Leonidas ignites legendary fire
Everybody has to start somewhere and Brazil, the most successful team in the history of the FIFA World Cup™, are no different. And for many, the roots of A Seleção’s record five finals’ triumphs can be traced to a first-round encounter in the French city of Strasbourg – way back on 5 June 1938.
Despite appearing in the first two editions of the FIFA World Cup, at Uruguay 1930 and Italy 1934, it was Brazil’s opening 6-5 win over Poland at the 1938 event that cemented their reputation for spectacular football and sparkling individuals.
It was not the first crop of gifted Brazilians of course, with Arthur Friedenrich, who starred in the Auriverde’s South American title win in 1919, an early example. However, ahead of the 1930 and 1934 finals the national-team selection process was punctuated by political arguments between the states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the country’s two major footballing hotbeds. The result was chaotic organisation and teams that failed to do justice to the pool of talent available.
The first coach able to put out a genuine national Seleção was Ademar Pimenta, who was finally given license to select what he felt were his country’s finest players and bring them together for a period of training and team-building. What is more, the pioneering Pimenta decided to assemble not one but two teams: a ‘blue’ side packed with stronger and heavier-set players, and a ‘white’ line-up consisting of nimbler and more skilful performers. The idea was to have the scope to send out two very different XIs, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents.
Though Pimenta’s Canarinha did not have a first-choice line-up, they did boast a player who would soon become the first of many Brazilians to catch the imagination on the FIFA World Cup stage. That man was Leonidas da Silva, also known as the ‘Black Diamond’.
Thrown into this enticing mix was the fact that radio was enjoying a golden age of popularity and influence in Brazilian society. And the opening game of that year’s finals against a strong Poland side, who finished fourth at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Berlin 1936 following wins over Hungary and Great Britain, was the first ever FIFA World Cup finals game broadcast around the entire country. All the ingredients were therefore in place for football to become increasingly part of Brazil’s national identity.
Turning to events on a mud-caked pitch in Strasbourg, and it was Pimenta’s ‘blue’ squad who struck first on 18 minutes via Leonidas. However, they were pegged back just five minutes later after keeper Batatais brought down Ernest Wilimowski in the box, Fryedryk Szerfke converting the resulting penalty for the Poles’ first goal in a FIFA World Cup finals. Yet Brazil soon found themselves ahead once more, strikes from Romeu and Peracio handing them a 3-1 interval lead.
And though it was an impressive 45 minutes from the team, the real drama was only just beginning. With the rain by now thumping down, Wilimowski began the second period like a man on a mission, scoring a quick-fire double to make it 3-3 after 59 minutes. And after Botafogo star Peracio grabbed his second of the game on 71 minutes, when all signs pointed to a Brazil victory and a last-eight berth, up popped Wilimowski again to fire a last-minute leveller and take the match into extra time.
With the Polish front-man taking centre stage during normal time, it would be Leonidas’ turn to stamp his mark on the additional period. Three minutes into extra time, the Flamengo star put Brazil in front once more, despite reportedly having lost one of his boots in the thick mud, before extending his side’s lead to 6-4 on the 104-minute mark. Back stormed Poland through the irrepressible Wilimowski, whose fourth goal of the game with just two minutes remaining set up a nail-biting finale, during which the Poles came agonisingly close to forcing a reply after Erwin Nyc’s shot came back off the bar.
What they said
“The Poles were great opponents, there’s no doubt about that. But the rain was an even tougher adversary,” Brazil coach Ademar Pimenta.
“Poland are not going to rigidly stick to preconceived plans. We’re very good at adapting to our opponents’ style of play and immediately discovering where their weaknesses are,” Marian Spoida, Poland’s fitness coach, in confident mood prior to the Brazil match.
“When we passed through Salvador the crowd very nearly overwhelmed me. It was so hard for me to get through that I even lost a shoe. Of course there’ll be a roped-off area here too, but I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” a clearly apprehensive Leonidas on the exuberant welcome expected for the team’s return to Rio de Janeiro.
“The game of football was everywhere. Brazil’s (semi-final) defeat against Italy caused huge disappointment and public sadness, as if it were some sort of national disgrace,” Getulio Vargas, then President of the Brazilian Republic, writing in his diary on just how important the sport had become to his countrymen.
What happened next…
Brazilian football has never been the same since that evening in Strasbourg. And though it is impossible to speculate on what impact defeat against Poland and an early exit from France 1938 would have had on A Seleção, there is no doubt that dramatic success was the start of something magical.
Up against 1934 runners-up Czechoslovakia in the last eight, Pimenta once again sent out his ‘blue’ XI, who were held 1-1 after extra time in a fiercely competitive encounter. In the replay, and with a semi-final spot at stake, the coach sent out his ‘white’ line-up, suitably strengthened by the addition of Leonidas, who edged out the Czechs 2-1.
Yet tiredness was cited as the reason for leaving Leonidas out of Brazil’s team for the last-four encounter with Italy, with the ‘Black Diamond’ thus forced to look on as Vittorio Pozzo’s charges won 2-1 on their way to successfully defending their world crown. The Auriverde were able to take some consolation with a 4-2 victory over Sweden in the match for third place, while Leonidas’ tally of seven goals made him the competition’s top scorer as well as one of his country’s biggest celebrities.