest to his heart.

A devoted, dexterous and highly respected servant for club and country, it was not for nothing that the tree-climbing kid from Mozambique became known as O Monstro Sagrado (The Sacred Beast) to Benfica fans, O Didi Europeu to Brazilian football writers, and, memorably, as Mr Coluna to the one and only Eusebio.