RIO DE JANEIRO -- The history of football contains few more influential players than Brazilian centre forward Leonidas da Silva, who was born 100 years ago today.
One of the game’s most important narratives is the transformation it underwent in South America. A sport based on the hard running of the muscular Christianity British school was changed by the South Americans into a more subtle, fluid, balletic activity, ideal for the player with a low centre of gravity. The story of Leonidas fits perfectly into this perspective.
Full of acrobatic inspiration, Leonidas was nicknamed "the rubber man" for the flexibility of his movements. Claims in Brazil that he was the inventor of the overhead bicycle kick are clearly false -- it was already known on the continent before his career started -- but he was an early exponent of the move and its great populariser, as evidenced by Google's homage to him on their home page for the day.
His career also shows how football was able to make its way down the social scale in South America. Introduced by the British and full of First World prestige, football began on the continent as an elite sport -- especially in Brazil, where slavery had been formally abolished only in 1888. But the Southern Cone went through a process of urbanisation, with immigrants pouring in from Europe and the Middle East. Buenos Aires and Montevideo on the River Plate, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil’s southeast, all grew at a restless pace -- and these cities proved fertile ground for the new sport to grow, catching on with all social levels.
Uruguay, with its enlightened social policies, were the first kings of the global game precisely because there were fewer barriers. Right from the first Copa America in 1916, Uruguay's national team included black players from poor backgrounds. In Brazil, there was more resistance -- but this started to crumble in December 1932, when a young Leonidas scored both goals as Brazil won a famous victory away to Uruguay, the reigning world champions.
Leonidas stayed on in Montevideo. Uruguay’s clubs already had turned professional -- a move that was meeting enormous resistance in Brazil. Local giants Penarol snapped up Leonidas -- their Montevideo rival Nacional signed elegant defender Domingos da Guia, who like Leonidas was a black player from Rio’s working class neighbourhoods. This external shock did much to hasten Brazilian football’s adoption of professionalism -- and without the prospect of a career open to merit, there would have been no Pele.
Charismatic, immaculately dressed and full of bad boy star appeal, Leonidas was soon back in Brazil, and in 1936, he, along with Domingos and Fausto, were signed by Flamengo. Capturing the three leading black players of the day was a master stroke of public relations. Overnight, a club with roots in the Rio elite had acquired the popular touch. Rio was still Brazil’s capital at the time, and the new power of radio took Flamengo’s games all over the giant country. To this day, Flamengo are Brazil’s most popular club.
In 1938, Europe was let in on the secret. Leonidas was the top scorer at the World Cup in France. Brazil came third, the first time they had made their mark on the tournament, and a sign of things to come.
World War II deprived Leonidas of the chance to show his stuff in the World Cups of 1942 or 1946, and his career failed to stretch to 1950, when he was adjudged too old to play in the tournament on home soil. Sixty-four years later, the World Cup returns to Brazil, and one of the possible weak points of the team is the lack of a world-class centre-forward. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari would love to be able to call on a striker with the devilish danger of Leonidas da Silva.