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Eusebio, Portugal's beloved soccer giant, dies

Sunday - 1/5/2014, 8:00pm  ET

FILE - In this July 26, 1966 file photo, Portugal's star player Eusebio is led from the pitch in tears after England defeated Portugal 2-1 in the semifinal of the World Cup at Wembley, London. Eusebio, the Portuguese football star who was born into poverty in Africa but became an international sporting icon and was voted one of the 10 best players of all time, has died of heart failure aged 71, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Bippa, File)

BARRY HATTON
Associated Press

LISBON, Portugal (AP) -- A half century later, Eusebio's goals are still a source of wonder in the country where he stood above all others in his sport.

There was the European Cup final against Real Madrid in 1962, when he scored the last two goals to rally Benfica to a 5-3 victory and its second straight continental title.

There was the 1966 World Cup quarterfinal against North Korea. With Portugal trailing 3-0, Eusebio inspired his team, striking for four goals that led to a 5-3 victory.

Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, who was born into poverty in Africa and became one of the world's top scorers during the 1960s, died Sunday at 71.

He died at his Lisbon home of heart failure, his biographer, Jose Malheiro, said. Eusebio was admitted to the hospital several times over the past year for heart and respiratory problems.

"A football genius and example of humility, an outstanding athlete and generous man, Eusebio was for all sports fans and for all Portuguese an example of professionalism, determination and devotion to the colors of the national jersey and of Benfica," Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho said in a statement.

A bronze statue of Eusebio, poised to kick a ball, stands outside Benfica's Stadium of Light, where fans began laying flowers after his death was announced. Eusebio's coffin was to be taken to Benfica's Stadium of Light so fans could pay respects.

Known affectionately as the Black Panther for his athleticism and finishing touch, Eusebio was voted one of the 10 best players in soccer history.

The Portuguese government declared three days of national mourning, with flags at half-staff. The Portuguese Football Federation ordered a minute's silence before Sunday's Portuguese Cup games.

Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portugal captain who plays for Real Madrid, commented on his Facebook page, "Always eternal Eusebio, rest in peace." Former Portugal captain Luis Figo, the 2001 FIFA world player of the year, tweeted, "The king!! Great loss for us all! The greatest!!"

"I prefer to look upon him as immortal," Chelsea's Portuguese coach, Jose Mourinho, told public broadcaster Radiotelevisao Portuguesa.

Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva made a nationally televised address to the nation to praise the "affability and humility" of a man who never let stardom go to his head.

"His talent brought joy for entire generations, even those who didn't live through the most glorious moments of his career," Cavaco Silva said.

Eusebio's biggest accomplishment may have been his play in leading Portugal to third place 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 twice won the Golden Boot -- in 1968 and 1973 -- for being top scorer in Europe. According to soccer's governing body, he had 679 goals in 678 official games.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter tweeted, "Football has lost a legend. But Eusebio's place among the greats will never be taken away." German great Franz Beckenbauer also took to Twitter: "One of the greatest football players ever has passed away."

At the 1966 World Cup, where Portugal lost in the semifinals to host and eventual champion England, Eusebio became even more popular at home when he wept openly as he left the field following the defeat.

He finished as the tournament's top scorer with nine goals. In 1998, a panel of 100 experts assembled by FIFA named him in its International Football Hall of Fame as one of the sport's top 10 all-time greats.

"Look, there are only two black people on the list: me and Pele," Eusebio said, referring to the Brazilian great who was a friend. "I regard that as a great responsibility because I am representing Africa and Portugal, my second homeland."

Eusebio was born in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, during World War II when the southeast African country was still a Portuguese colony. He came from a poor family but sparkled for his local team and was lured by Benfica to Portugal when he was 18.

His unpretentious and easy manner was complemented by his heart and skills. His popularity in Portugal was such that in 1964, when Italian clubs offered to buy Eusebio for sums that were astronomical for the time, the country's then-dictator, Antonio Salazar, decreed the player a "national treasure" -- meaning he could not be sold abroad.

Eusebio was a cornerstone of the Benfica team that won back-to-back European titles in the early 1960s. With Benfica, he won 11 Portuguese league titles and five Portuguese Cups.

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