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Friends, colleagues and fans mourn passing of soccer legend Eusebio

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Eusebio.  Source: uk.eurosport.yahoo.com
Eusebio.  Source: uk.eurosport.yahoo.com

The great Jose Mourinho came out with the quote of 2014 on Sunday – only five days into the New Year – when he responded to the death of his fellow Portuguese legend Eusebio back home in Lisbon.

A former colleague of Eusebio’s when he enjoyed a brief if unsuccessful spell as manager of Benfica, Mourinho was clearly upset by the loss of the great striker at just 71 years of age.

Reacting to the news as he addressed the media in the moments after Chelsea’s FA Cup win at Derby County, Mourinho described Eusebio as “immortal.”

Coming on the afternoon that Eusebio’s coffin was carried into the Stadium of Light for the fans to pay their final respects to their country’s greatest player – with the possible exception of Ronaldo – it seemed strange to suggest that a dead man was immortal.

But I think I know what Mourinho meant. Eusebio’s reputation and his fame will ensure his name and his spirit lives on, long after his mortal body has been consigned to the earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

For those of us of a certain age, Eusebio’s passing last weekend was a moment of great sadness and further proof that time is catching up with all of us born in the sixties.

As soccer fans in our boyhood years we knew of the great world players, of Pele and Eusebio, of Cruyff and Beckenbauer. Their reputations spread as far as Ireland long before Twitter and the Internet and live television spread the word like never before.

To make an impact in the lives of young Irish fans in the late sixties and early seventies you had to be something special. And Eusebio was something very special to those of us who grew up with a love for the beautiful game.

Later in life he was also accessible, not just to those of us lucky enough to get paid to watch football matches for a living but also for those lucky enough to follow the Irish team around the world.

Some of the great nights of Irish football in the Charlton and McCarthy eras featured matches against Portugal. And Eusebio was never far away.

I can still recall a group of group of giddy Irish fans falling into our hotel in Cascais back in 2000 with stories of bumping into Eusebio in one of the city’s most famous nightclubs.  He was so well known there that he had his own chair at the bar and he insisted on buying a drink for his new Irish friends.

Years previously he had burst into the Irish dressing room after Portugal’s 3-0 win over Jack Charlton’s team with just one wish – he wanted Paul McGrath’s shirt.

Our very own Black Pearl was honored to present his jersey to Portugal’s Black Pearl – and the Irish players stood to a man and applauded as he did so in the dressing room at the original Stadium of Light.

The humility expressed by Eusebio that night was typical of a man induced into the FAI’s International Hall of Fame at their annual awards some years later.

Years earlier the same Eusebio had enthralled the people of Derry when he arrived into town with Benfica for a European Cup game at the Brandywell in 1989, at a time when the Candystripes were rocking and rolling in the League of Ireland.

As honorary president of Benfica, Eusebio traveled everywhere his beloved club went, and more often than not he was the main attraction.

That was indeed the case in Derry on that trip. On the morning before the match, the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — who was never going to win any popularity contest in that part of the world — landed at the nearby Eglington Airport on an unannounced visit.

When her press secretary Bernard Ingham asked the local media for any specific questions, one journalist put his hand up and demanded to know, “What time will she be finished with this nonsense – I’ve to meet Eusebio at noon.”

The previous night Benfica had trained on their arrival in town at the sports-grounds that sit across the road from the Everglades hotel that was their base for the week.

Eusebio, as much for the cameras as anything I suspect, took the light training session and all was going according to plan until a huge bang filled the Derry air.

Clearly conscious of the political climate they had just entered, the Benfica players and Eusebio immediately fell to the ground for fear a bomb had gone off.

As it transpired, the loud bang was nothing more than a bird scarer going off the behind the team hotel, and even Eusebio had a good laugh about it as he spoke to us media types afterwards.

He was hugely popular back then, and he was as popular when he took the crowd’s applause as Ireland drew with Portugal in World Cup qualifier at Lansdowne Road in the 2002 campaign.

He was and always will be a hero to real football fans – and he may well be as “immortal” as Mourinho suggested in a football sense of the word. May he rest in peace.

(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin)

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