Soccer’s Best Loved Villain

Articles on the Web describe him as “one of the most talented Brazilian soccer players of all times”. “The best ever soccer player across South America.” “The man who could have been Pele.” Before this sounds too much like a tribute to Brazilian soccer, I am not a soccer fan and the best player I grew up knowing of was Pele. Never had I heard of one Mr. Heleno de Freitas, a striker (artilheiro is the Portuguese word) for Botago, a team in Rio, in the years after WWII. It’s not a pretty story.

Outstanding athletes are usually equipped to become heroes – they crystallize all our human wishes and aspirations for physical and moral perfection because we tend to associate a healthy physique with a virtuous psyche. Mens sana in corpore sano, the Romans summarized. Sound mind in sound body. Not the case with Heleno de Freitas. His immense talent for soccer was not linked to a very nice personality. From another angle, his immense talent for soccer and the public adoration that followed made him believe he was invincible, granting him license to be reckless.

I grew up in a family where men truly enjoyed soccer. Grandpa (a justice of the state’s supreme court), would not watch our local team play without wearing his good luck Lacoste polo shirt (crimson red as the team’s jersey; beloved Internacional Sports Club), and could lose his temper arguing with neighbors and friends who happened to favor the rival team. The magistrate would go nuts cheering for Brazil in every World Cup. Nuts to the point of breaking furniture. Like the evening he and Dad jumped at once on the bed where they were sitting. The large screen TV refused to work in the living room so they were forced to watch Brazil Vs. Poland – this is 1974 – in my grandparents’ bedroom portable TV. Small. Black and white. Low low tech. How could they see every detail, yell at a mistaken pass, shout at the referees’ wrongdoing of Brazil, when I could barely tell jerseys apart and the numbers on the players’ backs? Both Dad and Grandpa wore glasses; how did they see stuff my sharp child’s vision could not? It remained a mystery.

Brazil lost. Dad and grandpa teamed up that night to fix the bed as true gentlemen, setting aside their soccer differences. When it came to local soccer teams, Dad’s heart beat for Gremio Futebol Clube (blue & black jerseys) and Grandpa’s for the guys in red & white, his glorious Internacional. They never swore or cursed in front of us kids, and women, and they never took us to the stadium. Not a good place for children and ladies.  Therefore we grew up in oblivion of most Portuguese bad words. Considering the appalling diagnosis of Mr. de Freitas’ causa mortis, they may have been embarrassed of mentioning his story to us. We grew up hearing the names of legends in Brazilian soccer:  Zagalo, Gerson, Pele, Tostao, Garrincha, whose feats created surges of patriotism no president or politician could have achieved. Songs and poems were written about them. And yet, no one ever said a word about this remarkable player, who passed years before I was born, in 1959, at the age of thirty nine.

The movie that brought up this whole reflection is titled Heleno (2012). A word of caution though, if you are not fond of B&W productions. (YouTube has the official trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHO53hsdRDQ and Netflix has the movie). I never had a problem with it; the latest sans color movie I watched and enjoyed being The Artist, winner of the Academy Award for best picture in 2011. As Heleno’s life develops in a world that could not have been broadcast in color to millions of Brazilian homes (color TVs arrived in the early 1970’s), it makes up for a much more realistic view of those times.

Heleno de Freitas could have been a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. From a high-middle class family, his professional choice is not fully explained except for newspaper clippings where he describes how intoxicating the fans’ roaring in the stadium was; how he felt like fluctuating, in ecstasy, and therefore knew what he wanted to do, who he wanted to be. Almost every time he had the ball at his feet or head it ended up in scoring. The more he kicked, the more he scored (209 goals for Botafogo alone). The more he scored the more infatuated he turned with his own talent. Glory morphed into addiction.

The Brazilian actor playing Heleno has a remarkable background as a big screen villain but this was by far his best performance.  I had to watch 300 twice to figure (I know; should have looked at the credits but that felt like cheating) to realize Rodrigo Santoro was actually King Xerxes, camouflaged  under a very exotic make up, tons of golden jewelry,  shaved head, apparently standing over seven feet tall, his complexion darkened by many shades and the voice electronically modified (Check YouTube’s footage on the Making of King Xerxes in 300: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ts7vmmG6Og).

Persian emperor Xerxes was the downfall of Spartan King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler, and in his skin Santoro went on to conquer the MTV Movie Award for Best Villain in 2007. Speaking of voices, Santoro’s Heleno speaks the best Portuguese I heard in a long time, almost slang-free (everybody is sir – senhor – or madam – madame), grammatically perfect and pleasant to the ear. I guess back in the 1950’s it was common for people to speak like that. Correctly. Heleno de Freitas smokes nonstop, lighting up two cigarettes at once. But then again he thought he was eternal, like King Xerxes’s fabled elite warriors – The Immortals. Besides soccer, Heleno loves women, drinks whisky with his daily meals and his favorite car is a Cadillac. Brazilians dreamt of Buicks and Cadillacs prior to BMWs, Ferraris or Alfa Romeos.

Physically, Santoro always reminded me of a South American Keanu Reeves, only slenderer. The last time I saw Santoro in action, in Portuguese, he was the emerging star of Brazilian soap opera industry. All smiles and charming Carioca-accented Portuguese. Praise also to Santoro’s Spanish speaking, as good as his Portuguese, which makes me think he functions well in at least three languages, including English, as he now lives in California.

As Heleno’s mental condition deteriorates, his behavior becomes more and more obnoxious.  The illness progresses at the same pace Rodrigo Santoro’s talented performance increases.  Towards the end, Santoro lost so much weight (comparable to Christian Bale in The Machinist and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club) his face is nearly unrecognizable. It’s painful to look at him.

When the Botafogo owners decided to trade Heleno to Argentina’s Boca Juniors it was the most anyone had ever paid for a soccer player in South America. Letting go of the star came in good time to save the team’s finances and it did not hurt to get rid of Heleno’s constant fits of anger, aggressiveness and outrageous behavior.  I’ll pause here to speculate how hard it must have been for that generation of Brazilian soccer fans to see their beloved hero traded to the enemy, for the rivalry between Argentina and Brazil in soccer is ancient and runs deep.

“What else do you, Heleno – a man that has everything – want of life?”, asks the radio talk show host in a last interview before he flies to Buenos Aires, in 1948.

“Nothing. But I’d like to meet John Wayne.”

And off to the Argentine capital Heleno went, joining every early morning practice in a heavy overcoat atop the Boca Junior’s official uniform, jersey and shorts. For a native of Southeast Brazil who lived his adult life walking the warm sands of Copacabana beach, Buenos Aires must have felt nothing short of Alaska. As it turned out, Heleno was too Carioca (native of Rio) for the Portenos (natives of the Federal Capital, Buenos Aires) and the Portenos had no idea how to interact with the crazed Brazilian soccer, no matter how good a Spanish he could pull.  The interlude was short lived if it ever happened. Back in Brazil, his problems were just beginning. Botafogo did not want him back – the troublemaker – and Vasco, his new team, soon had a taste of what it meant to have Heleno de Freitas on their payroll. He drank too much, he smoked too much, he partied too hard. His wife packed the baby boy up and left right after his return to Rio, causing him to move solo to the majestic Copacabana Palace Hotel, where he lived to the end of his money.

That he refused medical treatment did not stop him from playing in Rio’s soccer coliseum – Maracana stadium.  He begged the doctors not to report his medical condition until his very last chance to play in Maracana – nothing else mattered. Stranded from his parents and brother,  ex-wife Sylvia now married to Alberto, long time co-player, admirer and friend (despite Heleno’s abusive behavior), Heleno is now forgetful, shakes constantly and the anger episodes become even more shockingly violent. Gilda, the Heleno-haters call him, an allusion to Rita Hayworth’s character in the then famous Hollywood production. A diva. Heleno is a live skeleton and his face aged decades in minutes of footage.

In the final stages of dementia, the only person who seems to be able to reach him is his angel of a nurse, who insists Heleno is still therein somewhere. Heleno posts old newspaper clippings on the walls just to peel them off and stuff his mouth with chunks of it, much to his nurse’s despair.

At his last days at the asylum, Heleno responds only to one word. Futebol. Soccer. Acorda, Heleno. E dia de futebol e voce vai jogar, invites his nurse, opening the window in the bare walled room, except for the wooden cross atop the bed. Wake up, Heleno. It’s soccer day and you’ll play. Heleno spits the pills and the water on the face of his nurse, struggles to put on shorts and jersey, and goes out to play with his mentally disturbed but amicable inmates.  Beyond the black and white screen, in my memory and imagination I can see all the colors of Rio’s country side. Tall and thin palm trees. Everything is warm, bright green and bright blue.  There are gently rolling hills in the back and the mansion that houses the asylum must have belonged to a sugar plantation when Brazil had slaves.  Heleno is enslaved to his worsening condition. With faulting steps he enters the field, remembering glory days, when the syphilis inside him was still latent.

All soccer players, he reflects, should listen to opera before playing a match, to let the blood and the emotions come to their heads.  There is no good soccer if your blood is not boiling. There’s no match if you don’t hold a knife between your teeth. The player dies remembering his fans and their cheering. In Heleno de Freitas’ own words, Tudo o que eu sempre quis foi jogar bola. All I ever wanted was to play ball.

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1 Response to Soccer’s Best Loved Villain

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