Heleno: The man who could have been Pele?

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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

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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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.

“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.