Historian Eric Hobsbawn once wrote of the centrality of national soccer teams to national identity in Europe, that “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” And that allows it to represent a more inclusive image of the national idea, as in the case of France’s 1998 World Cup victory with a team dominated by black and Arab players. But it was Eusébio and his Mozambican, Cape Verdean and Angolan teammates that first gave a European country a different image of itself on the football field.
Portugal’s national team remains a platform for gifted African players caught in the complex legacies of centuries of colonial expansion. Today, Portugal’s most exciting young talent is the outrageously skillful Galatasaray winger Armindo Tué Na Bangna, commonly known as Bruma, a player born in Guinea-Bissau who moved to Portugal as a child. And few people know that Madeira, where Cristiano Ronaldo was born, is effectively an African island.
Some insist that Eusébio was not an African player at all, arguing that he cut his connection with the continent when he left for Lisbon in 1960. Eusebio himself never saw it that way, calling Portugal his “second homeland.” National identity has become increasingly fluid and complex in the post-colonial era of migration, not least on the football field.
“I spoke to the great Eusébio a couple of years back,” wrote football journalist Tim Vickery upon learning of the player’s death. “He told me—and I’m sure he meant it—that he could die happy after seeing the 2010 World Cup. He was so happy to see that the continent of his birth had been able to stage the tournament which helped make his name.”
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has observed that international soccer allows for “a kind of nationalism that expands as your country loses.”
In her case, as soon as Nigeria is knocked out, she transfers her support to the next African team. In the 1960s, those triumphant years of liberation when African nationalism was at its zenith, Eusébio and his astounding talent, claimed as passionately by millions of Portuguese as he was by millions of Africans, epitomized the new modes of belonging that characterize our age.
* This is an excerpt from a piece we wrote for Al Jazeera America on the occasion of Eusebio’s passing. Read the rest of the piece here.