When he was out there, the pitch was a circus ring, the ball a tamed animal, the match a party invitation. Garrincha nurtured his pet, the ball, and together they created such mischief that people almost died laughing. He jumped over it, it gamboled around him, hid itself away, skipped off and made him run after it. And on the way, his opponents ran into each other. – Eduardo Galeano
What is it about football that attracts a young mind? Is it the money, the fame, to have millions of fanatic followers from all over the globe? Or is it simply the joy that one gets from it? If one asks a kid from the streets of Buenos Aires, his answer would’ve been something much simpler – “I have two dreams. The first is to play in the World Cup; the second is to win the Championship.” Notice nowhere did the kid say anything about money. That was exactly what football was back then- simple, uncomplicated and more importantly, fun.
As the years rolled on, the world soon split itself into two parts. One part, wanted to win at all costs, because at the end of the day, it did not matter how many dribbles one pulled off, all it mattered was the end result. It did not matter whether the crowd applauded one’s effort; all it mattered was the two points that came with the victory. Someone once correctly said “in football, there is no second place.”
The other half, the more romantic half, believed in loving the game; it was always more than a game to them – they believed that the game was not about results, it was more about the joy that came out of merely playing it. There was something very releasing in the physicality of the game. It did not matter whether you are tall or short, whether you are fat or thin, whether you’re a limp or a guy with a chronic disease of having the left leg six centimeters shorter.
To beat a defender or any player for that matter is an achievement, but to beat him in the mind is another thing altogether. So what does one conclude when he watches a player take on not one, not two, but four defenders, beat them hollow; and then do the same thing to the keeper? As if that was not enough, he waited for the keeper to gain footing, upon which he beat him once again as he walked the ball over the line. The sheer audacity aside, this act of individualism would be enough for any coach to give the player the rather large piece of his mind. But the place was Brazil and the player in question was none other than Garrincha.
He stood by the touchline dressed in the familiar black and white stripes of Botafogo Football Club with the ball at his feet, his opponent standing opposite him. In a flash he bolted to his right and with the defender in hot pursuit he started to sprint down the wing. Two or three steps later he ran back. He had jumped over the ball and left it behind. Garrincha stood dead still over the ball for a few seconds and then bolted down the wing again. Once more the defender followed him and once more Garrincha had left the ball exactly where it was… Garrincha stood with the ball at his feet for a second or two and then darted off down the wing once again, this time with the ball. The defender didn’t move a muscle. – From Garrincha’s autobiography.
At Botafogo, where he flourished as a footballer, he would still do incredible stuff. Even without the ball, he beat the defender senseless. His penchant for dribbles, feints and shimmies warmed the hearts of the flair-loving Brazilian public.
It was the 1958 WC – Brazil was up against a supremely talented and also extremely fit opponent in the form of USSR. Vicente Feola, the Brazilian coach had just finished his discussion with the team psychologist, Dr. Joao Carvalhaes. His diagnosis about two of the players left Feola in a bit of tizzy. Till then, Brazil as a nation was known to be an entertaining unit, a team which played to the audience; but never as a World Cup winning material. A case in point was their heart-breaking 2-1 defeat in the final match against Uruguay in the 1950 WC. 1958 divided the footballing history of Brazil. It was that year the world finally realized that the South American country with an affinity for individualism would not only win their hearts but also win trophies.
Brazil as a country always favored individual talent over team mentality, and that was exactly what Feola did not want. Would he include those two players, whom the team psychologist rated as “infantile” and “unsuited to high-pressure games”? The players in question are none other than Pele and Garrincha. Ignoring the diagnosis was the best thing that Feola did in that World Cup or else, the world wouldn’t have ever come to know the little deformed genius from Rio de Janiero.
USSR were always favourite to win against Brazil and in fact, favorites to win the World Cup. But then it happened! The greatest three minutes of footballing history. Twenty seconds into the match, the ball came to Garrincha. His first victim was Kuznetov, an experienced left-back. Feigning to go to the left, Garrincha went right, leaving a hapless Kuznetov lying on the pitch. But wait, it wasn’t over yet. Seconds later, the left-back is back on his feet, this time supported by Voinov and Krijveski. Pulling the ball away from both of them, Garrincha darted to the right and took the first shot of the match. The ball ricocheted off Yashin’s left post. Garrincha returned to the middle of the park, as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. A swift interpassing involving Vava, Pele and Garrincha led to Pele’s first shot, but sadly the ball flew over the post. Drenched in sweat, the great Yashin wondered what they have come up against. Exactly a minute later, Vava gave Brazil the lead from Didi’s through-ball. The game was only three minutes old and the favored Russians were already on the back-seat. 87 more minutes of torture later, a new Brazil emerged.
Dribbling as an art has never seen a better exponent than Garrincha, and in all probability, it never will. The freedom with which he carefully cajoled the ball, stroking it gently, covering it from all possible dangers was a joy to watch. It was as if the ball was his little toy and all he wanted was to play with it. The creative spontaneity aside, what made him special was he not only played to the audience but also got results; and still at the end of the day, remained as humble as they come. In a sport dominated by results, the freedom of spirit that he displayed was extremely rare.
But all these would change. Soon the world came to adapt the 4-2-4 of the Brazilians and the joy of football became systematic and almost mechanical to a certain extent. But more on it in the second part…