Brazil flag“In the entire history of football no one made more people happy”

Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan writer

A brother of his, out of many, christened him with name of a small pathetic bird. He was a malformed protégé of polio and deprivation. Both legs curved to one side, his spine was shaped like a capital S and he had an immaturity that belied his life experience.  He lost his virginity to a goat. His father was an alcoholic, and the man himself drunk a bottle a day of the fierce national rum cachaça – sometimes before a game.

The incredulity that comes with accepting the truth of this story is far more believable than the exaggerated lie of pure idolatry. This man was not a perfect human being.

He was an incorrigible alcoholic and womanizer. He fathered 14 children by 5 different women. He had a lengthy and sulphurous association with a samba singer. Later he was involved in a car crash in which her mother-in-law died.

He, who left a wake of ruin on the pitch did not cope well with such destruction off it, and the wretched creature full of cachaça and misguided thoughts tried to kill himself. He failed but his actions would achieve the same outcome eventually.

Yet he also won the World Cup twice. In Sweden in 58 he was the best in the world in his position. Four years later in Chile he was simply the best in the world.

Was it alchemy or witchcraft he practiced when playing jogo bonito ? A Chilean newspaper speaking of magical realism before many knew what it was, asked in 62 “which planet is he from?” 

In Brazil people use both their mother’s and father’s last names. His mother’s was dos Santos. His father’s was Francisco. Except the man was too pissed at the registrar’s office to add Francisco to his son’s name. (Is there a hereditary gene that passes addiction from father to son? Or is it your surroundings and the choices you make that condemn you?).

He had many nicknames including ‘O Anjo de Pernas Tortas’, ‘The Angel With Bent Legs’ and Alegria do Povo ‘The Joy of the People’.

The world would simply know the boy as Garrincha.

Garrincha whose grandparents were slaves was born in Pau Grande, a district of Magé, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, in 1933.

In his childhood between swimming in rivers and kicking makeshift footballs the angel with the bent legs nicknamed after a doleful and pitiful little bird used to kill these creatures known as Garrinchas. The symbolism and irony of the act are too powerful.

The privation he endured as a penniless and starving urchin was honed into a potency which allowed him to gain a place on teams through ability and sporting prowess -, as his natural ability to hustle on the street morphed into invaluable body swerves, imbuing him with the guile to throw bewitching and contorted spells on the pitch.

A ball offered social mobility for those who couldn’t afford toys – a spherical angel that blessed the lad by offering the chance to feed and clothe himself, turn him into an all-conquering superhero, and because she really took a shine to him, made him a deity for all eternity.

One of the most talented footballers the world has ever seen, the splendour of his intuitive imagination crystallising into outrageously joyous acts, sporting taunts on the pitch. In games he would regularly fake to shoot. Sometimes he would even fake not to shoot, and score. But that was only after he had his fun. Goals were the necessary climax but he much preferred the foreplay.

His play was sensual but possessed a violence of movement that sent cumbersome defenders running into thin air, like dogs tracking and hounding a rabbit that deceives them by changing direction suddenly, cunningly and without warning.

I showed my six year old son Garrincha’s goals on youtube. The boy, who loves football as I once did, with spontaneity and innocent passion that supersedes even sleep and food, instantly fell in love with this bandy legged little bird, this Chaplin of the turf.  “He’s….he’s…” I let him finish. I wanted to hear a new description of ‘O Anjo de Pernas Tortas’ – ‘The Angel With Bent Legs’.

My little lad stopped and tried again. This time he articulated a perfect fact with the deadly accuracy of a child: “Daddy, I didn’t know you could be a good player if you didn’t pass the ball”.

What is a legacy? Is it a body of work or your behaviour as a human being?

Mozart composed, and played in front of European royalty when he was five but was known as vain and pompous. Beethoven had custody battles and cried when his deafness meant he could no longer hear his applause. He is said to have died during a dramatic storm, the moment of his passing coinciding with a dramatic clap of thunder. An autopsy found damage to the liver consistent with cirrhosis.

Does your life away from the body of your work even matter when you leave such joy behind?

In Garrincha’s case he left a magic encased in old men’s recollections and dreams. Sepia memoirs that are now living on as digitally re-mastered second millennium bite size links.

In the build-up to the 1958 World Cup, Garrincha had to have his tonsils removed. He sat unblinking as he watched the needle ease into his mouth. He lost a lot of blood and when he returned to the loving arms of the selecao he was nine pounds lighter. Pele asked him if he was ok. Garrincha smiled and replied, “I fulfilled a childhood dream – I got to eat ice cream after having my tonsils out”.

In psychometric tests he was classed as below primary school age with zero aggression. He even spelt the word athlete incorrectly on his form. If he was back in Pau Grande he wouldn’t have been allowed to drive the school bus. But what does education matter when you can produce joy? What would you choose?

In a warm up match before Sweden 58, Brazil played Fiorentina. Late in the second half Garrincha beat the Viola players, Robotti, Magnini, Cervato before selling an outrageous dummy to the keeper Sarti. He now had an open goal in front of him but he chose to wait for the onrushing Robotti. With a feint of the shoulders the Brazillian left the Italian to run into the post, nearly knocking himself out in the process. He then passed the ball serenely into the net, as if there was no other option for his fun to continue.

Calmly he lifted the ball with his foot into his hands, stuck it under his arm and walked back to the centre circle, head lowered out of respect. The crowd was momentarily stunned before it erupted at what it had just seen. Never mind they were now 4-0 down the Viola fans stood as one and acclaimed the little bird with wild abandon. They knew they had just seen magic.

The Brazilian selectors, wary of his individuality (oh the irony) but apprehensive ahead of the vital group game a month later v USSR, finally relented amidst player pressure unheard of at the time, and picked him. Sputnik had been launched the year before, and The Soviets were feared as mysterious idols with their“scientific football”. Garrincha, in all his naivety asked, “might these guys be good?”

Brazil needed to start well if their shadowy Cold War Supermen could run for 90 minutes. What followed has been described as the best three minutes in Brazilian footballing history. In the space of 180 seconds Garrincha beat defender Kutnetzov four times, left Voinov on his back complete with accompanying laughter from the 50,000 crowd in Gothenburg, and hit the post. Pele then hit the bar as the Brazilians kept attacking. Legendary keeper Lev Yashin was already soaked in sweat and was so disorientated he congratulated Pele after Vava scored their first on three minutes. French Legend Gabriel Hannot later said they were the greatest three minutes in the history of football. Brazil won 2-0 and went on to win beat Sweden 5-2 in the World Cup Final, the normally taciturn Scandinavians cheering the selecao as if it was their triumph.

Garrincha was always a contradiction. This streetwise colloso was also muito ingenuo , even on the pitch. In the final against Sweden it was said that Garrincha didn’t even know who the opponents were, and at the finish he meandered around the pitch asking “is it the end?”

Garrincha won the World Cup in 1958. In 1962 he won it again, almost singlehandedly. Brazil never lost a football match with Pele and him in the side. Despite many approaches from European giants he stayed loyal to Botafogo, winning the Campeonato Carioca three times and scoring 249 goals in 579 games for the team that means firelighter. The metaphor was perfect: this combustible figure was an inferno on and off the pitch.

Pele said: “Garrincha was an incredible player, one of the best there has ever been. He could do things with the ball that no other player could do and without Garrincha, I would have never been a three-times world champion.”

Yet the football gods, capricious creatures they are, can also cast heroes back to penury and derision, usually through an addiction or two, laid back excess and a turbulent private life.

In 1980, suffering from delirium tremens and haemorrhaging he was asked to take part in the Rio carnival. As he sat stupefied with medicine on his float, as millions watched horrified from the side-lines and on television, Pele, in a VIP box threw him a garland. Garrincha was too spaced out to even notice. The camera cut back to Pele who by then was shaking his head sadly saying “oh my god”, at the horror of it all.

What a strange thing it must be to be discarded by strangers, abandoned by family and loved by an entire nation. Yet there he sat in an alcoholic stupor or drugged with medication depending on who you believe, unaware of his own obsolescence. Unaware of anything. Too drunk or dazed to understand even pity or revulsion.

Those the gods love they first mock then destroy.

The only predictable aspect of Garrincha’s his life was his death: destitute, intoxicated and abandoned. This double world champion was already mired in the poverty that formed him, and less than three years later his body failed him. He died penniless and alone.

Millions lined the route on the day of his funeral, and on his gravestone it reads “Here rests in peace the one who was the Joy of the People – Mané Garrincha.” 

In tribute the Maracana, the old evocative one, not the shiny new one ready to welcome the world next summer, called the away dressing room “Pele”. The home one was called “Garrincha”.

Unlike Beethoven there was no clap of thunder when he died. For Garrincha, Alegria do Povo – if not Manuel dos Santos Francisco – the gods owed him that at least.

By Layth Yousif

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona