Imagine a player so infantile that in a World Cup preparatory match against Fiorentina, he dribbles past the entire defensive line, and then the keeper, and then waits for the defender to track back once more, before he dummies him too. Finally, after enough ‘shenanigans’ he walks the ball into the net, picks it up with his foot and nonchalantly walks to the centre of the park. So infuriated were the players and the coach, instead of a stream of claps, he was angrily booed – by his own players! Now imagine the same player doing the same thing in the biggest stage of them all – the World Cup. Even before Maradona came, who single-handedly won the World Cup in 1986, there was one who did the same in 1962. Winning back-to-back World Cups is no mean feat, and the player in question did it in quite some style.

However, he was the least bothered when Brazil lost the 1950 final against Uruguay at the Maracanã. So much so, he did not even catch the game – not on the field and not on radio. He was off to a fishing trip with his friends at that time. Being a Brazilian, the above statement is absolutely unthinkable and yet, it’s true. Eight years later, it was the same player who played an important part as Brazil achieved their first World Cup glory. And to him, nothing mattered more than just going out on the field and having fun. Forget World Cups, forget lucrative contracts, forget the national recognition, all he wanted was to just have fun.

If there is one player who evokes the deepest sense of emotion in Brazil, it is Garrincha. Never has any other player captivated the imagination of the nation like he did during his time. Not Pele, not Didi, not even Vavá. From his first kick-about to his very last breath as an alcoholic, he was an enigmatic figure worldwide, more so in Brazil.

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Early life

Born Manuel Francisco dos Santos, it was noticed during the time of his birth that his legs were bent in a strange way. His left leg was bent inwards while his right one was bent outwards. A surgery might have cured him of this deformity, but orthopaedic doctors were not exactly found by the handful in Pau Grande at that time. Little would he know that his deformity will be his biggest strength in future. Starting his career as a textile worker in Pau Grande, Manuel was soon sacked due to his childish behaviour. He was fourteen at that time. From his youth, it was apparent that he was not meant for any serious jobs.

He excelled in only four activities – fishing, hunting, fornicating and playing football. Rumour has it that he lost his virginity to a goatGarrincha when he was only fourteen. Football came to him more naturally than others and he was an excellent dribbler. Till date, there is no other player who can claim to usurp his throne of being the best in that department. His lack of professionalism at the beginning of his career saw him move from one club to another, giving trials. Unfortunately, he did not get to finish off any of them. Once, he was left out because he did not bring his shoes and once he skipped trials since he had to catch the last train home.

Finally, at Botafogo, he had his first full trial. Legend has it that he was put on the same wing as Brazil international, Nilton Santos. Garrincha was unaware of his stature, but irrespective of that nutmegged him on many occasions – something no one had done to Santos before. A slightly stricken Santos urged Botafogo to sign him lest some other club snap him up. The legend of Garrincha was about to begin in full force.

In Brazil, there is a mythological creature called the ‘curupira‘. Although it had a distinctive red hair and was a dwarf, his primary distinguishing feature were his feet. Unlike normal human beings, this creature had his legs backwards. He was a protector of the forest and usually preyed on hunters. His distinctive features made it impossible for someone to catch him. If anyone followed his tracks, they would be going the wrong way altogether and get lost in the forest. Like this crafty legendary creature, Garrincha too was agile, fast and nigh impossible to catch.

Below-average intelligence

Garrincha loved to play football, but more importantly loved to dribble. Once, Zeze Moreira, Botafogo’s manager tried to force him to reduce his dribbles. Placing a chair on the field, he marked the position from where Garrincha was supposed to cross the ball. However, once he approached the chair, Garrincha simply dribbled past it. He used to put the ball through the legs of the chair and continue dribbling as if nothing was there in the first place!

His nonchalance to the overall score of the game was clear for all to see. All he wanted was to fool defenders, outwit them and then do it over and over again. All throughout his career, he stuck to the right wing position. He used to do the same dribbles every time yet not a single defender was ever able to get close to him without fouling him. The now-famous chant of ‘ole!’ is attributed to him. Once on tour with Botafogo, Garrincha repeatedly fooled Argentine defender Vairo, escaping from his lunges. The crowd went ‘ole!’ every time he did that. Once, he even had Vairo running after him, although the ball was still left on the field!

The angel with bent legs

Garrincha’s career with the national team began in 1955, a year after Brazil lost to Hungary. The match is fondly remembered as the time when three players were sent off and Ferenc Puskas thumped Pinheiro in the head with a bottle. Soon, he was a regular for the national squad and his first chance came in 1958, alongside another future national icon, Pele. In those days of scientific approach to football, former USSR clearly ruled the roost. Vicente Feola, the Brazilian coach even hired a psychologist who took tests for every player in the squad. So paranoid was Feola that he replaced every single female staff of the hotel with male staff, fearing his players’ amorous intents.

After two matches, one ending in victory and another in a draw, Feola decided to test his squad and threw Garrincha and ‘infantile’ PeleGarrincha against fearsome USSR. With Yashin under the bar, USSR was a formidable opponent any day and yet three minutes later, the high and mighty Yashin was sweating through his shirt. Garrincha, Pele and Vavá combined to wreck such havoc that the USSR team was chasing shadows for most part of the game. That match also announced the arrival of Garrincha on the world stage. A player whose below-average intelligence made him unsuitable to even be a bus driver!

Ever wonder why any sportsman lifts a cup or a trophy high in the air after winning it? Before 1958, no one did that. But since then, it has become the symbolic gesture for any sporting victory, either singular or as a team. That gesture is credited to Bellini, the Brazil captain from the 1958 side. After crushing Sweden by a 5-2 margin, in which two goals were scored by Vavá in a similar fashion like the one against USSR, Bellini was called up to receive the Jules Rimet trophy. Legend has it that short Brazilian photographers shouted “lift it up”, to see him in the crowd of tall Swedish journalists. Inadvertently, Bellini lifted the trophy above his head and the gesture was born.

The slow decline

Once during the World Cup, the coach was giving tactical guidance to the entire team when he found Garrincha engrossed in a Donald Duck cartoon. Frustrated, he gave up the idea of telling Garrincha what to do. It worked wonders for him and the team as they managed to beat their opponents anyway. Such was the naivety of Garrincha. Fast forward to 1962, and we find almost the same Brazil team playing to retain their hard-earned crown. Pele had at that time established himself as one of the best centre-forwards in the world, while Garrincha still wowed the crowd at Botafogo.

Pele was injured in only the second game for Brazil and from then on, it became a one-man show. Although most of the other players were on the twilight zone in their career, it fell to Garrincha to inspire Brazil to their second successive World Cup triumph. Such was the importance of Garrincha that even though he was sent off for kneeing a defender in the semi-final, the President of Peru intervened and got the Peruvian referee to waive off charges laid against Garrincha. The final was a different hurdle altogether. Playing with a high fever and a very handy dosage of aspirin, Garrincha-led Brazil trounced Czechoslovakia by a 3-1 margin.

Garrincha’s career soon fell apart slowly and steadily. Being a constant womanizer did not help him and he fathered as many as ten children with three wives during his lifetime. He was a drinker from very early in his life and even killed his father by running him over with his car. His adventures with cars did not end there and once he killed his mother-in-law while they were returning from a visit to see his children. By a freak coincidence of nature, his son died on that same road when he was returning from football practice exactly two decades from the first accident.

In spite of all his antics, Garrincha is fondly remembered in Brazil, more than Pele himself. Whereas Pele modelled his career as a footballer, made every correct move to cement his place in the hallowed annals of history, Garrincha did the exact opposite. While Pele hired a manager, registered his brand and secured his earnings, Garrincha blew his wealth over booze and women. So much so, the club took advantage of him on many occasions. Rumour has it that Botafogo made him sign blank contracts and later used to put the amount to be paid to him. Garrincha was totally carefree on that front. He lived miserly still, much in the same way he did since he started working in the textile factory.

While Pele is revered, Garrincha is adored. Pele symbolised winning whereas Garrincha played just for the fun of it. Even today, Garrincha is loved more than Pele, more so in Brazil than anywhere else. The sense of joy which he brought to the game is unmatched till date and in his simple, care-free ways made the Brazilian public sway to his every move on and off the field. His death from alcohol overdose sent the nation into mourning and his body was taken to the Maracanã in the same fire engine where once he celebrated the 1958 World Cup.

There has been no one in the history of football who embodied the true spirit of freedom other than Garrincha. His dribbles have now become folklores and people who are lucky to see him play now recite stories about his crazy antics to their grandchildren. Football has changed a lot since its inception and there has been many icons and legends of the game, yet none of them brought a smile to someone’s face quite like the way Garrincha did. And even in death, no one was able to catch the ‘little bird’ flying past them.