Before Eusebio, it had been unthinkable for a European national team to be dominated by players of African origin.
"Portugal's greatest ever player was an African," the brilliant Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano noted of Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, the Mozambican soccer legend who died Sunday aged 71. And while it is commonplace, today, for the football fortunes of European nations to depend heavily on African players, it was Eusébio who blazed that trail.
Voted European Player of the Year in 1965 for his exploits with Lisbon's Benfica club, the following year he singlehandedly carried Portugal to the semi-finals of the World Cup. Long as his list of accolades and achievements is, however, Eusébio’s most important legacy may be his impact on the perception of Africans both in the global game and in European identity.
Eusébio's rise to stardom coincided with the era of African countries winning independence from European colonialism, although his native Mozambique was only liberated from Portuguese rule after the 1974 coup that overthrew Portugal's dictator Antonio Salazar. The son of a white Angolan father and a black Mozambican mother, he left home in 1961, aged 18, to join Benfica. By the time he emerged as the star player of the 1966 World Cup, most African nations had begun organizing national associations to claim representation in an international soccer system in which they remained marginalized.
To qualify for the World Cup, African countries were invited to compete for a single berth against the best team from Asia – a status that prompted Ghana’s football-mad Pan-Africanist president, Kwame Nkrumah, to lead a boycott of the tournament. As a result, apart from the players with African roots in Brazil and other South American squads, Eusébio and the cadre of Lusophone Africans in Portugal's side were the only African players at the 1966 World Cup.
But he gave the continent plenty to cheer with a series of stunning performances. Eusébio dazzled Hungary, Bulgaria and a Brazil team featuring Pele, and then turned in one of the finest individual performances in the history of the World Cup by scoring four goals to drive Portugal from a 0-3 deficit to a 5-3 quarterfinal victory over North Korea. The Portugal forward ended the tournament as its leading scorer with an astonishing nine goals, leaving no doubt that despite the stay-away by African nations, the outstanding player of the 1966 World Cup was an African.
It was also the first televised World Cup, meaning that Eusébio’s display beamed to a global audience an inkling of the talent and tactical nous in Africa waiting to shine on the global stage.
That 1966 team, nicknamed "Os Magriços," is hailed as the greatest Portugal ever produced – a fact underlined by emotional tributes to Eusébio from more contemporary figures such as former national star Luis Figo (who hailed him as "the king") and Jose Mourinho ("irreplaceable" and "immortal"). And the core of Os Magriços came from Africa. Besides Eusébio, there was the team's captain, Mário Coluna (who later became Mozambique's minister for sport), the extraordinary forward Matateu, his brother Vicente Lucas (named by Pelé as the greatest defender he had ever faced), Hilário da Conceição, and Alberto da Costa Pereira.
This extraordinarily gifted generation could have made Mozambique a major force in world football, but there was no Mozambican state or national side in 1966. Os Magriços reflected Salazar’s attempt to justify continuing colonialism despite decolonization elsewhere by proclaiming that its African subjects were also Portuguese.
While his fellow Mozambicans at home remained subject to harsh colonial rule that greatly limited their social and political rights, Eusébio was named by Salazar as a "national treasure" in order to prevent his transfer to one of the rich Italian sides.
Even if there was a coercive subtext to Mozambique’s golden generation representing the country that had colonized them, Mozambicans still felt a thrill at seeing their countrymen excel on the world stage – implanting an affinity for Portugal's football team that survived long after the end of colonial rule.
In 2012, during the European Championship, Maputo’s city center was festooned with massive posters of Portugal's current star, Cristiano Ronaldo, with Mozambican fans donning Portuguese shirts and scarves as they gathered around TV sets to cheer the team on.
"The Portuguese are our brothers," one Mozambican fan explained at the time. "And of course, there was Eusébio."
Eusébio and other Mozambicans’ success for Benfica and Portugal were portents of the great migration of African players to the world’s top leagues – and often into European national sides – that has matched the larger global migration of people from formerly colonized countries to metropolitan centers. Eusébio represented a confident, glamorous, mobile new Africa on the world stage. But his remarkable historical achievement was to be the face of not one but two emerging continents. He helped, in his own way, to reshape the idea of Europe itself.
Historian Eric Hobsbawn once wrote of the centrality of national soccer teams to national identity in Europe, that "the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people." And that allows it to represent a more inclusive image of the national idea, as in the case of France's 1998 World Cup victory with a team dominated by black and Arab players. But it was Eusébio and his Mozambican, Cape Verdean and Angolan teammates that first gave a European country a different image of itself on the football field.
Portugal's national team remains a platform for gifted African players caught in the complex legacies of centuries of colonial expansion. Today, Portugal’s most exciting young talent is the outrageously skillful Galatasaray winger Armindo Tué Na Bangna, commonly known as Bruma, a player born in Guinea-Bissau who moved to Portugal as a child. And few people know that Madeira, where Cristiano Ronaldo was born, is effectively an African island.
Some insist that Eusébio was not an African player at all, arguing that he cut his connection with the continent when he left for Lisbon in 1960. Eusebio himself never saw it that way, calling Portugal his "second homeland." National identity has become increasingly fluid and complex in the post-colonial era of migration, not least on the football field.
"I spoke to the great Eusébio a couple of years back," wrote football journalist Tim Vickery upon learning of the player's death. "He told me—and I'm sure he meant it—that he could die happy after seeing the 2010 World Cup. He was so happy to see that the continent of his birth had been able to stage the tournament which helped make his name."
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has observed that international soccer allows for "a kind of nationalism that expands as your country loses."
In her case, as soon as Nigeria is knocked out, she transfers her support to the next African team. In the 1960s, those triumphant years of liberation when African nationalism was at its zenith, Eusébio and his astounding talent, claimed as passionately by millions of Portuguese as he was by millions of Africans, epitomized the new modes of belonging that characterize our age.