Leonidas playing a little game, as if he were flying.  He was one of the first great stars of Brazil.  (Twitter)

Leonidas da Silva he died just over 17 years ago without knowing how huge he had been. An illness damaged his memory and blurred his crack past. Later, in many of the promotions that took place around the 2014 World Cup, Brazil paid tribute to him. And they talked about him, they said about him, they praised him. Almost no one or none of them had seen him dazzle on the playing field, but the echoes of those who enjoyed it were voiced in his descendants.

He was the successor of Arthur Friedenreich and the predecessor of Pelé, those two footballers who are awarded more than a thousand goals. FIFA places Leonidas in its Hall of Fame. In the midst of the fever of that Brazilian World Cup without a happy ending for the locals, the youngest discovered its existence and the oldest verified the dimension that they had been told.

Leónidas was the perfect representative of a football that was being born, that of the Beautiful game. The 1938 World Cup was the first great expression of that term that today is naturally repeated in the corners of the world. Another thing also turned out: a valuable manifestation of what in Brazil was called mulatto football, like the book by the sociologist and writer Gilberto Freyre, which was made into a movie a decade ago. An uninhibited football, mischievous, dribbling to rigors, cunning, born between deficiencies. Leonidas did that: embrace both concepts and represent them on the playing field in the best of ways..

The journalist, writer and playwright Nelson Rodrigues also offered his words to tell Leonidas: “He was strictly a player of ours. He had the fantasy, naivety, improvisation and sensuality of typical Brazilian stars. And when he wanted, he flew without any defender noticing”. Their skills are still playing on YouTube to see which is the cutest or the most circus.

His journey through football deserves several stories by Roberto Fontanarrosa, Juan Villoro or Eduardo Sacheri. He scored goals with broken boots and even barefoot; he played basketball at the Club Sirio Libanés when they couldn’t complete the squad; he was a crack in Rio de Janeiro in the thirties and in São Paulo, in the forties. Always in his own way and way: boldly.

He lived a childhood crossed by football and by the complaints of his parents. Among the factories that appeared in the Sao Cristovao neighborhood, he spent as much time as he could playing with those balls that were painful, that begged for mercy. Rag balls, balls of what you could. They demanded that he study. They wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer. But he dribbled to school too. At age 14 he abandoned her. And he even preferred to work in one of the neighborhood factories; one of those who used to break the glass of their windows with their imminent jewel finishes. Adolescence also found him playing soccer: first at the Syrian Libanés; then in Bonsucesso.

Leonidas playing a little game, as if he were flying. He was one of the first great stars of Brazil. (Twitter)

The most popular sports planet knows him as “The Black Diamond”, especially after his consecration in the World Cup in France, in 1938. But before he had had two other nicknames. One recounted features of his game: Rubber Man, they told him. He was an acrobat from the area. The other was pointing out a step on his way. They called him El Petronilo Carioca. Just before Leónidas passed Peñarol, São Paulo player Petronilo de Brito – the first black Brazilian to play abroad – began to hear applause in San Lorenzo.

After his time in Uruguayan soccer, he returned to Rio de Janeiro to play in three of the four great Rio de Janeiro: Vasco, Botafogo and Flamengo. He unsuccessfully played the 1934 World Cup and dazzled the next, under French skies. He won the Golden Boot (he scored seven goals in four games) and was chosen by FIFA as the best footballer in the competition.

He did something bigger: he founded a beautiful move that in Brazil everyone calls the bicycle and it looks like the Chilean one. “That rubber man, on the ground or in the air, has the devilish gift of controlling the ball anywhere, and shoots violent shots when least expected. When Leonidas scores a goal, you think you are dreaming”, was the description of the journalist Raymond Thourmagem, of the magazine Paris Match. The stadiums applauded him standing up. It didn’t matter colors or origins when he played.

Leónidas: he was the successor of Arthur Friedenreich and the predecessor of Pelé, those two footballers who are awarded more than a thousand goals.  (Twitter)

Leónidas: he was the successor of Arthur Friedenreich and the predecessor of Pelé, those two footballers who are awarded more than a thousand goals. (Twitter)

His strange absence in the semifinals against Italy (due to an alleged injury) opened the doors for Vittorio Pozzo’s team to fulfill Benito Mussolini’s mandate. The Duce accepted no other outcome than the consecration. When the Black Diamond did not shine, Brazil lost much of its magic and power. In the match for third place, Leonidas shone again: he scored two goals against Sweden for the victory and the podium. Upon arriving again in Rio de Janeiro, he verified what history indicates: he had become the first mass idol of Brazilian football.

Then he went to the San Pablo. He also became a club superhero and won five Statues. His last official game was played in 1950. His knees ached as they only hurt in nightmares.. In his career he had converted 537 goals in 593 games. Figures of very few, of almost no one. Retired, he was a coach, he tried his luck in the movies, he became a football commentator. Alzheimer’s forced him to another withdrawal. He died in the São Paulo summer of 2004, at the age of 90. There were hardly any remnants of its wonders left in his memory.

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