While Pele put Brazil on the map as one of the powerhouses of the modern game, the seeds were planted by Leonidas da Silva
“He’d help break down racial boundaries, helped bring about professionalism to Brazil, and dominated the Rio State Championship with three different clubs: there really wasn’t much left for Leonidas to revolutionise, yet somehow he managed to”.
How beautiful is it to watch the bicycle kick? How stunning is it for the spectators present at the stadium? Whenever I watch the videos of bicycle kicks on YouTube, I am astonished. A footballer needs to throw his body up in the air, make a crumbling movement with their lower limbs to get one leg in front of the another to strike a flying ball above head level – now, that is pretty complex and tough. But still, when you look at it, it seems so easy, doesn’t it?
Bicycle kicks on YouTube and Google is all about Pele, Rivaldo or Wayne Rooney. Especially, Pele who rejuvenated this kick in the international friendly against Belgium in 1965 and thus, whenever, the topic of bicycle kick crops up in a conversation, Pele’s name dominates with a great authority. Yes, Pele, the all-time great footballer in the history of football, is in the heart and soul of each and every Brazil football fan all over the globe.
Many still see Pele as the inventor of bicycle kicks whereas according to “La chilena, lo más famoso que Chile le ha dado al fútbol”, bicycle kicks first occurred in the Pacific ports of Chile and Peru. In the first edition of the South American Championships, Chilean footballer Francisco Sanchez Gatica demonstrated the style and gradually it spread all across South America and the continent’s biggest country, the land of Samba, mastered the skill with a rare touch of joy.
A tough journey
In Rio de Janerio, September 6, 1913, Leonidas da Silva was born. Football was still was one of the most popular sports and little Leonidas was inspired by the locals playing football during their leisure time. People surrounding him made the game a spectacle which was hard for him to ignore and gradually, football became a part and parcel of his life.
Once upon a time, football was a hard and muscular sport ran by the Christian British School. If you wished to play with the ball, play it hard and inject more physicality into the game, but as the British spread football throughout the continent, the simple and fun loving people of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile or Peru transformed the game into “subtle, fluid, balletic activity, ideal for the player with a low centre of gravity”.
Such sort of perspectives fit well for Leonidas.
When Leonidas began his journey as a professional footballer, it was not an easy journey for the little man. Social obstructions made the path pretty tough for him. Even though slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, discrimination still existed. The British introduced football into Brazil and since then, for a long time, it remained a sport for the elites and thus, for the black community and lower classes, it was somewhat tough to think about achieving higher goals by virtue of playing football.
Alex Caple wrote, “Brazilian football has been rife with racial discrimination since its beginnings, and Leonidas was very much at the centre of that struggle. It’s an unfortunate truth about the great, historic Brazilian players that their battle with racism is usually a major defining characteristic of their career. Leonidas found himself playing in a strange time, however, caught between a period where his race kept him out of the national team and eventually seeing the multi-racial makeup of Brazil be heralded as its greatest asset. That change in attitude, even if it wasn’t universally held, was largely down to the success of Leonidas”.
Leonidas’ wife said, “Being black, he believed he always had to do more to have his worth recognised. Back when he was playing, a large part of the athletes were still the sons of high-class families”.
At the start of the twentieth century, the scenario began to change in Rio and Sao Paolo. The inflow of immigrants from Europe and the Middle East made the land a fertile one for progress and urbanisation and social discrimination started to ebb away slowly but steadily.
Uruguay were the first team to open the gates for black players, but Brazil remained a bit more conservative in its approach, but things changed when Leonidas scored two goals against the then world champions to beat them in their own backyards in 1932. Brazil started to think differently about their black citizens and the emergence of Domingos da Guia – one of the best centre-backs in the history of Brazil – forced Brazil to shun their conservative approach.
Brazil’s hierarchy could not ignore Leonidas. As a teenager, he caught everyone’s attention as an inside-right with the Bonsuccesso club of Rio de Janeiro in 1931. When Rio played Sao Paolo in the Brazilian championship play-off, he struck twice in a 3-0 win after being picked and was automatically chosen for the Brazilian squad to meet Uruguay in the annual Rio Branco tournament. He was then a reserve, but the following year he was the first choice in the same competition and the rest is history.
The Uruguayans were impressed with little man’s skills and signed him for their club, Peranol, in 1933 and one year later he returned to Brazil to play for Vasco da Gama. He then joined Botafogo and won another Rio State championship in 1934. In 1936, he joined Flamengo and played there until 1941. He was one of the first black players to join the then club of elitists, Flamengo.
When the world fell in love with Diamante Negro
Leonidas was included in the Brazil squad for the 1934 World Cup, but Brazil failed to impress in Italy. Four years later, Leonidas made the World Cup in Paris his own. He was the delight of the crowd. He terrorized the defenders with his pace, flexibility and power. In the opening match against Poland, which is still considered as one of the best matches in the history of the World Cup.
About that thrilling encounter at Strasbourg, Brian Glanville of Guardian wrote, “A first-half hat-trick by Leonidas, undeterred by the heavy, muddy conditions, saw Brazil 3-1 ahead at half-time. At one point in the second half, he took off his boots and threw them across the touchline to his trainer, Pimenta, but the Swedish referee made him put them on again. An extraordinary rally by the Poles saw them level at 4-4, but Leonidas scored again, as did his inside right, Romeo, and Brazil ran out winners by the odd goal of 11”.
In the quarter-final and replay match against Czechoslovakia at Bordeaux, he scored on both occasions. It was a brutal affair and in the first encounter, Leonidas was seen limping around the pitch. Then came the defining semi-final match against the reigning world champions Italy in Marseille. But surprisingly, Brazil’s manager Adhemar Pimenta decided to rest Leonidas. It was a blunder of a decision and Brazil paid a heavy price.
Brazil lost the match. Leonidas came back to play the third-place play-off match and struck twice.
Leonidas was the top scorer in that World Cup and after his enthralling display in France, he was given the title “Diamante Negro” (Black Diamond). In the next year, Brazilian chocolate manufacturer Lacta purchased from him the right to name a chocolate bar as Diamante Negro. This chocolate brand is still a commercial success in Brazil.
The world fell in love with Leonidas after the World Cup in France.
The Second World War prevented him from participating in the 1942 and 1946 editions of the World Cup as war halted the event for eight years and with that, the world failed to enjoy more of the Diamante Negro.
Leonidas started his journey as an inside-right, but with the progress of time, he developed as a dynamic centre-forward. Many people used to call him the rubber man for his astonishing flexibility with the ball at his feet. Of him, it was said by Jerry Weinstein “He was as fast as a greyhound, as agile as a cat, and seemed not to be made of flesh and bone at all, but entirely of rubber. 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”.
He was without a doubt the first greatest star in Brazil football. He transformed Brazil into Brazilians and made the world realise the Selecao would never be an ‘also playing’ side in any major tournaments.
“[Leonidas] was simply amazing. He was our stick of dynamite. He did the impossible. Each time he touched the ball there was an electric current of enthusiasm through the crowd,” wrote a Brazilian reporter during the 1938 World Cup.
He took the bicycle kick to a new level
Many still believe Leonidas was the inventor of the bicycle kick and even Google displayed a doodle four years ago on his hundredth birthday, but in fact, it’s not at all true. I have mentioned earlier about the origin of bicycle kicks, but they were nurtured by Leonidas and showcased by him on the global stage. While others made it look more like a fighting tool, Leonidas made it look more spectacular.
Alex Caple wrote, “His acrobatics were so renowned that Leonidas is credited with popularising the bicycle kick (it’s been said that he invented the move, although that’s certainly not true. He did, however, take the move international)”.
You can relax by watching the Bicycle kicks video of Pele, Rivaldo, Zico or Ronaldinho on YouTube, but if you call yourself a “die-hard fan of Selecao’’ then remember Leonidas and his immense contributions to make this skill popular.
The legacy of Leonidas cannot be expressed in just a few words. His impact on Brazil society and football is huge – from breaking the social barriers to give Brazil the recognization in the international arena, the impact of Leonidas is a matter of pride and respect for each and every Brazil fan.
— FIFA Museum (@FIFAMuseum) September 8, 2016
He overcame the ugliness of racism, gave professional football momentum in Brazil, he was a dominant force in both state championships, he was the first ever footballer from outside Europe to make a mark in that continent, he made Flamengo famous, he showed the world how to play football in a more flexible fashion and he was the first big star of Brazilian football.
Brazil and world football owe a lot to Magia Negra.