Unpredictable, magical, elusive and explosive are just some of the many adjectives people have used to describe Brazil's beloved Garrincha, one of the best players ever to wear the famous canarinha jersey. With his legendary dribbling skills and keen eye for goal, he helped the South American giants to successive FIFA World Cup™ triumphs in 1958 and 1962.
If Pele is regarded by Brazilians as the most technically gifted player of all time, then Garrincha will always be remembered for his impudence and inventiveness. Daring, spirited and entertaining, he brought smiles to the faces of spectators the world over.
'The Chaplin of football'
But life for Manoel Francisco dos Santos was not always easy. His childhood was a constant struggle as he faced huge obstacles in pursuing his love of football. Born with one leg a full six centimetres shorter than the other in Pau Grande, a poor sector of the Rio de Janeiro state, the odds were stacked against him from the start.
In later years, the youngster ignored medical advice to quit the game despite having a badly distorted leg from corrective surgery. Small for his age, his sister Rosa began to call him Garrincha, a north-eastern name for the wren, a small bird popular in Pau Grande. The nickname stuck.
With almost superhuman perseverance, the 'Little Bird' stopped at nothing to become a professional footballer. In 1953, after being rejected by several teams because of his abnormal physique, the Brazilian was finally taken on by Botafogo on the recommendation of their player Gentil Cardoso, who had earlier been humbled by the bow-legged youngster in a practice game.
Playing professionally for the first time, the Brazilian quickly began exhibiting his full repertoire of tricks on the wings, and was soon beating his rivals for fun with his meandering runs and unbelievable changes of pace. Flair-loving Brazilian supporters quickly came to adore his selection of dribbles, feints and shimmies, which could infuriate even the best of defenders. It was in this era that he earned the monikers, 'The Chaplin of football' and 'The joy of the people'.
What planet is Garrincha from?
It was not long before Garrincha broke into the national team, making his debut on 18 September 1955 in a 1-1 draw against Chile. In all, his international record was 50 caps and 12 goals, and he scored five times in his dozen World Cup finals matches.
Just five years after senior debut for Botafogo, he became a world champion at Sweden 1958 - the first of Brazil's five world titles. It was there that he became part of a formidable attacking unit that included Didi, Zagallo, Vava and a precocious 17-year-old called Pele, who was just starting to grab the headlines. Vicente Feola's Auriverde picked up other accolades, one of which was becoming the first team to win the competition on a foreign continent.
Garrincha's finest hour would come four years later at the 1962 World Cup in Chile. The winger was voted player of the tournament after coach Aymore Moreira put additional weight on his shoulders in the absence of the injured Pele. He rewarded his gaffer's faith with a series of magical displays and four crucial goals, which made him the tournament's joint top scorer.
"What planet is Garrincha from?" asked Chile's Mercurio newspaper after Brazil had eliminated the hosts in the semi-final. After winning a second World Cup in succession, Garrincha's reputation soared both at home and abroad, with many people now considering him the second greatest player in his country's history behind Pele.
The maestro's descent
His last appearance on the world stage was at England 1966, where he showed sparks of the genius for which he was famous. Unfortunately for him, Vicente Feola's Brazilian side were a rather pale shadow of the team that had won the trophy four years earlier in Chile and were eliminated in the first round after losing to Hungary and Portugal. Garrincha played in Brazil's first two games, scoring in their only win over Bulgaria.
The phenomenon that was Garrincha transcended football, with the player figuring unwittingly in the works of many Latin American writers. Eduardo Galeano, one of the continent's most eminent writers and a self-confessed football lover described him in Soccer in Sun and Shadow:
"When he was on form, the pitch became a circus. The ball became an obedient animal, and the game became an invitation to party. Garrincha would shield his pet, the ball, and together they would conjure up some wonderful tricks that would have the spectators in stitches. He would hop over her, and she would bounce over him. Then she would hide before he would escape only to find her already running in front of him. Along the way, his pursuers would crash into each other in their attempts to stop him."
As for his club career, Garrincha spent 12 seasons at his beloved Botafogo, where he won two Rio-São Paulo tournaments, three Carioca State Championship titles and scored close to a quarter-century of goals. He moved to Corinthians in 1966, before flitting between teams within his homeland and having a brief spell in Colombia, though by then he was evidently past his prime.
'Angel with bent legs'
Life dealt a cruel hand to the irrepressible 'Angel with bent wings' (as he was called by a Brazilian poet), who having overcome his physical defects seemed powerless to control his addictions and vices. The player's ability to escape from trouble on the pitch deserted him after dark when his self-confessed alcoholism and partying took their toll in the latter stages of his career.
Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, the virtuoso died an early death at the age of 49. His remains were shown in the Maracana stadium, where thousands of fans paid their last respects. His coffin was draped in a Botafogo flag as he was led to his final resting place in Pau Grande.
In the cemetery where Garrincha is buried there is a small memorial expressing Brazil's love for the two-time world champion. It reads: "He was a sweet child / He spoke with the birds."
Did You Know?
The ‘Little Bird’ referred to in Garrincha is a wren. In Brazil, he was also affectionately known as Alegria do Povo (Joy of the People).
Garrincha netted a hat-trick on his official debut for Botafogo in July 1953 in a 6-3 victory over Bonsucesso.
Garrincha ended his playing career with Rio de Janeiro minnows Olaria in 1972, scoring once in ten appearances before hanging up his boots.
A FIFA World team met Brazil in a farewell match for Garrincha in December 1973 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, with 131,000 fans in attendance.
His amazing life has been depicted on the big screen more than once, including 2003 movie Garrincha - Estrela Solitaria (Garrincha - Lonely Star).