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Football: Eusebio fans say 'thank-you, not goodbye'

Fans visit a part of Benfica's museum dedicated to late Portuguese football player Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, also known as the 'Black Panther', outside the Luz stadium in Lisbon on Jan 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Fans visit a part of Benfica's museum dedicated to late Portuguese football player Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, also known as the 'Black Panther', outside the Luz stadium in Lisbon on Jan 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
The coffin of Eusebio is carried into Luz stadium in Lisbon on Jan 5, 2014.-- PHOTO: REUTERS
The coffin of Eusebio is carried into Luz stadium in Lisbon on Jan 5, 2014.-- PHOTO: REUTERS
A file picture taken on Oct 30, 1973, in the Bois de Boulogne shows former Portuguese football legend Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, more commonly known as Eusebio, posing with soccer balls. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
A file picture taken on Oct 30, 1973, in the Bois de Boulogne shows former Portuguese football legend Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, more commonly known as Eusebio, posing with soccer balls. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
A picture taken on Jan 5, 2014 shows tributes left by fans near a statue of late Portuguese football player Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, also known as the 'Black Panther', outside the Luz stadium in Lisbon. -- PHOTO: AFP
A picture taken on Jan 5, 2014 shows tributes left by fans near a statue of late Portuguese football player Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, also known as the 'Black Panther', outside the Luz stadium in Lisbon. -- PHOTO: AFP
Supporters of Benfica hang a flag depicting a portrait of Eusebio at Luz stadium in Lisbon on Jan 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Supporters of Benfica hang a flag depicting a portrait of Eusebio at Luz stadium in Lisbon on Jan 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A man puts a Benfica scarf on the Eusebio monument at Luz stadium in Lisbon on Jan 5, 2014. The bronze statue of Benfica legend Eusebio in front of Lisbon's Stadium of Light was covered with flowers, scarves and messages as Portugal mourned the iconi
A man puts a Benfica scarf on the Eusebio monument at Luz stadium in Lisbon on Jan 5, 2014. The bronze statue of Benfica legend Eusebio in front of Lisbon's Stadium of Light was covered with flowers, scarves and messages as Portugal mourned the iconic striker's death on Sunday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LISBON (AFP) - The bronze statue of Benfica legend Eusebio in front of Lisbon's Stadium of Light was covered with flowers, scarves and messages as Portugal mourned the iconic striker's death on Sunday.

Widely regarded as Portugal's greatest player before the meteoric rise of Cristiano Ronaldo, Eusebio's death touched a nation beyond just the team he graced with such distinction throughout the 1960s and beyond.

Since his death was announced, a steady stream of fans made their way to Benfica's home stadium to pay their respects to the Mozambique-born star known as the 'Black Panther'.

"Eusebio is simply the king," said a young supporter, his voice cracking with emotion and a red Benfica scarf wrapped around his neck.

Another fan, Rui Silva, wearing a replica shirt with Eusebio's name emblazoned on the back, as he had his picture taken in front of the statue, added: "He's very important for me, I consider him like a member of my family."

A supporter in his 60s remembered Eusebio's dead-ball effectiveness: "I've been going to this stadium for 45 years. I saw Eusebio play many times, he was incredible.

"He never missed a penalty and scored 99 percent of his free-kicks." Eusebio, latterly an ambassador for both Benfica and the Portuguese Football Association, was 71 when he died of a cardio-pulmonary arrest early on Sunday morning.

While the message from Benfica fans was one of claiming possession of their greatest ever player - a note posted next to a pair of boots with red studs proclaimed: "Eusebio is ours" - it is clear that the whole country felt special affection for him.

The government has declared three days of mourning but Benfica fans couldn't wait to bid farewell.

Hundreds gathered around the Stadium of Light where Eusebio's coffin was brought at the end of the afternoon, to be displayed in a chapel of rest.

He will be buried on Monday afternoon in one of Lisbon's northern suburbs near the famous ground.

Beforehand, as requested by Eusebio himself, his coffin will be taken on a tour of the stadium's pitch.

"Eusebio, Eusebio," chanted hundreds of fans as the coffin arrived at the stadium.

"I haven't come to say goodbye, but to say thank-you," read one banner.

Admirers had also headed to the Benfica museum to reflect on Eusebio's glory by gazing at old jerseys, newspaper cuttings, photos, trophies and even the 1965 Ballon d'Or won by the 'King'.

That year he became the first black footballer to win the award.

A year later he helped Portugal to the World Cup semi-finals in England, while his goals inspired Benfica to the European Cup title in 1962 and three other finals throughout the 1960s, including in 1965.

"For me, he is simply the creator of football," said 24-year-old Luis Marques, who had gone to the stadium with friends.

"I never saw him play," added Jose Morais, an Angolan living in Portugal for the last 20 years, "but I love looking at archive footage (of him)." But while many may consider Ronaldo to have surpassed Eusebio in talent and even achievements, in this corner of Portugal that is certainly not the case.

"Cristiano Ronaldo is still a long way behind," said Jose Valente, a resident of a Lisbon suburb but originally from Cape Verde.

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