Leônidas: the legacy of a folk hero

Leônidas da Silva was the top scorer at the 1938 World Cup with seven goals. Now, the Brazilian star’s participation medal has returned to Europe. Dominik Petermann of the Museum Collections team reports on how the historic exhibit found its way from São Paulo to the FIFA World Football Museum.

20 World Cups and five World Cup titles: Brazil’s 101-year football history is as impressive as it is inspirational. From Arthur Friedenreich to Neymar, the bigger names of the Seleção have come to epitomise the beautiful game over the years. But in the 1930s, one man stood out from the rest. Leônidas da Silva earned the affectionate nickname “O Diamante Negro” in his homeland of Brazil where he was also known as “our first international star”.

It was through Leônidas that Europeans came to know the Brazilian style of football, with its emphasis on flamboyance and wizardry with the ball. He lit up both the 1934 World Cup in Italy and the 1938 edition in France. At the latter, he became the first Brazilian footballer to achieve global fame when he was the top scorer, scoring seven goals. Legend has it that one of these was scored barefoot, as torrential rain turned the pitch into a quagmire and playing with boots became very difficult.

In 1950, Leônidas hung up his boots and stepped out of the limelight. He stayed in football though and became a sports reporter, following Brazil’s fortunes on the global stage from 1958 to 1974. It was during this period that he met his third and final wife Albertina Pereira dos Santos, with whom he would live until his death in 2004. She never left his side when, in the autumn of his life Leônidas spent ten years in a clinic suffering from Alzheimer’s, and to this day she still lives São Paulo, looking after her late husband’s legacy.

On what would have been Leônidas’ 100th birthday, 6 September 2013, the Folha de S.Paulo, one of Brazil’s biggest daily newspapers, published a profile of Mrs Pereira dos Santos. The headline read: “The widow of Leônidas does not know what to do with the medal of the 1938 World Cup’s top scorer.” She told the paper about the numerous mementos she had of Leônidas, including photos, newspaper articles, books, pictures, trophies, and the aforementioned medal from 1938.

In the pretty district of Paraíso downtown São Paulo, Mrs Pereira dos Santos leads an unassuming life in a modest apartment, which contains a small back room that she fondly calls “the museum” – this is where the memorabilia of Leônidas’ career is stored. “I had thought of creating a memorial here in the apartment,” she continued in the article, “a kind of ‘Leônidas house’. But I could never find anyone to provide the funds.” To her regret, the idea never came to fruition and she abandoned it. “If you have another idea, let me know,” she is said to have added with a smile.

This is where the FIFA World Football Museum comes in. Wouldn’t it be great to bring the medal “home” to FIFA and to honour the memory of Leônidas in the new museum in Zurich? As the marriage had been childless, there was no one to whom Mrs Pereira dos Santos could bequeath the valuable objects. It was decided that the museum should contact her.

After an exhaustive search, the collections team tracked down Leônidas's widow – using an old telephone book. During several phone calls, she made it clear she was very open to the idea – perhaps even moved by it. Her main priority had been to ensure a lasting legacy for the love of her life. And, at last, a suitable solution had been found. With the formalities completed, representatives of the museum travelled to Brazil in October 2015 to collect the memorabilia.

Having tentatively rung the doorbell, the team from Zurich waited at the door for Mrs Pereira dos Santos to appear - full of anticipation and a hint of apprehension. There was no need to worry though, and she opened the door with a beaming face. Welcoming the team inside she proceeded to proudly display all of the items, telling stories of old times living with the football great. Walking back into the living room bearing boxes, she remarked that although she was not the fussy type, she knew that everything was there.

She then regaled the museum representatives with stories sparked off by the photos and newspaper articles. She was pleased with the suggestion to devote a place at the FIFA museum to her late husband, as after all, Leônidas was and is part of World Cup history. Better, she added with a laugh, than letting the things gather dust in her apartment.

And so the medal found its final resting place, together with other football mementos. Having started its journey after being awarded in France at the 1938 World Cup and now returned to Europe nearly 80 years later, it has come full circle. When Leônidas da Silva died on 24 January 2004, the story of one of football’s first stars could have been forgotten. But now his memory lives on through his medal at the museum. A tribute to a Brazilian folk hero – and one of the greatest footballers of all time.