Was Eusebio Portugal's greatest?

Goal compares the respective careers of two Portugal legends following the death of the Black Pearl on Sunday

By Kris Voakes

They played in different eras and emerged from contrasting backgrounds to become two of Portugal’s greatest players of all-time.

But Eusebio’s death on Sunday at the age of 71 and Cristiano Ronaldo’s continued brilliance in the modern game, is sure to spark more debate as to who really is the greatest Portuguese footballer ever.

It is an argument that has reared its head once before after Ronaldo surprassed the Black Panther’s goalscoring record for Portugal earlier this year and propelled himself into a stratosphere above the likes of former Selecao stars Rui Costa and Luis Figo.

Goal reignites that discussion to try and answer the question once and for all: was Eusebio Portugal’s greatest?

0.87 GOALS PER GAME 0.51
11 Portuguese league
1 European Cup
5 Portuguese cups
3 English leagues
1 Spanish league
1 European Cup
1 English cup
1 Spanish cup
1 European Player of the Year
1 World Cup Golden Boot
2 European Golden Shoes
3 European Cup top scorer
2 Portuguese Player of the Year
1 Ballon d’Or
1 World Player of the Year
2 European Golden Shoes
2 English Player of the Year
8 Portuguese Player of the Year

Ronaldo’s sheer pace, trickery, set-piece mastery and ability to score from practically anywhere mark him out as a true great of the game, but does he have the right to claim to be better than Eusebio?

Statistically speaking, the former Benfica striker may well have benefitted from playing at a time when goals were easier to come by and high-scoring matches were a regular feature of football, but he still had the talent to stand out at a time when the game had countless heroes.

Players such as Pele, Garrincha, Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Bobby Charlton, Gerd Muller, Franz Beckenbauer and Gigi Riva were among the greatest ever to play the game, and Eusebio’s name sits comfortably alongside such contemporaries as a hero of the 1960s and 70s.

With a shot as powerful as any seen in the history of football, magnificent pace  – he could run the 100 metres in less than 11 seconds, and the ability to outwit many fine defenders of the day, the ‘Black Pearl’ took Portuguese football to a level it had never before known. After Bela Guttmann’s side had become only the second club ever to win the European Cup in 1961 beating Barcelona 3-2, his two goals in the 1962 final helped see off the all-conquering Real Madrid 5-3.

While that was his continental pinnacle with the club, he would go on to add a total of 11 Portuguese league titles with the Aguias, scoring a monumental 473 goals in 440 games before moving to the North American Soccer League.

At international level too, he broke down barriers. His nine-goal haul in the 1966 World Cup included a near one-man comeback show against North Korea in the quarter-finals, as Portugal came from 3-0 down to beat the minnows 5-3 with Eusebio netting four times. While the ace marksman never got to play in another finals tournament, the Seleccao’s third-place finish in their first-ever finals tournament remains their best ever World Cup performance.

The closest they have since come to matching that effort was in 2006, when Ronaldo inspired them to their second ever semi-final. The parallels between the two compatriots only begin there.

But who really is the greatest Portuguese player of all time? Statistics alone cannot be used to decipher, while footage of Eusebio at work is far less accessible than that of Ronaldo. Nowadays, any football fan in any part of the world can watch every minute of the former Manchester United man’s career if they so wish, and so there are countless examples of his brilliance available for everyone to use in supporting his claims to be the best. Clips of Eusebio, meanwhile, tend to be the very best moments of his time at the top of the game, cherry-picked for posterity.

When we played Real Madrid and won 5-3 it was soaking wet and the ball weighed a kilo. It didn’t have a brand. Consider the boots; there was no personalised footwear. Back then, it was all heart

– Eusebio

In many ways, drawing a comparison between these two Portuguese greats exemplifies the difficulties in separating players of differing generations, but while Ronaldo still has feats to achieve and points to prove, Eusebio’s status as a timeless legend remains untouched. And one of the reasons for that is best summed up by the man himself.

“I respect the football of today but the football of my time was better,” said Eusebio. “Football hasn’t got better, it has just evolved, from the ball to the boots to the shirts to the training methods – everything around them.

“When we played Real Madrid and won 5-3 it was soaking wet and the ball ended up weighing a kilo. It didn’t have a brand. Consider the boots; there was no personalised footwear. Back then we made money, but we played for the love, it was all heart.”

And the man who remains at the heart of every football fan in Portugal – for now, at least – is Eusebio, one of the great examples of a player who rose above the drawbacks of the time.

With each year Ronaldo is catching up, but the ‘Black Panther’ will still take some chasing, even after his passing.

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