Leônidas da Silva: The forgotten hero
Search for “Leonidas” in Google and a zillion pictures of Gerard Butler’s pissed-off face from the movie 300 will crop up. Now try searching for “Leonidas bicycle kick” and you will come across a famous black and white photograph of the protagonist of our little story going for the renowned bicycle kick, with the opposition goalkeeper visibly flustered, trying to stop him in vain. Let me introduce you to Mr. Leônidas da Silva, also known as the “Black Diamond” and “Rubber Man” in his heyday: the one hailed as the greatest Brazilian footballer for many decades before another “Black Pearl” came and stole the show.
Leônidas was born in the quaint old district of São Cristóvão at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in September 6, 1913. He was of a small built and black: a fatal mistake in that era of elitist Brazilian clubs. But as time unfurled, it became clear that nothing could stop this little magician from carving his name as a legend in the annals of football.
He started his football career with São Cristóvão and created such an impact in his brief time there that soon Sírio e Libanês stole him away. He went on to play for eight different clubs, scoring more than 500 goals as a centre-forward for both club and country in his illustrious career, but more about that later.
In 1931, Leônidas joined Bonsucesso, and this is where he used the bicycle kick for the first time. There is some argument as to who invented this technique but nevertheless, it is beyond doubt that it was Leônidas who made the bicycle kick popular and set a trend for generations to follow. He even went on to become the first player to score a goal through the bicycle kick in the now legendary World Cup football match against Poland in 1938.
Leônidas made his debut in the Brazilian national team in 1932, scoring two phenomenal goals against the then mighty Uruguay. But this was just the beginning of the rise of the “Rubber Man”. The second FIFA World Cup was held in 1934, and it was the opportunity for the Brazilians to regain their lost pride after their ignominious first round exit in the first edition of the cup, four years ago. But in spite of having a very talented team and in spite of Leônidas’ solitary goal, Brazil went down 1-3 to Spain in the first round itself. The next and, as it turned out, the only opportunity for Leônidas to win some silverware for his country, came four years later in the FIFA World Cup of 1938. In the meantime, Leônidas had already played for such reputed clubs as Vasco da Gama and Botafogo and was presently plying his trade in Flamengo, an achievement in itself considering the prejudice black players like Leônidas faced in the Brazil of yesteryear.
The Brazilian team of 1938 had the greatest attack of that time, led by the dreaded quartet of Leônidas, Romeu, Perácio and Roberto. Brazil started the championship with a bang, winning 6-5 against Poland. Seldom had anyone witnessed such a close game, and Leônidas’ hattrick in this game is still lauded as one of the greatest performances in World Cup history. Brazil faced Czechoslovakia in the quarter-finals, and the extremely ill-tempered match ended in a 1-1 draw. The match was replayed a day later, and Brazil came out victorious with a 2-1 margin, with Leônidas scoring a goal in both the outings. It turned out to be the last match to be replayed in a World Cup.
But here our story takes a tragic turn for our hero and his countrymen. Brazil were the favorites to lift the cup, and Italy seemed like minnows in their path to a first World Cup glory. But the learned Brazilian manager Adhemar Pimenta, and yes I am being sarcastic, decided to rest both Leônidas and another of his teammates Tim, both of whom were in the form of their lives. Some call it just a tactical blunder, but a lot many sources have claimed that the Brazilian manager’s decision was based on an ulterior motive of satisfying the fascist home team, Italy.
Romeu tried his best to win it for Brazil, but the boots of Leônidas turned out to be too big to fill, and Brazil went down fighting 1-2 to Italy, led by a goal from the mercurial Colaussi and Meazza’s penalty. Leônidas was brought back in the third place playoff against Sweden, and he showed the world what Brazil had been missing in the earlier game, striking a scintillating brace and winning it 4-2 in favour of Brazil. Leônidas ended the World Cup as the top-scorer with 7 goals, and in the process, became the only player ever to score a goal in every World Cup match he played in. The record stands to this day, and the fact that even legends like Maradona, Pelé, and more recently, Ronaldo and Messi never came even remotely close to beating that record shows how humongous the achievement is.
Leônidas had a great career after the 1938 World Cup got over, winning his 3rd Rio State title in 1939 for Flamengo. He switched clubs in 1943, going over to São Paulo, and won the state title five times for them in only seven seasons. But sadly, he never got a shot at another World Cup thanks to the Second World War, and hung up his deadly boots in 1950, ironically the same year that the fourth FIFA World Cup was held. Brazil reached the final for the first time, but failed to win the cup yet again. As it turned out, Brazil had to wait till 1958 to lift the first of their 5 World Cups thanks to another legend we all are well acquainted with – the “King of football”, Pelé.
After bidding adieu to football, Leônidas had a brief coaching stint with “São Paulo” before embarking on a weird set of occupations, which included his role as a radio commentator, a private detective and even a furniture shop owner. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the year 1974, but he battled on for the next three decades, just like he had done on and off the field during a wonderful career, but ultimately succumbed to the disease in 2004 at the ripe age of 90. He left behind a legacy few players have been able to match, and it’s a pity that today the name Leônidas is associated with a guy from Hollywood, but not with the first real wizard of football: Leônidas da Silva.