BY Vince Cooper

For years the debate raged about who the title ‘Greatest Player in the World’ belonged to. Pele was generally rated at the top until Diego Maradona came along to challenge him and usurp him in the eyes of some. Obviously recent times have seen more modern greats Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo nominated for the accolade.

And yet, at the time when Pele was considered by many as the greatest on the planet there were some who felt that he wasn’t even the best player in Brazil.

That was because of the mesmerising skill of Garrincha.

Manuel Francisco dos Santos (the ‘Garrincha’ or ‘Little Bird’ nickname would come when he was around four years old from older sister Rosa) was born on 23 October 1933 in Pau Grande, Mage, a principality of Rio de Janeiro. His left leg was 6 centimetres longer than the right and he also had an ‘s-shaped’ spine leading one doctor to declare him ‘a cripple’ whilst he was still a baby.

The deformity caused his right foot to point inwards whilst the left one bent out.

Garrincha’s grandparents were slaves whilst his father was an alcoholic and his upbringing, especially given his diminutive size, was tough.

There was undoubtedly football ability but Garrincha didn’t seriously consider the game as a career, playing as a hobby for junior teams Pau Grande and Cruzeiro du Sol before he was picked up by Fluminense State League team Serrano as an 18-year-old.

With first wife Nair Marques

In 1953, now 20-years-old and already married and a father (he wed Nair Marques in 1952 and they would go on to have eight daughters together) Garrincha signed as a professional for Botafogo and had his first taste of top-class football.

In training with his new club he showed both his skill and audacity by nutmegging established Brazil international Nilton Santos and he followed this up with a hat trick on his reserve team debut against Bonsucesso.

In action for Botafogo

Sadly, it was said that he was already downing a bottle of rum a day, a habit which would eventually lead to many incidents that dogged his career and play a major part in his early demise.

Garrincha and Elsa Soares

He had a turbulent personal life and would eventually leave Nair and marry famous Brazilian samba singer Elsa Soares. In all he is said to have fathered at least 14 children with five different women during his lifetime.

On the football pitch tremendous speed allied to a low centre-of-gravity enabled him to switch direction in an instant and quickly brought the winger to even greater attention. Within two years of his Botafogo debut ‘Mane’ was picked for his country after his club had gone 19 games unbeaten in winning the Second Division of the São Paulo State Championship.

That low centre of gravity

An immediate hit for the national team and now mesmerising international defenders as well as those in his own country, it wasn’t long before he earned another nickname, ‘O Anjo de Pernas Tortas’ – ‘The Angel with Bent Legs’.

Over the next couple of seasons inconsistency, probably brought about by that turbulent personal life as well as a propensity for showboating which was frowned upon by the selectors.saw him picked only sporadically for the national team.

When Brazil travelled to Sweden for the 1958 World Cup, Garrincha was in the squad but it came as no surprise when he was left out of the eleven for the first two matches along with 17-year-old Pele.

The final group match pitted Brazil against the Soviet Union with both teams knowing that anything other than a win could lead to elimination.

Garrincha celebrates the World Cup win with his teammates

Both Garrincha and Pele were brought into the line-up and the pair played huge roles in a 2-0 win which gave Brazil a place in the quarter-final and forced the Soviets into a playoff with England (which they won 1-0).

Garrincha gets his hands on the trophy

The rest – as they say – is history. Brazil won their final three matches in the tournament and scored 11 times culminating in a 5-2 final victory over hosts Sweden. Pele scored six times but observers noted that Garrincha’s speed and trickery in carrying the ball along with the ability and willingness to go inside as well as outside the full-back played a key role in the run.

Outpacing Swedish left-back Sven Axbom in the 1958 World Cup final

Indeed that ‘trick’ of going both ways proved so tough for defenders who were used to wingers heading directly for the touchline before crossing the ball to deal with that Garrincha became a whole new type of wide man. And it was this skill that enabled him to score plenty of goals, unusual for wingers in his time who were considered to be providers of chances rather than takers of them.

Garrincha and Pele

But first and foremost, ‘Mane’s’ game was about beating the first man, something ‘The Little Bird’ turned into an art form. Indeed, Pele himself said: “Garrincha could do things with a ball that no other player could”.

On one memorable occasion against Argentine club River Plate he was opposed by experienced international Federico Vairo. Having twisted and turned the defender he ran off down the wing followed by his marker who hadn’t realised that ‘The Little Bird’ had left the ball behind. Garrincha turned and returned to collect the ball leaving the gasping Vairo in his wake to shouts of ‘Ole!’ from cheering fans.

Having propelled Brazil to their World Cup win in Sweden Pele and Garrincha continued to torment defences leading to their team being heavily favoured to defend their crown in Chile four years later.

Little had been seen of the Brazilian national team outside South America following their victory in 1958 whilst controversy dogged Garrincha. A return to Sweden for a tour with his club resulted in a local girl becoming pregnant by him whilst at home he got drunk drove away from the bar he was in and ran over his own father.

Going past Mel Hopkins of Wales

In 1962 the focus returned to football and in the build up to the tournament in Chile, Brazil proved their form was good with a pair of victories over Portugal followed by two wins against Wales (after which Welsh defender Mel Hopkins who had the onerous task of trying to mark him called Garrincha: “A phenomenon, pure magic”.)

Then it was on to Chile and the tournament that proved to be Garrincha’s finest hour.

After a comfortable 2-0 win over Mexico, Brazil failed to find a way past a tough Czechoslovakian defence in their second match, but the goalless draw was not as big a problem as a thigh injury to Pele, who had scored in the Mexico win, which would force him to miss the remainder of the tournament.

Replacement Amarildo grabbed both goals in the final group game win over Spain setting up a quarter-final with England – runners-up behind Hungary in their group – in Vinha Del Mar.

Garrincha gets a cross in despite the efforts of Ray Wilson

Here, Garrincha took charge, giving England left-back Ray Wilson a torrid time in the sweltering Chilean sun.

The English team were well aware of his skills and often Ron Flowers or Bobby Charlton would drop back with Wilson to create double coverage but the winger still proved so difficult to cope with with his teammates feeding him as often as possible.

Having already rounded Wilson and beaten Ron Springett with a shot from a seemingly impossible angle only to see Jimmy Armfield clear it off the line, he grabbed the opening goal after 31 minutes although it was one few would have expected to see him rising to head home a Zagallo corner.

Greavesie and the dog

The game was interrupted by the arrival on the pitch of a stray dog who evaded all attempts to capture him until Jimmy Greaves got down on his hands and knees. The England star managed to catch the dog – who promptly urinated all over his shirt. The dog was later raffled among the  Brazilian team members – and won by Garrincha. Jimmy would later say: “I’m known in Brazil as Garrincha’s dog catcher”.

Gerry Hitchens fired home after a Greaves effort had rebounded off the crossbar to bring England level before the break but in the second period Brazil – and Garrincha – took charge.

First he fired in a free kick that hit Springett and rebounded for Vava to score. Then he clinched victory with his own second and his country’s third. It was the best goal of the match and possibly the tournament and he drifted into midfield and sent a twenty five yard shot swerving past the stranded England ‘keeper.

After the match one suitably impressed English journalist called him: “Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and a snake charmer all rolled into one”.

After seeing off England it was on to a last-four clash with the hosts, who had fought (quite literally in many cases) off Italy in the group stages in a match which became known as ‘The Battle of Santiago’ and which the BBC had described as; ‘The most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football’.

It was the mercurial winger who once again proved the difference-maker, firing home from the edge of the box for the opener and adding a second with yet another header.

Chile fought back bravely but Brazil ran out 4-2 winners, even though Garrincha was sent off after 83 minutes after retaliating in response to the harsh treatment he had received.

Luckily for Brazil, the sending-off didn’t result in suspension for the final giving them their star winger for the big match – and a great chance of a second successive crown.

World Cup winners

The final saw Brazil come up against Czechoslovakia for the second time in the tournament.

Vava missed an early chance for the South Americans after being set up by Garrincha who had left full back and skipper Jan Novak trailing and whipped in a fine cross. Then with fifteen minutes on the clock the Czechs shocked their rivals, taking the lead through Josef Masopust.

Within 90 seconds Brazil were level when Amarildo fired home brilliantly and the score stayed level until twenty minutes from time when Zito put the South Americans in front.

Vava clinched victory for Brazil when he added a third ten minutes from time so Garrincha received his second World Cup winners’ medal, finishing joint-top scorer in the tournament with four goals and winning the Golden Ball as Player of the Tournament with French newspaper L’Equipe calling him; ‘The most extraordinary right-winger football has known’.

Still only 25, Garrincha was clearly at the peak of his game and was considered by many to be the best player in the World, even prompting Chilean newspaper El Mercurio to ask: ‘What planet is Garrincha from?’.

A year after their triumph Brazil embarked on a seven-match European tour. Unfortunately it was without Garrincha who, beset by injury and continuing to suffer from the alcoholism problems that had dogged his father, spent the whole year banished from the national team.

In fact he didn’t reappear in the Selecao line-up until 1965 when he made five starts as Brazil prepared to defend their crown in England.

As Brazil began their build-up for a second successive defence, the winger was back in the starting XI on a more regular basis and with goals against Poland and Wales in warm up matches he started to look to be back to somewhere near his best.

Brazil began their defence at Goodison Park (where they would play all three of their group games) against Bulgaria and the 2-0 win thanks to free kick goals from Pele in the first half and from Garrincha, playing despite being hampered by a knee injury, in the second seemed to serve notice that the champions were again a force to be reckoned with.

Another injury for Pele, given a tough time by the Bulgarian defence, forced him out of the second match against Hungary but Brazil started on the front foot with Lima’s long-range effort after just 90 seconds barely kept out by goalkeeper Gelei’s tip over the bar. Hungary then went in front but Brazil equalised somewhat fortunately when the ball ricocheted off Tostao into the net and the teams went into the break level.

It was Hungary who took over in the second half, scoring twice and leaving Brazil’s, and Garrincha’s hopes of a three-peat hanging by a thread. It was the first time the Selecao had lost with ‘Mane’ on the pitch and it would prove to be his 50th and final cap.

All hope was extinguished when, with a patched-up Pele back in the line-up but clearly not at his best and with Garrincha watching from the stands having suffered an injury of his own, Portugal, with Eusebio in full flow, beat Brazil 3-1 to send the champions home early.

Brazil would, of course, rise again four years later in Mexico but by that time Garrincha was long gone.

Having once been courted by the likes of Juventus and Real Madrid, he left Botafogo, where he had made 581 appearances after his club finally grew tired of those off-the-pitch antics and was sold to Corinthians where he played just a handful of games before joining Colombian team Atletico Junior then returning to Brazil and signing for Flamengo. He played only sporadically for all three clubs and retired in 1969.

Garrincha mounted a brief comeback with lowly Rio club Olaria in 1972 but, by then aged 39 and with his much abused body clearly damaged by the effects of alcohol he was clearly a shadow of his former self, quickly going back into retirement, this time permanently.

He would continue to appear in exhibition matches well into his 40s but it was more a case of his name being used to sell tickets rather than the ability he retained.

On 17 December 1973 a farewell match was staged between Brazil and a FIFA World (mostly South American) XI. A crowd of 131,000 attended and the referee stopped the match during the second half to allow Garrincha to leave the pitch to a standing ovation.

Alcohol problems had continued to dog his life including a 1969 incident when the car he was driving killed his mother-in-law. As the abuse worsened, financial problems mounted and by the time he passed away from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of just 48 in 1983 he had faded into obscurity.

But millions turned out to pay homage during his funeral procession from the Maracana to Pau Grande, proving that he had won a place in the hearts of all football fans.

The famed Uruguayan football journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote of him: “Nobody in the entire history of football made more people happy.

“Garrincha nurtured his pet, the ball, and together they created such mischief that people almost died laughing. He jumped over it, it gambolled around him, skipped off and made him run after it. And on the way, his opponents ran into each other”.

It is frightening to think of the impact a player of Garrincha’s type might have made in today’s game when matches are televised globally and fans are acutely aware of anyone special almost as soon as they appear on the scene. To many in Europe he remained a man of mystery with only a handful of World Cup matches showing his magical ability.

The statue at the Botafogo museum

There is no doubt that Garrincha was indeed someone special. The problems that haunted his life and ended it far too early cannot diminish that. His gravestone in Rio says it all.

“Here rests in peace the one who was the joy of the people – Mane Garrincha”.