If you are hankering to see a soccer film this holiday season, you might take the easy route and go see Playing For Keeps, arguably the nail in the long-sealed coffin containing the pungent remains of Gerard Butler’s romantic comedy career. The film comes from the same feeble mind that excreted In The Army Now and So I Married An Axe Murderer onto the now forever-stained silver screen.
But Playing For Keeps isn’t exactly a soccer film. At best, it’s a soccer film in the same way Kicking & Screening was, which is like saying Psycho was a film about the hospitality industry. In Playing For Keeps, soccer is merely a level surface upon which the shallow pan containing the plot rests, with the cardboard characters floating aimlessly about its syrupy surface.
Harder to find but far more worth your while is Heleno, the tragic story of arguably the sport’s first rockstar. Heleno is art whereas Playing For Keeps is farce. And, to some extent, that reflects the way each culture views the game.
Who the Hell is Heleno?
Heleno de Freitas was a Brazilian born in 1920. He was raised in an affluent family and well-educated. In other words, the exact opposite of most of the modern Brazilian football phenoms. What’s even more surprising is that, back in the 30s & 40s, playing football was frowned upon even in Brazil. It was still a working man’s game, and Heleno turned a lot of heads by abandoning his law degree to kick a ball for a living.
But Heleno naturally turned a lot of heads. In many ways, he set the mold for stars like Cristiano Ronaldo. Heleno was a good-looking guy who apparently could charm the panties off any woman he met. And, like Ronaldo, his remarkable ego, fueled by a pathologically competitive nature, made him a prick of the highest order. He was a self-absorbed, brash bad boy – everything women claim to detest yet overwhelmingly adore.
Had Heleno remained a playboy lawyer, dazzling courts by day and clubs by night, he would have undoubtedly earned a memorable reputation among Rio’s high society. But he also proved to be an incredibly gifted soccer player, and quickly realized the adoring crowds in the stadiums far outnumbered those in the courtrooms.
As the legend goes, Heleno was “discovered” at age 17, juggling oranges on Copacabana Beach. This wasn’t the poor kid juggling a ball of rags in the street like Pele. Heleno was probably just trying to impress a girl he had spotted. But two years later, he made his first appearance for Botafogo and rocketed to stardom.
The gifted striker made 235 appearances for the club during his decade of service, netting 209 goals along the way. That’s a higher goals-per-game average than the likes of Lionel Messi. But Heleno never won a trophy for the club – not a single title.
With his increasingly caustic attitude, and his health on the decline (thanks to a case of syphilis, which his hubris kept him from treating, and a chronic ether habit), Botafogo sold him to Boca Juniors in 1948. That year the Brazilian club went on to win the state championship, the Campeonato Carioca, having finished runners-up the three previous seasons.
Meanwhile, Heleno’s single season in Argentina was a bust. He managed only 17 appearances for Boca Juniors, even though he did score seven goals. He returned to Rio, expecting to have a spot made for him on the championship side, but no one wanted him back. So he signed with rival Rio club Vasco de Gama, which reclaimed the title that season. But it’s not clear what part, if any, Heleno had in that campaign. After a training ground dust-up, he put a gun to the head of his manager, Flavio Costa, and pulled the trigger. Fortunately the ether-soaked striker was the only thing loaded at the time.
What Heleno really dreamed of winning was the World Cup. His youth likely kept him off Brazil’s 1938 World Cup squad, which managed a third-place finish at the tournament. World War II prevented another cup from being held until 1950, when Brazil hosted the tournament but lost the final to Uruguay. Even if Heleno’s form hadn’t been in decline by then, he wouldn’t have likely been named to the squad, which was being managed by Flavio Costa, the man who he literally put a gun to his head the year before.
Heleno did score 19 goals in 18 appearances for the Brazilian national team. Most of those came in Copa America competitions. Yet again, a title remained elusive. And Heleno blamed everyone but himself. Over the years, he increasingly lashed out at opponents, teammates, coaches, and fans. Heleno played the 1950 season at Atletico Junior in Colombia, scoring nine in 15 appearances. And then he played one match for America back in Rio the following year, before his career was over at 31. The ether, outbursts, and syphilis finally brought him to his knees. Even his largely neglected family eventually abandoned him to a sanatorium, where he died in obscurity in 1959, just as Brazilian futebol was blossoming on the world stage.
Heleno: The Film
Based on Marcos Eduardo Neves’ book, Nunca Houve Um Homem Como Heleno, the film was directed by José Henrique Fonseca, who also directed the brilliant Man Of The Year. It was shot in black and white, in an effort to capture the glamour of Rio in the 40s and offer a dream-like quality, since most of the scenes are flashbacks from Heleno’s final days in the sanatorium.
Rodrigo Santoro plays Heleno des Freitas, a talent you might recognize from films such as 300, Love Actually, and Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece Che. The lovely Angie Cepeda stars as his main mistress. And the stunning young Alinne Moraes, who portrays his wife, makes you yearn for some color on the screen.
It’s an artistic cautionary tale, and a lesson that many of today’s soccer superstars could learn from. Before there was Garrincha, Pele, Eusebio, George Best, Maradona, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, or Neymar, there was Heleno. And had he not been such a diva, a self-absorbed little prick who thought he knew better – and deserved better – than everyone else, his name might be up there with the rest of those stars, in the pantheon of the game’s greats.
While the movie is a revelation, the man was a tragedy. Both are well-worth a look, though. Beautiful and bright, sparkling with brilliance – the man, the myth, and his movie.