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Eusébio was one of the best

Posted by Julian Cardillo  January 5, 2014 09:13 AM

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When Eusébio set foot on the Gillette Stadium field during the pregame ceremonies for last September's Brazil-Portugal friendly, the capacity crowd roared in applause. Even 35 years after his last professional game, fans had no trouble recognizing him.

He was, after all, one of the best footballers to play the beautiful game, arguably the best player Portugal has ever produced.

Eusébio will be remembered as this and more. On Sunday, he died of cardiopulmonary arrest in his Lisbon home. He was 71.

While Eusébio was an international star who won the 1965 Ballon D'Or and helped Portugal to a third place finish in the 1966 World Cup by scoring a tournament-high nine goals, he had roots in New England, too.

He played in the old North American Soccer League, which predates Major League Soccer, for the Boston Minutemen in 1975. At Boston University's Nickerson Field, he captained the Minutemen and scored two goals in seven games. His times in NASL concluded with year-long stints with teams in Toronto and Las Vegas.

But Eusébio's U.S. tour is a mere sidebar compared to his contributions to Os Navegadores (aka the Portuguese national team) and his long-time club, Benfica.

Though born in Mozambique to an Angolan father, Eusébio was able to play for Portugal because the nation was, at the time, a Portuguese colony. And though Eusébio went on to break scoring and appearance records for the Portuguese, he is still touted as Africa's first international soccer superstar.

The 1966 World Cup was where Eusébio, who was 24 at the time, made his mark. Portugal won its opening game against Hungary and then beat Bulgaria with the help of a goal from Eusébio. Their third and final group game was against the defending champions Brazil, who were without Pelé. Eusébio scored twice in the game, knocking the Brazilians out of the tournament and sending Portugal into the knockout round.

"I told my teammates' we're going to win because we're a good side. We're better than good, we're better than Brazil," said Eusébio in 2005. 'They're one of the worst national teams I've ever seen.'"

Portugal were gifted into drawing North Korea in the Quarterfinals. The North Koreans had staged a shot heard around the world 1-0 upset of Italy, and made their way into the knockout round as underdogs. And though North Korea fought Portugal tooth and nail in an eight-goal thriller, it was Eusébio who stole the show with a four-goal performance.

"They were 3-0 down," said Sir Bobby Charlton, who played against Eusébio at the 1966 World Cup. "The Koreans couldn't believe it. And suddenly Eusébio gave them one goal and he wanted the ball all the time. He just ran over them, really. It's one of the best individual performances you'll ever see.

"I said 'if we can pull back just one or two goals in the first half we'll win the game,'" said Eusébio. "And we managed it, I scored to goals. Seven minutes into the first half I made it 3-3. On the hour mark, I made it 4-3. It was one of my best-ever games in a Portugal shirt."

Eusébio and Portugal were defeated by England, the hosts and eventual champions, in the semifinals but won the third place match against the Soviet Union. Eusébio scored off one penalty in both games. That result remains Portugal's highest finish at a World Cup.

Eusébio moved to Portugal to sign for Benfica when he was 18 on a $150,000 transfer fee. He left his Mozambique club, Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques, on the recommendation of Jose Carlos Bauer, a Brazilian player who discussed Eusébio with coaches from Benfica.

"I said 'I don't care if they're European Champions or not I'm going to get on that team. I'm going to play on that side,'" said Eusébio in 2005.

Some of Eusébio's teammates mistook his competitive drive for arrogance, but his play and his performances on the field backed it up.

No matter where he played, Eusébio's defining assets as a player were his speed and athleticism. When he was first scouted by Benfica and Sao Paolo, he could run 100 meters in 11 seconds. Highlights of his goals on YouTube show him at work, running onto passes at top speed before pummeling the ball into the back of the net.

His career with Benfica would last from 1960 to 1975, accruing 301 goals in 317 appearances. His contributions helped Benfica win 11 league titles and one European Cup. The International Federation of Football History & Statistics named Eusébio the ninth best player of the 20th century and he won Golden Boots (2), Portuguese Footballer of the Year (2) European Footballer of the Y,ear (1), as well as other awards.

Lisbon's Estadio da Luz put up a statue of Eusébio for his contributions to Benfica.

"When God decides that my days are up I hope that my funeral procession will stop at my statue, go around the stadium, before going into the stadium because I know a lot of people will come on that day."

If you want to reach Julian email him at julianccardillo@gmail.com and follow him on twitter @juliancardillo

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Corner Kicks: Julian Cardillo offers insight and analysis about the New England Revolution as well as European and international soccer.

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