The soccer world has suffered a great loss! Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, who led Portugal to a third-place finish in the 1966 World Cup and is considered one of the greatest soccer players of all time, died of heart failure last Sunday at his home in Portugal. The Mozambique-born legend, who became a Portuguese citizen, was 71. The Portuguese government declared three days of national mourning, with flags flying at half-mast.

Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho said in a statement: “A football genius and example of humility, an outstanding athlete and generous man, Eusebio was for all sports fans and for all Portuguese an example of professionalism, determination and devotion to the colors of the national jersey and of Benfica.”

Eusebio was a poor 18-year-old from Maputo, Mozambique who was brought to Portugal by one of that country’s top clubs, Benfica. He spent the next 15 years at Benfica and went on to win 11 Portuguese League titles, five Portuguese Cups, capture the European Club Championship in 1961 and ‘62 and was the 1965 European player of the year. He won the Golden Boot as Europe’s top scorer in 1968 and ’73. All told, he scored 733 goals in 745 games on his way to making Benfica one of the most successful clubs in the world. He was declared a national treasure by the Portuguese government of the day and was forbidden to be sold by Benfica, despite many lucrative offers for the star.

Eusebio led Portugal to its best finish in World Cup competition when he scored a tournament-high nine goals in the 1966 World Cup in England. He became legend when he lead an astonishing Portugal rally from a three-goal deficit to a 5-3 win in the quarterfinal game against North Korea in Liverpool.

Portugal trailed North Korea, 3-0, after 23 minutes when Eusebio took over the game and scored four of Portugal’s five goals and assisted on the other to complete one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of the game. “That was the best game of my life in a Portugal jersey,” Eusebio told reporters after the game. “It left its mark on me.”

In the semi-final loss to eventual World Cup winner England at Wembley Stadium, Eusebio left the field in tears, which further endeared him to the Portuguese people and the soccer world. Eusebio scored 41 goals in 64 games for Portugal. His speed, agility, physical power and clinical finishing made him the legendary scorer that he was – the most dangerous forwards in the world at the time. He retired from Benfica in 1975.

In the 1960s, Eusebio rivaled the other legend, Pele of Brazil, as comparisons of the two as to who was greater dominated much of the narratives in world soccer at the time. I was also obsessed with the comparisons. I saw both on a number of occasions when Eusebio’s Benfica and Pele’s Santos of Brazil played games at New York’s Old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx during the summers. Clearly, the two were the best in the world at the time – the Black Panther, Eusebio, versus the Black Pearl, Pele. I feel fortunate to have seen two of the greatest players to ever play the game.

As news of Eusebio’s death became known, the tributes kept flowing in: FIFA President Sepp Blatter tweeted, “Football has lost a legend. But Eusebio’s place among the greats will never be taken away.” German legend Franz Beckenbauer also tweeted, “One of the greatest football players ever has passed away.” Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portugal captain who plays for Real Madrid, said on Face book, “Always eternal Eusebio, rest in peace” and former Portugal captain Luis Figo, the 2001 FIFA world player of the year, tweeted, “The king!! Great loss for us all! The greatest!!”

“On this sad day of (Eusebio’s) death … I prefer to look upon him as immortal,” Chelsea’s Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho said. French legend Michel Platini, the UEFA president, said: “Today football has lost one of its greatest players of all time. On the pitch Eusebio was a true legend, representing Portugal and Benfica. Off it he was a true global ambassador of Portuguese football. He was more than just a player though. A good and gentle person, Eusebio will be fondly remembered.”

“I have lost a friend. When we were young we played games and football together. He was almost family to me. Portuguese football has lost one of its greatest idols. Football brought Mozambique and Portugal together, and everyone in Mozambique is proud of Eusebio,” said former Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano.

England and Manchester United great Sir Bobby Charlton: “Without doubt, Eusebio was one of the finest players I ever had the privilege to play against. Not only that, he was a true sportsman, as he proved in applauding Alex Stepney for his save in the European Cup final. I feel proud to have been both an opponent and friend and am saddened to hear of his passing. My thoughts and prayers are with his family at this difficult time.”

“In my opinion Eusebio will always be the greatest player of all time,” ex-Real Madrid star Alfredo Di Stefano. Eusebio left behind his wife, Flora, two daughters and several grandchildren.

In this June 24, 2004 file photo, Eusebio gestures after Portugal defeated England in a Euro 2004 quarterfinal soccer match at the Luz stadium in Lisbon, Portugal. Portugal won 6-5 following the penalty shoot out after the match ended 2-2 following extra time.
AP Photo/Armando Franca, File