Garrincha: The lonely star

An artist, technical genius and one of Pelé’s closest friends. But also, a man with a growing alcohol problem that grew larger during the years. This is the story of Manuel Francisco dos Santos, or simply “Garrincha”.

Garrincha was born in Pau Grande to Amaro and Maria Carolina. Garrincha was Amaro’s fifth child with Maria Carolina and he would get four more after him. His midwife was the first person to discover his crooked legs. But at that time in Brazil, it wasn’t anything you knew that you could quite easily fix. His mother had similar problems but not quite as big as him. Pau Grande, a small village in the southeast of Brazil. He had a lot of friends during his childhood and loved to play around and making different pranks. He was a child with a lot of energy and he didn’t have much supervision from his parents. He could easily disappear into the woods for hours without anyone noticed it. He learned to ride horses and paddle in the river long before he was a teenager. But the lack of supervision also led to Garrincha almost never brushed his teeth and only cut his hair once every six months.

His eldest sister came up with the nickname “Garrincha” – which means “little bird”, since he had crooked small legs and the fact that he was much smaller than all the other kids. One of his favourite hobbies was hunting birds. It was mainly a project to benefit his urge of prick shooting targets with rocks that drew him. He never ate them, even though he one time came home with 48 birds in a sack. As he grew older so did his interest in hunting bigger things. And as soon as he got a rifle the animals became bigger and more in numbers. He had trouble concentrating in school, preferring to be out fishing or playing football. In the 40’s almost all kids in Brazil played football and Garrincha was no exception. His first football was paper stuffed in his aunt’s pantyhose. He also once played with an inflated bladder from a goat. He finally decided to quit school because his marks weren’t good enough to take him to the third year of primary school. Something his father didn’t like. “Idiots don’t achieve anything in life” he used to say to his kids.

Life in Pau Grande was quite easy, his favourite dish was rice, beans and spaghetti. As he grew older Garrincha’s interest for ladies became bigger. It is said that he lost his virginity to a goat when he was around 12 years old – something that wasn’t totally uncommon outside the big cities in Brazil in the 40’s.

He started to work for the textile factory when he was 14 years old. The weeks including work for 48 hours and Garrincha was put in the cotton section at the beginning. This was the place where the seeds were removed from the cotton by big machines. It wasn’t a nice place to work considering the heat and the dangerous machines that sometimes led to workers losing their fingers. Although that was very unlikely to happen to Garrincha since he enjoyed taking a nap on top of the big cotton pile instead of working. No one caught him sleeping in the beginning since they couldn’t believe anyone could sleep in that noise. The boss, who was also the manager of the local football club in Pau Grande where Garrincha played at the time, was holding Garrincha’s back and he would let the things like napping and missing work hours pass.

When Garrincha wasn’t even 16 years old his mother died after giving birth to another son. This loss hurt Garrincha and he felt devastated. It didn’t help that his father brought in another woman in the house only a couple of month later.

He played as a left midfielder at an early age but it wasn’t very suitable for him since he practically couldn’t use his left foot. When he started to play for two teams in Petrópolis, first Cruzeiro and later Serrano, he switched to right midfielder. In Serrano, he signed a contract which gave him considerably more money than working in the textile factory. But Garrincha didn’t care, he was sick of going the distance to Petrópolis for games and training and decided to quit playing for them, even though he stood under contract. Instead he went back to Pau Grande to play for the local team for free. He wasn’t very interested in football other than playing it himself. He never went to Rio to watch any of the big teams and when Brazil lost the final game of the World Cup in 1950, and missed to become world champion, he was out fishing instead. When he came back and found the whole city in mourning he thought they were all idiots.

He met his feature wife, Nair, when she was 12 and he was 15. Later when they both worked at the textile factory their relationship intensified. When Nair got pregnant at the age of 16 there was no other choice than marriage. Garrincha and Nair was already married and had a child when he was asked to come and test play for Botafogo.

One day in 1952 the Botafogo right-back Araty Vianna was invited to watch some games in Pau Grande. He was so impressed by Garrincha that he approached him after the game and said, “Your future is in Botafogo”. Then he gave him a business card and told him to come and look for him in Rio.

During the test-play he was up against the Brazilian international defender, Nilton Santos. It only took a couple of minutes before Santos said “It’s better to play with him than against him. Sign him”. So, in 1953, Garrincha signed a professional contract with Botafogo. The transfer sum reached only 500 cruzeiros which was like 27 dollars. That was nothing, not even at the time since Zizinho had been bought by Bangu for 33-thousand dollars in 1950. His first contract with Botafogo gave him a salary of 1500 cruzeiros per month and an addition of 500 in sign on bonus. He also was given the permission to live in the club’s dorm room under the stands but he denied it saying he need to get back every day to his wife and kid in Pau Grande.

He would always travel back to Pau Grande after the Sunday game and hit the bar together with his two best friends Pincel and Swing. They would drink heavily until Monday morning and then continue all Monday. It was actually quite extraordinary that anyone survived until Tuesday. He loved to throw parties and drink a lot of Cachaça, the Brazilian rum he fancied more than anything in the world. Botafogo learned to live with the fact that he didn’t show up on Tuesdays, always with a new excuse like “My father fell off the horse” or “I had to take my wife to the doctor”. No one believed him but on the other hand they didn’t know what to do about it. The new manager Zezé Moreira tried to make him not to dribble. But that was impossible, Garrincha loved to dribble. In fact, he thought dribbling was more important than winning titles.

He scored a hat-trick in his debut for Botafogo – being carried off the field by Pincel and Swing who had come from Pau Grande to watch his debut. They didn’t just come to his debut, they even came to watch his trainings and wait for him at the train station to accompany him home. They visit the club so often that people in and around Botafogo recognized them.

Since Vasco and Flamengo were the biggest clubs and therefore the attention of radio, you had to walk to the stadium to hear anything about Botafogo. In his first season with Botafogo he scored 20 goals in 26 games and helped them to third position of the league.

In one game against the French team Reims, Garrincha took his dribbling to a whole new level. Botafogo was up with 5-1 when Zezé shouted to Nilton Santos to keep possession and not hunt a sixth goal. Garrincha took the order very literally and started to dribble past Reims players over and over again. When he finally reached the touchline on the opposite side of the pitch he turned around and dribbled past them all again. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. It was on one of these trips abroad that the manager Zezé got his suspicions justified about Garrincha. He had noticed that he drank a lot of tonic water so he walked up to his table and asked; “Drinking tonic water again Garrincha?”. Garrincha said yes and Zezé asked if it was okay if he had some. “But I’ve already drank from the glass” said Garrincha. Don’t worry about it said Zezé, you don’t have any disease. He would spit the drink right out. It was straight gin in the glass.

In 1955, he was called up to the Brazilian national team for the first time for two friendlies against Chile. But Garrincha didn’t seems nervous at all. A couple of days before the first game he drank some “Cachaça” in the bar with the full back Jordan. Although Jordan thought it was just going to be some water and a nice chat. He was surprised when he saw Garrincha kicking down a couple of glass of the strong rum. It didn’t affect his ability on the field either since he played good in the 1-1 draw against Chile. But the newspapers were a bit critical the following day that he hadn’t passed the ball enough.

In 1957, Didi joined Botafogo from Fluminense. He had been up against Garrincha several times before and knew he loved to dribble. Although he was a bit shocked when he constantly shouted to Garrincha to drop the ball and he totally ignored him. When he finally had dribbled past 4-5 players and dropped the ball to Didi he would say “What did you say Didi? I didn’t hear you.”

That same year Botafogo won the Campeonato Carioca. Garrincha impressed so much that he was called up for the national team and the World Cup of 1958 in Sweden. But he could as well have missed it if it wasn’t for Julinho turning down the offer to do a comeback in the national team. Julinho didn’t think it was fair to the other players that had been fighting for their places during the past three years. The doctors made several tests on the players before the World Cup and was shocked by the state many of the players were in. One player even had syphilis. The state of the teeth on all the players was the worst part. Garrincha had already lost almost every tooth in his upper part of his mouth and had to remove another one. Garrincha also had his tonsils taken out – something he had postponed for several years. When he returned to the team hotel he was 9 pounds lighter and pale as a sheet in the head. But he still smiled and said “I have fulfilled a childhood dream. Having an ice cream and having my tonsils taken out.”

The Brazilian team lived on the hotel in Hindås. A small village outside Borås, just a couple of kilometres from Gothenburg. The directors had ordered to replace all the females that work at the hotel with men because they didn’t want any unnecessary distraction. On the other side of the lake was a nudist camp and they were told to cover up both refused. Some of the Brazilian players bought some binoculars after a couple of days. Brazil progressed through a tough group that including Austria, England and the Soviet Union. Garrincha wasn’t picked for the first two games but against Soviet he made his first game from start. Manager Feola demanded attack from the first moment and Garrincha and Pelé both hit the woodwork in the opening minutes, which later was named “the best three minutes of football of all time.”

In the quarterfinal Brazil won against Wales with 1-0 and Wales defender Mel Hopkins said this about Garrincha after the game;

“Garrincha was more of a danger than Pelé. I believe at the time he was a phenomenon, capable of sheer magic.”

In the semi-final against France, Brazil played tremendous football and Pelé scored a hat trick when the score line ended with a 5-2 victory for Brazil. When Brazil fell behind against Sweden in the final, some people became scared that moments from the World Cup of 1950 would be awaken to life again. But this team was different, they weren’t going to be scared and shaken by things from the past. Bellini picked up the ball from the net and gave it to Didi. It was time to turn this game around. Brazil was already in the lead when the halftime whistle was blown. Two goals from Vavá had turned the game around. Brazil finally won the game with 5-2 and became world champions for the first time. Back home the Brazilian team was greeted with celebrations and happiness from the whole country. But Garrincha really just wanted to go home to Pau Grande and celebrate with his friends. The day after his arrival back home he drank Cachaça and played football with his friends on the pitches in Pau Grande.

After the World Cup a lot of things happened during the years to come for Garrincha. He put on some weight, mostly due to the heavy drinking he was now more or less addicted to. He was dropped from the national team for some friendlies but was soon back again. In 1959, he made a Swedish girl pregnant during a tour with Botafogo. Nine month later he got a telegram saying that he had become the father of a son in Sweden. Short after the tour in Sweden he ran over his dad in Pau Grande when he was drunk and drove the car recklessly. Lucky for Garrincha his father got up without any visible injuries and stopped people from lynching his son. His father would die from liver cancer later that year after a life filled with alcohol problems.

In November 1961, Garrincha met the female singer, Elza Soares in Rio. They both fell in love with each other. But the situation was complicated for Garrincha. Back in Pau Grande he had a family and kids (now plural) and it wasn’t that easy back then to just walk off from your wife. Elza and Garrincha started a life together in Rio and even though he had a family in Pau Grande he couldn’t resist Elza. They would live together for many years and experience both wonderful and devastating experiences together. Their house would be a target for gunshot, death threats and burglars. In 1969, he was involved in a car crash that killed Elza’s mother. In 1965, he separated from Nair and after a couple of years he married Elza.

In 1962, he became world champion for the second time when Brazil won the World Cup in Chile. Garrincha was one of the best players of the tournament and made an unforgettable goal against England in the quarterfinal. He made a so-called “banana shot” – which bent around the defenders and into the net. After scoring two goals in the semi-final against Chile, one Chilean newspaper wrote “What planet is Garrincha from?” and after the England game one newspaper in England said that “he was Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and a snake charmer all into one.” He shared the title as the tournament’s best goal scorer with five other players. Although he was widely considered to have been the greatest player of the tournament.

But the decline became more and more apparent after the World Cup. In 1966, he left Botafogo after 12 years, over 600 games and over 200 goals scored for the club. He had won three Carioca Championships and become a legend in the club. He left for Corinthians where he only lasted for two years before he moved on to Atlético Junior in Colombia.

He was selected to the World Cup in 1966 even though his fitness was poor and he still struggled with a knee injury. Brazil went out in the group stage.

He finished his career in 1973 after short spells for Flamengo and Olaria. He was now 40 years old and had just became a grandfather – something that made the choice to retire easy. But he struggled with his alcohol addiction and he woke up every morning shaking with abstinence. Elza tried everything she could to help him get rid of his addiction. But it didn’t work and he would hide booze everywhere. In 1977 Elza left him since their relationship had become unbearable. The last year of Garrincha’s life he was hospitalized eight times and on 20th of January 1983, he died from cirrhosis.

It seemed that people had forgot about him during the years after his retirement. But his funeral procession that went from Maracanã to Pau Grande attracted millions of fans and former teammates. In 2003 a movie called Garrincha – Estrela Solítaria (“the lonely star”) was launched. He was the joy of the people. He was the dribbling genius that everyone Brazilian adored.

He was Garrincha – the little bird.

About the Author

Oskar Uneland
25 years old from Sweden. Love football.