by Percy Zvomuya, The Con
On the day that Mozambique-born football legend Eusébio set forth for the other world, it’s likely a sieve-like dingy rowed from north Africa sardine-packed with African immigrants headed for Europe.
The fate of thousands of African migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean is varied but uniformly bleak. Some, never making it to European shores, drown – up to 20 000 have died in the last two decades; others end up in detention centres in Europe to be scrubbed with detergents to cleanse “scum” off their black backs.
Plenty others live for months in Kafkaesque bureaucratic voids –no longer in Africa but not quite in Europe. Considering all of this, there is something moving and salutary about the honour bestowed by the Portuguese government and the Portuguese people on Eusébio da Silva Ferreira during his final moments on this earth.
A statue of the legend watches over Estadio da Luz, Benfica’s home, a precinct that was turned into an instant shrine by mourners and fans when he suddenly died on Sunday, January 5, aged 71. The Portuguese government declared three days of national mourning for the man who, almost single-handedly, did more for Portuguese football than anyone else (I am looking at you, José Mourinho).
In a 1962 European Cup match against Real Madrid, the institution from their Iberian rivals, Eusébio scored twice as Benfica defeated the Spanish side 5-3. A few years later, at the World Cup in England in 1966, he was the top scorer with nine goals when Portugal lost the semi-final match to England, eventual winners of the tournament.
Eusébio, to be sure, was not the first player born in Africa to play in Europe. Decades before he went to play for Benfica, Africans had become a fixture in European leagues. Sean Jacobs of Africasacountry.com pointed out in his tribute: “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.” France’s 1998 World Cup-winning team is the moment in the sun of the presence of the darker men from the Antilles and Africa; France itself first fielded an African, Raoul Diagne, in 1931.
In a sport dominated by west and north Africans, the fact that one of the best players to grace the game is a Mozambican must be a source of pride for southern Africans.
Mozambique, which has never qualified for the World Cup, has appeared at the Africa Cup of Nations four times, in 1986, 1996, 1998 and, more recently, 2010. They have always fared badly. In their maiden appearance at the tournament, hosted by Egypt, they lost to 3-0 to Senegal, 2-0 to Cote d’Ivoire and 2-0 to the Pharaohs.
Yet Portugal’s squad of 1966 had four Mozambicans: Portugal’s captain Mário Esteves Coluna, left back Mário Esteves Coluna, central defender Vicente da Fonseca Lucas and, of course, Eusébio. That’s a third – or almost half if you consider that Eusébio was really two players – of the team coming from Mozambique, then an overseas province of Portugal.
South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup was a source of pride for the legend, who told journalist Tim Vickery 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.”
Doubt has been expressed about Eusébio’s loyalties to Mozambique and Africa (his father was a white Portuguese railway worker and his mother was a black Mozambican). I haven’t seen a more elegant theorization of this duality, quite common in the Lusophone universe, as the one put forward by Angolan writer Pepetela in the novel Mayombe.
In staccato snatches sprinkled throughout the book, a mixed blood guerrilla fighting Portuguese imperialists in Angola contemplates his mélange self.
“I was born in Gabela, in coffee country. From the land I received the dark colour of coffee, from my mother’s side, mixed with the off-white from my father, a Portuguese trader. I carry in me the irreconcilable and that is my driving force. In a Universe of yes or no, white or black, I represent the maybe. Maybe says no for someone who wants to hear yes and means yes for someone who wants to hear no. Is it my fault if men insist on purity and reject compounds? Am I the one who must turn me into a yes or a no? Or must men accept the maybe? In the face of this essential problem, people are divided in my view into two categories: Manicheans and the rest. It is worth explaining that the rest are rare; the World is generally Manichean.”
It’s possible Eusébio understood Pepetela’s assertion better than most. Until his death he held dual nationality, and was a frequent visitor to Mozambique.
In 2010, he told Paul Hayward, then working for the Guardian, that even though he is stable in Portugal, he still had family and friends in his native homeland with whom he is in contact. And then this: “Eighteen years old, 17 December 1960. In December of this year I will have been 50 years in Portugal.”
If he was fully assimilated into Portuguese society, as he surely must have been, why does this date on which his rupture with his native land occurred menace him so?
Eusébio carried the nicknames “Black Pearl” and “Black Panther” – as politically freighted as names can be – while refusing to shoulder the monikers’ political burden (In this piece the writer argues that Eusébio isn’t an African player). For instance, he wouldn’t comment on the war of liberation going on in his home country. Yet “the Mozambican people were proud of him and through sport he was one of our ambassadors”, said former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano of his countryman, who was involved in a number of charities.
Eusébio is, in many ways, a prototype of the player Europe wants from Africa: quick and strong.
Glance at the tributes. Invariably they mention that he was a “superb athlete” who could run 100m in 11 seconds and whose “powers of acceleration” were astounding.
The Guardian obituary reads:
“He 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) with explosive acceleration who could leave defenders trailing in his wake. He could also dribble, was good in the air and possessed a fearsome and highly accurate right foot.”
Yet as anyone who has played street football will tell you, if you possess speed and no guile, you won’t stand out.
Eusébio was noted for his outrageous improvisation on the streets, capable of all manner of skills executed both in the air and on the ground. He played football in the 1960s and 70s, the game’s golden era, a period before commerce and sports science took over.
He played when the game boasted some of its all time greats, players like Garrincha, George Best, Alfredo di Stefano, Johann Cruyff, Pele and Ferenc Puskas.
What stood out about him in the company of these stars was not his ability to run faster. He was, by all accounts, a prodigiously talented player who scored at will. In a Fifa poll, he was voted the third best player of the 20th century, after Pele and Diego Maradona. He scored 473 goals in 440 competitive games, a ratio of 1.075 goals per game. And, as Eusebio was quick to tell Ronaldo when the latter surpassed his goals-record with the Portuguese national team, that when he scored it wasn’t against the likes of Liechtenstein or Azerbaijan.
Eusébio, you could say, is the decorated ancestor of Didier Drogba, Claude Makelele, Samuel Eto’o, Patrick Vieira, all African-born players whose physical traits are celebrated over their technique.
The problem was Eusébio arched over the template, both national and physical. In fact, as Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galleano triumphantly put it: “Portugal’s best player ever was an African from Mozambique.”