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The Beautiful Game

Leonidas da Silva

By Lee Gardner | Posted 12/29/2004

It’s one of the more astonishing things you’ll ever see on an athletic playing field. With his back to the goal, a soccer player leaps into the air and starts to flip backward, and just as a high pass or deflected goal shot arrives around head height, he kicks it back over his own head and shoulders toward the goal as he tumbles upside down toward the turf. Dazzling and disarming, the “bicycle kick” is one of those maneuvers so improbable and at the same time so well-established that it seems impossible someone actually invented it. Though he demurred that he came up with it himself (and experts agree he’s probably right), Brazilian soccer star Leonidas da Silva made the move world famous with his outstanding play in his native country and in two World Cups. As it turns out, Silva was a somewhat unheralded pioneer in other areas of world sport as well.

Silva carried the strengths and contradictions of Brazil’s multiethnic character in his own DNA; born in Rio de Janeiro in 1913, his father was a Portuguese sailor, his mother Afro-Brazilian. The country wasn’t the international soccer power that it is today; soccer wasn’t even a professional sport in Brazil until 1930. But Silva grew up playing hooky to hang around the local soccer club and soon made his debut as a teen prodigy with various small amateur and then professional teams. Though small for a forward, he was quick and preternaturally agile, a quality that eventually won him one of his many nicknames: “O Homen Borracha”—the Rubber Man.

By 1933, he was already something of a rising star, and managed to take his renown to a new peak in a game against Uruguay’s national team in which he scored twice, the second using the hitherto unheralded bicycle kick. With that game, he was officially a sensation.

As his fame mounted, his life and career followed a path similar to that of many athletes of color forced to break down cultural barriers on their way to the top. On one hand, he was Leonidas, increasingly one-name-famous to Brazilians of all races and classes and living high on a generous salary (his contract deals always included a provision for two suits of sharp clothes); becoming the first soccer star, much less the first black soccer star, to endorse products (including Diamante Negro candy bars, which took their handle from another Silva nickname—“the Black Diamond”—and are still popular today); and leading various teams to regional and national titles, as well as a run at the 1934 World Cup that stalled after a first-round loss. At the same time, the racially diverse Brazilian players were segregated from the rest of the passengers on the ocean voyage to Europe for Cup play; in a match against the American national team, Silva reportedly responded to what he perceived as his opponents’ racism by exposing himself to them, a move that required a police escort to see him safely away.

Racial tensions aside, Silva made himself and gracile Brazilian-style soccer a sensation in Europe with his performance in 1938 World Cup play. In the team’s first-round game against Poland, he scored all three of Brazil’s points in the first half; in the second half, frustrated by the muddy field, he took off his shoes until a referee made him put them back on. Silva scored again, Brazil eventually won 6-5, and then went on to tie Czechoslovakia, but the Brazilian coach mysteriously sidelined Silva for the next game, against Italy, which Brazil duly lost. He returned to the lineup against Sweden and the Brazilians won, though by then the Cup was out of reach. Still, he returned home a national hero.

As if on cue, he was embroiled in a major scandal—in 1941, he was accused of using forged documents to escape mandatory military service and spent eight months in prison. He returned to the field after his release, still effective (the Saõ Paulo Flamengo team for which he played most of the ’40s won the league title five out of seven years) but tarnished enough that he never made another World Cup team.

He retired in 1949, after which he took on familiar ex-jock pursuits: coaching, real estate, radio commentary. As the Brazilian style of play he had embodied, refined, and almost single-handedly introduced to the rest of the world came to dominate the global soccer scene, Silva lived in quiet eminence until he developed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease around the time he turned 60. He spent the rest of his life out of the public eye, eventually dying of complications from diabetes and Alzheimer’s on Jan. 24 at age 90.

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