by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

October 28, 1933: The birth of Brazil’s Garrincha, the angel with bent legs

To the rest of the world there is no shadow of a doubt that the greatest ever Brazilian footballer was Pele.  However ask the same question in Brazil and there is a good chance that, from football fans of a certain age, the answer given will be that of a player who was born as Manuel Francisco dos Santos, but is known more commonly by his nickname Garrincha, or Little Bird.  Garrincha, who was also variously referred to as Alegria do Povo (Joy of the People) and Anjo de Pernas Tortas (Angel with Bent Legs), but known simply as Mané by his friends, was born on 28 October 1933 in Pau Grande, a province of Rio de Janeiro.  After he was born it was quickly obvious that he had a number of deformities.  His spine was curved, his left leg, which was 6 centimetres shorter than the right, was twisted outwards while his right leg was bent inwards.

Instead of hindering his life, as he grew up, Garrincha found that his deformities helped him to dribble a football in directions that was impossible for an opponent to predict.  Allied with an ability to run fast and to be equally skilled with either foot, the news of a boy “with bent legs who could dribble like the devil” spread quickly through Rio, and he was signed by Botafogo, one of Brazil’s leading sides.  From the very beginning of his career it was obvious he was something special. In his first training session with Botafogo in 1953 he continually beat the international defender Nilton Santos who demanded that Garrincha be called up for the national team.  On his debut for the Botafogo first-team against Bonsucesso on 19 July that year he scored a hat-trick.  A great entertainer he quickly became a crowd favourite who began to shout ole when he regularly beat opposition defenders.

In Garrincha’s biography, by Ruy Castro, Garrincha’s audacity, imagination, ability and pure joy at playing the game are highlighted.  In one passage Castro details how Garrincha

“stood by the touchline with the ball at his feet, his opponent standing opposite him. In a flash he bolted to his right and with the defender in hot pursuit he started to sprint down the wing. Two or three steps later he ran back. He had jumped over the ball and left it behind. Garrincha stood dead still over the ball for a few seconds and then bolted down the wing again. Once more the defender followed him and once more Garrincha had left the ball exactly where it was… Garrincha stood with the ball at his feet for a second or two and then darted off down the wing once again, this time with the ball. The defender didn’t move a muscle.”

During one game he is said to have so flummoxed his marker that the defender had fallen to the floor as Garrincha ran past him. Instead of carrying on, Garrincha dribbled back to his opponent, picked him up off the turf and then carried on down the wing.

Once during a friendly against the Italian side Fiorentina, just prior to the 1958 World Cup he treated the crowd to a stupendous piece of showboating.  Having embarked on a trademark dribble he beat four defenders, rounded the keeper, then waited until one of the defenders got back so he could beat him again, before finally slotting the ball into the back of the net.

More than just a dribbler though, Garrincha also possessed a powerful shot and he was the team’s dead-ball expert, even scoring direct from corner-kicks on several occasions.   He arguably became the Brazilian national team’s most influential player, helping them to win their first World Cup success in Sweden in 1958, and again in 1962 in Chile, where he finished joint top scorer and was awarded the honour of being voted the player of the tournament.  After he had tormented the English defenders and scored twice during the quarter-finals of that tournament he was described by the British press as “Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and a snake charmer all rolled into one.”  In fact, Brazil only ever lost one game when Garrincha was in the side, the 1966 World Cup game against Hungary, which was also to be his last appearance in a Brazil shirt.

By the mid-60s the unnatural shape of his legs was playing havoc on his knees and after winning 50 caps he had to retire from the international game.  He continued playing club football until 1972, but his fitness meant he never regained the heights of his earlier career.  Sadly, without the focus of football, he was to see his life decline into poverty and alcoholism.  Garrincha had always lived a chaotic life anyway, throughout his career his womanising and alcohol drinking had already become legendary, and it is said that he fathered at least 14 children with different women.  His lifestyle caught up with him and he died of liver failure, penniless and an alcoholic on 20 January 1983, aged just 49. He had spent his last few years seemingly forgotten, but on the day of his funeral thousands of people lined the streets to pay tribute as his remains made the journey from the Maracana stadium, where the home dressing room is named after him, to Pau Grande.  Painted on a wall along the route were the words “Obrigado, Garrincha, por você ter vivido” (Thank you, Garrincha, for having lived). He was buried with a gravestone on which was inscribed  “here rests in peace the one who was the Joy of the People – Mané Garrincha.”

In 1998 he was voted by a panel of 250 football writers into the FIFA Team of the 20th Century alongside Pele and Maradona as one of three forwards.  He his still widely considered by many to have been the greatest dribbler of a ball of all time, and its worthwhile taking time to check clips of him on YouTube.  They certainly provide evidence to support this claim and are a treat to watch.