Garrincha: The bird with clipped wings
Robin Hackett
November 29, 2011
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On June 15, 1958, Garrincha made his Brazil debut against Soviet Union at the World Cup finals. He was joined by another debutant - 17-year-old Pele - but it was the 24-year-old outside right who was to light up the stage that day, reducing the Soviet defence to ruins.

It provided Garrincha the springboard he needed to establish a reputation as one of the most gifted players the world had seen, a phenomenon who lit up the World Cups of 1958 and 1962. Even so, his was not an especially happy story, the postscript telling of a man whose alcoholism caused terminal damage to himself and others. A psychological assessment while with the national team found him to be "obviously infantile" and, in a story that threatens to divert attention from his abilities, biographer Ruy Castro wrote that he lost his virginity, aged 12, to a goat.

From the outset, he was to be marked out as different. Born in the Rio de Janeiro village of Pau Grande in 1933, the midwife noticed immediately his crooked legs. His left was also two inches shorter than the right, and his spine was deformed. Allied to a spindly frame, the youngster was to develop a swaying walk whose avian characteristics led him to be known as 'Garrincha', or 'Little Bird'.

His physique did not appear to lend itself to a career in sport and, with life in Pau Grande centred on its textile factory, his athletic prospects looked limited. Until he was 12, Garrincha studied at the school maintained by the factory, and at 14 he began working there nine hours a day, pushing a handcart around to collect finished garments. "People would say when I was out walking: 'Poor boy, he is lamed. Poor little cripple.' All because I was bow-legged," Garrincha said in a serialised column for the Daily Express in 1962. "But I never felt different from anyone else. My bow-legs didn't stop me 'dribbling' my handcart between the narrow rows of machines."

The village factory had its own football team, and Garrincha had his chance to impress, but his alcoholic father was fiercely opposed to his son's appearances for the side each Sunday. "I became an outside right because it was the furthest position from the watchful eye of my father," Garrincha explained. "It gave me a start so that I could run away from the game whenever he discovered me playing, for punishment would surely follow. You see, we were poor and my father wanted more for me than he thought football could give."

Even at 14, he was the star of the Pau Grande team and he decided to pursue a career in football. He asked for a trial at Vasco da Gama - "because it was the closest club to the train station" - but was ignored. "I think my bow-legs impressed them badly. Next week the same thing happened at the Fluminense club, so I gave up." It was only when scoring four goals for Pau Grande in a match refereed by Botafogo wing-half Arati in 1953 that his potential was recognised, and he was invited for a trial.

Upon arrival, he explained that he was an outside right. The Botafogo coach, Gentil Cardoso, laughed and said he would therefore be coming up against Nilton Santos, then considered the best left-back in the world. Garrincha nutmegged him. "He is always a gentleman and he let me show my tricks," Garrincha later said. "Anyway, I won our duel, Nilton said I should stay, and I signed a contract."

So impressive was his performance in training that, he said, he was thrust into the Botafogo first team the following Sunday. They trailed Bonsucesso 2-0 after half an hour, but Garrincha netted a debut hat-trick and found himself in the newspapers the following morning. He was 19 then, and had already married and impregnated his 16-year-old childhood sweetheart.

Two years later, he made his debut for Brazil. Numerous top clubs around Europe had made attempts to sign him after he impressed during tours with his club, but it was not until the World Cup of 1958 that his journey to superstardom began in earnest, and it could have turned out very differently.

He was not selected for the first two games of the World Cup - a victory over Austria followed by a draw with England - as boss Vicente Feola harboured doubts. Fitness coach Paulo Amaral had put together a scouting report that warned that, for all his ability, the player was a risk: "I wrote that Garrincha is a formidable player, but he has one very small defect: he dribbles far too much." It was a frequent criticism - one that was "never resolved," Amaral said - but not one that ever caused Garrincha to rethink his approach. "I have had my trouble with coaches," he said in the Express. "Often they have tried to limit - even forbid - my expressing myself in a game.

"Maybe that's why I have so little respect for them. Even under the treatment of losing my place in the team I have never changed my way of playing. I had a feeling I was right, the coaches were wrong. If I advise a young player when he begins, I tell him only: 'Learn how to dribble'. Because then, I tell him, your play will be gay and you will be loved, and you will have glory, fame, and money, if you want such things."

Botafogo boss Joao Saldanha did not have a problem with it, either. "Garrincha never attacked the opposition in his whole life," he said after taking control of the national team in 1970. "They came at him and were destroyed."

When given his chance, Garrincha's dribbling took Soviet Union apart. He launched into an instant attack and hit the post on 40 seconds. Almost immediately afterwards, he set up Pele, who also hit the post. On three minutes, Garrincha helped set up Vava for the opening goal, and Brazil went on to win the game 2-0. At one point in the match, he left a defender for dead before putting his foot on the ball and helping him back to his feet; he then dribbled past him again.

He starred alongside Pele, Didi and Vava to take Brazil past Wales and France and, ahead of the final against hosts Sweden, Tottenham legend Danny Blanchflower wrote in a preview for The Guardian: "Right-winger Garrincha, with animal-like speed and instinct, is a bewildering player whose shadow must lead a frustrating experience trying to keep up with him."

The young Pele, with two goals, was to take the headlines as Brazil beat Sweden 5-2 to become world champions, but Garrincha had excelled. "I believe this World Cup final saw football from Brazil as near to perfection as 11 men may ever achieve," Bob Pennington wrote in the Express. "The little masters from Brazil were inspired to write the greatest soccer symphony of our time by a brown-skinned boy who calls himself Garrincha. Today the 'little bird' has soared like an eagle to become a living legend throughout South America."

After the World Cup, though, Garrincha's womanising and alcoholism became more prominent. He was dropped from the Brazil side and, during a tour of Sweden with...
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