R.I.P. FOOTBALL KING EUSEBIO!
By CAMERON DUODU
In the annals of colonialism, the Portuguese were as bad as it gets. Next to the Boers in South Africa and the British in the Rhodesias, they treated their African subjects as little better than beasts of burden.
Africans in both Angola and Mozambique experienced forced labour, and through deliberately racist policies, the Portuguese created no less than four classes of people in their colonies: Europeans, mesticos (mixed race people) assimilados (Africans who had received European education and had become “assimilated” after passing an examination to determine whether they had consciously renounced African customs!) and indiginatos (Africans who remained themselves – i.e. true “natives”).
Although the policy of “assimilation” offered an opportunity for a few Africans to move up the social scale, it created a schism between them and the other classes that still haunts the politics of former Portuguese colonies, especially Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde.
I was personally tutored about this when Dr Amilcar Cabral of the PAIGC (African Party of Guinea and Cape Verde) was assassinated in Conakry, Guinea, in January 1973. President Sekou Toure of Guinea told the Ghana delegation to Cabral’s funeral, of which I was a member (I’d interviewed Cabral on Ghana TV a few weeks earlier and Col Kwame Baah, Ghana’s Foreign Minister, was kind enough to take me along with him, through Sierra Leone, to Conakry) in a private audience that suspicions and rivalries between the mesticos and Africans in the PAIGC leadership had played a part in enabling the Portuguese secret police to infiltrate the PAIGC and gain access to Cabral to assassinate him.
Taken somewhat aback by this analysis, which contradicted my own belief that the PAIGC was strongly ideological and had thus eliminated all racist tendencies in its leadership, I asked whether Cabral’s successor, Aristide Pereira (the PAIGC secretary-general) was not black.
The memorable reply I received was as sophisticated as it was mystifying: “Il est noire comme toi ou moi, mais il est un metis!” (He is black like you or me, but he’s [culturally-speaking] a mixed-race person!” ) This opened my eyes to the complexity of PAIGC politics and I have not been surprised, ever since, that Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde chose separate ways into independence and that Guinea Bissau has been so unstable while Cape Verde has remained relatively untouched by coups.
Because race was so strongly institutionalized in colonial Mozambique, as in Angola and Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, I was not particularly pleased when I heard that a footballer from Mozambique, called Eusebio, was doing wonders in the 1960s, for the Portuguese national team. Was he not politically conscious, I wondered. How could he be fighting for glory on the football field for a country that treated many of his compatriots like beasts? I wondered.
This was a valid question, but what I wasn’t fully taking into consideration was that in his own way, Eusebio was fighting for recognition for the people of the Portuguese territories. Every time the people of Portugal cheered him on the football field, they inevitably asked the implicit question of Salazar and his his corrupt dictatorship: “How many beautiful stars like Eusebio are you maltreating in Angola, Mozambique and Gunea-Bissau”?
Eventually, the centre in Portuguese politics could not handle its own internal contradictions; the centre could “not hold”, as Africa imploded the Portuguese political economy from within. Portugal’s own soldiers, led by conspirators who chose their commander in West Africa, General Antonio de Spinola, as their mouthpiece, overthrew the dictatorship in 1974, in what was to become known ad :the Carnation Revolution.” Independence followed quickly for all the Portuguese African territories, to the delight of those of us who had followed Portuguese colonialism with ever- increasing bitterness.
But let’s rewind to 1966: I was cheated out of watching the Football World Cup that took place in England that year! I had been saving like mad to go and watch some of the matches, but a few months before the tournament started, I was forced by a family emergency to leave London for Ghana. Never mind – I listened to some of the commentaries on the matches on the BBC’s World Service Radio. The excitement which came into the voices of the commentators whenever Eusebio, playing for Portugal, got the ball and hammered it into the goal, transmitted itself to me.
As I pondered the fact that the matches were being televised and broadcast around the world, I began to appreciate fully the contribution Eusebio was making to the recognition of Africa’s genius in football matters: whether he knew it or not, Eusebio, by his supreme exhibition of talent, was not only doing a yeoman’s job for Mozambique and the Portuguese African territories, but also for the entire black race, wherever they were. And he was presaging the arrival, on the international scene much much later, of George Weah, Abedi Pele, Anthony Yeboah, Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Asamoah Gyan and Demba Bah, among other African football stars, too numerous to mention..
Eusebio displayed astounding prowess in single-handedly destroying North Korea on 23 July 1966 at Goodison Park, Liverpool. It was a feat totally unmatched in World Cup history.
The secretive North Koreans, having largely hidden their talent from the rest of the world, burst on to the World Cup scene by seeing off – the ITALIANS! What? Yes, Italy (known by its own narcissistic followers as “the Azzurri” – the blues) which had previously win the World Cup twice – in 1934 and 1938! The Koreans, better known for needling the Americans along the 38th Parallel than anything else, beat Italy by one goal to nil: an unbelievable scoreline.
This North Korean performance inspired dewy-eyed sports journalists to ask questions like: “Has there ever been a more romantic story than that of North Korea’s odyssey in 1966?…. The unknowns sent the Italians packing…. so much so that the Italians were subjected to a flurry of tomatoes upon getting back home!” …. And so on.
No wonder expectations of excitement reached sky-high when North Korea met Portugal in the quarter-final on 23 July 1966 at Goodison Park (home of Everton Football Club.)
But it wasn’t what most people had expected that was to happen. At first, the “romantic tale” of the North Koreans seemed to be on course to write another chapter for itself: North Korea took a three-goal lead against Birdhouse’s Portugal! In the first half.
Everyone thought: “game over”! The “greatest upset” in World Cup history was about to occur, it was assumed.
But they had reckoned without Eusebio. Also known (in addition to the more familiar sobriquet, “Black Panther”) as the “Black Pearl” from Mozambique, Eusebio “emerged from his shell” to score twice before half time. Then he scored two more after resumption of play. Altogether, a blitz of four goals, in quick succession, in a mere 30 minutes! Portugal won the game 5-3, José Augusto’s header having sealed the game.
Eusebio’s feat was the talk of the world. The London Times, whose “Association Football Correspondent of the time, Geoffrey Green,
was, in my view, one of the best in the business, wrote: “It was Eusebio alone, with his sixth sense for popping up exactly where he is most needed, and his immense flair for seizing the fleeting chance, who… restored [Portugal”] fortunes.”
Portugal was on the way to winning the World Cup, led by a black man. But it had frightened its next opponent, England, out of its wits. Their match, which was to take the winner to the semi-finals, was scheduled to be played at Goodison Park. But the World Cup was being played in England! So guess what the “fair-minded” English FA did? It decided to pull a stunt calculated to make Portugal lose to England. It leaned on FIFA to switch the match venue to Wembley, in London!
This meant that the Portuguese, already fatigued from their gruelling match against North Korea, would have to make a train journey from Liverpool to London to play England – forfeiting the rest that they had anticipated enjoying, after the stress endured against the North Koreans. Not surprisingly, England won the Wembley match 2-1.
To add to the pain it had inflicted on Portugal by switching venues, England played destroyed Portugal’s flair by playing a very negative game – Nobby Styles, a notorious England defender, was put exclusively on Eusebio as his “checker” and fouled him so often that had the match been played today, Styles would probably have been sent off many times over! England went on to win the World Cup by beating Germany in the final. But perhaps Eusebio is more remembered in the annals of the World Cup tournament of 1966, than England is.
Indeed, Eusebio won the Golden Boot for top scorer of the tournament, with nine goals in six games. Who knows how many he would have scored had he got to the Final? He wept bitterly when England beat Portugal. He later said in an interview that he asked the Almighty: “What more could I have done before being allowed me to win the World Cup?”
Eusebio was born in a poor suburb of the Mozambique capital, Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) in 1942. He was spotted by a Brazilian football coach, who, in a barbershop chat with the manager of the Portuguese club, Benfica, apprised him of a young 19-year-old genius he had discovered in Mozambique, called Eusebio. Benfica did no sleep on the recommendation but signed Eusebio up in 1961. It was the most fortunate signing the club ever made.
According to the London Guardian, Eusebio was “the prototype of a complete 21st-century striker, decades ahead of his time”. A superb athlete, he ran the 100 metres in 11 seconds at the age of 16 and, adding this amazing speed to poise and power, he often left defenders grasping at nothing, as he left them far behind him, with an unerring eye guiding his feet to put the ball in the net.
He could shoot with either foot, though his right was the power-house. He could also dribble and was good in the air. With his good looks, he was the quintessential football god before lesser mortals began to be given the title by writers too young to have seen Eusebio in his prime.
To quote the London Guardian again, “his scoring record was astonishing. In 15 years at Benfica, he scored an incredible 473 goals in 440 competitive games, plus many more in friendlies. He was top scorer seven times in the Portuguese league and was European Golden Boot winner twice.” His total goal tally was 733!
Eusebio died on 5 January 2014. His statue stands in front of the Benfica stadium in Lisbon. I shall not be surprised if another one is erected for him in a more central place in the Portuguese capital. For he was a national Portuguese hero. (Indeed, when some rich Italian clubs expressed an interest in acquiring him for enormous sums of money, dictator Salazar issued a decree declaring Eusebio a “national treasure” that could not be “sold!”)
Africa is proud to have produced such a man. And who knows? Mozambique may also decide to honour him – with a statue in Maputo! I recommend this very strongly. In fact, I am sure that if my friend, the lat5e President Samora Machel, was still in power there, he would do it!