The bicycle kick is a thing of beauty. A single move that encapsulates the charm the average watcher seeks while watching football, a move that is for the footballing aesthete; it is the essence of the beautiful game. For decades, its originator had been a point of vast debate and while a definitive answer is still unknown, it is widely accepted that Brazilian centre forward Leônidas da Silva was one of the first.
An explosive player who caught the eye for the best part of two decades, between 1930 and 1950, Leônidas is one of the greatest, albeit lesser-known and under-appreciated, footballers to emerge from a nation renowned for its footballing prowess.
Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Leônidas began his career as an inside-right, his size better suited for playing out wide rather than directly as a centre-forward. A player of great agility, it was his speed and athleticism that were his best attributes, making him a formidable force to come up against.
In domestic football, Leônidas made his name playing and delivering for Bonsucesso, where his record of 23 goals across 39 games at the age of 18 would see him selected to represent his state against São Paulo in an interstate competition where he would score twice in a 3-0 win and move to the next stage of his personal growth.
It was at Bonsucesso that Leônidas first employed the bicycle kick. In a match against Carioca in April 1932, the technique was put into effect and he would soon become synonymous with it. Legend suggests that the skill had been used around South America, specifically in Uruguay and Chile, but this was the first time Brazil had been exposed to the move and they were mesmerised by it. Becoming popular for his tendency to use the bicycle kick, this explains why Leônidas is often credited as being its inventor.
His performance against São Paulo impressed the selectors of the national team and, in 1932, he would receive his first call-up to don the colours of his country. Although he didn’t play, it didn’t deter his form domestically and he would get his chance once again the following year, in a match against Uruguay in the Rio Branco tournament. Hosted in Montevideo, he scored both goals in a 2-1 win that saw his stock rise and tempted Uruguay’s most popular side, Peñarol, to make a move for him. He stayed for a year in Uruguay but continued his impressive form before making a return home with Vasco.
While at Vasco, he would spur his team to a Rio State Championship – arguably the most prestigious honour available in Brazilian football at the time – which would provide his stepping stone to being selected by Brazil for the second edition of the World Cup. Leônidas’ history with the World Cup is unique. In his first participation, he would feature only once as Brazil were knocked out in the first round after losing 3-1 to Spain. Unsurprisingly, he would score the only Seleção goal as an incoherent, underprepared Brazil side would embarrassingly crash out.
If his first World Cup was one to forget, although with a solitary souvenir of the goal he scored, his second is widely remembered. Held in France, Leônidas entered the competition as one of the most feared players in the game. Unlike the last tournament, Brazil team came into the World Cup as favourites. And unlike the first round previously, Leônidas and Brazil were on a goal-rush in Strasbourg, crafting one of the most enthralling fixtures in World Cup history.
A first-half hat-trick from Leônidas would see Brazil go into the break with a 3-1 lead and, seemingly, with a foot in the second round. However, Poland weren’t to be shackled. They roared back to level things up at 4-4 and, amidst tough conditions atop a shambles of a playing surface, they would create a spectacle. That wouldn’t deter Brazil. Leônidas would score again to give the South Americans the advantage, which would be added to by his partner in attack, Romeo, as Brazil would run out as 6-5 winners in a roller-coaster of an encounter. Amazingly, those four goals weren’t to be the only subject that bolted him to international stardom at the World Cup.
In the following round against Czechoslovakia – a 1-1 draw in which he was on the scoresheet once again – he would attempt another bicycle kick that would leave the watching world astounded. So unique was the technique that the referee was unsure whether it was within the laws of the game, but this moment of magic made his name synonymous with the move. Following the game, the Paris Match was in high praise of the forward: “Whether he’s on the ground or in the air, that rubber man has a diabolical gift for bringing the ball under control and unleashing thunderous shots when least expected.”
In the replay against the same opposition in Bordeaux, Leônidas opened the scoring for his nation as they would run out as 2-1 winners and book a place in the semi-final against defending champions Italy. Unfortunately for him, the brutality of the Czechs meant that he picked up an injury and would be forced to miss the match in Marseille.
With a huge piece of the puzzle missing, the Italians would take full advantage and run out as 2-1 winners on their way to winning a second-successive World Cup. Despite the sour defeat, Leônidas’ spirit wasn’t deterred and he would return to the side for the third-place match, scoring twice against Sweden and ending the tournament as its top goalscorer.
Following his heroics in France, he would continue his excellent form for Flamengo, who he signed for in 1936. Just a year after World Cup finals, he would add another Rio State Championship to his honours list. While wearing the famous red and black kit, he would again prove to be a crucial figure as one of the club’s first black players. In a club that was often recognised for its elitism, this was a significant period, Leônidas becoming their best player.
In 1941, however, Leônidas was jailed for eight months for forging documents that would see him exempt from performing military service. Upon his release, he would leave Flamengo and move to São Paulo. Despite being out of the game for some time, he would still be up to his old tricks and his famous bicycle kick would now garner even more attention.
In 1942, he scored a stunning goal against Palmeiras and, six years later, there would be photographic proof of his genius when he scored a similar goal in a thumping 8-0 friendly win over Juventus. These were, however, the twilight years of his career and in 1950 he would call time on his career having scored an estimated 250 goals in around 300 games across a fine 20-year career for club and country.
The likes of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Romário, Zico and Pelé all etched their names across Brazilian football folklore, but Leônidas too holds a strong position amongst the icons of South America. The bicycle kick was only a part of his greatness, for his prominence goes far beyond a single trick, as his records for club and country suggest. Leônidas da Silva was a legend, a visionary and a pioneer.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26