Leônidas (1913-2004) was the first black Brazilian footballer to come to the attention of the wider world.
He was the top scorer at the 1938 World Cup in France, with seven goals, as Brazil reached the semi-finals while he was also voted the tournament’s best player.
Leônidas was eulogised by many as he helped to shape the artistic and skilful style of Brazilian football with which the rest of the world would become familiar.
In the first round, Brazil beat Poland 6-5. Leônidas scored a hat-trick and, at one stage, played in bare feet.
It was said that ‘every time he touched the ball there was an electric current of enthusiasm through the crowd’. His shot for the winning goal was ‘strong and unexpected’.
Europe’s sports press reacted with confusion and shouts of 'bravo!'
Born in Rio de Janeiro, between 1932 and 1946, Leônidas played 19 times for Brazil scoring 21 goals.
He initially had a peripatetic club career, before settling at Flamengo and then São Paulo, scoring 484 goals in 541 club appearances.
His career reflected how the lines of class and race were initially sharply drawn in football. His rise was an indication of a greater acceptance in society.
Until 1918, the Federacao Brasileira de Sports banned black players from participating in any team games. Until the mid-1920s, black players were a rarity in Rio de Janeiro.
But when Vasco Da Gama, a team of several backgrounds, won the Rio championship in 1923, it was an important breakthrough.
In addition, the legalisation of professionalism in 1933 was partly designed to halt Brazil’s best players from leaving to join teams in other countries.
It was in this context that Leônidas occupied centre stage at the 1938 World Cup Finals. It could be claimed that he was the first black footballer to make an impact on the global stage.
In this sense he was doing for football what Joe Louis had done for boxing and Jesse Owens did for Athletics at the 1936 Olympics - making a true football pioneer.
For several seasons, Leicester City Football Club has worked with De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture on various heritage projects. This season, staff and students at the Centre will feature those players who were pioneers that contributed to the growth and development of the game.
For more information about sports history at DMU please click HERE.
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