Ask most people who the greatest Brazilian soccer player ever is and they’ll almost certainly answer Pelé, who scored more than 1,000 goals in his career, helped lead the country to three World Cup titles and became one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet. But if you ask a Brazilian, you’re just as likely to hear about a player called variously ‘the Angel with Bent Legs,’ ‘Joy of the People’ and the ‘Little Bird.’ He was born 77 years ago today.
Garrincha, as adoring soccer fans know him, was born Manuel Francisco dos Santos in a slum of Rio De Janiero. Burdened with a series of birth defects, he was a child few would have pegged to become a world-class athlete. In addition to a deformed spine and a right leg that bent inward, his left leg was fully six centimeters shorter than his right. A childhood operation designed to treat the condition only made it worse.
Garrincha’s famous bent legs
Nonetheless, at age 20 he showed enough talent to earn a trial with Botafogo, one of Rio’s biggest soccer clubs. Though skeptical of his physical attributes, Botafogo signed him on the advice of Nilton Santos – a defensive midfielder for the national team – who witnessed Garrincha’s foot skills first hand, having been beaten by the wily winger during the tryout.
The move soon paid off – Garrincha scored a hat-trick in his very first game for the club. He would go on to score more than 200 goals in his 12 years with them and become such a symbol of Botafogo that to this day you can still see fans carrying homemade banners with his image. With his mind-boggling dribbles and wicked curving free-kicks, many felt he’d be a shoo-in for the 1954 World Cup squad. It was not to be – following a devastating defeat in the 1950 World Cup, Brazil was trying to ape the European style of play, one which focused more on team play and discipline than individual skill (striking a balance between what’s regarded as natural Brazilian flair and European tactical awareness has given Brazilian coaches headaches ever since).
By 1957, Garrincha had led Botafogo to the prestigious Rio championship and become the second highest scorer in the league. The coaches had no choice but to choose him for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
Even then, his love of showmanship nearly cost him a roster spot. In a friendly game in Italy prior to the World Cup, he slalomed through three defenders and the goalkeeper, but instead of shooting into the empty net, he waited for another defender to race back – just so he could beat one more opponent before slotting the goal home. Crowd-pleasing antics like this caused one journalist to dub him “the Charlie Chaplin of Football.” The cavalier move – emblematic of Garrincha’s devil-may-care approach to soccer and life in general – may have led to him being benched for the first two games of Brazil’s 1958 campaign.
He thus made his World Cup debut against tournament favorite U.S.S.R., a match that would also mark the introduction of a 17-year-old named Edison Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé. They spearheaded an attack that would see Brazil beat the Soviet Union, Wales, France and hosts Sweden to become the first team to ever win a World Cup outside its own continent. Pelé and Garrincha would play together on Brazil’s national team for the next 12 years. Brazil never lost a single match when both men were on the field.
But the two did more than win games. They helped establish the notion of Brazil as purveyors of jogo bonito, the “beautiful game” – a mix of athleticism, technical mastery and creative wizardry. Like Carnival or samba music, their brand of soccer became synonymous with Brazil itself.
Off the field, Pelé and Garrincha were a study in contrasts. Whereas teetotaling Pelé was a career-minded, ambitious professional, Garrincha was a budding alcoholic who cared little for training or other professional responsibilities. He gained so much weight after the 1958 victory that he was briefly dropped from the national team. The next year, returning to Europe with Botafogo for a series of exhibitions, he impregnated a local Swedish girl. Soon after, his wife gave birth to their fifth child. A month later, a mistress came forward – she too was pregnant.
Things were still going well on the field. Brazil entered the 1962 World Cup as favorites, but when Pelé was injured in the second game of the tournament, it was left to Garrincha to carry the attack. He stepped up to the challenge, dominating the tournament and bringing Brazil its second consecutive championship.
Garrincha and Pelé in 1962
But the free-spirited naïveté that so endeared him to fans caused him trouble at home. He signed bad contracts and gave away small fortunes to friends and hangers-on. There was also his ever growing number of child dependents, which, after three marriages and countless affairs, would eventually swell into the teens. His drinking grew heavier and its consequences more pronounced – particularly when cars were involved. In one incident, he crashed into his father. In another, his wife lost her teeth. In the worst, his mother-in-law was killed while Garrincha was behind the wheel.
His employers did him no favors. Aware that Garrincha was the star attraction, Botafogo trotted him out for all manner of lucrative exhibitions and meaningless tournament matches, exacerbating his knee problems. Rather than undergo surgery and miss games, Garrincha turned to faith healers and herbal remedies.
His international career ended with Brazil’s elimination in the 1966 World Cup. He hung on at the club level for several years, leaving Botafogo for Corinthians and later Flamengo, but only managed to play in a handful of games before retiring with minnows Olaria in 1972.
With no safety net, no income, no marketable skills and a debilitating alcohol addiction, after leaving the game Garrincha quickly spiraled downhill. His second wife, famous samba singer Elza Soares, brought him to Rome, hoping he could escape his problems there, but the two divorced soon after. Garrincha moved back to Brazil and died of cirrhosis of the liver at the ripe old age of 49.
Thousands lined the streets for his funeral procession from Maracana Stadium to his humble neighborhood of Pau Grande. Alex Bellos, author of Futebol: Soccer the Brazilian Way, explains Garrincha’s ongoing appeal and the inevitable Pelé comparisons:
“While people put Pelé on a pedestal,” he writes, “they do not love him the way they love Garrincha. It’s more than the fact that tragic figures are naturally more appealing, since they are more human, although that probably helped. It’s because Pelé does not reflect the national desires. Pelé symbolizes winning. Garrincha symbolizes playing for playing’s sake. Brazil is not a country of winners. It is a country of people who like to have fun.”
To this day, nobody has made the game look as fun as Garrincha did at his peak.