Eusebio with Portugal jersey at the Brazilian Independence cup in 1972 (vs. Ireland?).
Eusebio with Portugal jersey at the Brazilian Independence cup in 1972 (vs. Ireland?).

African footballers in the sunset of Portuguese Empire

Portuguese African players gained prominence in the last years of the empire.

Enrico Cavalieri
Enrico Cavalieri Istituto Comprensivo Porretta Terme. FMH contributor

The beginning of February is full of commemorations and national holidays in some African states which were formerly part of the Portuguese empire. February 3rd is “The day of Mozambican heroes”, remembering the death of Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO) founder Eduardo Mondlane in 1969, while the following day (4th) is a national holiday in Angola, being the day in which the armed conflict against Portuguese colonization began in 1961.

Colonial affiliations

In the 60s decade football players coming from these two African countries still played for the Portugal national selection, and one of them became probably the most famous “Portuguese” player before the Cristiano Ronaldo’s era: we are talking about Eusebio da Silva Ferreira. Born in Maputo in 1942, he played there for all his youth. At 18 years old Eusebio left his birthplace for Lisbon, to become a star in Benfica. He won 2 European Cups, 11 Portuguese Championships and 5 national cups with the white-and-reds. Eusébio played with Portuguese Selection, conquering its best result ever: a 3rd place in 1966 World Cup. He was called “a pantera negra”, the black panther.

Another “Black Pearl”

Less famous than him, but well known in Portugal was Angolan Jacinto João. Born in Luanda in 1944, he collected 10 caps for the red-and-green selection and scored twice. His first goal was scored against Romania in a 1968 WC qualifier. Then 2 years later, the goal-of-the-match in the 1-0 win against Denmark, in the EC qualifications. Jacinto João played in Vitoria Setubal for all his career, scoring 66 goals in 268 national and international matches for the green and white team. That was the golden age of the club, with the best results ever in the Portuguese league (though Vitoria never won the title) and the conquest of three “Taças de Portugal”. João was nicknamed “A Pérola Negra do Sado” (the Black Pearl of Sado, the river which has its mouth in Setubal), and he is still considered one of the best Portuguese strikers ever. 

Thinking points

These stories can be the beginning of an interesting work about identity, nation and celebrity. What are the factors that can push a player to belong to a country instead of another? What were these players’ feelings while his birthplaces were burning for independence fights and they were celebrated like heroes in the colonizing country, because of football? And bringing the question to nowadays, what does, for example, a French player with African origin think about when he or she has to choose which national selection playing for? In other words, what is our identity made of?

Find out more

Read more about how France’s and Portugal’s colonial heritage played a role at Euro 2016 on The Guardian. Wikipedia hosts a list of Portugal international footballers born outside Portugal. You could also read the article “The death of a football player. Eusébio and the struggle for Portuguese History” on the Journal Práticas Da História. Journal on Theory, Historiography and Uses of the Past. Finally Portuguese-language Ludopedia offers a relevant article as well.

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Eusebio with Portugal jersey at the Brazilian Independence cup in 1972 (vs. Ireland?).
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