Even in the modern era, with incredible improvement in technology and biomechanics, the ‘bicycle kick’ is still a marvel in the football match. People get mesmerized with the skill as that is extremely aesthetic and difficult to accomplish. But for Leonidas, the skill, which was invented in Chile, was as easy as a routine work.

During the World Cup Leonidas got the nickname Diamante Negro (Black Diamond). He was so popular that Brazilian chocolate manufacturer Lacta purchased from him the right to name a chocolate bar as Diamante Negro. It was a major commercial success, marks one of the earliest story of player endorsement.

However, Leonidas could not win the trophy. His team at least took part in the World in France but two other big names of Latin America- Uruguay and Argentina- did not take part in it as it was held two consecutive times in Europe.

During their ’36 congress in Berlin, FIFA awarded the ’38 World Cup rights to France causing some raged Argentine, who thought hosting was their rightful demand, vandalising in front of the FIFA office. Riot police was required to dismantle them.

Only one other country from Latin America took part, Cuba. So far it is their only appearance. There was another non-European country, the first from Asia, Dutch East Indies.

Only three team of the world’s most popular continent could play in the World Cup till 1970. The other two are South Korea (1954) and North Korea (1966).

Why Asian teams are bad at football 

Broadly for four reasons, Asian countries failed to become footballing giants. First, Asian countries till very recently were mainly agriculture-based countries. As club culture, which becomes a new identity, required urban setup. The displaced people find new share identity through clubs. Asian people took city as mere workplace and always kept their rooting with the ancestral villages.

Secondly, despite widespread colonialism, unlike Africa, the language and culture of Asia could not be wiped out. In Africa, colonised people were compelled to embrace English and French. On the other hand, whether in China, India or Arab area, every part of Asia used to suspect the culture and language of colonisers. As a result, often the foreign games faced resistance and might not reach the bottom level of the society.

Third, the eastern part of Asia had strong US presence. Even in the British colonies the popularity of football got its rival in form of cricket.

Fourth, most of the wars in Africa were basically civil wars. The control of expensive minerals and racial riots were the main reasons behind them. But in Asia, the wars in 20th century were basically inter-country fights. As they were widespread and massive, their effects, unlike civil wars, made huge change in the structure and texture of the society.

With these effects, football could not rise as singular culture.

The World Cup begins 

With the absence of Austria, the number of teams reduced to 15 and in Sweden got walkover in the first round which was held like the knockout format of the last edition. Germany were eliminated by Switzerland in the very first day losing to Switzerland in the play-off following a draw.

Brazil faced stern resistance against Poland on 5 June. The game, one of the finest in the World Cup history, ended in 4-4 before the Latin side won by 6-5 thanks to a Leonidas hat trick.

Another non-European team Cuba, who got the opportunity as Mexico withheld at the last moment, drew 3-3 against Romania but won 2-1 at playoff. Italy won in the extra time against Norway and France defeated Belgium 3-1.

But the surprise of Cuba and Switzerland was finished in quarter final. Swiss lost 2-0 to Hungary. Cubans were beaten 8-0 by Swedish. 

On 12 June at Stade du Fort Carré, Antibes at 5-0 the French journalist Emmanuel Gambardella shut his typewriter. ‘Up to five goals,’ he announced, ‘is journalism. After that, it becomes statistics.'

But for journalists the other match at the same day between Brazil and Czechoslovakia was a great fun. At the history books that match is described as ‘battle of Bordeaux’. It was like a microcosm of erstwhile world situation.

When Hungarian referee Pál von Hertzka blew the final whistle on that day, only 16 of the 22 players remained on field. One of them was severely wounded.

The stadium became a battlefield for prior 90 minutes. Brazil’s Machado and Zeze Procoppio and Jan Riha of Czechoslovakia were sent off, while the goal scorers of that match, Leonidas and Nejedly, the highest scorer of ’34 left the field injured. Peracio of Brazil also left the field while Czeck goalie Planicka continued with an excruciating pain under his belly.

Two days later in the play-off match, conducted by French referee George Capdeville, the European side made six changes while the Latin side made as many as nine changes. Brazil won the battle 2-1 thanks to goals of Leonidas and Roberto.

Italy and hosts France had a nail-biting match. Both the sides scored one goal each within first 10 minutes. But Silvio Piola’s brace saw Italy reaching semifinal. In the semifinal against Brazil, Piola entered into the penalty box of Brazil and tumbled before screaming in such a manner that he may never be able to stand upright again. However, the whistle of penalty worked like a panacea. He stood straight away upon hearing that.

And Giuseppe Meazza created one of the funniest scenes in the World Cup history.  While he started running his pants seemed to come off. The whole stadium was baffled as Brazil keeper Walter started giggling. Meazza, the cynical Italian, held his pant in one hand and slotted the ball home. Italy reached the final.

Italian media wrote lyrical waxes about the greatness of Aryans over black people but forgot to mention the latter played without their best man Leonidas. It was a matter of mystery for years but many facts suggested he was too ill to play. In other semifinal, ‘Magyars’ became a party pooper for Swiss who were celebrating the 80th birthday of their King Gustav V.

Vittorio Pozzo became the only coach to win the trophy twice in a row as Azzuris beat Hungary in the final at Paris on 19 June by 4-2 thanks to a Piola brace.

They had to! Before the match Musolini sent a brief telegram to Italian players with three words- ‘Win or death.’ The victorious received the trophy wearing army outfits on the following day. The epoch was tough yet very few could perhaps imagine there would be no more World Cup in next 12 years. 

Even at those dark times Leonidas uses to light up the stadium. He became the highest scorer with seven goals from just four matches in that tournament.

Unfortunately, that was the end of two titans, the greatest of that epoch- Leonidas and Sindelar. Did they meet at the heaven? Who knows? Had they meet they would perhaps discuss about the Brazil-Poland match.  At Stade de la Meinau, Strasbourg on 5 June it was raining cats and dogs as players showcased their skill over thick mud.

While entering the opponent box, Leonidas’ boot came off his legs. But he did not stop and scored the goal with a thunderous bare-footed shot.

The sky was cloudy, field was muddy and Leonidas looked like a hapless bare-footed man akin to the people of the world trapped by the cloud and mud of war. Yet, scoring a goal from that position gives us the message- humanity may still win, against all the odds.