Tom Shakespeare

“a phenomenon, capable of sheer magic. It was difficult to know which way he was going to go because of his legs and because he was as comfortable on his left foot as his right, so he could cut inside or go down the line and he had a ferocious shot too.” (Mel Hopkins, Wales full back)

Manuel Francisco dos Santos was born in Pau Grande, Brazil, in total poverty, the grandson of slaves.  He was barely educated, and went on to lead a fairly disastrous life, dying of alcoholism before his fiftieth birthday.  The one thing he could do was play football.  Dribbling, corners, free kicks, people asked whether he was from another planet, such were his skills.  He could even head the ball, despite his shortness.  On four separate occasions in his career, he scored direct from a corner.  With Pele, he was probably the greatest soccer player that Brazil has ever known, and he even has a soccer stadium named after him.   And he was born disabled.

It was his sister who named him Garrincha, after he was born with a deformed spine and a left leg six centimeters shorter than his right: he was always small for his age, and his right leg bent outwards and his left leg bent inwards.  To fans, he was known as Alegria do Povo, “joy of the people” or Anjo de Pernas Tortas, “angel with bent legs”.  And it was watching Garrincha that fans first started chanting “Ole”, the bullfighting cry, as he feinted and tricked defenders with those extraordinary and unpredictable legs.

He was 20 when he joined Botafogo, scoring a hat trick in his first team debut.   Before that, he had been playing for his factory team.  He went on to score 232 goals in 581 matches during his twelve years playing for the club.

He didn’t play in the 1954 World Cup.  But his reputation for extraordinary dribbling meant that he was in the squad for the next competition, held in Sweden in 1958: he played with a 17 year old named Pelé, and Brazil went on to win its first World Cup.  Brazil would never lose a match with both Pelé and Garrincha on the team.

Four years later in Chile, Pelé was injured early, and so Garrincha got the solo glory, knocking out England with two goals in the quarters and repeating his feat against Chile in the semis.  The British press described him as “Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and a snake charmer all rolled into one.”  Again, Brazil won the Cup, and Garrincha was named best player of the tournament, and won the Golden Boot as leading goalscorer.  He also got the girl, as a glamorous samba singer entered the team dressing room after the match to embrace him in the shower (she would later become wife number two).  In 1966, luckily for England, Garrincha had problems with his knee, and Brazil lost to Hungary – his only defeat in 55 internationals.

Off the pitch, Garrincha partied as hard as he played.  He is said to have lost his virginity aged 12, to a goat.  Later he drove over his father while drunk.  The father was also a drunk, and cachaca was Garrincha’s undoing too.  Women were often the casualties, including the mother-in-law whom he killed in a drunken car accident in 1969, and her daughter, his second wife Elza Soares, that samba singer, who left him after he attacked her in 1977.  He had at least 14 children, including impregnating local girls when he went on tour with his team.

As with George Best and Paul Gascoigne, it’s questionable whether the sins of a genius should be forgiven. In Brazil, a dismal domestic record did not prevent you becoming a superstar, with the stadium in Brasilia being named after him in 1974.  When he died of cirrhosis of the liver on January 20, 1983, once again a pauper, thousands of fans came to view his body at the Maracanã stadium and pay their respects to the man who had won them their first two World Cups.

As the South American writer Eduardo Galeano wrote:

“In the entire history of football no one made more people happy. When he was out there, the pitch was a circus ring, the ball a tamed animal, the match a party invitation. Garrincha nurtured his pet, the ball, and together they created such mischief that people almost died laughing. He jumped over it, it gambolled around him, hid itself away, skipped off and made him run after it. And on the way, his opponents ran into each other.”