Leônidas da Silva: The Rubber Man, The Black Diamond, Magia Negra – Brazil’s first World Cup star. Leonidas is one in a long, long line of great Brazilian strikers, boasting a goal record to rival virtually any forward to ever play the game and with a medal collection that showed off his dominance of Brazil’s two most prominent states. He had a lengthy career that battled racism while at the same time setting the standards that Brazilian football would become known for. Leônidas da Silva is one of the most important players in the history of football.
“He had a real disadvantage. He was black, black, black as tar.”
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.
Leônidas began his career with a succession of small clubs in his home state of Rio de Janeiro. His performances in the state championship were enough to see him chosen as a representative in a play-off against players from the Sao Paolo championship. Two goals in a 3-0 win proved to be the making of Leônidas – the national team took notice, making his International debut in 1932. This was the first of what would be many changes to Brazilian culture that Leonidas would play a part in. The predominantly white, British-colonial attitudes that still dominated the country and the sport of football were now being challenged by a working-class black kid. While not the only black player in the side, the talent of Leonidas would be the biggest problem these attitudes would face – he couldn’t be ignored.
“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”
The Wife of Leônidas da Silva.
The following year saw another important brace of goals, this time in Montevideo against Uruguay. Impressed, Penarol, one of the two major Uruguayan teams, signed Leônidas. Yet again, just a few years into his career, attitudes in Brazil were being challenged. Professionalism had caught on in Uruguay by now, the World Champions embracing the game to its fullest. Brazil, however, was far more hesitant to the idea of paying the players. Leonidas and Brazil teammate Domingos da Guia, the two young stars of the team, moved to professional Uruguay.
If there’s any doubt about the impact of those moves, then it can be banished with the fact that both the Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo state leagues introduced professionalism that year – Brazil was not going to lose its stars anymore.
Leonidas was called up to the Brazil team for the 1934 World Cup, scoring in the opening game – a 3-1 loss to Spain. Not that he would have the opportunity to light up this particular tournament. In stark contrast to nowadays, where governing bodies do absolutely everything in their power to keep major teams around as long as possible, the 1934 World Cup was a straight knockout – Brazil were heading home after just one game.
LEÔNIDAS DA SILVA
diamante negro pic.twitter.com/KSJt4kKWEt
— Sempre Flamengo (@jogadores_fla) March 21, 2016
Professionalism in Brazil saw the return of Leonidas after just one year at Penarol. He joined Rio Club Vasco da Gama, winning the state championship after just one year. His next club, joined in 1935, was Botofogo. He gave them two years, also retaining the state championship in his first year with his new team. Next up: another Rio club, this time Flamengo – he’d win the Campeonato Carioca there as well. The move to Flamengo would have another lasting effect on Brazilian football. Leonidas was signed along with the other two leading Black Brazilian players at the time: Domingos and Fausto. The impact this had on the working class population of Brazil was huge, and the club remains the most supported in Brazil.
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.
It’s impossible to say with any certainty what Leônidas da Silva’s greatest legacy is, but certainly within that argument is the entire philosophy of Brazilian football. Brazil had taken after the English ideals of football like virtually all other countries originally did (a side effect of the English introducing the world to football). Now, these days you’d list the English characteristics as honest players who work hard, physical in nature, that kind of thing – well it’s been that way since about 1850. Becuase that was how the English did it, that was how the Brazilians did it, frowning with the most furrowed brows at individualism.
We’re literally talking about a big man up top here, as cliche as that is. Leonidas da Silva helped break that mould. He was The Rubber Man, so agile and acrobatic that he was setting a whole new standard for forwards. 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). His low centre of gravity and looser style endeared him to a country that was barely finding its feet as a multicultural nation. The English, old-world ideas were phasing out – Brazil was becoming Brazilian.
— São Paulo FC (@SaoPauloFC_eng) September 6, 2017
“Our style of playing football contrasts with the Europeans because of a combination of qualities of surprise, malice, astuteness and agility, and at the same time brilliance and individual spontaneity. Our passess…our dummies, our flourishes with the ball, the touch of dance and subversiveness that marks the Brazilian style…seem to show psychologists and sociologists in a very interesting way the roguery and flamboyance of the mulatto that today is in the true affirmation of what is Brazilian.”
Brazilian Sociologist Gilberto Freyre
This dramatic change of philosophy and embracing of its culture would obviously be a watershed moment for Brazilian football. The country would never look back, going on to produce the most flamboyantly brilliant footballers the game has ever seen.
And there was one more legacy for Leonidas to leave. Brazil had never made an impact on a World Cup up until the 1938 tournament in France. Now, with Leonidas leading them, the future kings of football would make themselves known at the tournament that they would come to make their own.
It began with Leonidas scoring four in the opener against Poland.
“[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.”
A Brazilian reporter during the 1938 World Cup.
Goals in the quarter final match against Czechoslovakia and the subsequent replay took his tally to six, but he was rested for the semi-final failure against hosts and eventual Champions Italy. A third-place play-off against Sweden brought two more goals, and his eight was enough to see Leonidas finish as top scorer. Not only that, but the Brazilian was named the best player at the tournament.
His performances had been such that the French nicknamed him “Diamante Negro” – Black Diamond. Brazilian Chocolate manufacturer Lacta foresaw the immense potential in Leonidas’ popularity and paid him in order to release a bar called Diamante Negro. It was a good move, too – the bar is still one of the best-selling in the country.
— Antonio Mietto (@amietto) September 12, 2014
Leonidas moved to Sao Paolo in 1943, seeing his career out with seven years in his new state (and winning the state championship five times).
Leônidas da Silva left a legacy on Brazilian football in more ways than it’s possible to measure. He fought racism, helped to bring about professionalism, dominated both major state championships, established Flamengo as Brazil’s most popular team, made his country’s first stamp on a World Cup, and played an enormous part in defining a style and culture of football that would make Brazil famous. And that’s not to mention the chocolate bar. Leonidas was the forerunner to a host of legendary players, legendary teams, and legendary moments. Football wouldn’t just be different without Leônidas da Silva – it would have been a whole lot worse.