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)
In 1888, as the first football league season was born in England, Brazil passed the ‘Golden Law’ abolishing slavery in the last South American country where it had been acceptable for one person to own another one. Inevitably however, de facto trails de jure by a significant period, and it would be wrong to assume that all discrimination and abuse ended with that piece of legislation. It was therefore, into a land still burdened by history and bigotry that, on 18 July 1892 the son of Oscar Friedenreich, a German merchant, and Mathilde, a Brazilian laundress – a white father and a black mother – entered the world. Despite the troubled environment and the hurdles faced, Artur Friedenreich, described by Eduardo Galeano in ‘Soccer in the Sun and Shadow’ as the “green-eyed mulatto who founded the Brazilian way of playing” would grow up to be a sporting superstar.
As with so many other countries in the continent, football had burrowed deep into the soul of Brazilian culture. Overwhelmingly however, in the early years of the twentieth century, it remained the preserve of the white man. To succeed in such an environment, Friedenreich – born at the junction of streets named Vitoria (Vctory) and Triunfo (Triumph) and with skills developed on the streets of the city of São Paulo – would not only need to be an outstanding player, he’d also need to conquer power, privilege and prejudice. In doing so, this Robin Hood in football boots would steal the game away from the wealthy, advantaged and white, gifting it to the humble, the poor and the downtrodden. He would provide a way for those that emerged from the streets, from the depths of deprivation and despair to journey to the Seleção and deliver a brand of football the country would become synonymous with. As Galeano explained. “Friedenreich brought to the solemn stadium of the whites the irreverence of the brown boys who had fun playing with a ball of rags in the suburbs. Thus, was born a style, open to fantasy, that prefers pleasure to the result.” Without Artur Friedenreich, the Brazilian Jogo Bonito may never have entranced the world.
Despite the barriers blocking access to football for blacks and mulattos – those of mixed race such as Friedenreich – largely thanks to being raised in Europeanised family, football quickly became an important part of the young boy’s life, and his father’s eager support and encouragement carried him through periods of doubt when his nascent ability had yet to find its way out. It was therefore, hardly surprising that, the first club he played for was SC Germânia, a club set up in the city for the benefit of German immigrants. Despite his father’s national credentials though, there were still hurdles to cross. Before turning up at the ground to train or play, Friedenreich would have to spend time straightening his naturally curly hair to appear more European. Some reports even suggest that he would also smear his body with rice powder to hide the darkness of his skin
Still in his teenage years, Friedenreich’s hours of playing on the street, often with a bound ball of rags rather than a football, had honed his skills and dictated the way he played. Even in his prime, he stood well under six feet tall and his wiry physique would see him comfortably fit into the ‘Flyweight’ division of boxing. As such, he had the low centre of gravity that allowed him to weave quickly, dribbling past less adroit opponents, play quick passes, and the pace to dart into spaces, collecting the ball with unerring control. To many, his performances were as some lithe dancer, hypnotically guided by an unheard Samba beat. Add onto that list of qualities, the determination and case-hardened hunger for success etched into his soul, and the package was complete. The first ‘Black Pearl’ – the first Pelé – would set light to the blue touch-paper of Brazilian football. Fireworks would follow!
At 17, the blossoming talent was clear and other clubs sought his services. Although records are unclear and some evidence is doubted by many scholars as to his precise goalscoring records, it’s indisputable that he was a potent force. By the time he was 20 he was the top goalscorer in the São Paulo league, scoring 16 times. It’s an accolade he would claim numerous times over the following 17 years or so of his career.
By 1914, he was becoming a recognised star of the Brazilian game and when the Seleção played their first game as a recognised national team, the name of Artur Friedenreich, then playing for Clube Atlético Ypiranga, was inevitably included on the team sheet. The game itself was somewhat less celebrated than others that would follow. The opponents on that day were in fact, English club Exeter City who were returning to from a tour of Argentina at the time.
It took place on July 21st, 1914 at the Estádio das Laranjeiras, just weeks before the outbreak of World War One. Although debuts on the international stage are always memorable events, there was another reason why Friedenreich would recall his confrontation with the West Country’s Grecians, as he lost two teeth during a heavy tackle from one of the tourists, but completed the game after receiving hasty dental treatment. The game ended in a surprise 2-0 victory for the Brazilians – the game was still amateur then, and would remain so for years to come. Friedenreich didn’t score either of the goals, but some sources report that he had a hand in the second goal scored by Osman Medeiros.
Five years later though, now unquestionably South America’s first footballing superstar, he did score the winning goal in the final of the 1919 Copa America against Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro. The extra-time strike, added to his hat-trick against Chile in a group game made him the tournament’s top scorer. By now, the style of Brazilian football, driven by Friedenreich, had shed the traditional tactics of the early European pioneers of the game in the country. He was the flagbearer for the revolution to the style that would take Brazil to the summit of world football. After the triumph, a São Paulo newspaper would describe the new style of play “which dictates that the ball be brought by all the forwards right up to the oppositions goal, where shots were taken from any distance, and the collective whole of the forward line is not necessary, it’s enough for two or three players to break away with the ball, which by it’s devastating speed disorientates the defence.”
The 1919 victory was probably the zenith of Friedenreich’s career. Huge crowds thronged the city to acclaim the success and especially the exploits of Friedenreich. The boot with which the winning goal was struck would later be placed on display in the window of a jeweller’s shop, after being taken on a tour of the city, for all to marvel at and pay homage. It’s somewhat strange to say therefore, that just two years later, and then at the peak of his powers, and arguably the best player in the world, Artur Friedenreich would not be part of the Brazil team that travelled to Argentina for the 1921 Copa America competition.
Argentina was a predominantly white country and the authorities there announced that only white players would be allowed to represent the country and compete in the tournament. There were even cartoons in the Argentine newspapers championing the decision and pointing fingers towards Brazil, declaring that “The monkeys are coming.” In a shameful and cowardly decision, Brazilian president Epitacio Pessoa cravenly followed suit, apparently concerned that having black players may bring shame on his country. He need not have worried. His decision did that on its own. Friedenreich was excluded from the Seleção and the hosts won the trophy winning all three of their games. Brazil would win just once, defeating Paraguay 3-0, but defeats to Argentina and Uruguay were perhaps just reward for Pessoa’s craven collaboration.
Perhaps the sad reflection of the decision, the consequences of it or a combination of both and the inevitable awakening of a more open attitude, the whole scenario had a transforming effect on both Brazilian football in general and Friedenreich in particular, feeding the springing seeds that would flower into the ending of racial discrimination in Brazilian football. His career with the Seleção would span eleven years but, with games so sparse, inevitably compromised by the demands of travel in that time, would only comprise 23 games. A similar length of time in modern days would more usually mean many more. Neymar for example has played over 100 games for Brazil since his debut in 2010.
By 1925, Friedenreich’s international career was finished. Despite this, his fame showed little sign of diminishing. He was now playing for CA Paulistano and, for some time, the club had been invited invited to play a number of friendly games across the country so people could see the great Friedenreich in the flesh. In 1927 however, the call came for the club and their star, now 37, to travel to Europe for a series of games. For players of a much younger age than Freidenreich, the demands of travelling across the Atlantic by boat before arriving in a different continent and play eight games, with more travelling in between would be difficult enough, but Friedenreich would hardly let down the fans who came to watch not only the team with the strange footballing style, but also the star player whose reputation had crossed the ocean before him. In those eight games, he would score 11 goals, and richly entertain the spectators.
Despite his athletic prowess, and natural fitness, time and tide eventually takes its toll on all things, and age was something Friedenreich could only temporarily ward off. An inability to even walk out of the door of his house only added to the pressures he was under. Although living the life of a celebrity, he did so without the financial income to sustain it, earning a relatively meagre salary, especially given his international renown. Despite this, he still tried to live an extravagant lifestyle, with reports suggesting that he owned more than 100 suits, and developed a taste for particularly expensive beers.
The first World Cup tournament held in Uruguay in 1930 should have been the perfect stage for Freidenreich’s swansong, but it wasn’t to be. Despite being in his late thirties at the time, there was little doubt that he would have warranted a place in the squad that travelled to Montevideo for the first global celebration of the game. Due to some unexplained mix up however, only players from the states of Rio de Janeiro were selected, and Freidenreich, along with other stars from the São Paolo area missed out.
As the years rolled on, he began playing less and less, and when he did play, often it would be for far smaller clubs than in his heydays. Professionalism was gradually spreading through the football ranks in Brazil and by 1933, the game had dispensed with amateurism completely. Whether through a fit of pique for missing out on what could have been hugely financially rewarding times when playing his best years, or merely through idealistic grounds, Friedenreich raged against the changes, and in essence decided to walk away from the game. At 43 years of age, on 21 July 1935, he played his last game for Flamengo in a 2-2 draw against Fluminense.
Finished with football, he began working for liquor company until he retired. His latter years saw the once great hero of Brazilian football brought to his knees by Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment for the condition would drain his financial resources without ever coming close to arresting the deterioration of his mental faculties and memory. He died on 6 September 1969 aged 77, leaving behind a wife and son, whom he called Oscar after his father, penniless.
One of the tragedies of Freidenreich’s mental deterioration was that, towards the end of his life, he had little or no memory of his footballing achievements, or even his name at the end, and was totally unable to corroborate any records offered up by others, hence leaving clouds of doubt over his goalscoring abilities. Perhaps the least contentious account however comes from a former team-mate, Mário de Andrada. Friedenreich’s father began to keep a notebook record of his son’s goals from the day he first started playing, and in 1918, feeling he would no longer be able to maintain the record, he passed the task on to Mário de Andrada, who vowed to ensure the records were maintained for posterity.
In 1962, Andrada showed the records to Brazilian journalist, Adriano Neiva da Motta e Silva, more commonly known as De Vaney. It suggested that across his career spanning 1,329 games, Friedenreich had scored a staggering 1,239 goals. The figures become even more impressive when taking into account that many of those games were played well past the peak of Friedenreich’s powers, through his late thirties and into his forties. Originally, De Vaney added more fog to the uncertainty by inadvertently reversing the figures, before they were corrected. The error hardly aids legitimacy and confidence, especially as Andrada’s written records were lost when he died.
If there are doubts about his precise goalscoring records, there is little to diminish the role that Freidenreich played in both shaping the way that Brazil played football and helping to break down the malignant walls of discrimination. Eduardo Galeano wrote that, “From Friedenreich onward, Brazilian football that is truly Brazilian does not have right angles, like the mountains of Rio de Janeiro and the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer.” The lyrical description does great honour to the former star. To some he was the greatest Brazilian footballer of all time, but without television images to enhance the legend, that accolade often falls to the “’Pelé after Pelé’”
The great man was once asked if there would ever be another player to compete with his own achievements. After musing for a second, Pelé shook his head slowly. “My parents closed the factory,” he said with a smile. That may well be true, but if his parents did bring down the shutters on that factory, the keys to initially open it for black players to flourish in Brazilian football were crafted and used by Artur Friedenrich, the ‘Pelé before Pelé’.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy Analyst’ website).
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