Cult Heroes: Garrincha – Anjo de Pernas Tortas

When Manuel Francisco dos Santos was born on the 28th of October 1933, the midwife noticed that his left leg was curved outward (it was six centimetres shorter than the right leg during his career) and his right leg curved inward. In the modern game, this Brazilian genius would have been shunned for lacking the physique of an athlete. Not that he thought football should be taken seriously.

The playwright Nelson Rodrigues said of the man rumoured to have lost his virginity to a goat: “He is considered a retard, but we are the retarded ones – because we think, we rationalise. Next to him, next to the prodigious instantaneity of his reflexes, we are luggards, bovines, hippopotamuses.”

He was born in the idyllic town of Pau Grande, 40km from Rio. Nicknamed Garrincha or little wren by his elder sister Rosa, his carefree attitude made sure the name stuck. He had a natural talent for football, but little else. He could accelerate brilliantly his ability to change direction whilst his dribbling was unrivalled in the town. He was kept on at the local textile factory where he started work at the age of fourteen just so he could play for the company’s football team. He was an awful employee, lazy and unambitious.

But when he took to the pitch, no-one cared. His ability to constantly humiliate his marker totally compensated for the lack of a work ethic. He would have remained an amateur, had he not been taken reluctantly to trials at the big sides. He was turned away by Vasco Da Gama and Fluminense because he hadn’t brought any boots, while he left his trial at the latter earlier to catch the last train home.

It changed in a trial for Botafogo, where he was placed on the wing against Nilton Santos, a member of the Brazil squad. He dribbled past the international defender as if it was a kickabout back in Pau Grande, nutmegging him in one dribble. He won a contract and promptly scored a hat-trick on his full debut for Botafogo.

There was an air of predictability about his ability, but that took nothing away from the sheer brilliance of a player who unfathomably stood upright when logic dictated that he should fall every time he ran. And he only fell when scythed down by desperate defenders. After showing fantastic form for his club, he was called up to the 1958 World Cup squad along with a certain 17 year old called Pele.

He didn’t play in the opening two games (a win against Austria and a draw with England) but the Anjo de Pernas Tortas (the angel with bent legs) revealed his talent to the world against the USSR. Following a mesmerising dribble, he hit the woodwork after just forty seconds and set up Pele with barely a minute gone to also shoot against the upright. The opening onslaught summarized the style of Garrincha to the watching world.

The game ended in a 2-0 victory, marking a partnership between Pele and Garrincha that saw Brazil remain undefeated when the two legends took to the pitch together. The partnership led to Brazil’s first World Cup victory. The 5-2 win against Sweden is remembered for Pele’s brace but it was the wing-play of Garrincha and crosses to striker Vava that created both of Brazil’s opening goals.

In 1962, Brazil went to Chile with a similar squad. Four years older, most of the side were now nearing the end of their careers. Only a 21 year-old Pele (having scored 111 in 75 appearances the year before) and a little wren coming into his prime could provide the youth the national team required. Pele was injured in the second game and missed the rest of the tournament.

It was up to Garrincha to inspire the Selecao, and until Maradona in 1986, no one player had ever had such an influence in a victorious World Cup campaign. He was sent off in the semi-final against Chile for kneeing an opposition defender in the bum, but due to heavy political interference (even the president of Peru got involved), he was allowed to play in the final. Away from the national side, he scored an astonishing 232 goals in 581 appearances for Botafogo, winning the state championship three times.

1962 was the most successful year in Garrincha’s career but it was the beginning of a tragic end. His knees could not take the pressure of his unique dribbling style as he put his whole body weight on one foot before feinting and changing direction to evade a defender. His cartilage was wrecked, but he decided against an operation after taking advice from his faith healer.

He was called up to the 1966 squad despite a loss of form in the four years since his acts of brilliance in Chile. Brazil won their opening game 2-0 against Bulgaria with Pele also playing.

He missed the second match versus Hungary, which Garrincha and co. lost 3-1. It was Garrincha’s final game for Brazil and the first he had lost (the others being 52 wins and seven draws). Pele returned to face Portugal but was kicked out of the match as Brazil limped home with a successive 3-1 loss.

The simplicity of his character was exploited by many. He was one of the lowest paid players at Botafogo despite being the symbol of the club. He was never fiscally prudent like his team-mate Pele – barely literate, he often signed blank contracts. Pele trademarked his own name, invested his money and ran his own sports marketing company. Garrincha had hard cash stashed in his cupboards in his Pau Grande home. The two-time World Cup winner was still living in a slum.

But with the genius on the pitch, there was controversy off it. He got a local girl pregnant during the seminal World Cup victory in Sweden, while his wife Nair Marques was back home in Pau Grande, tending to their daughters (she was to eventually give birth to eight in total). There were affairs and more children with other women too, including Elza Soares, a famous samba singer. Not to mention the heavy drinking and many car accidents.

Garrincha was a notoriously bad driver, running over his father whilst drunk after the 1958 World Cup. Elza Soares had some teeth knocked out during another bender, but the worst happened in 1966. Having returned from England, he was driving Elza’s mother to Pau Grande to see his children. According to Brazilian author Alex Bellos, he hit a lorry at fifty miles an hour, causing the car to flip over. Elza’s mother died.

The accident caused Garrincha to fall into a state of depression, which was compounded with his heavy drinking, which increased once his career was effectively over. The couple moved to Rome and had a child together, but with a baby in the house, Garrincha’s drinking and mood got worse, as he started beating his wife. Elza left and Garrincha remarried for a third time. His ways did not change and there were a number of suicide attempts following the death of Elza’s mother.

The demise continued as Garrincha fell into an alcoholic coma after spending one morning drinking heavily. He died of cirrhosis of the liver on 20th January 1983.

His bloated body was unrecognisable from the nimble athlete he once was. He was just 49 and left behind at least 14 children. They call Pele O Rei (the King) in Brazil, but Garrincha is known as Alegria do Povo (Joy of the People). Garrincha’s story therefore appeals more to the typical Brazilian than that of Pele’s.

It is one marred by tragedy where the protagonist, playing football just for fun, is exploited by the establishment and falls into a spiral of personal crisis. It is a human story.


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