January 5, 2014
By Michael Lewis
Remembering the Black Panther
Eusebio, one of the greatest soccer players to run on and walk this planet, died on Sunday. He was 71.
I won't go deeply into his list off accomplishments. During his generation, the Black Panther was considered second only to Pele as a goal-scorer. He performed for Benfica in Porugal for most of his career. He earned a ton of international honors, although his most memorable performance had to be at the 1966 World Cup when he rallied Portugal from a 3-0 deficit to upstart North Korea in the quarterfinals, connecting for four goals en route to a 5-3 triumph. The Koreans had stunned heavily favored Italy in the opening round, 1-0.
I did have the honor of seeing him play and even score a goal at the end of his career.
A few personal memories:
I witnessed Eusebio play in his very first North American Soccer League game -- in Rochester on June 14, 1975. He wore the red, white and blue colors of the Boston Minutemen, who suffered a 4-1 loss to the Rochester Lancers.
From what I recall, he really did not do too much that rainy Saturday night at Holleder Stadium.
"We knew exactly how to play them tonight," Lancers coach Ted Dumitru told me, adding that midfielder Tony Simoes, Eusebio's former teammate from Portugal "is a playmaker. We simply let them pass the balls to those two and trapped them at midfield. It was like a zone defense."
Dumitru, incidentally, eventually settled down in South Africa and was that country's national coach for a while.
Before the game, I remember someone from the Minutemen handing me the press release that the club had signed the Black Panther -- on Friday. No one bothered to tell the media. Talk about a major public relations blunder. The Lancers could have used the publicity; they drew an estimated 4,500 for that Saturday night encounter.
I almost got an opportunity to watch Eusebio play on a regular basis. The North American Soccer League team I covered at the time, the Rochester Lancers, picked him up on waivers for a day in 1976 after he was released by the Boston Minutemen. The team decided to relinquish his rights to the Toronto Metros-Croatia "because we didn't want to push or force the issue," Lancers general manager Sal De Rosa said at the time.
The Lancers did not have very much money to play with at the time, even for a 33-year-old midfielder nearing the end of his career.
"I talked with Eusebio in Mexico and there weren't any financial difficulties with him at all," De Rosa told me at the time. "What we offered him was in the same range we offered Bobby Moore."
That's right, the Lancers pursued Moore, the former English great, earlier that year. Moore eventually signed with the San Antonio Thunder for $100,000.
"Like I said, we weren't going to push it," De Rosa said. "The situation we have here with the abundance of midfielders, he might have had difficulty making the team. His presence might have disrupted our game plan. It took a while for the Cosmos to adapt to Pele last year."
But the Cosmos eventually won a championship with Pele -- in 1977.
The Metros-Croatia? They won the 1976 Soccer Bowl in improbable style with Eusebio leading the way.
And Oh yeah, Esuebio did eventually make an impact against the Lancers. In the regular-season finale in Toronto that decided home-field advantage in the first-round of the playoffs on Aug. 15, Esuebio scored for the Metros-Croatia only 67 seconds into the match rifling home his 16th goal of the season, a pass from Ivan Lukacevic past Lancers goalkeeper Blagoje Tamindzic. the hosts added a second goal before holding on for a 2-1 win.
Three days later, the teams were back at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. They battled to a 1-1 deadlock before Gene Strenicer connected for the game-winner for Toronto with a second remaining in regulation. The NASL had no stoppage time in those days. The diminutive midfielder who scored the goal forever was known as 89:59 Strenicer by the most ardent Lancers supporters.
Hmmm. Wonder if that goal -- a score by the visitors with one second remaining -- would have been allowed at Holleder.
Eusebio went on to play for the Las Vegas Quicksilvers of the NASL and the New Jersey Americans of the ASL before completing his career with the Buffalo Stallions in the original Major Indoor Soccer League in 1980.