On May 2, it will be exactly half a century since a bunch of highly talented African footballers led Portuguese giants Benfica in the thrashing of Real Madrid 5-3 to retain the European Cup.
It was a dynamic team with an African heart. The captain was from Angola, the goalkeeper, midfield general and striker were all from Mozambique. Arguably, the most talented of all, nicknamed The Sacred Monster, was a midfield genius who had fought his way up from the streets of Maputo. Another of the players rejoiced in the name, The Black Panther. A dream for an advertising copywriter or a public relations executive, surely?
In June, it will be two years since the FIFA World Cup kicked off in South Africa. Since then, there has been a lot of talk about how Africa could sell itself, its football and folklore. After all, the football fans of the continent appear to buy enthusiastically into the plastic razzmatazz around European football, with its endless programs and promos on satellite TV. At football grounds across Europe, there are statues and pictures of the famed players of the past, many of whom may not have even made it into the Benfica team that mauled Real Madrid in 1962.
The question is: why doesn’t Africa celebrate its heroes and rich history with such vigor?
Now, any advertising wizard worth their salt, with a yen to market African football, could do a lot worse than start with the story of the four African musketeers of Benfica in 1962. What a quartet they were: José Águas, the captain, was born and bred in Luanda; goalkeeper Alberto da Costa Pereira was born in the tiny Mozambique port of Nacala and learned his football at Ferroviario in Maputo; Eusébio—The Black Panther—dribbled his way through the dust of the streets of Maputo to an international career with Portugal, scoring 733 goals in 745 competitive games.
Last, but certainly not least, the tough and intelligent midfield schemer, Mário Coluna. Like Eusébio, Coluna learned to fake, dribble, trap and pass on a patch of sand in the Maputo township of Mafalala—a piece of ground that survives until this day and is still full of barefoot youngsters kicking a ball. I can almost hear an advertising executive thinking about this one.
A Portuguese sports journalist dubbed Coluna ‘O Monstro Sagrado’—The Sacred Monster—because he said the player was both terrifying and beautiful. Surely, only a Latin romantic, a journalist to boot, could have come up with a name as evocative.
Coluna, who had the sleek and robust physique of a light-heavyweight boxer, scored one and laid on another on the night Benfica trounced Real Madrid in Amsterdam. He outwitted Real, who had legends Puskás and Di Stéfano in their side. The year before, Coluna had scored with a blinding long-range volley as Benfica beat Barcelona 3-2, in Bern, to win the cup for the first time. Coluna celebrated, stripped to his waist, with trophy in hand, alongside his captain and fellow African, Águas. It is a picture that hangs in pride of place on the wall of his Maputo home to this day.
In the prime of his career, Coluna went on to lead the famous Magricios, considered to be one of Portugal’s finest teams, to the 1966 World Cup in England. In that famous team were two more men from Mozambique, Vicente and Hilário. In those days, colonial Portugal saw Mozambique and Angola as its overseas provinces and players from these countries were considered Portuguese. All were African right down to their boots.
Eusébio was top scorer in the tournament, with nine goals. Arguably, Portugal should have won the World Cup for the first time in their history in 1966. The team suffered through a touch of home town favoritism from the organizers. The semi-final against England was supposed to have been played in Liverpool, but was switched by the English organizers to Wembley in London at the last minute—despite the fact that it had been agreed it was unfair to allow the home country to play all of its games at the national stadium. It meant Portugal had to travel down by train overnight.
“We didn’t get any sleep on the train. We were so tired when we got to London, we could hardly play,” Coluna once told me in the suburbs of Maputo.
Despite this, England won by a 2-1 whisker, with Eusébio scoring a penalty in reply. Just imagine the indignation and weeks of headlines if a similar trick had been pulled in 2010.
Which brings me back to my point; when I read the other week that Eusébio had been ill in hospital in Lisbon, it occurred to me how little we hear of these former legends, while the television in the corner prattles on about other players not fit to lace their boots.
All of the Africans mentioned above made it when football was a game for men-of-men—hard men-of-men, for that matter. Coluna, who played 677 times for Benfica, showed me a huge, ugly scar below his right knee, a souvenir of a night in Rome in 1968 when an Italian defender crushed his ligaments. The referee didn’t even caution the defender, such was the violence of the game in those days.
“The doctor said I would never play again, but I knew better,” Coluna told me.
On top of that, most of these African soccer heroes lived lives steeped in the game. Coluna used to pinch his dad’s socks to make a ball to kick around the Maputo streets. His father, shopkeeper José Mário Esteves Coluna, was a goalkeeper and founder of Coluna’s team, Desportivo de Maputo. He died, from a heart attack, while watching his beloved club in 1959.
Coluna came back to Mozambique in 1975 and coached a small town club, Textafrica in Chimoio, for the country’s first ever championship in the newly independent nation. He served with distinction as a parliamentarian and football administrator. Benfica still sends him a pension in euros.
My point is that African footballers like these should be celebrated by the continent as a way to market the game and encourage the youth of the continent to excel in it. Their names and deeds should be used in advertisements, splashed over posters and plastered on the sides of buses. Statues should be built and their names known the length and breadth of the continent.
When you have a compelling human interest story attached to a name like The Sacred Monster or Black Panther, who needs an advertising copywriter to write a catchy slogan to market the game?
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