Our thoughts became tinged with gold and green upon hearing of Socrates death, for Aleks Klosok memories of the great man quickly led to reminiscences of his closest predecessor.
A serial adulterer, a volatile character, an incurable alcoholic and yet undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary entertainers the game is ever likely to see. The controversial, colourful and captivating life of a man many consider to be the forgotten hero of Brazilian Football: Garrincha
On 20th January 1983 at the age of just 49 – a mere 21 years after he was hailed as the greatest footballer on the planet – A Alegria do Povo (The Joy of the People) passed away in Rio de Janeiro penniless and unable to conquer the demon that had blighted his life: alcohol. This is the extraordinary story of an idol who, against all the odds, reached the dazzling heights of success but whose excesses led to a spectacular downfall.
It was in Pau Grande, a small factory town nestled among the lush mountains in the province of Rio de Janeiro, where Manuel Francisco dos Santos’s physical defect, which was to be transformed into one of the most recognised weapons of mass destruction on the football field, was first brought to light. Labelled Garrincha (The Wren) for the seamless manner in which he would come to fly past defenders, he was born with his left leg six centimetres shorter than his right leg – which unnaturally bent inwards – and his spine deformed. And yet for Garrincha, disability did not stand for inability. From a young age he was a footballer with a proven eye for goal, a blistering burst of pace and a remarkable ability for close control of the football.
The right-winger was not concerned with tactics nor with opponents, instead he played with a freedom of spirit which occasionally led to a complete disregard for the “end product” – something which is difficult to fathom in this day and age where football, given the increasingly high stakes, is, even more so than previously, fast becoming a results-based industry. However, it was the astonishing dribbling skills of the native Indian who grew up in the woods, pulling defenders back and forth and up and down the pitch, which gained him notoriety. Spotted by Botafogo at the age of 18, the 5ft 6 1⁄2 in robust forward thinking attacker made an instant impact on 19th July 1953 against Bonsucesso by scoring a hat trick. It signalled Garrincha’s arrival and from then onwards, neither club nor player looked back.
During his 12-year affiliation with Estrela Solitária, his imagination and wizardry with the ball was something to behold. And the man, who never trained, had no agent and took little notice of contracts, possessed a remarkable ability to create something from virtually nothing. Playing alongside fellow Brazilian International superstars, defender Nilton Santos and midfielder Mario Zagallo, they guided the club to Campeonato Carioca success on three separate occasions in 1957, 1961 and 1962. Despite terrorizing defences week in week out with his blistering pace, deceptive dribbling and lethal shot, he was constantly overlooked by the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol. His break eventually came in 1958, guiding Brazil to their maiden FIFA World Cup victory in Sweden. But 1962 was to be the year that cemented Garrincha’s place in Brazilian as well as World Football folklore.
At club level he was unplayable. However, it was on the International Stage – regarded by many as the acid test in determining truly great footballers – at the FIFA World Cup Finals in Chile, that Garrincha made his mark. Pelé’s injury in the second game of the tournament against Czechoslovakia ironically came as a blessing in disguise for the man widely recognized as the great number 10’s equal. ‘Mané’ took on Pelé’s mantle as leader of the team and a series of dazzling displays, which prompted Chile’s Mercuro newspaper to question in a headline, “What planet is Garrincha’s from?” inspired Brazil to their second consecutive crown. Finishing joint top scorer alongside being named Player of the Tournament and later FIFA World Player of the Year, underlined The Wren’s status as one of football’s all time greats.
And yet this superstar image, which he had fashioned for himself on the field, was soon to be overshadowed by events off it. His carefree, selfish and occasionally undisciplined attitude towards football was mirrored in his own personal life. A pinup, who once dominated the back pages, stirring the public imagination, was slowly disappearing from them and instead increasingly appearing on the front pages for all the wrong reasons. He became synonymous with his involvement in countless relationships, so much so that he’s believed to have fathered at least 14 children, squandering much of his earnings and becoming embroiled in a scandalous affair with his singer partner, the great Elza Soares. Alcohol became a fixed part of his life and the hero who once made the Brazilian public smile and laugh, now made them cry.
The icon never again reached the heights of 1962. Despite moving from club to club between 1966 and his eventual retirement in 1973 in a desperate attempt at prolonging his fading career, he was blighted by a persistent knee injury that inhibited his acceleration. His last game in a Brazil shirt came during the First Round of the FIFA World Cup Finals in England in a 3-1 defeat to Hungary. It was the first time he had appeared in a losing team during his 11 years playing for A Seleção. With Pelé absent, it meant that the pair never finished on the losing team together for Verde-Amarelha. Despite withering away from the public eye towards the end of his life, almost 30 years on from his death, the legend of Garrincha still lives on today.
His rags to riches story has come to capture the imagination of a generation of readers who, like myself, were too young to ever witness the great man in action. Nostalgic tales of his natural affinity with the Brazilian fans are still recounted in hundreds of bars across this great footballing nation. All that remains today of the once revered symbol throughout Brazil are grainy images and videos on the Internet that visually portray the true genius of the man. And whilst Garrincha never became an elder statesman of the game like his former counterpart, his biographer Ruy Castro, in his highly acclaimed biography, Garrincha – The Triumph and Tragedy of Brazil's Forgotten Footballing Hero, maintains that his unique ability to identify with the public earned him his reputation as “the most loved citizen in Brazil”.
O Anjo de Pernas Tortas (The Angel with Bow Legs), who remained an amateur who only wanted to play the beautiful game, was unquestionably one of a kind. His humble resting place in his birthplace of Pau Grande is testament to a man who was always true to his roots. Perhaps the message written by a group of fans on a wall encapsulates this sentiment. It simply reads, Obrigado, Garrincha, por você ter vivido (Thank you, Garrincha, for having lived).