When it comes to unlikely athletes, it’s hard to think of anyone who defied logic more than Garrincha. Born with a crooked spine, warped knees and a left leg a couple of inches shorter than his right, the young Garrincha didn’t seem destined for soccer stardom.
But despite these physical obstacles, Garrincha built a reputation as one of the most skilled players in Pau Grande, the factory town where he grew up. Professional clubs took notice, but none of them were willing to gamble on the kid with the bent legs.
Garrincha Gets A Chance
Soccer historian David Goldblatt said that Garrincha only got a chance after proving himself at Botafogo, one of Brazil’s biggest clubs.“Eventually he goes to Botafogo for a trial,” Goldblatt said. “And the story that is told, apocryphal or not, is that one of the great defenders on the team, who’s part of the Brazilian national squad at the time, is marking him in a game where they’re testing people out, and he just takes the guy to the cleaners. And they sign him.”
Garrincha scored a hat trick in his professional debut in 1953. But he wasn’t just about goals, according to Brazilian soccer expert Tim Vickery. Vickery claims that what really made Garrincha stand out was his flamboyant playing style.
“He wasn’t a player who would run 80 meters,” Vickery said. “He would run a little bit. Stop. Run a little bit. Stop. Run a little bit. Stop. Very, very often, they doubled up or even tripled up to mark him. So you have a line of people, but they never all go in at the same time. It’s a little bit like watching a Bruce Lee film where he’s able to fight off one and then dribble ‘round the next.”
Easy To Watch, Tough To Manage
“After five minutes, a Brazil side without him had become totally inconceivable.”
Marcos Azevedo, who directed a recent ESPN documentary on Garrincha, said that the forward was left out of the starting 11 because of his spontaneity, his greatest asset.
“He didn’t really follow any tactical orders from coaches in his club,” Azevedo said. “So there was a lot of concern from the management and the coaches of the team. They didn’t know how Garrincha would perform on a world stage, whether he was able to handle the orders that he needed to follow.”
But after an unconvincing start to the tournament, Brazil’s management team decided to draft Garrincha into the side for their make-or-break game against tournament favorites, the USSR.
According to Vickery, “After five minutes, a Brazil side without him had become totally inconceivable.”
The match ended 2-0 to Brazil, and those opening minutes, where Garrincha relentlessly tore through the USSR defense, became legendary. Led by their new star and a teenager named Pele, Brazil went on to win the 1958 tournament – their first World Cup.
Pele And Garrincha
When you tell Garrincha’s story, Pele’s name will always figure. They both made their World Cup debuts in the USSR game, with Pele up front and Garrincha wide on the right. A statistic worth remembering: When Pele and Garrincha played together, Brazil never lost a game.
But Garrincha’s greatest moment actually arrived in Pele’s absence.
“In the 1962 World Cup Pelé gets injured in the second game and plays no further part in the tournament,” Vickery said. “Then Garrincha really has to step up, and he becomes a one-man attacking force. He starts playing from the right wing rather than on the right wing. And he’s scoring goals from free kicks; he’s scoring goals with his head; he’s scoring goals when he’s cutting in. I think in ’62, it’s a level of football that hasn’t been surpassed many times.”
Brazil won the tournament, becoming only the second nation to successfully defend a World Cup. Garrincha returned to his homeland as a hero with fans calling him “the angel with the bent legs” in honor of his unlikely form.
A Quick Rise, A Quick Fall
“By 1965-66 his organs already gave signs that they couldn’t handle any more [alcohol].”
“He was never right afterward,” Goldblatt said. “I think, given his kind of disability, he was always going to run into trouble. I mean, all footballers do on their knees, and this is a man who was really flipping his knees all over the place on the pitch.”
“And he played on,” Vickery said. “He went to the ’66 World Cup and scored a great free kick, but by that stage he just wasn’t capable of doing it from open play anymore.”
Garrincha’s knees weren’t the only thing that brought his career at the top level to a quick halt. His playful playing style reflected his lifestyle off the pitch; Garrincha loved to party. Alcohol had always been a part of his life — there are archive videos showing the young Garrincha stopping pick-up games for a beer break — but it really started to tell after he hit 30.
“Alcoholism is a problem that will only show its signs after a long period of bombardment,” Azevedo said. “So after years ingesting alcohol in a daily routine, by 1965-66 his organs already gave signs that they couldn’t handle any more.”
The Final Years
Garrincha did play on, with plenty of clubs keen to sign him because of his immense popularity. But as his performances dipped the limelight began to fade. He formally retired in 1973 and spent the last years of his life drinking heavily and, as his savings dwindled, playing in exhibition matches, sometimes for as little as $50 a game.
Garrincha died of liver disease in 1983, penniless and out of the public eye. But his death sparked an outpouring of emotion. Millions lined the streets for his funeral procession as the nation said farewell to the angel with the bent legs.
Matthew Nelson is a producer for Howler Radio.