The talent, temper and tragedy of Heleno de Freitas, the Brazilian icon who died at 39

The talent, temper and tragedy of Heleno de Freitas, the Brazilian icon who died at 39

The 17-year-old Brazilian wunderkind sealed the game in the final minute, heading home to give O Seleção its maiden World Cup win in 1958, eight years after the misery at the Maracanã. Pelé was the name heard all around the world as, in Sweden that summer, a star was born.

Back home, the people of Brazil poured onto the streets in celebration. The day had arrived when the monkey could finally be removed from the Samba nation’s back. Meanwhile, alone in a Barbacena sanitorium, a withered man shook a full cigarette packet into his lap, stuffed the contents into his mouth and lit them all. His faithful nurse rushed into the room and wrestled him to the floor. The outbursts were becoming more frequent.

The nurse had lovingly displayed newspaper cuttings of his patient’s former glories on the wall, hoping to spark something inside his mind. Only a few remained, however, as the patient would peel them off the wall and devour the printed memories.

Heleno de Freitas was born in 1920 to a wealthy family in the city of São João Nepomuceno, close to the border of Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. The de Freitas family moved to Rio when Heleno was young – his father died when he was only 12 – and the youngest son expected to start a career in medicine or law when he came of age. Although he did gain the relevant qualifications to become a lawyer, by then his life had moved onto a completely different worldline.

Outside of school, the young Heleno was drawn to the beach, most of his spare time filled with football. All he wanted was to kick a ball or whatever came to hand on the golden sands of the local beaches. He was often found on the Copacabana juggling oranges with his feet and joining in pick-up games with the other locals.

It was here that a scout from Botafogo noticed the dark-haired youngster and persuaded him to start training with the club. At the age of 17, he was already in the first team, and it wouldn’t be long before he was addicted to the adoration of the crowd, the attentions of the most beautiful women Rio, and riches beyond his wildest dreams.

Heleno de Freitas had the world at his feet, film star looks, with the skills to back it up. His success wasn’t only confined to the football pitch and a plethora of women, however. The chain-smoking, champagne-swilling lothario was cocky, self-assured and adored by the fans of the Estrela Solitária. His teammates grew tired of his ego but endured it in the knowledge that he was key to the club winning its first Campeonato Carioca since they won four in a row in the early 1930s.

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Although the war that ravaged Europe ended a year prior, FIFA cancelled the forthcoming 1946 World Cup, much to the annoyance of Heleno who was eager to display his talents on the world stage. The next World Cup would be hosted on Brazilian soil, where he expected to cement his place as the world’s greatest player on the biggest stage of all.

The 1945 South American Championship in Chile was his first taste of international tournament football with the Seleção, and they finished runners-up to Argentina in the group format of the competition. Heleno scored six goals in as many games and returned to Brazil eager to build on the runners-up place his club achieved that year.

However, another second place awaited O Glorioso, and Heleno’s frustrations began to grow. Never one to keep his counsel, he often berated teammates in training and failed to hide his contempt for those with less talent than he. His weary teammates grew tired of their star man’s antics, though, especially when combined with his tardiness and rampant mood swings. While personal life looked stable to the outside world – he had a wife and son – behind the scenes there were a string of mistresses at his beck and call.

Botafogo stumbled into second place once more, and the longer the wait for a championship, the more enraged Heleno would grow. A rain-soaked final game in the 1946 Rio State Championship a year later looked like being the night the bridesmaids would finally become the brides. With so much at stake, Heleno was asked to instil belief in the team with some pre-match words. The move backfired; instead Heleno slammed the rest of the team, questioning why the championship wasn’t already won. If only they could raise their game to his level, it would be decided by now, he said.

The game with Fluminense was level at two goals apiece when Heleno brought down a cross from Juvenal on his chest, only to be scythed down in the box by a desperate Tricolor defender. He picked himself up, wiped the sodden hair from his face, and placed the ball on the spot. Sadly, the Botafogo idol’s skilled deserted him when it mattered the most and he missed, the game ending a draw. Another year; another runner’s up spot.

This time his rage could not be contained. As the team returned to the changing room, their bonus payments from president Carlito Rocha were waiting for them. Heleno refused and looked on in disgust as his teammates eagerly counted their money. He stuffed his reals into the pockets of the others, stating in no uncertain terms what he thought of them. They left him alone ranting and raving as he preceded to demolish the changing room lockers and benches, smashing his hand against a wall in the process.

President Rocha had seen enough. He knew that the championship wouldn’t reside at the Estádio Luís Pereira whilst Heleno de Freitas was still part of the team. The adoration from the stands and his 209 goals in 235 games was not enough. For Rocha, no one was bigger than the club.

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At around the same time, his hedonistic lifestyle had caught up with him when a doctor diagnosed early onset syphilis. Heleno refused the medication offered, fearing it would affect his game, somehow taking away his edge. Instead, he sought solace in ether-soaked handkerchiefs, Heleno would inhale the sweet-smelling liquid, one of the first forms of anaesthetic, a bottle never far from his side.

A move to Boca Juniors came about at the season’s end, Rocha admitting that the Buenos Aires giants had made an offer the club couldn’t refuse. Behind closed doors, the owner knew that the club had to move on from its wayward star, Heleno flew into a rage when told the news of his sale and stormed out of a ground in which he had been idolised by the fans like very few before him.

His wife Ilma and young son stayed in Rio as Heleno departed to ply his trade at La Bombonera. The stay would be short-lived, Heleno appearing in only 17 games and scoring seven. Not long after his arrival, he drew the ire of his new coach and teammates by refusing to remove an overcoat for training. The man more accustomed to the heat of the Copacabana beach was unsettled by the  Argentine winters.

Back in Brazil, Rocha’s intuition had been right as Botafogo won the 1948 Carioca Campeonato. Eager to get back to his homeland, Heleno went cap in hand to his former boss and asked for a place back in the side. Rocha refused, claiming they would be unable to afford to prise him away from Boca Juniors. Desperate, Heleno offered to play for free and yet still the president refused.

All was not lost, however, as another Rio club came to his rescue. Heleno moved to Vasco de Gama for the 1949 season and finally captured the long-awaited league championship he craved, contributing 19 goals in 24 appearances. Despite the glory, he didn’t feel as satisfied as he thought he would; nothing would feel the same as winning it with his beloved Botafogo. He clashed repeatedly with coach Flávio Costa, with several outbursts during training and games earning him the nickname ‘Gilda’ – a diva from a popular film of the day played by Rita Hayworth.

Issues came to a head when Heleno marched into the stadium before a game and held a gun to Costa’s head. With a maniacal look on his face he pulled the trigger. Thankfully the chambers were empty, and Costa pushed a deranged, cackling Heleno away.

His career and life in Brazil looked over, not least when his wife left him for a former teammate. Heleno was shaken to the core. Looking to escape Brazil but eager to keep the money rolling in, Heleno joined Atlético Junior in the Dimayor, the new professional Colombian football league.

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Syphilis had taken hold by now and lesions and sores tattooed his back. More and more bottles of ether were procured as the fading star self-medicated in the hope that he would still be able to make it to the 1950 World Cup and play for Brazil in the newly-built Maracanã. Any hopes he had were dashed when his nemesis from Vasco, coach Costa, left his post to take charge of the national side. For Heleno de Freitas, the dream was over.

Brazil lost the final game of their home tournament to Uruguay, a mistake from goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa gifting the trophy to La Celeste, with Heleno’s former Vasco teammates deemed “the man who made all of Brazil cry” by the local press. Could Heleno de Freitas have made a difference? Perhaps at peak form yes, but doctors back in Brazil had warned him that his condition was worsening and if he refused the treatment they would ensure he wouldn’t play in his homeland again.

Threatened with the doctors exposing his secret, Heleno promised to start treatment as soon as possible. He returned home and signed for América FC in 1951. He only featured in one game, although he did fulfil his dream of playing at the Maracanã. The game passed him by, his health and mental state rapidly declining. For Heleno de Freitas, his once-promising career was over at the age of 31.

His brother cared for him over the next six years as his condition deteriorated. The bacteria from his syphilis ate away at his brain, clogged his mind, and ravaged his physique. When his brother could care for him no longer, he was transferred to a sanitorium in Barbacena, his fortune, talent and looks now long gone. Some days he spoke to his nurse, while others he spent in a wheelchair silently staring out across the grassy plains of the hospital grounds. In 1959, Heleno de Freitas finally succumbed to the complications of his condition and died at the age of 39.

Tragically, the man who had it all was lost to the sands of time as Brazilian football fans were treated to the wonders of Pelé, Garrincha, Zico, Jairzinho, Sócrates and many more over the forthcoming years.

Life may have worked out differently had Heleno became a lawyer or doctor, but nothing thrilled him more than the roar of the crowd or rustle of the net. Everything was second best to this, but the demons his fame and fortune created grew until they became all-encompassing.

One journalist remarked that he was “the man who forgot he was just a footballer” – one of Brazilian football’s first stars shone bright but brief. There is no footage of Heleno playing the game he loved so much but stories were passed down from generation to generation, a warning tale to youngsters who could be lured by the trappings of all that fame can offer.

The late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano perhaps best summed up Heleno in his seminal book Football In Sun And Shadow: “He had Rudolph Valentino’s face and the temper of a mad dog. On the playing field, he sparkled. One night at the casino, he lost all his money. Another night, who knows where he lost all his desire to live. And on his last night, delirious in a hospice, he died.”

By Matthew Evans  @Matt_The_Met

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