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Portugal hails its ‘Black Panther’

Millions mourn the Africa-born soccer star who became a national icon.

LISBON, Portugal — Every country has its sporting heroes, but few have relationships with their idols as intense as Portugal’s devotion to Eusebio da Silva Ferreira.

“Eusebio is Portugal,” said coach Jose Mourinho after the soccer star’s death Sunday at the age of 71.

“He’s one of the greatest in the history of football, but for our country he’s much more than that,” added Mourinho, the Portuguese coach of English club Chelsea.

The government decreed three days of national mourning. Flags across the country flew at half-mast as tens of thousands of tearful fans made pilgrimages to the Stadium of Light — home of Eusebio’s club Benfica — to bid a final farewell to the player known here as “the king.”

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Even the weather seemed to capture the national mood as the city renowned for its sunshine was shrouded in low clouds and incessant drizzle for the funeral Monday of the player whose goal-scoring exploits in the 1960s and ’70s made him a legend of the game.

The object of the outpouring of national grief was born and raised half a world away in what was then the Portuguese southeast African colony of Mozambique. One of the first black players to rise to the top of European soccer, Eusebio represented Portugal at a time when the country of his birth was engaged in a bloody struggle for liberation from Lisbon’s colonial rule.

Although Portugal’s imperialist dictatorship exploited his fame, Eusebio — also nicknamed “The Black Panther” — remained a symbol of pride and unity for his adopted homeland after Portugal’s return to democracy in 1974.

In Mozambique, too, he is honored as a national hero and Africa‘s greatest-ever soccer player.

“Eusebio won the affection and esteem of every one of us,” said Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva.

“He was one of the best sportsmen in the world who brought glory to Portugal,” the president added. “But the Portuguese admired Eusebio for more than that. He was a man gifted with exceptional human qualities.”

Eusebio was one of the most talented players to ever grace a soccer field.

His speed, power and phenomenal goal-scoring ability made Benfica feared across Europe. During his time at the club, the Lisbon team twice won the European Champion’s Cup and was three-time runner up. Eusebio scored two goals in Benfica’s 5-3 defeat of Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid in the 1962 final.

In 1966, he spearheaded a Portuguese team that reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, beating Pele’s Brazil and losing only to the eventual winners England. Despite the exploits of later Portuguese stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo, 1966 remains the country’s best Word Cup finish.

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In this soccer-obsessed nation of 10 million, the success Eusebio’s goals brought his club and country on the international stage were rare bright spot in tough times.

Then, as now, Portugal was Western Europe’s poorest nation. Back then, it was also an international outcast, as the dictatorial regime of Antonio Oliveira Salazar fought to keep control of its African empire. Wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau were to cost Portugal proportionally more casualties than the United States racked up in Vietnam.

Declaring Eusebio to be a “national treasure,” Salazar prevented the player from moving abroad to accept lucrative offers from top foreign clubs. The regime also used black players like Eusebio and his Mozambican-born Benfica teammate Mario Coluna as propaganda tools to illustrate the success of Africans living under Portuguese rule.

Eusebio kept out of politics, but he was idolized by both African guerrillas fighting the Portuguese and the conscripts sent from Lisbon to suppress them.

“He united the two countries,” said former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, a founding member of the liberation movement that fought Portuguese rule. “I’ve lost a friend, he was a source of pride for the people of Mozambique.”

Eusebio’s near-universal appeal went beyond his immense skills with the soccer ball.

Many Portuguese viewed his determination, humility and openly emotional approach to life as personifying national traits.

“He was Portugal at its best,” filmmaker Antonio-Pedro Vasconcelos wrote in an op-ed published in Monday editions of the newspaper Publico, which dedicated 14 pages to the player’s death.

Those qualities were revealed to the rest of the planet during the 1966 World Cup where the highly rated Portugal team found itself shell-shocked and 3-0 down in the quarterfinals against the unknown North Korean team.

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The Eusebio-led comeback has become a soccer legend.

Rather than celebrate his first counter-strike, Eusebio picked the ball out of the Korean goal net and ran back to midfield to quickly restart the game. His resolution galvanized his teammates and the match finished 5-3 to Portugal, with four goals from Eusebio.

Another Eusebio goal wasn’t enough to stop Portugal’s elimination by hosts England in the following match. He finished as the tournament’s top goal scorer, but at a time when manly tears were frowned upon, Eusebio left the field weeping inconsolably — a display of raw emotion that only endeared him further to the Portuguese.

Two years later, Eusebio again faced defeat at English hands when Benfica lost to Manchester United in the final of the 1968 European Cup.

With the match tied minutes from the end, Eusebio fired a shot that could have won the game only to see his effort saved by Manchester’s goalkeeper Alex Stepney. The Portuguese player reacted by congratulating his opponent with applause — a moment of fair play that has come to symbolize Eusebio’s dignified approach to soccer and life.

During 15 years at Benfica, he won 11 Portuguese championships and scored 473 goals in 440 matches.

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After leaving Benfica in 1975, Eusebio wandered for a couple of years in North Americansoccer, playing for the Boston Minutemen and the Las Vegas Quicksilver among others.

He later returned to Portugal to become an assistant coach and soccer ambassador. His presence at big games became talismanic and his cheers and tears again matched the ups and downs of Benfica and the Portuguese national team.

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Revered as a national icon, he remained a modest man, appearing equally at ease when feted by celebrities and heads of state as mingling with the public.

Among the thousands who stood in the rain to file past his coffin or line the streets to applaud the funeral cortege as it inched through the streets of the capital Monday, an uncanny number seemed to have a personal recollection of Eusebio.

A woman told radio reporters how he had found her child lost in a stadium. Neighbors recalled him popping into the neighborhood cafe for coffee and a chat, and a garage owner recounted how Eusebio had debated Benfica’s latest performances with mechanics fixing his car.

“He showed the world the best of Portugal,” said Alfredo Santos Nascimento, 72, who joined the crowds Sunday laying flowers, flags and club scarves at the food of Eusebio’s statue at Benfica’s stadium.

“He was an example to us all. We will miss him.”