The FIFA World Cup™ is where footballing legends are made. Portugal icon Eusebio cemented his place as one of the greatest players of all time with his goals and electric displays at England 1966. Already a European champion at club level with Benfica, nine strikes from A Pantera Negra (The Black Panther) earned him the top scorers’ award and fired the Lusitanians to third spot: their best-ever finals finish.
Not that admiration for Eusebio is restricted to European football followers, with the Maputo-born superstar a veritable hero in his native Mozambique, which at the time was a Portuguese colony. Forty-four years on, amid the excitement of the first ever FIFA World Cup to be held on Africa soil, the lethal former striker spoke to FIFA about having the finals so close to home.
“It’s a great source of pride to be experiencing this historic moment, mainly because I was born nearby in Mozambique,” said Eusebio, who as an ambassador for the Portuguese national team, will be following A Selecção das Quinas’ campaign from close quarters. "I think that each and every African across the globe feels privileged that the World Cup is being played in Africa.
“It’s great to be so close to my country. After all, it’s only a very short flight from Johannesburg to Maputo,” continued A Perla Negra. “I’d visited South Africa even before I started playing for Portugal, because I used to come here with my brother when I was still a kid. That makes me even more proud. Now is the moment for Africa to shine at the very highest level and I’m very grateful to FIFA for choosing South Africa as host nation.”
Eusebio also went so far as to say that, come the Final on 11 July, "people will say the best World Cup of all time was held in Africa. I believe that this World Cup will be full of Fair Play and that the fans will be able to follow their respective teams without any problems, taking advantage of the best Africa has to offer. And I’m sure that the world will toast the new champions, the runners-up and the whole structure that was put in place to host the event and make 64 top-quality games possible.”
“I’m hoping that the team has an excellent tournament, but I realise that to do so they need a big performance in their opening game,” said Eusebio of Portugal, who kick off their Group G campaign on Tuesday against Côte d’Ivoire. “If we manage to win it takes us a step closer to the Round of 16 and anything is possible in the knockout stages for this national team. We proved that at EURO 2004 and Germany 2006.”
Having finished fourth on German soil, Eusebio believes the Iberians can repeat that feat this time around under coach Carlos Queiroz. “He’s someone I’ve known for many, many years. As head coach he can point to having led our younger generations to FIFA U-20 titles in 1989 and 1991. That was a launching pad for Portugal to have great senior national sides in later years.”
“Unfortunately our ‘Golden Generation’ couldn’t win in the final of EURO 2004 under Luiz Felipe Scolari, but Carlos Queiroz is a coach who knows his role inside out. Above all he’s someone I really admire and of course you mustn’t forget he was also born in Mozambique,” added arguably Portugal’s finest player of all time.
“It’s a very very difficult question, but I’ll answer because I’m a football man, I’ve always been involved in the game,” said Eusebio, when asked how far an African team can go in this competition. “I think it’ll be very difficult for an African team to win the world crown. There are great teams chasing this title and I see Spain as the big favourites, followed by Brazil, with the Netherlands, Argentina and England close behind.”
“Of the African teams, I think Nigeria have the best chance: they have an excellent team. What’s more, they’ve always produced great sides but for a long time they played more like individuals than as a team. If not for that they could have been world champions back in 1994. If they manage to change that characteristic and follow their coach’s instructions they could go far.
“That said, South Africa have millions of fans behind them,” said Eusebio as the interview drew a close. “You never know what might happen, as the tournament’s only just begun. Now’s the time for all the teams to keep their feet on the ground while aiming high. This is football after all, and there are always surprises in football.”