The rain hammered down on Maputo, as if in protest, the night the Sacred Monster died. It squalled in from the dark and rough waters of the Indian Ocean, on gusts of wind, as Mozambique mourned. It should have been gentle rain, like tears in the night, but Mario Coluna would have appreciated this mighty show of natural force over the land of his birth; after all, it was natural power and uncanny force, born in Africa, that drove the Sacred Monster to a hallowed place in world football.
Coluna could hold any football crowd in the palm of his hand; outwit any opposition in his head and launch rockets with his boots. His explosive acceleration and body strength often overpowered the world’s finest players.
On this night, February 25, after a heart attack, Coluna lay in peace at a Maputo hospital close to the streets where he learnt the game with his father’s socks tied into a ball. He was 78, 44 years since he stopped playing, and remains one of the most determined and skilful Africans ever to lace up a pair of football boots. In this age of hyperbole, peopled by overpaid and overrated players; Coluna was a man who wore modestly the word great. His country gave him a state funeral on February 28 and declared it a public holiday.
“It is not easy to say goodbye to someone whose life was among the greatest,” Luis Filipe Viera, the president of Benfica, told the club’s official website.
“Someone whose life path is unique and whose legacy will endure far beyond him. It is said that we are born equal. Untrue! Coluna was born different, for the better, much better.”
The Portuguese journalists called him the Sacred Monster—O Monstro Sagrado—because he was both terrifying and beautiful with the ball at his feet. He helped Benfica win 10 league titles and the European Cup twice; scoring in the victories over Barcelona in 1961 and Real Madrid the following year.
The win to retain the trophy, in Amsterdam in 1962, was as much an African triumph as a European one. In goal was Alberto da Costa Pereira, from Nacala in Mozambique, the captain Jose Aguas, born in Lobito, Angola, along with Coluna and Eusebio from Maputo. Players born and bred in Africa had a hand in all five goals as Benfica came back from 2-0 down to win 5-3.
On that May evening, as Coluna smashed in a goal from 25 yards to make it 4-3, hundreds of his countrymen were listening, also far from home. In the camps in the bush of southern Tanzania, hundreds of guerrilla fighters for FRELIMO—the newly formed liberation movement for Mozambique—crowded around the radio. One of them was founder member and future president Joaquim Chissano.
“We were divided. Some of us felt Coluna was bringing glory to our country, Mozambique. Others thought he was bringing glory to our colonizers, Portugal,” says Chissano at his Maputo home, the day after Coluna died.
“He was a true leader, he was always more concerned how the team was playing rather than how he was playing. When he retired, he brought his skills back to Mozambique to help build the game here. He was truly a great man.”
Coluna played for Benfica from 1954 to 1970 and when he retired Lev Yashin, Bobby Moore, the World Cup winning captain of England, Bobby Charlton, Uwe Seeler, George Best and Denis Law played at his testimonial in Lisbon.
Coluna was born in Maputo to a Mozambique mother and Portuguese father. His father was a goalkeeper and football fanatic, who died in the stands of a heart attack while watching the club he helped to found, now known as Desportivo de Maputo. Coluna’s precocious talent shone at Desportivo and Benfica scouts spotted him and flew him to Lisbon. He played 677 times, scoring 150 goals, for Benfica. In 1966, he captained one of the greatest sides ever to play for Portugal. They called them the Magricos—the magicians—and among them were four players from Mozambique: Coluna; Eusebio; Vicente and Hilario. This talented team should have been world champions, but suffered when the semi-final was switched, at the last minute, from Liverpool to London. The Portuguese emerged exhausted from an overnight train journey and lost 2-1 to England, the eventual winners.
I was in Maputo the night the great man died. It was almost five years to the day since I was privileged to be invited into his quiet Maputo home for an interview. He was looking frail then, but I was struck by the sure-footed confidence of an athlete. I was also struck by his gentlemanly demeanor and piercing blue eyes that would smile and then flash a steely glint; just to let you know that if you faced him on a football field you wouldn’t stand a chance.
Coluna told me he played football when men were men and referees were lenient. He rolled up his trouser leg to show me an ugly criss-cross scar—a painful souvenir of a crunching tackle in Rome in the 1960s that hastened the end of his career. The defender didn’t even get a caution.
Even though they drew the crowds, the players then were paid a pittance. Coluna, a handsome gentleman, who always wore a debonair pencil moustache, would these days have made a fortune from modeling clothes.
The top players of today earn more in a month than Coluna earned in his entire career. Coluna eked out his final years on a Benfica pension, but was never bitter.
“If players are making money for the football clubs, by getting fans through the turnstiles, why shouldn’t they get good money?” Coluna asked me on that hot February afternoon in Maputo.
Money was never the spur for Coluna. In 1975, when many of his talented generation, like Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, headed to New York for the riches of the new National American Soccer League, Coluna went home. He coached Text Chimoio, a club in a small town near the border with Zimbabwe, to the first football championship of an independent Mozambique. Years later, he ran a football academy, became the head of the country’s football association as well as an MP. At the age of 74, Coluna was campaigning for Portugal to prepare in Mozambique for the 2010 World Cup over the border in South Africa, arguing that the countries shared climate and language.
Portugal ignored Coluna’s pleas and sadly the football world, to an extent, ignored his legacy and talent. I think it is a crime that the name Coluna is often forgotten in world lit by a mere mention of the name Eusebio. Both players carried the banner for African football in Europe; only one returned.
Even sadder is that, in the space of a month, both African legends have gone. Television money and the globalized game mean we will see the like of their talent again, but few African geniuses will shine so brightly and labor so hard, for so little. When African footballers everywhere lace up their boots they should think of two names for inspiration: Coluna and Eusebio, two legends, who dared to dream, from Maputo, Mozambique.