Portrait of an icon: Garrincha

Daniel Storey

When Garrincha died in 1983, Brazil’s Professional Athletes Association proposed that he be the first player to be buried at the Association’s recently built cemetery, a middle-class mausoleum. Former teammate and friend Nilton Santos overruled them; Garrincha’s body lies in an isolated, tired-looking cemetery. Whatever happened in between, Garrincha was born into Brazil’s working class. That is where he should rest.

Besides, there are more appropriate methods of commemoration. Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana is the most iconic stadium in world football. The home dressing room is named after Garrincha, Brazil’s ‘Angel with bent legs’.

We should not know Garrincha’s name, nor his story. He should have been just another Brazilian born into poverty, raised in poverty, living and dying in poverty. He was born with a deformed spine, his right leg bent badly outwards and his left leg six centimetres shorter and curved inwards. Doctors were concerned that he would never walk unaided, let alone play professional sport. Garrincha ended up taking Brazilian football to heights it had never before climbed.

“One day he came home with a little bird in his hand,” recalled his sister years later. “On seeing the bird, I said to him ‘Look, it’s just like you. It flies around a lot, but it’s no good for anything. It’s a Garrincha [little bird]’.” A nickname was born.

Having started working in a factory at the age of 14, Garrincha had no interest in becoming a footballer despite impressing for the works team. It was not until he reached 19 that he was persuaded to train with Botafogo. The story goes that Garrincha nutmegged Brazil international Nilton Santos within 15 minutes of training with the side. Santos immediately persuaded Botafogo to give him a professional deal.

Garrincha became a symbol of Botafogo, playing over 600 games for the club and scoring close to 250 goals. Within nine years of his professional debut – he scored a hat-trick, naturally – Garrincha had become a double World Cup winner and one of only three players in history to win the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at a World Cup. The ‘little bird’ had learnt to fly.

Rather than allowing his physical disabilities to hold him back, Garrincha instead turned them into an advantage. The bend of his legs to the left tricked defenders into thinking he would move that way, but Garrincha learned to dip both ways almost in the same movement. Brazil teammate Leonidas remarked that Garrincha “played with the ball as a kid with a toy”.

“It was difficult to know which way he was going to go because of his legs and because he was as comfortable on his left foot as his right,” Wales left-back Mel Hopkins said. “He attacked with such pace and I believe he was more of a danger than Pele at the time.”



It would be myopic to merely describe Garrincha as a footballer, and wholly inaccurate to call him a sportsman. He had a childish, simple view of the game that made it enjoyable pursuit rather than sport. He played for fun and to entertain rather than to win. He was, as Ruy Castro describes in his wonderful biography, ‘the most amateur footballer professional football ever produced’.

Garrincha seemed to gain energy from beating defenders like the rest of us do from breakfast. On his first World Cup start, a win over Soviet Union in 1958, he dribbled past five players in the first minute alone. One French journalist present described it as ‘the greatest three minutes in the history of football’. After the game, Garrincha asked his teammates why the Soviets were so distraught. Completely unaware of the format of the tournament, the winger assumed that there was still a second leg to play.

In any other player, such a carefree attitude would have been to the detriment of on-field performance. With Garrincha, it created and defined him. He was the perfect fan player, carrying an innocence and selflessness that made it never about him and all about the ball. Pele may be the poster boy of Brazil’s success, but Garrincha is the leading factor behind the Selecao’s reputation for beautiful football.

His country knew him as ‘the joy of the people’. As Brazilian football writer Alex Bellos wrote in his book Futebol: ‘Pele is an international reference point, and one who is simple to understand: a poor black man who became the best in the world through dedication and skill. But Brazilians do not love him the way they love Garrincha.’

This was football as artform, a celebration of individual spontaneity rather than team sport. Garrincha played the game in a manner that people dreamt about but never expected they would witness. Sport is now driven by the end result, the bottom line, but Garrincha was infatuated by the means. A team could not survive with 11 Garrinchas, but it could thrive with one.

Crucially, Garrincha’s nonchalance enabled him to perform at his peak on the biggest stage. To him, World Cup matches were not big matches, but a replica of everything that had gone before. Pressure is not forced upon an individual, but created in their own mind.

In his book, Castro relays an anecdote about Garrincha’s attitude to money: ‘When he was given a bonus after the World Cup, he handed the cash to his wife, who hid it under the children’s mattress. Years later, they remembered the money, and discovered a rotting mass of sodden paper. The bonus had been destroyed by bedwetting.’

If that story describes someone playing purely for the love of the game, it also hints at the extreme tragedy that matched Garrincha’s on-field majesty. His life was a trainwreck of addiction, pierced by 90-minute periods of clarity. Only on the field was he safe from his personal demons. Football was his salvation, but could only be a part-time saviour.


In hindsight, Garrincha never stood a chance. His father was an alcoholic, dependent on the Brazilian spirit Cachaca made from sugarcane juice. He began drinking from a young age, and reportedly lost his virginity to a goat. A damaging addiction to alcohol and sex had already been established long before his Brazil debut. It was that, not football, that would span the majority of his life.

Put simply, Garrincha was incapable of saying no. He was childlike, mentally and emotionally immature and sent into a spiral of addiction without support or protection. Former teammates spoke of a “childish spirit” and a “love of the ladies”, but these are thin facades, euphemistic veils draped over serious psychological issues. By the peak of his career, Garrincha was drinking a bottle of Cachaca before matches.

After his international career ended in 1966, Garrincha became a football drifter, touting himself around Europe and South America desperate to play the game. As the offers decreased, the time he spent with the devil only increased.

When on the pitch, something clicked for Garrincha. He didn’t need to rely on his vices, only the natural skill that perhaps made him the most talented player in the history of the game. Sadly, some people are stuck to a conveyor belt of addiction, a devastating cocktail of nature, nurture and cognitive disorder. Garrincha suffered at the hands of all three.

In April 1969, Garrincha was driving his car while drunk when he crashed into a lorry, killing his mother-in-law. On a separate occasion he ran over his father but did not stop. Both incidents caused heartache that only increased his drinking. Garrincha also fathered at least 14 children, had numerous affairs and separated from his second wife in 1977 after he was violent towards her during argument. Six years later he was dead, cirrhosis of the liver sending him into an alcoholic coma from which he never recovered. He was just 49.

There is a cliched image of the rock star footballer burning the candle at both ends, living a life off the field but delivering on it. The reality contains far less swagger and swank than you’d think, and far more sadness.

Now, Garrincha would be cared for and cherished, his mental illness treated. Instead his naivety was exploited, a circus freak who was underpaid by clubs and forced to have knee injections to perform. A man of few words, the media trawled through his private life and made profits from the spoils. Rarely given a voice, Garrincha spoke through his football but, away from the field, he was mute. He was abandoned by his sport, needing to be loved but with nobody to love him. Garrincha may have been killed by alcohol, but fame was as an accomplice.

By the time Brazil truly appreciated Garrincha’s fall, it was far too late. Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the streets as his funeral car crawled to the cemetery, thousands more waiting to bid farewell by his graveside. By the time all had left, the cemetery was half destroyed. Football had lost one of its greats. Garrincha had fallen through the cracks.

‘In the entire history of football no one made more people happy,’ Eduardo Galeano once wrote of Garrincha. The man who had become a symbol of Brazilian hope had warped into a tale of destruction through addiction. The ‘joy of the people’ had become despair.


Daniel Storey