Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Heleno: The man who could have been Pele?

By Tom McGowan, CNN
July 24, 2013 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Actor Rodrigo Santoro signs a poster for the film "Heleno", in which he plays the mercurial striker. A destructive personality, together with illness and drug problems prevented Heleno from becoming one of Brazil's greatest ever players. But he helped pave the way for some of the world's greatest soccer icons... Actor Rodrigo Santoro signs a poster for the film "Heleno", in which he plays the mercurial striker. A destructive personality, together with illness and drug problems prevented Heleno from becoming one of Brazil's greatest ever players. But he helped pave the way for some of the world's greatest soccer icons...
HIDE CAPTION
Heleno
Pele
Garrincha
Zico
Romario
Ronaldo
Ronaldinho
Neymar?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Heleno de Freitas was one of Brazil's first soccer stars
  • Striker starred for Botafogo in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s, scoring over 200 goals
  • Heleno missed out on the 1950 World Cup after pointing a gun at Brazil's coach
  • He died aged just 39 after struggling with syphilis and drug problems

Editor's note: Ready to Play debuts on CNN International on July 26 at 1530.

(CNN) -- Women wanted him. Men wanted to be him.

Seven decades before Neymar, a world away from Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, a predecessor to Zico and Socrates and a formidable striker who could have rivaled Pele.

That man was Heleno de Freitas, a soccer superstar in the days before Brazil ruled the "beautiful game."

He was a larger than life playboy who abandoned a legal career to become his country's finest footballer. And before the Maracana -- Brazil's iconic stadium in Rio de Janeiro -- was built, Heleno was the city's star attraction with a "Jekyll and Hyde" personality which saw him flit from outrageous charmer to disruptive egoist.

Read: 'The man who made Brazil cry'

Greivanes unleashed in Brazil protests
Shocking video shows Brazil clashes

"Sometimes he was a gentleman, other times you couldn't stand him," explains Marcos Eduardo Neves, author of "There was never a man like Heleno."

"Like the book by R.L. Stevenson, he was a doctor and a monster," Neves told CNN.

Heleno is best remembered for his nine-year spell with Rio club Botafogo, scoring over 200 goals for the team between 1939 and 1948 to become one of South America's most feared strikers.

Blog: Can anyone stop Spain at 2014 World Cup?

But his career, much like his life, was tinged with tragedy, as circumstance and his ability to press the self-destruct button prevented him from capturing any significant silverware as a player.

"He grew up knowing he wanted to be a football player," says Neves. "When he moved from Minas Gerais to Rio he marveled at beach football and Botafogo ... His will became an obsession."

An affluent background had afforded Heleno the opportunity to train as a lawyer, but the courtroom could not contain his football talent or his vibrant personality.

World Sport Presents: Racism in Football

Will Brazil be ready for the World Cup?
Pele: Mourinho is 'good for Chelsea'

"He had a big ego and his soul craved the screams of thousands of football supporters," Neves says.

"He loved his star status, being an international idol, playing for his national team and being desired by women and admired by men.

"He thought his fame would be eternal. He believed he would be Heleno de Freitas forever."

Arguably Heleno's crowning moment -- Brazil's crowning moment -- should have come at the 1950 World Cup.

It was the first time Brazil had hosted the tournament -- next year the World Cup returns to the South American nation for a second time-- and it was an opportunity for the country to announce itself as a global power, both on and off the pitch.

With the grandest of stages -- the Maracana -- constructed, Heleno's public awaited.

But when 200,000 Brazilians packed into the stadium for an agonizing defeat to Uruguay in the tournament's final match, Heleno was nowhere to be seen.

Read: The football-mad nation that had it all

"Because of World War II, Heleno missed out on the World Cups of 1942 and 1946," explained Neves. "The 1950 World Cup was his last chance, given his physical and technical peak. But he wasted it."

Moacyr Barbosa Nascimento's life was forever changed after the 1950 World Cup. With Brazil needing just a draw against Uruguay in its final game to lift the trophy for the first time, the team lost 2-1 and he was blamed for the second goal. The goalkeeper's perceived mistake haunted him. Twenty years later he overheard a woman in a supermarket say to her son, "There is the man who made Brazil cry." Moacyr Barbosa Nascimento's life was forever changed after the 1950 World Cup. With Brazil needing just a draw against Uruguay in its final game to lift the trophy for the first time, the team lost 2-1 and he was blamed for the second goal. The goalkeeper's perceived mistake haunted him. Twenty years later he overheard a woman in a supermarket say to her son, "There is the man who made Brazil cry."
A national tragedy
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
Brazil\'s most painful moment Brazil's most painful moment
Hours after declaring himself saddened by the need for protests against Brazil's social conditions, Neymar brought joy to his compatriots with the opening goal in a 2-0 win over Mexico. Hours after declaring himself saddened by the need for protests against Brazil's social conditions, Neymar brought joy to his compatriots with the opening goal in a 2-0 win over Mexico.
Golden Boy
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
Confederations Cup: Brazil beats Mexico as Fortaleza protests Confederations Cup: Brazil beats Mexico as Fortaleza protests

In 1949 Heleno was playing for Vasco Da Gama, having spent the previous year living the high life in Argentina with Boca Juniors -- with his spell in Buenos Aires rumored to have even included a fling with Argentina's then First Lady, Eva "Evita" Peron.

Heleno's coach at Vasco was Flavio Costa, who was also in charge of the Brazil national team.

But Costa criticized the attitude of his combustible star and Heleno's response was typically trigger happy.

He pointed a gun to Costa's head and pulled the trigger. The gun wasn't loaded, but that action was enough to kill Heleno's dreams of playing in the World Cup.

Vasco won the Rio de Janeiro State Championship, but by now Heleno was an outcast.

When Brazil was left heartbroken by a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay which destroyed its World Cup dreams, Heleno was playing in Colombia's lucrative illegal leagues.

"For the fans, Brazil lost the World Cup because they didn't have Heleno," says Neves. "Brazil feared a valiant Uruguay. With Heleno, it wouldn't be like this. He didn't fear anyone or anything.

"They say that, in 1951, Heleno used to say he could have saved Brazil," says Jose Henrique Fonseca, director of the biographical film "Heleno," which was released in 2011.

By the time Brazil, led by the precocious talents of Pele and Garrincha, finally won the World Cup for the first time in Sweden in 1958, Heleno was hurtling towards an early grave.

Tahiti form a huddle before their showdown with World and European champions Spain. The minnows are ranked 137 places below their opponents and eventually lost their Confederations Cup match 10-0 in Brazil. Tahiti form a huddle before their showdown with World and European champions Spain. The minnows are ranked 137 places below their opponents and eventually lost their Confederations Cup match 10-0 in Brazil.
Tahiti's mission impossible
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
Tahiti\'s mission impossible Tahiti's mission impossible
Luiz Felipe Scolari first took over Brazil in 2001, turning around their 2002 World Cup qualification campaign and leading them to a record fifth tournament win in Japan and South Korea.
Luiz Felipe Scolari first took over Brazil in 2001, turning around their 2002 World Cup qualification campaign and leading them to a record fifth tournament win in Japan and South Korea.
Joy in Japan
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
The career of Luiz Felipe Scolari The career of Luiz Felipe Scolari

"Heleno became a walking bomb ready to explode. Syphilis and drugs just amplified his self-destruction," Neves says.

"He had a good upbringing, he was elegant, educated and from a good family. He could have enjoyed a career as a lawyer or diplomat -- instead he suffered a pathetic death in a mental institution."

Heleno died on November 8, 1959, aged just 39.

"He was a victim of his refusal to be treated for syphilis and if untreated it affects the brain," Fonseca told CNN.

"He suffered a lot. To see a photo of him when he died is amazing, he looked 70 years old."

Could Heleno, free from disease and drug addiction, have carved out a legacy as formidable as Pele, who is widely regarded as the greatest player who has ever lived?

"Pele is one of a kind, like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and surfer Kelly Slater are," says Neves. "But Heleno would be more recognized worldwide. Maybe at the level of a Zico, Romario and Ronaldo."

For Brazil, much like the tale of the 1950 World Cup final, Heleno's story is one of what might have been.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
How Real Madrid's new stadium will look
They splash the cash on the world's best players, now Real Madrid are giving the Bernabeu the same treatment with a bling makeover.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Football world mourns South African captain Senzo Meyiwa who was shot and killed during a botched robbery in a township near Johannesburg.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1348 GMT (2148 HKT)
A man as a Roman centurion and who earn his living by posing with tourists gestures in front of the Colosseum during a protest where some of his colleagues climbed on the monument on April 12, 2012 in Rome. The costumed centurions are asking for the right to work there after they were banned following a decision by local authorities.
From the ancient ruins of Rome, a new empire rises. But the eyes of the city's newest gladiator light up at thoughts of the Colosseum.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1622 GMT (0022 HKT)
Once part of Germany's largest Jewish sports club, now he's the first ISIS suspect to stand trial in a country left shocked by his alleged radicalization.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
One goal in eight matches for new club Liverpool, and dumped by the Italian national team -- Mario Balotelli has yet to shine on his English return.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Ched Evans smiles during the Wales training session ahead of their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier against England on March 25, 2011 in Cardiff, Wales.
Should a convicted rapist, who has served their time in prison, be allowed to resume their old job? What if that job was as a high-profile football player?
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1247 GMT (2047 HKT)
After 10 years of golden glory, it's easy to see how Lionel Messi has taken his place among the football gods.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1034 GMT (1834 HKT)
A football fan wipes a tear after Inter Milan's Argentinian defender Javier Zanetti has greeted fans following the announcement of his retirement before the start of the Italian seria A football match Inter Milan vs Lazio, on May 10, 2014, in San Siro Stadium In Milan
When will the tears stop? A leading Italian football club is pursuing a new direction -- under the guidance of its new Indonesian owner.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Norwegian 15-year-old Martin Odegaard is the youngest player ever to feature in a European Championships qualifying match.
October 10, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
After revolutionizing cricket with its glitzy Twenty20 league, India has now thrown large sums of money at a new football venture.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Get ruthless. That is Rio Ferdinand's message to soccer's authorities in the fight to tackle the scourge of racism.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
A picture taken on May 16, 2014 shows 15-year-old Norwegian footballer Martin Oedegaard of club Stroemsgodset IF cheering during a match in Drammen, Norway. Oedegaard is set to become Norways youngest player ever in the national football team.
He's just 15 and the world is seemingly already at his feet. Norway's Martin Odegaard is being sought by Europe's top clubs.
ADVERTISEMENT