By Daniel Alvarenga
LISBON, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Portuguese forward Eusebio died of a heart attack in Lisbon at the age of 71 on Sunday leaving behind a legacy that marks the Benfica legend out as one of the greatest players in soccer history.
Born Eusebio da Silva Ferreira in the Mozambique capital Maputo on Jan. 25, 1942, he rose to international prominence at the 1966 World Cup in England and went on to cement his reputation over the following decade, winning many admirers with his speed, technique, athleticism and a ferocious right-foot shot.
Eusebio began playing football barefoot as a child on Mozambique's dust track pitches before jumping into the spotlight at Benfica. He helped the club reach four European Cup finals, the last in 1968 when they lost to Manchester United in extra-time at Wembley. Benfica won the trophy in 1961 and 1962.
Nicknamed the 'Black Panther' for the fear he instilled in his opponents, he was the top-scorer at the 1966 World Cup with nine goals that helped Portugal reach the semi-finals and his performances at home inspired Benfica to 11 domestic titles.
In one of the most memorable moments of his career, Eusebio helped Benfica overcome Real Madrid in a thrilling 1962 European Cup final, the striker scoring a penalty to put his side ahead in the second half before sealing a thrilling 5-3 victory with an exquisite free kick.
A humbled Alfredo Di Stefano handed Eusebio his Real Madrid shirt after the final whistle as Portugal's new-found star rejoiced in both beating his idol and getting his hands on a treasured piece of soccer memorabilia.
"The king" was carried around on the shoulders of celebrating fans that night, in an iconic image engraved in Portugal and Benfica's history books and repeated time and again on Portuguese television screens ever since.
In 1963, Eusebio's trademark surging runs and fearsome shots guided Benfica to their third consecutive European Cup final, where they were beaten by AC Milan 2-1, and another final two years later which they lost to Inter Milan.
On the domestic front, Eusebio's Benfica dominated, winning three consecutive league titles on three separate occasions during his 15 years at the club.
1966 WORLD CUP
For Portugal, Eusebio hit his stride at the 1966 World Cup in England.
After easing past Hungary and Bulgaria, Portugal rounded out the group phase with a 3-1 win over reigning world champions Brazil as Eusebio scored twice to outshine Pele.
He then inspired Portugal to a remarkable comeback win over surprise package North Korea in the quarter-finals.
The underdogs raced to a 3-0 lead at Goodison Park but Eusebio almost single-handedly dragged his team back into the contest, scoring four goals either side of half-time as Portugal advanced with a 5-3 victory.
Eusebio's campaign was brought to an abrupt and jarring end when an overworked Portugal struggled against England's physical approach and Bobby Charlton's two goals left an inconsolable Eusebio in tears at the end of the Wembley encounter which the hosts won 2-1.
Portugal eventually finished third but Eusebio was singled out as the star of a tournament he ended as top scorer with nine goals. It was the only World Cup he ever played in and overall, he won 64 caps for Portugal and scored 41 international goals.
He played his last game for Benfica in 1975 and went on to represent clubs in North America and two minor sides in Portugal, eventually calling time on his decorated career in 1979.
Eusebio, who was considered a gentleman both on and off the pitch, spent the last decades of his life as a roving ambassador for Benfica and Portuguese soccer.
"Benfica is in my blood," he once told Reuters in an interview.
Over the last year, Eusebio was admitted to hospital several times and diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia, acute neck pain and hypertension but shook off the conditions before finally succumbing to a heart attack on Sunday. (Editing by John O'Brien)