Garrincha – The Forgotten Legend

A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ is a line immortalized by John Keats in Endymion. ‘Beauty’ is an aspect that has caught the imagination of the human race since its evolution, and ‘Sport’ is that which has united humanity since time immemorial. Over the years, perhaps no other sport in this world has been followed as closely and passionately as football. Apparently, it is a simple game comprising 22 players who run across the length and breadth of a rectangular field with a single ball to execute their craft; but beneath all the running rests ‘a canvas’ on which the greatest performers of the sport paint their picture, which is precisely why it is referred to as, ‘The Beautiful Game’.  One of those artists was Manuel Francisco dos Santos, popularly known as Garrincha (a little bird). He was a genius, a folk hero, who scripted innumerable beautiful moments on the field, throughout his lifetime, which, unfortunately lasted just 49 years, as he literally drunk himself to death.

Early Life and Career

Manuel Santos was born on October 28, 1933 in Magé, Rio de Janeiro to an alcoholic father and a mother both from very poor backgrounds. His birth defects included – a deformed spine, right leg bent inwards and left leg six centimetres shorter and curving outwards. The last two were reasons for his gait on the football field and hence the nickname Garrincha. Considering all these setbacks, his feats in the field seem even more unreal.

In 1953, after being rejected by several teams because of his abnormal physique, Garrincha was finally selected by Botafogo on the recommendation of Gentil Cardoso, one of the legendary coaches of the time who had coached all the great teams of Rio de Janeiro. He remains to this day, Botafogo’s global symbol of fame. He played 12 seasons with Botafogo winning three state championships, twice becoming the Brazilian Champion Club and managing one intercontinental Championship.

The Garrincha flag at Botafogo’s Engenhão Stadium in 2007

His international career was even more startling. He played 50 times for Brazil (1955 – 1966) and only ever lost one match – his last, in the 1966 World Cup in England. However, his pride of the moment came in the previous World Cup when he won both the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe in the 1962 World Cup, taking Brazil almost singlehandedly to their 2nd consecutive World Cup win.

‘The Player’ and ‘The Man’

As a player, Garrincha was beyond any textbook school of coaching. He defined his own rules and created his own methods. There may have been a method in his madness, one which, only he could have lived with. He was selfish, undisciplined and unpredictable, yet outstanding – he opened up defenses like a can of beans and made defenders dance to his tunes. Of late, Denilson in the 90’s also used to dribble but he could only dribble. In a game of football it is extremely essential to understand what your next move will be, where your team mate is and where the opposition defender can move. Denilson knew how to dribble past defenders but he had very little goal mouth sense as to whom to pass and when to pass.  Garrincha though, created value out of his dribbling skills. Garrincha could split defenses with his dribbling skills and his vision of the next move was similar to that of an expert chess player. Once in a crucial World Cup match, after he had left a defender on the ground, Garrincha put his foot on the ball and with his back to the player, offered his hand to help him up. He lifted him, then dribbled past him and ran on. The romance of Garrincha was that the occasion never got the better of him as is the case with so many stars of today who fail to perform when it matters. Even in the biggest games of his career, he would outfox other players by waiting for them to catch up and then dribble past them again – all these just for fun. He dribbled at his own free will.

The Master Dribbler

There was simplicity in his eccentricity. Ruy Castro gives an inkling of the nature of the man in the biography ‘Garrincha – The Triumph and Tragedy of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero’. He says and I quote: “Garrincha is the most amateur footballer professional football ever produced. He never trained. He had no agent, didn’t bother reading his contracts, and usually signed them before the figures had been filled in. When he was given a bonus after the World Cup, he handed the cash to his wife, who hid it under the children’s mattress. Years later, they remembered the money, and discovered a rotting mass of sodden paper. The bonus had been destroyed by bedwetting.”

World Cup Glory

After he was omitted from Brazil’s opening two matches in the 1958 World Cup, his teammates were united on him being included in the team. The rest, as they say, is history. Brazil’s match against a strong Soviet Union saw Garrincha beating five defenders in the first minute alone. A French journalist called it ‘the greatest three minutes in the history of football’. He created Brazil’s first two goals in the final, splitting the defense of the Swedish team.

The 1962 World Cup was Garrincha’s moment of vindication. With Pelé injured, he single-handedly led Brazil to glory.  After helping Brazil to a crucial win against Spain by providing an unbelievable through pass to Amarildo in the last league match, he ripped apart England and Chile in the knockout stages by scoring 4 goals in two matches. After the semi-finals, a headline in the Chilean newspaper, El Mercurio read: “What planet is Garrincha from?” Despite suffering from high fever, he played in the final on special appeal as he was sent off in the semis and inspired Brazil to their second successive victory in the World Cup.

The Pelé Comparison

Garrincha remains “a forgotten legend” among the generation of modern football followers.  One of the primary reasons can be due to the fact that he was playing in his prime just before the age of television.  However, those who have watched footage of 1958 and 1962, swear that Brazil would not have won those trophies without Garrincha, even when it is pointed out to them that a certain Pelé also played in those cup triumphs.  He is perhaps the only player to be red carded in a World Cup semi-final in 1962 and be allowed to play in the final because the Government of Brazil decided to take up his case with FIFA. Garrincha is not an icon in Brazil, he is part of a national folklore and today’s generation must read and watch Garrincha to understand why he is universally regarded as the best dribbler and the greatest right winger in football history. This explains why the Maracana, the world’s largest football stadium, has the home changing room named as ‘Garrincha’, while the away changing room is named after his more illustrious compatriot, ‘Pelé’.

Brazil never lost a match when they both played together

So was he a better player than Pelé?  Could be yes… could be no… difficult to gauge as they played in different positions. There are some who still believe he is better than Pelé and he did not get his due from the world soccer fraternity as Pelé has received. Pelé was a methodical genius, who knew what he was doing. He had a plan for his actions. He knew his stature in world football and fully utilized it. He appeared in commercials, worked hard, considering his poverty stricken background, and became a global sports icon and a multi-millionaire. Garrincha though, just wanted to have fun – both in the field and off it. His passions in life were football, women and alcohol. The reason I am bringing in Pelé in this tribute to Garrincha is that people tend to limit Brazilian football to Pelé and consider him as a benchmark, time and again. With no disrespect to perhaps football’s greatest ever player, I am just honouring Garrincha by saying that he deserves not to live in the shadow of his great contemporary. Such was the impact of Pelé and Garrincha together that Brazil never lost a match when both played together.

His Memories

Some refer to him as “The Angel with crippled legs”. Like all tortured geniuses, Garrincha was unstable and defied all rules – he is said to have lost his virginity to a goat, slept with several women and fathered many children. His mother-in-law was killed in a car crash whilst he was drunk and driving, and he himself later died of liver cirrhosis. Yet, to this day, despite being an illiterate, an alcoholic, and a womanizer, he remains a people’s favourite in his native country. This explains why his epitaph reads, “Here rests in peace the one who was the Joy of the People – Mané Garrincha.”  People had painted on the wall: “Thank you, Garrincha, for having lived”.

His Epitaph

FIFA, in their official tribute to Garrincha refers to him as, “The Chaplin of football’ – and that description probably suits him the best. Legendary South American writer, Eduardo Galeano in his book ‘Soccer in Sun and Shadow’ says: “When he was in form, the pitch became a circus. The ball became an obedient animal, and the game became an invitation to party. Garrincha would shield his pet, the ball, and together they would conjure up some wonderful tricks that would have the spectators in stitches. He would hop over her, and she would bounce over him. Then she would hide before he would escape only to find her already running in front of him. Along the way, his pursuers would crash into each other in their attempts to stop him.”

The book along with Milton Alencar’s outstanding movie on him, “Garrincha: Lonely Star” sums up the legend’s career in short as he remains one of football’s greatest tragi-comic heroes. This short movie, aptly titled, “Garrincha – A Sad Story of Some Happiness” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) helps us see the man’s sheer genius and unpredictability. As you watch him enjoying himself while on the field, you realize, “A thing of beauty is indeed a joy forever”.


Deepanjan Deb is a MBA student in India and wishes to pay homage to his greatest footballing icon on his 78th birth anniversary.