HARTFORD, CONN. – The 1966 World Cup will always be remembered as England's hour. There was the drama of the extra-time final against West Germany, the famous performance by Geoff Hurst and the so-familiar picture of Bobby Moore with the trophy aloft.
Yet it was not an Englishman who stood astride that Cup. Nor was it Pele. That honor belonged to Eusebio, the Portuguese legend born in Mozambique who died Sunday at the age of 71.
Not only did Eusebio outshine Pele in England that summer, he single-handedly pulled Portugal onto the international stage.
So influential was he that the man known as the "Black Pearl" -- or, more accurately, "O Rei" (the King) -- that Eusebio defined how we think of attacking players in the modern era. The jersey Cristiano Ronaldo will wear in Brazil this summer was made by Eusebio, a man whose mantle Ronaldo has now inherited. Fittingly, when news of his death broke, Ronaldo posted a picture of the two men together on his Twitter account with the words: "Always eternal, Eusebio, rest in peace."
Always eternal #Eusebio , rest in peace pic.twitter.com/n25X0q9rfF
-- Cristiano Ronaldo (@Cristiano) January 5, 2014 Eusebio's nine goals in the 1966 finals included four against North Korea when Portugal staged one of the great comebacks in World Cup history against the storybook team of the tournament. He would win ten league titles and five Portuguese Cups with Benfica in his 15 years at the club. His statue today graces the outside of the Estadio de Luz, and he remains a talisman for the Lisbon giants.
What made Eusebio special? Certainly, his memorable goals, of which there were so, so many. The fact that he always played so well on the biggest stages is another reason -- he seemed to grow in stature under pressure, belying his stocky, small frame. But it was more than that: at a time of transition in the global game, Eusebio was a player who combined the skillful, technical game which had characterized the previous era with the growing pace and physical demands of what would eventually be called "total football" thanks to the emerging power of Holland.
At the time Eusebio came into his prime, Portugal was not considered an international power, nor were Portuguese clubs regarded as the equal of the Spanish and Italian giants who had dominated the early days of the European Cup. His presence changed all that, as his Benfica side took its place among the European elite during his career.
Eusebio's talents on the pitch measured toe-to-toe with fellow great Pele (Image: Associated Press).
Eusebio spent 15 seasons in the famous red jersey, scoring more than 300 league goals while piling up honors. He was named European Player of the Year in 1965, and twice won Portuguese player of the year honors. He graces any list of the world's all-time greats. And if there was any player who could be called the equal of Pele in the 1960s, it would be Eusebio. He was quick, silky smooth like the great Brazilian and every bit as hungry for goals. Pele had more talent around him, won three World Cups and is rightly remembered as the best of his generation, but Eusebio was not far behind.
At his best, Eusebio could control a match from the central areas, then decide it with his quick bursts forward, his powerful finishing touch and his almost uncanny ability to create space where none appeared available. Averaging almost a goal game, Eusebio would finish his career with 733 goals in his 745 professional matches according to FIFA statistics.
Eusebio finished his career in North America, moving from club to club. In something of an irony, he would be joined over here in the NASL by both Pele and Bobby Moore. In the mid-1970s, I saw him with the Boston Minutemen, the Toronto Metros-Croatia and then, last, with the New Jersey Americans, before he hung up his boots in 1979 (I cannot recall if he was able to make the trip to play in the MISL against the Hartford Hellions, when his career trickled out in Buffalo -- he played only a handful of games with the indoor team there). The fact is, he was rarely fit then and knee injuries had reduced his ability to dominate matches.
Yet what never changed was his smile or the respect he had earned from his peers. In an era of Broadway Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali and of course, the great Pele, Eusebio stood shoulder to shoulder with them, his charisma undeniable. He put Portuguese soccer on the map -- and his passing this weekend leaves the whole world of soccer a smaller place.