Garrincha: Brazil's Joy of the People - A Legendary Tale of Football Brilliance and Cultural Iconography


Garrincha: Brazil’s Joy of the People – A Legendary Tale of Football Brilliance and Cultural Iconography

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The intriguing saga of one of football’s all-time greats unfolds. Before the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the debate over the greatest footballer often revolved around legends like Diego Maradona and Pele. Yet, in Brazil, the spotlight also falls on Manuel Francisco dos Santos, fondly known as Garrincha.

Witnesses of Garrincha’s brilliance still recall his mesmerizing dribbling, unmatched balance, and incredible speed. He possessed a unique ball control, eliciting awe from spectators who cheered him on with “Ole,” akin to a matador teasing a bull.

Garrincha’s remarkable journey began in the small village of Pau Grande, north of Rio de Janeiro, leading him to Botafogo, where he clinched three state championships. His prowess reached its pinnacle on the World Cup stage, contributing significantly to Brazil’s victories in 1958 and 1962.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once said, “In the entire history of football, no one made more people happy.” Even his teammate Pele acknowledged Garrincha’s extraordinary talent, stating, “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.” Garrincha’s legacy remains etched in the annals of football history.

An incredible career

Born in October 1933 to grandparents who had experienced enslavement, Garrincha faced physical challenges from the start. His left leg was six cm (2.3 inches) longer and curved outward, while his right leg was bent inwards. Additionally, he had an S-shaped spine, leading a doctor to label him a “cripple.”

Despite his small and fragile frame, his older sister Rosa affectionately dubbed him “Garrincha,” meaning “little bird” in Portuguese. His natural talent, evident in his debut for Botafogo in 1953 where he scored three goals against Bonsucesso, transcended his physical limitations. Over the next 12 seasons, he scored an impressive total of 249 goals in 579 games for the club.

Garrincha made his international debut for Brazil in 1955 but didn’t feature in their first two games at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. However, history was made in the tournament’s third game when Garrincha and a 17-year-old Pele played together for the first time, contributing to Brazil’s 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union. This partnership marked the beginning of an incredible streak—Brazil never lost a game in the 40 matches where both Garrincha and Pele were in the starting lineup, a fact proudly highlighted by Pele in 2013.

In Sweden, their combined brilliance breathed new life into their nation’s campaign. Overcoming challenges against Wales and France, Brazil advanced to the final against the hosts. On June 29, 1958, inspired by Garrincha, who orchestrated their opening two goals, Brazil secured their maiden World Cup triumph with a resounding 5-2 victory over Sweden in Stockholm.

Garrincha not only earned a winner’s medal but also found himself voted into the All-Star Team.

“Wales full-back Mel Hopkins remarked, ‘Garrincha was more threatening than Pele—he was a phenomenon, capable of sheer magic. It was challenging to predict his moves due to his unique legs and ambidextrous skills. He could cut inside or dash down the line, and his shots were incredibly powerful.'”

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Numerous top European clubs, including Juventus, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid, expressed interest in Garrincha due to his exceptional talent. However, despite lucrative offers, he chose to stay in Brazil.

The peak, and the slide

Brazil entered the 1962 World Cup in Chile as favorites, but their hopes were dashed when Pele suffered a leg injury, sidelining him for the rest of the tournament. However, Garrincha stepped up, guiding Brazil to a consecutive World Cup victory. He scored twice against England in a 3-1 quarterfinal win and repeated the feat in the semifinals against Chile, helping Brazil secure a 4-2 victory. Despite battling a severe fever, he played in the 3-1 final win against Czechoslovakia in Santiago.

Garrincha’s exceptional performance earned him the Golden Boot as the top scorer, the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament, a spot in the All-Star Team, and, most importantly, a winner’s medal. Chilean newspaper El Mercurio was so impressed that they asked, “What planet is Garrincha from?”

However, this tournament marked the pinnacle of his career. The condition of his legs caused excruciating pain, and within a year, his knees prevented him from playing consecutive games. Despite being advised to undergo corrective surgery in 1959, he delayed it until 1964, by which time irreparable damage had been done. His pace and mobility significantly diminished, and he was never the same player again.

Although he made a memorable return to the 1966 World Cup, scoring a notable goal in a 2-0 win against Bulgaria, he couldn’t prevent Brazil’s 3-1 defeat to Hungary, leading to their elimination from the group stage. This marked his 50th and final appearance for Brazil, and astonishingly, his first loss while wearing the national jersey.

Garrincha, both on and off the pitch, embodied a carefree spirit. He became a father at 18 and had 13 children with five different women. His father’s alcoholism, which led to his death, cast a shadow over Garrincha’s life, as he too struggled with heavy drinking.

The end of joy

By the conclusion of the 1966 World Cup, Garrincha’s injuries and struggles with alcohol had significantly impacted his abilities. Despite this, he continued to play for seven more years, making sporadic appearances for clubs such as Brazil’s Corinthians, Flamengo, and Olaria, as well as Colombia’s Atletico Junior.

In April 1969, he was involved in a car accident believed to be caused by his intoxication, resulting in the tragic death of his mother-in-law, Dona Rosario. There were reports suggesting he attempted suicide afterward.

Retiring officially in 1973 at the age of 40, Garrincha’s farewell match was held at Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana stadium, featuring a FIFA team against Brazil, witnessed by a crowd of 131,000.

Garrincha faced a challenging retirement. He hadn’t saved any earnings from his career, having spent them or fallen victim to exploitation. Financially struggling, he briefly worked as an ambassador for the Brazilian Coffee Institute, feeling forgotten and abandoned by the football community.

On January 19, 1983, at the age of 49, Garrincha slipped into an “alcoholic coma,” marking his eighth hospital visit that year. He succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver the next day.

His passing deeply moved Brazil, and millions lined the funeral procession route between the Maracana and his hometown of Pau Grande. Loved for his exceptional talent and flaws, many Brazilians related to Garrincha’s spirit and his joyous approach to the game.

His gravestone bears a poignant inscription: “Here rests in peace the one who was the Joy of the People – Mané Garrincha.


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