Leônidas da Silva
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Born: Saturday 6 September 1913, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Died: Saturday 24 January 2004, Cotia, Brazil (aged 90)
Position: Centre Forward
One of the stars of Brazilian football throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Leônidas da Silva is often stated to have been the inventor of the overhead bicycle kick. Whether that is actually the case is uncertain, but he was unquestionably the first player to bring the technique to widespread attention. He was one of the stars of the 1938 World Cup, a tournament in which he finished as leading goalscorer.
He was born in the district of São Cristóvão in Rio de Janeiro on 6 September 1913 and like many youngsters at that time, his family actively tried to discourage him from a career in football as it was still only an amateur game. Leônidas regularly skipped school to play football in the streets, often barefoot. When he was 14, he left school and began to play for local youth teams. By the age of 16, he had signed for the local senior team in São Cristóvão.
Although sometimes playing at inside-right early in his career, it was as a centre forward that he would become best known. Very small in comparison to many players in that position, Leônidas built his game around fantastic speed and remarkable agility which led to him earning the nickname 'Rubberman'. After a short spell playing for Sírio e Libanês, he moved to Bonsucesso ahead of the 1931 season. It was there that he first came to national attention and where he would use the 'bicycle kick' for the first time.
When the Rio select team 'Distrito Federal' faced an inter-state championship play-off against São Paulo in September 1931, Leônidas was called into the team and scored two of the goals in a 3-0 victory. His performance led to a first call-up into the national squad, although he had to wait more than a year to actually make his international debut. That debut was against World Champions Uruguay in Montevideo and Leônidas again scored twice, this time earning a 2-1 win. He was promptly signed up by Uruguayan club Peñarol, where he spent the 1933 season.
Peñarol missed out on the league title by the narrowest of margins, losing a three match play-off to rivals Nacional, and Leônidas returned to Brazil to join Vasco da Gama where he helped the team to win the Rio State title in one of the two league running at the time. By now a regular in the national team, he travelled with Brazil to the World Cup in Italy but his first appearance on the global stage ended in disappointment with a 3-1 first round defeat to Spain. Leônidas did however have the honour of scoring his first World Cup goal.
Back in Brazil, he was becoming a major star. Despite often having to fight against racial prejudice as he was one of the first high-profile black players in the country, he became a media star and the first player to carry out product endorsement. Chocolate bars bearing another of his nicknames, 'black diamond' went on sale and are still available today. In 1935 Leônidas signed for Botafogo and won a second consecutive Rio State title.
After two years with Botafogo, Leônidas moved on again to Flamengo in 1936 where he was one of the first black players to appear for the club. It was during his time with Flamengo that he got a second opportunity to play in the World Cup and this time made a much greater impact than four years previously. He brought the bicycle kick to global attention, much to the confusion of at least one referee who had never seen the technique before and was unsure of whether it was within the rules.
In Brazil's first game, Leônidas scored early on against Poland but a remarkable game ended up going into extra-time at 4-4. He scored two more in the extra period, the hat-trick eventually giving Brazil a 6-5 win. He was originally credited with four of the goals, but most sources now agree that he scored three, with the game's only four-goal haul going to the unlucky Ernst Wilimowski of Poland who finished on the losing side.
In the quarter-final against Czechoslovakia, Leônidas again gave his country an early lead but again they were pegged back and this time faced a replay, where he scored again in a 3-0 win. Coach Adhemar Pimenta rested him for the semi-final with Italy, and paid for that decision as Brazil lost 2-1. Leônidas returned to score twice in the 4-2 win over Sweden which gave Brazil third place, finishing with seven goals for the tournament to win the Golden Boot and earn the rare distinction of having scored in every World Cup match in which he appeared.
Back in Brazil, Leônidas won the third Rio State title of his career in 1939 and the following season finished as the league's leading scorer with 30 league goals, but saw the team edged out for the title as Fluminense finished a single point ahead. In 1941 he found himself caught in a major scandal when he was convicted of forging a signature on a document exempting him from military service, and spent eight months in prison as a result.
After scoring 153 goals in 149 games for Flamengo, Leônidas left Rio in 1942 to join São Paulo. Many of the club's fans were sceptical about the deal, but Leônidas proved them wrong and his time in São Paulo would prove to be the most successful of his career. Despite now being in his 30s, Leônidas helped São Paulo to dominate the state league throughout the 1940s, winning five titles in a spell of just seven seasons between 1943 and 1949.
Although the Second World War denied him the chance to appear on the global stage again with the cancellation of the World Cups of 1942 and 1946, he did appear in one more major tournament, the South American Championship of 1946. His one appearance, in a 1-1 draw with Paraguay, proved to be his final game for Brazil. The São Paulo state title win of 1949 proved to be the last major success of Leônidas' career, and he retired from playing at the end of the 1950 season, at the age of 37.
During the 1950s Leônidas embarked on a brief coaching career, having a short spell as manager of São Paulo, but much of his later involvement in football was through the media and his work as a radio commentator. He also ran his own business, owning a furniture store in São Paulo. In his early 60s, Leônidas began to develop symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease and lived for almost 30 years in a residential home until his death in January 2004, at the age of 90.
References (all accessed 16 February 2012):
- Published on Thursday, 16 February 2012 15:17