Eusébio, the Portuguese soccer star who was born into poverty in Africa but became an international sporting legend and was voted one of the 10 best players of all time, died Sunday, his longtime club, Benfica, said. He was 71.
Eusébio had heart and respiratory problems, and was treated at hospitals several times in the last year, his biographer, Jose Malheiro, told reporters.
Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, known at times in his career as the Black Panther of Mozambique, was one of the world's top scorers during his heyday in the 1960s. When Italian clubs tried to lure him away from Portugal with an astronomical salary in 1964, Portugal's then-dictator, Antonio Salazar, deemed him a "national treasure" — meaning that he could not take a job abroad.
With the easygoing humility that was his trademark, Eusébio had a simple explanation for his soccer prowess:
"I just took a few kicks at the ball, and it seemed the ball and I had a liking for each other," he told The Times in 1967.
Eusébio told interviewers he had never kicked a ball until he was 15 and even then, he played barefoot, kicking rolled-up socks and wadded newspapers. Five years later, he was a member of the Portuguese national team vying for the World Cup.
To observe Eusébio's death, the Portuguese government decreed three days of national mourning, with flags flying at half-staff.
The Portuguese Football Federation ordered a minute's silence ahead of Sunday's Portuguese Cup games.
Eusébio's coffin was to be taken to Benfica's Estadio da Luz — Stadium of Light — in Lisbon, where fans could pay their respects. Outside the stadium stands a bronze statue of Eusébio poised to kick a ball.
Tributes poured in from around the soccer-playing world. In a Twitter message, German great Franz Beckenbauer said, "One of the greatest football players ever has passed away."
Perhaps Eusébio's biggest accomplishment was leading Portugal to a third-place finish at the 1966 World Cup, but his agility and speed made him one of Europe's most dangerous forwards for most of a career that lasted two decades.
He was awarded the
Ballon d'Or in 1965 as
Europe's player of the year and won the Golden Boot in 1968 and 1973 for being top scorer in Europe. According to football's world governing body FIFA, he scored 679 goals in a total of 678 official games.
Born Jan. 25, 1942, in the Mozambican capital of
Lourenco Marques, now known as Maputo, Eusébio was spotted by a Benfica team talent scout, who signed him up at age 18.
He spent 13 seasons with the team, where he helped win 11 league titles and five Portuguese cups, according to the Guardian, a British newspaper.
None of Eusébio's goals were more famous than those he netted against North Korea in the quarterfinals of the 1966 World Cup. With Portugal trailing 3-0, Eusébio inspired his team's turnaround with four goals and an eventual 5-3 victory.
While Portugal went on to lose in the semifinals, Eusébio became even more popular at home when he wept openly as he left the field following the defeat.
In 1998, a panel of 100 experts gathered by FIFA named him one of the sport's 10 all-time greats.
"Look, there are only two black people on the list: me and Pelé," Eusébio commented, referring to the Brazilian player who was a friend. "I regard that as a great responsibility because I am representing Africa and Portugal, my second homeland."
In a statement, Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho called Eusébio "a football genius and example of humility, an outstanding athlete and generous man."
After five knee operations, Eusébio played his last game for Benfica in
He then moved to North America where he spent the last years of his career playing for the Boston Minutemen, Toronto Metros, Las Vegas Quicksilver and Buffalo Stallions through 1980.
After his retirement, he stayed on at Benfica as an assistant coach and traveled widely with the Portuguese national team as a paid "soccer ambassador."
Eusébio is survived by his wife, Flora, two daughters and several grandchildren.