The vindicated hunt for the Black Panther

Portuguese footballer Eusebio of Benfica in 1971
© Getty Images

Adopting a wild cat was en vogue to Europe-based aristocrats during the culturally radical 1960s. Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali was inseparable from his pet ocelot, Babou; tigers became a prominent gift for Russian socialites; and two quirky Australians made Christian, a lion who would go on to earn global celebrity, their flatmate on London’s plush Regent Street.

A 61-year-old Hungarian had no intention of joining the wild cat club when he left his Lisbon home for a haircut in late 1960. Sat in the barber’s chair next to him, however, was an old pupil, who waxed lyrically about a black panther he had witnessed during a trip to Mozambique. Beguiled, the former was on a flight to Maputo five days later. There, he was wowed by the predator.

Yet this pantera negra took his victims on the football turf rather than in the jungle. The forename behind the nickname was Eusebio. His would-be captor was the man at the Benifca controls, Bela Guttmann, whose tip had come from Bauer, whom he had coached at Sao Paulo.

There was, nevertheless, a monkey wrench in the 17-year-old’s path to the Estadio da Luz. Eusebio played for Sporting de Lourenco Marques, a feeder club to Portuguese colossuses Sporting, who had reached an agreement to sign the striker. Hastily, Guttmann proposed a contract that would have put the unproven, impoverished kid on pay parity with Mario Coluna, the Mozambique-born midfielder who was firmly established as one of the finest players in Europe. Eusebio’s brother fancifully demanded double. Guttmann nonchalantly nodded agreeably.

The rest was straight out of a spy movie. Eusebio did not walk from the departure gate at Maputo International Airport to the Lisbon-bound plane, but was individually ushered to the jet bridge in a car to avoid the risk of being spotted by non-passengers. Immediately upon arrival in the Portuguese capital, fearing a kidnap attempt from rivals clubs, Benfica sped him off to a remote district in the Algarve, where he spent ten days. And had Sporting's investigations been sufficiently expansive to check the guest lists of hotels in the country’s southernmost region of mainland Portugal, they still wouldn’t have rumbled the ruse – Eusebio was checked in under the name Ruth Malosso!

But if it was an exhaustive struggle for As Águias to get the African at their spearhead, it rapidly became indubitable that it was a worthwhile one. Eusebio was initially earmarked for grooming in the reserves, but after his maiden training session ahead of the new campaign in June 1961, Jose Aguas, Benfica’s No9 and captain, declared: “If it has to be me then so be it, but somebody has to drop out for him to play.”

Aguas, Mario Coluna, Joaquim Santana, Jose Augusto and Domiciano Cavem had, little over two weeks earlier, formed a rhythmic attacking quintet that had propelled Benfica to a 3-2 win over Barcelona in the European Cup final. How could Guttmann possibly vindicate relegating one from starter to substitute for the Tournoi International de Paris decider against an exceptional Santos side?

Watching the ball leave Eusebio’s boot was like witnessing Sputnik launch into space! And as well as such force, he struck the ball with such accuracy.

A 5-0 deficit, courtesy of doubles apiece from Pele and Pepe and a Coutinho goal, was a justifiable defence. Guttman unleashed Eusebio, who posted a stunning 17-minute hat-trick and even won a penalty which Augusto missed. The following day, the camera-shy face of a Mozambican which Benfica fans were yet to see decorated the cover of the prestigious France Football magazine. The prestigious publication’s headline neglected to illustrate a 6-3 Santos victory. Instead, it read: ‘Eusebio 3-2 Pele’.

By the end of that campaign, Eusebio had averaged 1.4 goals per game in the Portuguese top tier and, with the European Cup final against Real Madrid level at 3-3, scored twice to earn Benfica a 5-3 upset and a successful defence of their continental title. It was the prelude to Eusebio’s paradisiacal 15-year service to club, whom he also inspired to 11 league titles and five domestic cups, scoring 638 goals in 614 games in the process.

His stupefying prolificacy was indebted to his physical prowess. Eusebio ran the 100 metres in 10.8 seconds – the then world record stood at just eight-tenths of a second quicker; he had hulking upper-body strength and ballerina-like balance; an almighty leap enabled the 1.75m player to beat much taller opponents to headers; and, according to fellow Mozambique-born Portugal international Matateu, Eusebio’s right foot boasted power comparable to the go-to fist of Cassius Clay, the boxer born just eight days before him and a fellow demigod to Africans during the 1960s, in which he won all 29 of his boxing fights – the majority via vicious knockout.

Guttmann preferred to juxtapose Eusebio’s weapon of choice with a Soviet satellite: “Watching the ball leave Eusebio’s boot was like witnessing Sputnik launch into space! And as well as such force, he struck the ball with such accuracy. He was also incredibly fast, explosive, a great dribbler… he was such a complete footballer. Signing Eusebio was the biggest victory Benfica will ever score over Sporting.”

If Eusebio’s output for Benfica divided a city, his performances in another red jersey united a country. He managed 41 goals in 64 appearances for Portugal and though he was only afforded one chance to showcase his irrepressible output in a major international competition, he certainly made the most of it.

Eusebio, indeed, illuminated the 1966 FIFA World Cup England™, scoring twice to eliminate the two-time defending champions Brazil and send Portugal through to the quarter-finals, where his quartet inspired Otto Gloria’s side to recover a three-goal deficit against Korea DPR and win 5-3. England manager Alf Ramsey, despite boasting two formidable centre-backs in Bobby Moore and Jack Charlton, was sufficiently concerned to order Nobby Stiles to man-mark Eusebio in the last four. The latter still scored, albeit from the spot, but England won 2-1.

The aforementioned Charlton said: “Eusebio was a truly magnificent player. He was very quick, strong, had perfect balance and was good on the ball. He could really hit a ball too. In my view, he was as good as Pele. The gaffer wouldn’t have put a man-marker on anybody. He didn’t do it against [Wolfgang] Overath in the Final or against Pele [at Mexico 1970], so it just goes to show how highly he respected Eusebio.”

So, too, did Stiles after 90 minutes on that July evening – the Manchester United workhorse shed a staggering four kilos (8.8 lbs) chasing Eusebio around the Wembley turf!

Still, the No13 signed off from the tournament in style, netting in a 2-1 reverse of Soviet Union which ensured Portugal finished third and their talisman as the nine-goal adidas Golden Boot recipient.

“I was always very proud to receive an award,” said Eusebio, whose magnificence was rewarded with the Ballon d’Or in 1965, “because it wasn’t just for me but for Portugal and the whole of Africa.”

As well as overwhelming Portuguese and Africans with pride, Eusebio went on to represent teams in Canada, Mexico and the USA before, in 1979, calling time on a 745-game career that had given fans 733 goals to celebrate.

Today, it’s time for the football world to wish Eusebio a glorious celebration - happy 70th birthday, Pantera Negra.

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