In 1936, Leônidas da Silva left Botafogo to join Flamengo. Already a star in the domestic Brazilian game and an established player with the Selaçao, across the next half-dozen seasons his reputation as one of the all-time greatest players from that South American cradle of footballing gods would be firmly established. Short in stature, but big in ability and goals, his talent was the kind to put fans on the edge of their seats, entertain and thrill. It’s that extra special ability that marks a player out as a world star.
Leônidas was born in Rio de Janeiro in September 1913 at a time when access to football clubs presented anything but an easy path for black players, regardless of ability. At that time football was very much an elitist sport, with its European hierarchy keen to maintain a perceived purity by limiting access along demarcated lines of class and colour. Until 1918 the Federacao Brasileira de Sports had prohibited any black players from taking part in team games, let alone joining and representing football clubs. Change came in agonisingly small steps though and, even after the prohibition ended, on into the 1920s, black players were seldom seen representing clubs in Rio de Janeiro.
By 1923 however, when Vasco da Gama won the Rio state championship with several players of various backgrounds, both in terms of class and colour, it was becoming increasingly clear that to prosper, Brazilian clubs would need to abandon their trenchant and abhorrent limits to access. This change would allow players of Leônidas da Silva’s generation to rise from prescribed obscurity to international fame. By 1933, legalisation of the professional game in Brazil was conceded, partly compelled by a desire to prevent the country’s greatest talents seeking fame and fortune elsewhere was passed and, for a 20-year-old Leônidas, despite some clubs clinging on to old ways, a door was opened.
As a precocious teenager, Leônidas had begun his career at the local junior club São Cristóvão, before moving to Sírio e Libanez, where he came under the eye of coach Gentil Cardoso, who would be an important figure in his next career step. Cardoso moved on to Bonsucesso and, the young Leônidas’ goal-a-game strike rate was sufficient to convince the coach to take the blossoming talent across Rio de Janeiro with him.
If anyone had thought that his early form would not be sustained at the new club, 23 goals in his single season with the Rubro-Anil, quickly diminished such doubts. His performances for the club saw him selected to represent Rio in an interstate game against São Paulo. For some, the selection of a still teenage Leônidas may have looked a little presumptuous, but bagging a brace in a 3-0 victory confounded the doubters and suggested a higher accolade was on the way.
It was, and later the same year he was called up for the national squad, although not selected for the starting team. That would need to wait until the following year when a debut for the Selaçao came in a game against Uruguay in Montevideo. Netting both goals in a 1-2 victory for Brazil was sufficient to both establish him on the international team, and convince Peñarol that his services would be beneficial to the club.
It was also while still at Bonsucesso that Leônidas first deployed a skill that would become his trademark. During a game against Carioca in April 1932, standing with his back towards goal a cross seemed to have drifted too far behind him for any attempt on goal. Arching his back however, Leônidas threw himself into windmill motion with his feet suddenly appearing above his head and volleyed the ball into the net. Although the true inventor of the bicycle kick remains shrouded in the mists of history, with some convinced that the technique had been deployed elsewhere in South America before Leônidas’ agility confounded the watching crowd on that April afternoon, it was the teenage forward who forever afterwards would be associated with its introduction to the world.
In 1933, Peñarol swooped to take him to Montevideo and an entrance into the professional game, unavailable at the time in Brazil. A short stay in Uruguay was successful enough as Leônidas found the back of the net 11 tines in 16 league outings for the club but, with the new legislation allowing professionalism back in Brazil now in force, the siren calls of a return home were persuasive enough to persuade the forward to return to Brazil, joining Vasco da Gama, and helping them win the Rio state championship.
With his reputation now growing, a journey to the 1934 World Cup in Italy was assured, but Europe would have to wait another four years before the full flowering of Leônidas’ would be displayed before them. A first round 3-1 defeat to Spain in Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris, meant the shortest of World Cup journeys was brought to an abrupt halt. Inevitably however, it was Leônidas who scored Brazil’s sole goal of the tournament, ten minutes after half-time. By this stage of the game however, Spain were already three goals clear and the young forward’s goal was merely a consolation and, perhaps, an hors d’oeuvre for what would follow four years later, fittingly in France.
After returning from the World Cup, Leônidas joined Botafogo securing another Rio state championship, before the move that every Flamengo fan rejoices in as, now 23 years old, and entering his prime, he joined the Rubro-Negro. It was a time of massive change for a club once regarded as one of the most elitist and reticent to change. The signing of Leônidas, one of the club’s first black players, was an illustration of the changes apparent at the club.
José Bastos Padilha had assumed presidency of the club in 1934 and began to institute the changes that would elevate Flamengo from merely being one of a number of similar clubs in Rio de Janeiro to becoming the state’s, and perhaps even the country’s, most popular club. As well as the dashing talents of Leônidas, Flamengo also acquired the services of Domingos da Guia, bringing the Brazil international defender back home after a two-year exile in Argentina with Boca Juniors. Both would become adored by the Flamengo fans as icons of the club’s success.
The following year, the Hungarian coach Izidor Kürschner joined the club, bringing a European style of disciplined play with him and, combining it with the natural Brazilian ebullience, set the stage for success, although Kürschner would not be around long enough to enjoy it. In September 1938, a game was arranged against Vasco da Gama to inaugurate the club’s new stadium, the Estádio da Gávea. By now with Leônidas delivering goals, the club’s stock was on the rise. An unexpected two-goal defeat deflated the plans though and Kürschner was dismissed. Fortunately, however, his patterns of play had been established at the club and much of the success that would had been set in motion during his time in Rio..
Despite the legalisation of professionalism in 1933, a number of clubs in the Rio state had declared against the change, stubbornly hanging on to their amateur status and the self-aggrandisement that came with it, creating a split and two leagues in the state. Five years later the tide of reality had swept such reticence away and the two leagues combined. Flamengo had been part of the professional Liga Carioca de Football, but despite competing in a weakened format for five years, had failed to win a state title for a dozen seasons. That would now change. Before that however, Leônidas had unfinished business with the World Cup.
The fame and reputation of Brazil had hardly been enhanced by their route to France, as the withdrawal of Argentina had sent the Selaçao across the Atlantic without having to kick a ball in anger. The reputation of Leônidas hardly needed further promotion however, and he landed in France as one of the most eagerly anticipated arrivals. Brazil’s opening game was played on a rain-sodden pitch at Strasbourg’s Stade de la Meinau, and Leônidas quickly proved that reports of his prowess were certainly more than mere hubris.
With his Flamengo team-mate, Domingos da Guia, alongside him, playing as the centre forward of the Brazil team, he opened the scoring after just 18 minutes. The game had any number of twists and turns to come though. By the break, Brazil led 3-1 but at the end of 90 minutes the scores were back level again at 4-4.
To crash out at the first time of asking in successive World Cups was now unthinkable to Leônidas, and three minutes into extra-time he put Brazil back ahead. The goal was remarkable for being scored wearing just one boot. By this time, pitch had turned into a mud bath, with the cloying surface only reluctantly relinquishing its hold on players as they trudged wearily on. As Leônidas closed in on the Polish goal, the mud refused to release his right boot, clinging desperately to it like a spurned lover. It tore clear of his foot and he ran to score in his stockinged foot. Fortunately, with Brazil playing in black socks, and the mud covering Leônidas’ foot, the missing boot was not noticed by the referee, and the goal was awarded. Ten minutes later, he added his hat-trick goal, this time fully shod, and a later Polish goal was insufficient to redress the balance. Brazil prevailed 6-5 thanks to Leônidas’ goals, and Poland went home.
The victory sent Brazil into the last eight to face Czechoslovakia at the Parc Lescure in Bordeaux. If the first contest had been full of goals, this was one full of controversy – plus goals and outrageous skill by Leônidas, of course.
Inside ten minutes, Brazil were down to ten men when Zezé Procópio was dismissed by Hungarian referee Pál von Hertzka. In typical Leônidas fashion however, the iconic forward put the Selaçao ahead on the half-hour mark. It was a lead the ten men held onto until midway through the second-half when a hand ball in the area by Domingos da Guia, allowed Oldřich Nejedlý to equalise from the penalty spot. Despite extra-time being played, there were no more goals, but plenty of other action.
On the Czech side, goalscorer Oldřich Nejedlý left the field after reportedly fracturing an arm, and skipper and goalkeeper František Plánička broke a leg, but heroically stayed on the pitch. For Brazil, both Leônidas and Perácio Brazil were compelled to leave the field injured and, with the Brazilian Arthur Machado and the Czechoslovak Jan Říha both sent off in the final minute of the regulation 90, and no substitutes allowed for the injured players, it’s interesting to contemplate how many were left on the field to contest the closing minutes of the game.
In a game that resembled a battlefield there was one moment of mesmerising action when Leônidas attempted a shot with his trademark bicycle kick. Never having seen such extravagance previously, it initially left Von Hertzka confused as to whether the technique was within the laws of the game, and afterwards, Paris Match mused over the incident, suggesting that, “Whether he’s on the ground or in the air, that rubber man has a diabolical gift for bringing the ball under control and unleashing thunderous shots when least expected.”
Two days later, in the replay, Leônidas scored, more conventionally, to equalise Kopecký’s opening goal and, five minutes later, Roberto scored the winner to put Brazil into the semi-finals of the World Cup, and a mouthwatering contest against the reigning champions, Italy.. The physical endeavours against the Czechs would exact an expensive price though. Despite scoring in the replay, the injuries sustained by Leônidas would prevent him from facing the Azzurri. Without their star forward, the Selaçao would lose out 2-1 to the Italians, who would go on to retain their title.
Returning for the play-off game against Sweden to decide third place, Leônidas posed the question as to how different things would have been against the Azzurri had he played. He scored twice against the Swedes as Brazil ran out 4-2 winners to secure the bronze medal. The goals elevated him to top spot in the goalscoring table, securing both the FIFA World Cup Golden Boot and FIFA World Cup Golden Ball. His selection in the tournament’s all-star team was the most obvious of calls.
Back home, glory followed for Leônidas with Flamengo as they won the Campeonato Carioca, finishing three points clear of Botafogo. It was their first state title for 12 years and set the foundations in place for a team that would go on win the title three times in the following decade. His time wearing the famous red and black shirts of Flamengo was however coming towards an end, just as it reached its zenith. In 1941, he was convicted of forgery, and attempting to avoid compulsory military call-up, leading to an eight-month prison sentence. He wouldn’t play for Flamengo again,, and would later move to São Paulo where he would play until 1950, retiring at 37 years of age.
Across the years, many Brazilian forwards have been lauded for their play. The likes of Pelé Jairzinho, Romário, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Zico and Garrincha are names that trip of the tongue leaving the sweetest of tastes. In another era, one where a global television audience could have delighted in the exploits of Leônidas da Silva’s extravagant skills, he would surely share a place with them in the pantheon of Brazilian superstars. Sadly, that wasn’t to be the case. For fans of Flamengo however, he will always be one of the country’s greatest stars.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times – Flamengo’ magazine)