While much about the FIFA World Cup™ has changed and developed over the decades, its capacity to produce stars has been evident and unchanged from the word go.
By its third edition, the tournament had already helped make household names of players such as Luis Monti, Giuseppe Meazza and Matthias Sindelar - and a first Brazilian icon was on the way.
Leonidas da Silva was to become the top scorer and leading light of France 1938. By the time this photograph was taken, as he chatted to fans ahead of Brazil’s third-place win over Sweden, the entire football world – in addition, it seems, to a few of the local women – had become besotted with the player known as the ‘Rubber Man’ and the ‘Black Diamond’.
The tone was set in Brazil’s opening match – an incredibly dramatic 6-5 win over Poland – when he scored a brilliant hat-trick. Leonidas’ decisive third goal was the most memorable of all, with the Brazilian losing one of his boots in the thick Strasbourg mud before struggling on without it to fire home. This was a player who took particular pride in such spirit, once saying: “Even if I didn’t always play well, I never settled for a defeat.”
But will to win was just one of the ingredients that went towards making Leonidas the 1938 World Cup’s most exciting talent. "He was as fast as a greyhound, as agile as a cat, and seemed not to be made of flesh and bones at all, but entirely of rubber,” wrote Jerry Wienstein, one of his many admirers. “He was tireless in pursuit of the ball, fearless, and constantly on the move. He never conceded defeat. He shot from any angle and any position, and compensated for his small height with exceptionally supple, unbelievable contortions, and impossible acrobatics."
Those acrobatics were on show in the quarter-finals, when Leonidas scored again and stunned Czechoslovakia and the French fans with a new and spectacular trick: the bicycle kick. “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.”
Czechoslovakia took the quarter-final to a replay, but another goal from Brazil’s first World Cup superstar proved to be their undoing in that return meeting. Leonidas did, however, pick up a slight muscle strain in the victory and was rested for the semi-final against Italy, which the South Americans - weakened by the absence of his unique talents - lost 2-1. Yet as this photo shows, he was back in the team and, after some light flirting, back among the goals in the Match for Third Place, scoring two and setting up another as Sweden were seen off 4-2.
Having hit the net seven times in just four appearances, Leonidas returned home to a well-earned hero’s welcome, his place in World Cup folklore well and truly assured.
— FIFA Museum (@FIFAMuseum) 8. September 2016