Soccer star Eusebio dead at 71 of heart failure

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LISBON, PORTUGAL (AP) - Eusebio, the Portuguese soccer star who was born into poverty in Africa but became an international sporting icon and was voted one of the 10 best players of all time, has died aged 71, his longtime club Benfica said.

He died Sunday, the club announced on its website, without providing further details.

Eusebio died at home of heart failure at 3.30 a.m. (0330 GMT) Sunday, his biographer, Jose Malheiro, said. “His health was very poor,” Malheiro told reporters. Eusebio was admitted to hospital several times over the past year for the treatment of heart and respiratory problems.

Eusebio’s coffin was to be taken to Benfica’s Stadium of Light later Sunday, public broadcaster Radiotelevisao Portuguesa reported.

Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portugal captain who plays for Real Madrid, commented on his Facebook page, “Always eternal Eusebio, rest in peace.” Former Portugal captain Luis Figo, the 2001 FIFA world player of the year, tweeted, “The king!! Great loss for us all! The greatest!!”

“On this sad day of (Eusebio’s) death … I prefer to look upon him as immortal,” Chelsea’s Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho told RTP.

Eusebio da Silva Ferreira became affectionately known as the Black Panther for his athletic prowess and clinical finishing that made him one of the world’s top scorers during his heyday in the 1960s for Benfica and the Portuguese national team.

Perhaps his biggest accomplishment was to lead Portugal to a third-place finish at the 1966 World Cup, but his agility and speed made him one of Europe’s most dangerous forwards for most of a career that lasted two decades.

He was awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1965 as Europe’s player of the year and twice won the Golden Boot _ in 1968 and 1973 _ for being top scorer in Europe. According to football’s world governing body FIFA, he scored 679 goals in a total of 678 official games.

The Portuguese government decreed three days of national mourning, with flags flying at half-mast. The Portuguese Football Federation ordered a minute’s silence ahead of Sunday’s Portuguese Cup games.

Tributes poured in from around the football world. FIFA President Sepp Blatter tweeted “Football has lost a legend. But Eusebio’s place among the greats will never be taken away” while German great Franz Beckenbauer also took to Twitter to comment “One of the greatest football players ever has passed away.”

None of Eusebio’s goals were more famous than those he netted against North Korea in the quarterfinals of the 1966 World Cup. With Portugal trailing 3-0, Eusebio inspired his team’s turnaround with four goals and an eventual 5-3 victory.

While Portugal went on to lose to host and eventual champion England in the semifinals, Eusebio became even more popular at home when he wept openly as he left the field following the defeat.

He finished as the tournament’s top scorer with nine goals. In 1998, a panel of 100 experts gathered by FIFA named him in its International Football Hall of Fame as one of the sport’s top 10 all-time greats.

“Look, there are only two black people on the list: me and Pele,” Eusebio commented on the honor, referring to the Brazilian great who was a friend. “I regard that as a great responsibility because I am representing Africa and Portugal, my second homeland.”

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