Why you should care
Garrincha was perhaps the greatest dribbler the sport has ever known.
Some of the greatest athletes in history never got the attention or acclaim they deserved. In this series, The Unsung, OZY looks at some of the most talented sports figures in history who were underappreciated, overshadowed or forgotten.
It was 1958. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik into orbit a year earlier and claimed the Olympic gold medal in soccer the year before that. The Soviets’ Drago-esque “scientific football” approach was as intimidating as it was successful, and many other squads across the world were starting to emulate it before the upcoming World Cup. In Brazil, potential team members were given IQ and psychological profiling tests. One of the young prospects subjected to those tests was 24-year-old Manuel Francisco dos Santos, known as Garrincha.
Garrincha means “wren” in Portuguese, and in many ways, the undersize right wing with deformed legs seemed about as far from a scientific soccer specimen as one could get. He also failed every profiling test he was given. But, after a underwhelming start to the tournament, Brazil’s coaches decided to throw the science out the window and throw Garrincha and a promising teenager named Pelé into the lineup for the team’s final group match against the mighty USSR.
Garrincha pursued life off the pitch with the same passion as he did on it.
The French football legend Gabriel Hanot once described the opening minutes of that Brazil-USSR match as the three most incredible minutes in the history of the sport. Garrincha electrified the crowd, feeding Pelé and his teammates and tearing through the vaunted Russian defenders as if they were stationary nesting dolls. It would not be the last time that Garrincha, regarded by many as the greatest dribbler of all time, would defy expectations and help define the decidedly unscientific flair and flamboyancy of Brazilian football. Still, as Garrincha’s teenage teammate on the field that day was transformed into a global icon in the years ahead, Brazil’s other bright star would fade from view.
Garrincha was born into poverty in the factory town of Pau Grande, near Rio de Janeiro, in 1933. A crooked spine left him with a right leg that bent outward and a left leg that was noticeably shorter than the right. Like many poor Brazilian youth, he wore the same shirt and shorts nearly every day and spent every possible hour playing football barefoot on dirt pitches.
As Garrincha grew older, professional clubs took notice of his talent but were concerned by his deformities. After several passed on him, Garrincha landed a spot at Botafogo. In his first professional match, he entered the game with his team trailing 2-1. He subsequently scored a hat trick en route to a 6-3 win and a career in which he would score a jaw-dropping 249 goals in 579 games for the squad.
Pelé once said of his teammate that Garrincha “could do things with the ball that no other player could.” Garrincha’s ferocious stop-and-start dribbling, punctuated with lightning-quick flourishes, made him look like a cat toying with a ball and his defenders. He would sometimes beat a man, only to stop and let him recover so that he could do it all over again. And it wasn’t just his legendary dribbling, says Souvik Naha, a historian and editor of Soccer & Society, that arguably made him an even better ball wizard than Pelé: Garrincha’s ability to swerve a ball over long distances made him a formidable dead ball specialist too.
Garrincha’s carefree style turned him into a symbol of Brazilianness, says Naha: “He exemplified the various cultural influences that constructed modern Brazil, such as the adventurous man who prefers emotion to rationality as a guiding principle.” The joy with which Garrincha played the game and the adversity he overcame to play it quickly endeared him to Brazilian fans, who called him Alegria do Povo or “Joy of the People.” As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once put it, “[i]n the entire history of football no one made more people happy.”
It was at the 1958 World Cup, though, that Garrincha really made Brazil happy, and took his game to the next level, leading his team to a championship victory over host Sweden. And when Pelé went down with an injury four years later, Garrincha almost single-handedly led Brazil to victory in defending its World Cup trophy in 1962.
Garrincha pursued life off the pitch, however, with the same passion as he did on it. A rampant drinker, smoker and womanizer, he fathered 14 children with five women, including one in Sweden during the 1958 World Cup. Following his transcendent performance in 1962, the alcoholic Garrincha slowly began to self-destruct as his knees and his liver began to fail him. He retired in 1973 and turned to playing exhibition matches and pickup games for pocket money before dying from liver disease, destitute and alone, 10 years later. His fall from grace, says Naha, turned the former football hero into a cautionary tale, “an example of how not to live one’s life.”
Nevertheless, at his funeral millions of Brazilians lined the streets to pay their respects to their bent-legged hero. Garrincha’s gravestone reads “Here rests in peace the one who was the Joy of the People.”