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Jan. 5, 2014 – Benfica great Eusebio dies in Lisbon

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This Week in NE Soccer History

Jan. 5, 2014 – Eusebio da Silva Ferreira dies in Lisbon

Eusebio da Silva Ferreira concluded his Benfica career and moved to the NASL to play for the Boston Minutemen in 1975, the year Pelé joined the New York Cosmos. The Eusebio-Pelé rivalry played out early in the season when the teams met at Nickerson Field June 20, 1975, the Minutemen winning, 2-1. Pelé left the game after his goal was ruled offside, the oversold crowd (estimated at 20,000-plus) storming the field, the result later annulled by NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam. Minutemen owner John Sterge was experiencing financial difficulties and facing Securities and Exchange Commission charges, so he sent Eusebio and Wolfgang Suhnholz to Toronto, where they won the 1976 Soccer Bowl title.

Eusebio (Jan. 25, 1942-Jan. 5, 2014), who scored 733 goals in 745 career games, grew up in Lourenço Marques, Mozambique’s capital city.

During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I went to Eusebio’s house in the Mafalala section of what is now Maputo to speak with his youngest brother, Fernando. Eusebio seemed to have lost touch with Fernando, and even with his native country. Interviews revealed greater reverence for Eusebio’s former Benfica and Portugal teammate Mario Coluna, who had returned to Mozambique and had served as  president of the Federação Moçambicana de Futebol. Coincidentally, Coluna died of heart failure a month after Eusebio.

Eusebio was 19 when he left Mozambique to join Benfica, a signing marked by  intrigue, because he had been playing for Sporting in Lourenço Marques. Eusebio was known for his spectacular performances in the 1966 World Cup, when he totaled nine goals. But Eusebio had long-since burst onto the international scene as a 20-year-old, scoring twice as Benfica took a 5-3 win over Real Madrid in the 1962 Champions Cup final in Amsterdam.

In 1972, Eusebio and Benfica arrived for an exhibition match against Sporting, the first soccer game staged in Foxborough, Eusebio scoring twice as the teams tied, 2-2. Attendance was recorded as 24,396, though it was likely greater, and organizers quickly set up a rematch for the next week (the teams had to first play a match scheduled in Toronto). Benfica took a 3-0 win, Eusebio scoring on a penalty kick, on June 23, 1972, though I have been unable to find official attendance for the game. Eusebio had just won his ninth (of 11) Portuguese League titles with Benfica, but injuries were adding up and, three years later, his career was to continue in the U.S.

There was a strong Massachusetts connection in bringing Eusebio to the ASL and NASL, involving Hudson contractor Tony Frias (S&F Concrete), who accompanied Eusebio on many travels and sponsored him in the U.S. Eusebio also played for the Rhode Island Oceaneers in the ASL in 1975, performed in exhibition matches for local teams, and participated in pickup games at MIT when he was with the Minutemen (stories for another day). Eusebio rivaled Pelé in popularity world-wide, but he was able to maintain a low profile in the Boston area. Had the Minutemen been able to gain financial stability, they might have made a run for the 1976 NASL title, judging by Eusebio’s performance that season with Toronto Metros-Croatia, as he scored 18 goals in 25 games. By 1977, Eusebio had little left to offer on the field. I know, because that was my first year covering soccer, and we were waiting for the “old Eusebio” to return to form. Eusebio showed brief flashes of greatness, but that would be his final full season, as he totaled two goals in 17 games for the Las Vegas Quicksilvers.

It is difficult to overestimate Eusebio’s stature in Portuguese society (he has been interred at the National Pantheon), though his relationship with Portugal was sometimes uneasy, mostly due to the country’s colonial legacy.

And the introduction of a statue dedicated to Eusebio, forged in Massachusetts, proved to ignite controversy. The statue was conceived by Medford businessman Victor Batista, an Azorean immigrant who wanted to commemorate his childhood idol. Batista donated the statue to Benfica, which initially rejected his offer, then erected it in front of Estadio da Luz in Lisbon in 1992. Batista became closely acquainted with Eusebio, but said he never felt accepted by Benfica administrators, despite or because of the statue. While he was at it, though, Batista had a copy of the statue made in Chelsea, this one standing in the Sports Museum of New England before moving to Gillette Stadium and, now, to Lusitano Stadium in Ludlow.

Eusebio might be the best player to have performed for a Boston-area soccer team, but his statue has never found a comfortable resting place in the region. The statue was not featured prominently, and by last year had been banished, from Gillette.

Eusebio remains a strong part of the history of the game in the region. Unfortunately, nobody was able to consistently capitalize on Eusebio’s popularity in the area.

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