Agony and ecstasy, despair and redemption; football's cycle is eternal. Five years ago, Pedro Mantorras was, briefly, the golden boy of Portuguese football, but he has started just one game for Benfica in the past three seasons. If the Angola forward comes off the bench against Liverpool in the Champions' League on Tuesday, though, he is assured of a rapturous welcome at the Estadio da Luz.
Once he was explosively fast and possessed of a ferocious shot; when he was hailed as "the new Eusebio", it wasn't simply because he came from Portuguese-speaking Africa. In February 2002, though, after just 23 games for Benfica, he suffered damage to a knee ligament. He has hardly been off the operating table since.
"It was very hard," he said, "especially at the beginning. Now the important thing is to get rhythm again. I haven't had much opportunity until now, but I expect shortly to be playing 90 minutes." Whether the 23-year-old will ever recover the pace of old, though, is a significant doubt.
Such was his impact in that brief purple patch that he remains an immensely popular figure among the Benfica support, the fact that his form had disintegrated by the time he succumbed to injury all but ignored. "I haven't lost the support of Benfica fans," he said. "I am here and people haven't forgotten the name of Mantorras. When I warm up they all cheer me. They like to say I have the African magic."
His popularity is at least in part down to his demeanour. For some, football is a profession; for others, it is a passion, for him it has been a salvation. Traumatic as a knee injury may be to a professional athlete, it is nothing to what he has been through, growing up amid Angola's civil war.
"My father was killed when I was three months old and my mother died when I was 16," he said. "I became head of the family very young. I lived with my sisters and my brothers. Like any poor family, we had a lot of problems."
It was when he was 16 that he was spotted by a scout from Barcelona. Jose Mourinho, assistant to Louis van Gaal at the Nou Camp at the time, spoke of Mantorras being described as "a teenaged George Weah" only to disappoint when he arrived for a trial. "It was a real culture shock for him," Mourinho told the Portuguese website MaisFutebol. "One day he was in Luanda and the next he was on a set with what must have seemed like Hollywood stars. I took him to a sports store belonging to a brand where he had a contract and found him the right kind of kit for the Catalan winter. I remember this 'little boy lost' expression."
Training with the Barca B team, though, did at least introduce him to Ronald Koeman, who is now his coach at Benfica. A later trial with Alverca was more successful, and he joined them in the 1999-2000 season. When Mourinho returned to Portuguese football, he saw a huge difference in the forward. "He was stronger, more powerful, quicker and more developed technically, tactically more in tune," he said. "He wanted to destroy his adversaries and be a winner. He was arrogant in a good way."
Mantorras has not, though, forgotten his past. On his forearms he has tattooed, in inch-high Chinese characters, the names of his son and daughter. What happens if he has more children? "Here," he said, indicating his biceps and his shoulders. Not his legs? A cloud crossed his face. "No." He shook his head emphatically. He slapped his left leg. "Mama," he said. He slapped his right: "Papa."
Every goal he scores is a memorial to his parents; a proportion of every euro he earns goes to a school for orphans in Luanda. "I feel extremely sorry for the kids in Angola," he said. "I know what it means to go hungry and to sleep rough, as I have had a lot of difficulties in my life and often gone wanting."
He has also known the highs, and even though he featured for only 10 minutes, Benfica's victory over Manchester United in the final group game ranks as one of those. "Manchester United are one of the biggest clubs in the world," he said, "but Benfica have a lot of history as well. The directors at Benfica have done a good job. Everything is good and the results of the last year are starting to show that. We respected Manchester, but the strength of our fans at home helped a lot. We had a dream, and dreaming is not forbidden."
It is just as well. Apart from the Champions' League, Mantorras has the World Cup to look forward to this summer; from war to glory to injury, it is about time his nightmare ended again.Reuse content