Founded in 1922, the now-defunct Brazilian State Team Championship was invariably a two-horse race between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The two had already contested seven of the competition’s first eight finals when they came together for an eighth time in 1931, with Os Paulistas, led by the great Arthur Friedenreich, defending the title they had won two years previously.
Rio’s hopes of regaining the national crown suffered a serious blow when star player Nilo was ruled out before the final, to be played at their home stadium, the Sao Januario. The well-informed fans packed into the ground brushed off the bad news, however, by chanting for an 18-year-old sensation by the name of Leonidas da Silva.
The only problem was that the talented teenager was so sure he would not be playing in the final that he had spent the previous night at a dance. Waking up that morning to enjoy a kickabout in the street to keep himself fit, he then tucked into a hearty bean and pork stew for lunch.
Though thunder-struck on hearing the news of his last-minute selection, Leonidas managed to control his nerves and turn in a match-winning performance capped by two second-half goals. As he celebrated with his team-mates, Friedenreich stepped up to congratulate him.
It was a moment loaded with symbolic significance, as the great striker passed the torch on to his successor, one he would carry beyond Brazil’s borders to become the country’s first international football superstar.
Chasing the dream
During his formative years in the Rio neighbourhood of Sao Cristovao, Leonidas’ family had high hopes of him becoming a lawyer or doctor. As strange as it may seem now, in those days Brazilian children were actively discouraged from pursuing a career in football. The youngster had other ideas, however, his mind occupied with nothing but thoughts of the game he loved so much.
Drawing on the boundless inventiveness and determination that would serve him so well during his career, the bare-footed Leonidas honed his skills on the local streets, mastering improvised footballs made from socks and playing endless one-twos against factory walls. Unable to curb his enthusiasm for the sport, his family bowed to the inevitable and allowed him to leave school at the age of 14. “Even if I didn’t always play well, I never settled for a defeat,” he once said in reference to his will to win.
Playing for neighbourhood teams to begin with, he soon started to make a name for himself. He signed for local club Sirio Libanes after turning 16 and then joined a talented side called Bonsucesso, which was making a habit of challenging the big guns. By the time he was 18, he was already making the headlines.
He continued to do so before earning his Brazil debut at a friendly tournament in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo in 1932. Forming part of a young, transitional side that did not inspire much faith in the Brazilian footballing public, Leonidas set about showing he belonged on the big stage. Accustomed to large crowds at the Sao Januario, the intrepid youngster was unfazed by the prospect of taking on reigning world champions Uruguay at a packed Estadio Centenario, and scored both goals in a notable win for A Seleção.
Onwards and upwards
Political wrangling hampered Brazil’s build-up for the 1934 FIFA World Cup Italy™, and it was a much-weakened and ill-prepared team that went down 3-1 to Spain in their opening game at the finals. Leonidas scored his side’s only goal in that defeat and later that year would hit 13 in 11 matches on his first tour of Europe.
It was an altogether more-prepared Seleção that returned for the 1938 FIFA World Cup France, with expectations being raised further by Leonidas’ supreme form with his club side Flamengo. Anxious to take on the world, he was about to forge the legend that would see him become known as The Rubber Man and The Black Diamond.
Brazil’s first match, a 6-5 extra-time win over Poland, would go down as one of the most dramatic in FIFA World Cup history. Leonidas hit a decisive hat-trick, including what turned out to be the winning goal, which came about in unusual circumstances. Despite having lost his boots in the sticky mud, the streetwise Brazilian star still had the presence of mind to pounce on some slipshod handling by the Polish goalkeeper Edward Madejski and turn the ball into an empty net.
The Brazilians found themselves in another battle in the quarter-finals, where, despite being two men down, they earned a 1-1 draw with the former Czechoslovakia. Leonidas scored yet again and also showcased to the globe his very own innovative trick: an acrobatic bicycle kick that was met with a mixture of admiration and shock.
“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,” wrote Raymond Thourmagem in Paris Match. “When Leonidas scores a goal, it all feels like a dream.”
Coach Adhemar Pimenta rang the changes for the replay against the Czechs, retaining only star man Leonidas in a full-strength line-up. The rest had done his players good, although their 2-1 victory was soured by a muscle strain for the Flamengo forward, who had scored his side’s opening goal in the win.
Ruled out of the semi-final against world champions Italy, Leonidas looked on helplessly as the Brazilians went down a 2-1 defeat. He regained full fitness in time for the third-place match, scoring twice and setting up another as Brazil overcame Sweden 4-2 to take their first podium place in the world finals. With seven goals in four games, the Black Diamond returned to a hero’s welcome, with the Golden Shoe safely in his possession.
A place in the pantheon
Although a succession of knee injuries would prevent him from repeating such feats again with Brazil, for whom he continued playing until 1949, he continued to enjoy great success at club level, becoming the first of many idols at Flamengo and winning a number of titles for them and other clubs.
Though the transfer deal that took him from O Mengão to Sao Paulo was a Brazilian record at the time, it was met with scepticism by many fans at the Estadio Morumbi. Nevertheless, Leonidas would prove the doubters wrong, turning on the style to help the team achieve promotion to the top flight and rival city foes Corinthians and Palmeiras.
Retiring from the game in 1950, Leonidas never shared a pitch with Pele, although the link between the two greats was provided by his Flamengo team-mate Thomaz Soares da Silva, alias Zizinho. Another supremely gifted entertainer, it was Zizinho who maintained The Black Diamond’s legacy before the passing the baton on to O Rei.
Clubs: Sírio Libanes (1929-30), Bonsucesso (1931-32), Peñarol (1933), Vasco (1934), Botafogo (1935-36), Flamengo (1936-41), São Paulo (1942-50)
National team: 37 appearances (37 goals)
2 FIFA World Cup appearances (1934, 1938)
1938 FIFA World Cup Golden Shoe - 7 goals
3 Rio de Janeiro State Championships (1934, 1935, 1939)
5 São Paulo State Championships (1943, 1945, 1946, 1948, 1949)
Leonidas also played basketball for his first club, Sirio Libanes. At the time (the 1920s) football clubs in Rio were required by law to run other sports teams as well.
Leonidas scored on his Brazil debut, a 2-2 draw in a friendly against Hungarian club Ferencvaros.
Before becoming known as The Black Diamond and The Rubber Man, Leonidas was dubbed The Petronilho of Rio after the great centre-forward Petronilho de Brito, the first black Brazilian footballer to play abroad, for San Lorenzo in Argentina.
Leonidas had a habit of breaking windows when playing football in the street, which was one of the reasons why he took up a job with a local company at the age of 14.
After retiring Leonidas had a brief stint as coach at Sao Paulo and also tried his luck in the movie world. He would, however, enjoy far greater success as an outspoken football commentator.