Historical Football #3 – The Childish Angel With Bent Legs

Historical Football returns for another edition and this time focuses on the man with many names. He was Mané to his friends and Garrincha to everyone else…

When fans look back on the great Brazil side of the late 1950s and early 1960s, it’s easy to fawn over the brilliance of Pelé (after all, he is the best player of all time). However, there was another star in that team who was as revered in Brazil as the great man. That man was the flying winger Garrincha.

Born Manuel Francisco dos Santos on October 28th 1933 in Pau Grande near Rio, the future legend had some birth defects – a deformed spine and bent legs with one six centimetres shorter than the other. However, this did not impede his ability to play football in any way and at a young age was already alerting scouts from the nearby Rio clubs. However, Garrincha (which means little bird, a name he got from his hunting skills) was rejected by many of the large clubs in Rio like Fluminese and Flamengo. He was disillusioned and did not want to have anything to do with the big clubs in Rio. That all changed in 1953 though.

Garrincha's name will be synonymous with Botafogo
Garrincha’s name will be synonymous with Botafogo

He got a trial at Botafogo and the 19 year old was thrown in against Brazil international full back Nilton Santos. He immediately dribbled past Santos and caused him such problems that Santos marched him to the president of Botafogo and demanded that he was signed so Santos never had to face him again.  He quickly became a star at Botafogo – his dribbling, child-like innocence and desire to entertain making him a hero to all fans across Brazil regardless of their club loyalties. He and Pelé were the footballing idols of the time and by the time the 1958 World Cup rolled around there was genuine excitement for the Brazilian squad.

Garrincha was actually left out of the opening two games of the tournament as a punishment for a goal he scored in a pre-tournament game against Fiorentina. He beat everyone (goalkeeper included) and, instead of scoring, waited for a defender to track back, beat him and then scored. It was viewed as reckless hence the two game suspension. However, his return coincided with the debut of Pelé at the World Cup and the two inspired Brazil to glory with Garrincha man of the match in the final.

Post-World Cup, Garrincha’s stock continued to grow as he kept giving great performance after great performance drawing interest from Real Madrid at the time. However, Garrincha stayed with Botafogo and was that key part of one of the top sides in Brazil. His performances were breathtaking and leading in to the 1962 World Cup it was clear that Garrincha was one of the stars. After Pelé got injured in the second match, Garrincha stepped his game up and single handedly dragged Brazil to glory finishing as joint top scorer and player of the tournament. It was an incredible set of performances and Garrincha looked unstoppable.

Garrincha (l) with Pelé (r) – two of the greatest Brazilians of all time

He continued the World Cup form through the 1962 Brazilian season and led Botafogo to another state title. His performance in the final is seen by many in the Brazilian game as his finest ever. It would prove to be a turning point for Garrincha however. His bent legs which had helped him to become the unstoppable winger he was were beginning to fail him. Arthritis set in and, with the pain, came the loss of his supreme explosiveness. By 1965 he was no longer the star at Botafogo and was moved on to Corinthians. He rarely played and when he did, he struggled badly. It was clear that Garrincha’s footballing days were numbered.

Incredibly though, he was selected to go to the 1966 World Cup. The decision was purely political with a new military dictatorship and FIFA looking to please the public and create a party atmosphere. Despite being massively out of shape and past his best, Garrincha still scored one of the goals of the tournament against Bulgaria with a stunning free kick. His final appearance for Brazil came against Hungary and was the first defeat that Garrincha had suffered with Brazil.

Garrincha in full flow for Brazil and beating his marker as always
Garrincha in full flow for Brazil and beating his marker as always

He spent the last few years of his career desperately trying to resurrect some of the old magic but it was long gone. Spells at Flamengo, Olaria and Atletico Junior in Colombia never worked. His testimonial in 1973 drew 130,000 plus to the Maracana but Garrincha didn’t last the full 90, departing with a lap of honour. He played occasional exhibition games but nobody ever saw the magical winger’s best ever again.

Despite his on the field success, Garrincha had a troubled life. He was a renowned alcoholic (he followed in his father’s footsteps in that regard) and womaniser who is reported to have fathered 14 children. He was married twice and involved in several road incidents related to alcohol over the years including one which killed his mother-in-law in 1969. He tried to commit suicide during this time and his alcoholism slowly destroyed him. He was admitted to hospital eight times in the year before his death from cirrhosis of the liver on January 20th 1983 at age 49. He was a pale imitation of himself by the time he died but his death was mourned across Brazil. Thousands lined the streets of Rio to pay their final respects before he was buried in his home of Pau Grande.

Garrincha will always be remembered as the child-like winger who never bothered with the details of football and just wanted to entertain. Stories are told of how he would not know who he was playing, how he would go home after a game at the Maracana and play on the pitch where he grew up with his friends and how he wouldn’t turn up at Botafogo for days due to his drinking. It’s sad that his life and career deteriorated the way it did but he should never be forgotten for the player that he is. Mané Garrincha truly was Alegria do Povo – the joy of the people.

Stay tuned for another Historical Football on Monday

Thanks for reading!


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