Heleno, Brazil’s first brilliant badboy

A larger-than-life striker of the 1940s, Heleno de Freitas had as great a gift for scoring goals as he had for berating opposing players, match officials, the fans who had come to watch him play and even his put-upon team-mates. He was one of the most gifted players Brazilian football has ever seen, but also one of its most controversial.

“As a football player, Heleno de Freitas could blow hot and cold. But he was more than just a centre-forward. He was a permanent opportunity for others to speak ill of him.” That description of the player was penned by the world-famous novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then a young Colombian journalist, who saw the Brazilian in action during his eventful six-month stay with Junior of Barranquilla in 1950.

By that late stage of his career, Heleno was unable to reproduce with any consistency the brilliant performances that had made him such a favourite with Botafogo fans throughout the previous decade. Even so, he still had enough left in him to outshine Alfredo di Stefano, while his prickly on-field behaviour was still very much in evidence, as documented by the future Nobel Prize-winning author.

His antics and movie-star looks earned him the nickname Gilda, in reference to the seductive diva played by Rita Hayworth in the film of the same name, a moniker that was often used to goad him and provoke a reaction. And the connections with the silver screen do not end there, with Heleno, a film documenting the colourful player’s life, set to première in Brazil this Friday.

Born into a wealthy family in the city of Sao Joao de Nepomuceno in Brazil’s south-east, Heleno was a popular figure in his childhood years, attracting as much attention for his precocious ability to debate topics with adults as for his obvious footballing skills.

The loquacious youngster had wanted to be a lawyer but after completing his law degree, he found the lure of football and his passion for Rio de Janeiro club Botafogo too hard to resist. He packed a lot into his days, spending mornings playing in the hugely popular tournaments on Copabacana beach, training with Os Alvinegros in the afternoons, and then heading to the city’s bars and nightclubs in the evenings to strut his stuff on the dancefloor.

Heleno was a man of contradictions, and never were they more apparent than when he had a ball at his feet, whether it was on the beach, in a training session, a hometown kickabout or a state championship match.

He’d never run to try and get the ball. He’d just stand there and tell me, ‘Hey, you needn’t bother playing me those horrible balls because I won’t go after them. You’d better put some effort into it.’
Ademir de Menezes on Heleno de Freitas

Off the pitch, he was cultured, educated, charmingly well spoken and rarely seen without the nattiest of ties. On it, he was an entirely different animal, transformed by his perfectionist streak and his unrelenting desire to win into the most controversial and ill-tempered of characters. Not even a promotion to the club captaincy could stop him from offending referees, inevitably leading to many a suspension. 

The goal-getter, who started out in midfield, directed his anger at anyone and everyone. Always quick to take offence, he liked the ball played straight to his feet and nowhere else. And even when it was, he could still find fault, berating team-mates for what he would see as a hospital pass.

One well-known player to incur his wrath was Brazil star Ademir de Menezes, who came in for an earful from Heleno when the two trained together for the first time at Vasco da Gama in 1949.

“He’d never run to try and get the ball,” recalled Ademir, who would finish top scorer at the 1950 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. “He’d just stand there and tell me, ‘Hey, you needn’t bother playing me those horrible balls because I won’t go after them. You’d better put some effort into it.'” Otavio, a former strike partner at Botafogo, confirmed: "Heleno could be very cruel."

Heleno enjoyed many privileges during his nine-year association with the Rio outfit, for whom he scored 206 goals in 235 games. The fines he incurred for fighting or missing training sessions after a night on the town were often rescinded or simply paid by the club’s directors. It was better that than have to make do without him on the pitch. “We just accepted everything he did because we knew he went out to win every game,” recalled Otavio.

Botafogo midfielder Geninho, who would later go into coaching and was one of the few players Heleno spared from criticism, described what it was like to play with him: “Heleno would often drop back to midfield to collect the ball, and he always made himself available for a pass and he could spread the ball around too. He’d manage to get a shot on goal even when he was out wide and had a defender on him. I don’t remember anyone else back in the '40s who could do things like that.

“He’d have made millions if he’d come along a bit later. There was no TV at the time to make stars famous, and there was hardly any radio either. Some players could barely put two words together, so what broadcaster wouldn’t have gone out of their way to get an interview with Dr. Heleno de Freitas? He could analyse the game in depth, berate the referee and question the opposition’s ability.”

Despite his depth of feeling for O Fogão, he never won a state championship with them, their path to glory habitually blocked by Rio’s other powerhouses. As fate would have it, the Carioca crown would come their way in the very year - 1948 - that the then fading idol joined Argentinian giants Boca Juniors

A legend in decline
Though he would make more outlandish headlines in Buenos Aires and enjoy a measure of on-field success, he failed to fulfil expectations, making a return to Rio the following year and landing the championship he never won with Botafogo with city rivals Vasco, the only time he lifted the state trophy.

Making his breakthrough during the dark days of the Second World War, Heleno made only 18 appearances for his country, mostly against their South American rivals, and scored 14 goals. He never played at the FIFA World Cup. By the time his one and only opportunity to do so came around, at Brazil 1950, he was 30 and past his best.

The fact that the host nation were coached by Flavio Costa put paid to any remote hopes he harboured of making the squad. The two had come together during Heleno's spell at Vasco, their association coming to an end when Costa, angered by the player’s unpredictable behaviour, dispensed with his services after the Campeonato Carioca 1949 had been won.

Though still contracted to Vasco, he was no longer wanted, and promptly took his talent and fiery temperament to Colombia and its big-money, breakaway league, which had attracted the likes of Argentinian stars Di Stefano, Nestor Rossi and Julio Cozzi, with whom De Freitas would cross swords when Junior met Millonarios. 

He returned home from Colombia hopeful of a second chance at Vasco. It never materialised. Out of the game for a year, but still very much part of the Rio social scene, he eventually signed for America. It was 1951, by which time his behaviour had become even more irrational, the result perhaps of the syphilis that had begun to take hold of his body.

In his one and only game for the club, against Sao Cristovao at the Maracana on 4 November, he was sent off after only 25 minutes for directing foul and abusive language at his own team-mates. It was his one and only appearance at the great stadium and the last of his career, against the very side he had faced when making his debut for Botafogo all those years earlier.

The last battle of his life would come against the disease that would eventually claim him. After receiving the loving care of his family and then being committed to a sanatorium, he died in 1959. He was 39.

For those fortunate enough to see Heleno de Freitas play, memories of him would never fade. Garcia Marquez’s writings have also kept the legend burning bright.

Commenting on his second appearance for Junior, which came after a frustrating home debut that earned the law graduate-cum-striker the ire of the fans, the celebrated author wrote: “I’ve been told by people who were at the Estadio Municipal that the Brazilian put in a miraculous performance. In a metaphorical sense, Dr. de Freitas – who must be a good lawyer – used his feet to control legal briefs and sentences in both Spanish and Portuguese, not to mention the declarations of Justinian in the purest classical Latin.”

While some of his outspoken declarations were perhaps uncalled for, there is little question that with the ball at his feet, Heleno was one of the game’s most learned scholars.