Portugal’s unlikely hero continues to change minds

If you had set out to predict the potential hero of Euro 2016, you certainly would not have picked a 28-year-old striker from Guinea-Bissau who had just come through the most frustrating six months of his career playing for Swansea.
Portugal’s unlikely hero continues to change minds

Football has often produced unexpected heroes, but the story of Ederzito Macedo Lopes, usually known as Eder, is one of the most unlikely.

Those with long memories may recall Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci, the Italian striker who seemingly emerged from nowhere to win the Golden Boot award in the 1990 World Cup. He scored in four consecutive matches at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and the fourth was like a dagger to Ireland’s hopes as he stabbed home a rebound when Packie Bonner could only parry a long-range shot from Roberto Donadoni.

Schillaci’s goals, six in all, made him the player of the tournament, even though Italy went out to Argentina in the semi-final.

Eder scored just once for Portugal last summer. It remains his only goal for his country in a match that counts, but it was the most important goal in Portugal’s history. The goal that ended 50 years of hurt and broke French hearts.

Schillaci was to play just four more times for Italy after his 1990 heroics and he scored just one additional goal. Injuries cut short his spell in top football and he finished his career in Japan.

Eder’s future is also uncertain. When he plays for Portugal, he is usually a substitute, even though he’s a target man, and the Portuguese don’t have many who play that role.

At club level, he doesn’t score many, although he has 10 in 30 league games since he moved from Swansea to Lille. His one prolific season came four years ago at Braga, and he finished his time there by missing a penalty in a cup final shoot-out

All the same, that moment in the Stade de France, when he muscled past Laurent Koscielny and sent a 30-yard strike skimming into the corner of the net means that his place in football history is assured, even if he never kicks another ball.

And the Eder story is given an extra emotional wrench by his sad family background and the amount of hostility he has had to cope with.

He was never that popular in Portugal, not at Coimbra nor at Braga. His ambition, like others before him, was to play abroad, specifically in the Premier League, and to this end he joined up with a ‘mental coach’ Susana Torres, who task was to focus him and train him to eliminate negative feelings about his game.

Mrs Torres is a former banker turned motivator and personal development guru with a website modestly entitled The Miracle Coach. When she informed her husband that Eder wanted to go to England, she says he virtually ridiculed the idea — rather as the fans ridiculed the player after he came on for Portugal against Germany in the 2014 World Cup.

“As mobile as a traffic cone,” was one of the more polite comments on social media, and it was much the same when he made the squad last summer, after failing at Swansea and moving on loan to Lille.

“He can’t kick a ball… he never scores.”

How much his mental coaching has helped him is hard to say.

“Susana was the catalyst,” said Eder in a rare interview last August. They met almost by accident in Braga after a game, when her little daughter Ritinha asked for her picture to be taken with him, after a kickabout in club colours.

Eventually Susana and he struck up a professional relationship and the mentoring continued from there, culminating in a book entitled Vai Correr Tudo Bem (It will all turn out well), which by a combination of luck and energetic marketing was on sale in the bookshops just six weeks after the European final.

“I worked hard on my mentality and began to dream again,” is how Eder explains the turnround in his career. “I think footballers are still a bit funny about this kind of thing. Some think that they can seem weaker. But it’s changing.”

His difficult family background, growing up in an orphanage although both his parents are alive, must have been a factor.

An additional trauma, which has only come out in the past few months, is that Eder’s father Filomeno is in prison in England, having been convicted of the murder of his partner Domingas Olivais, Eder’s stepmother, in 2003.

Happily, Eder has been reconciled over time with his mother, also in England, and has also managed to maintain a long-distance relationship with his father, visiting him periodically in jail.

Compared to all this, reconciliation with the Portuguese fans has been simple. They set up a website where individuals could apologise for past abuse, and desculpaeder.com (Sorry Eder) now has about 33,000 messages.

Eder in action for Lille against Rennes the French L1 last week. The local fans have been mostly loyal but Eder has suffered abuse elsewhere. Picture: Denis Charlet
Eder in action for Lille against Rennes the French L1 last week. The local fans have been mostly loyal but Eder has suffered abuse elsewhere. Picture: Denis Charlet

His situation in France is a little more complex.

Lille had a great end to their season before the Euros and Eder contributed six goals. This season began horribly with just three wins and nine defeats up to the end of November. The club then parted company with manager Frédéric Antonetti, but they still only have 21 points half-way through the season.

The local fans have been mostly loyal but Eder has suffered abuse elsewhere.

“How has it been?” asked a Portuguese interviewer a few weeks ago.

“It depends…” replied Eder with a brief laugh. “It depends on who you bump into the street.”

“It’s normally that people treat me differently,” he said. “I’ve sensed it in most games, above all away from home. Whistling… all that kind of thing. And the relationship with referees is no longer the same either. It’s changed, and obviously not in a good way. But I can’t get fixated with that.”

On the other hand, France has a large and well-established Portuguese community, as many as 1.5m people according to one estimate, though of these only around 600,000 are actual immigrants. So the chances of bumping into a friend are reasonably good in a place like Lille.

He tells how a mother and her two teenage sons came up to him in the street to thank him and have their picture taken together.

“And then they started to cry, and cry. It was touching for me.

“That goal changed things, I am a lot more in demand. Lots of people pay more attention to me. But as for me, I haven’t changed, I am still the same. That’s going to make me grow a bit and I must use it to go on learning.”

He has now scored four times this season, most recently the last-minute equaliser at home against Rennes on December 21, the day before his birthday.

You sense he focuses on that sort of event, like he focuses on the white glove that he had hidden in his shorts and brandished when he scored that historic goal in the final.

It was a symbol of his confidence, he says, an idea he got from Susana. Maybe this unlikely fairy tale has some more episodes to come.

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