Garrincha: World Cup Legend and Joy of the People

The little bird who won the World Cup.

My first impression of football was modelled on what I’d seen the Brazilian Ronaldo do at the 2002 World Cup.

He never missed a shot, he never mis-controlled. Every time he got the ball he would run at defenders and leave them in his dust. All of that, with a smile on his face. At least that’s how I remembered it. It took me a while to get over the fact that football wasn’t really like that: that almost nobody was as good as him, and that it was unrealistic to expect every player to be exciting every time they touched the ball. For Brazilian kids in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I imagine their perceptions must have been similarly warped by a man named Manuel Franciso dos Santos, otherwise known as Garrincha.

A short man, his legs uneven and bent unnaturally – right leg curved inwards, and the left curving outwards – due to a birth condition and surgery respectively, it was Garrincha’s amazing penchant for dribbling that captivated a nation. But for all his prodigious talent, his monikers: the “little bird”, “the joy of the people” and the “bent-legged angel”, made no reference to his skill. It was his joy when playing that defined him.


Garrincha’s famous bent legs


Garrincha’s first football was reportedly some scrunched up paper fashioned vaguely into a sphere, and kept its shape with the help of his auntie’s old stockings. Eventually he graduated to an inflated goat bladder tied together by its intestines. He and others would play barefoot along an embankment in his village Pau Grande on the outskirts of Rio. There, they dribbled over the uneven ground and around cracks and potholes. Garrincha played on the wing, and he hated having to fish the ball out when it fell over the embankment, so he just never let it slip.

Besides football, Garrincha’s childhood was otherwise filled with stories of his parents’ failed attempts to prepare him for a life in which he wasn’t a footballer. After failing to achieve the mastery of the alphabet needed to move onto the 3rd grade, he decided to quit school. One of his first jobs was at a local candy store, where he ate his wage’s worth in lollies. And, among other slightly less ludicrous childhood experiences, he lost his virginity at the age of 12 (to a goat).

In lieu of a civil war, Brazil’s great national tragedy was the loss to Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 World Cup. The newly built Maracanã stadium officially held about 170,000 people, but the real number was probably closer to 200,000. The match held the nation’s attention but not Garrincha’s, who went fishing instead. Despite countless hours of playing on the street, Garrincha was not particularly enthralled by any other aspect of football; to him the best part about it was playing. The South American journalist Ruy Castro describes Garrincha coming back from his fishing trip to see his town in tears, “he thought they were all idiots.”


The World Cup 1958

By the time he had made it as a professional, Brazil was still recovering from their shock loss in 1950. In an attempt to expel the ghosts of the past, they travelled to the 1958 finals in Sweden with a psychologist. Having scored less than the minimum required to be a bus driver, the doctor advised that Garrincha would be unsuited to high-pressure games. Incidentally, similar conclusions were made about his teammate – a young man named “Pelé.” Ignoring the doctor’s advice, coach Vicente Feola picked them both to play in the World Cup.

In the final group game against the USSR – a footballing powerhouse -the Soviets were incredibly fit, organised, and composed. Brazil’s greatest asset was the team’s technicality, and the best of them all was Garrincha. Just before kick-off, Feola instructs his midfield conductor, Didi:

“Remember, the first pass goes to Garrincha.”

Within 20 seconds, Didi feeds the ball to Garrincha, who promptly beats his direct opponent, Kuznetzov – stops, and proceeds to beat him again and then twice more. As he is chased by a trio of Soviet defenders, he rattles the ball against the post from a tight angle. The minute-by-minute report from Ney Bianchi says it all:

“The fans go mad. Garrincha returns to the middle of the park, as ungainly as ever. He is applauded.”

In the third minute, Brazil score. They win convincingly 2-0.

When he ran, Garrincha looked like many of modern football’s electric wide players. Football of the past bears little resemblance to what it is now, but his feints, turns, and mazy, winding runs were a complete foreshadowing of modern wing play. But when he stood still, the bend in his legs quickly become apparent. The Welsh fullback Mel Hopkins said of him, having faced him in the quarter finals:

“When he stood and faced you his legs went one way and his body the other, there’s no doubt about it, he could have been declared a cripple. But my God could he play.”

He was right. Brazil went on to win their first ever World Cup.

World Cup 1962

In 1962, the golden duo of Pelé and Garrincha was interrupted in the second game when Pelé succumbed to injury. But Garrincha, with a solidly balanced team built around him, was enough. He finished joint top scorer with 4 goals as a right winger. They came in the most important games, as he scored twice each against England in the Quarter-finals, and against Chile in the Semi-finals.


Garrincha, Sweden, 1952
Garrincha, Sweden, 1952


His performance inspired Tomas Mazzoni to write a series of dichotomies between England and Brazil:

“For the Englishman, football is an athletic exercise; for the Brazilian it’s a game. The Englishman considers a player that dribbles three times in succession is a nuisance; the Brazilian considers him a virtuoso… The English player thinks; the Brazilian improvises.”

Although his comments echo (and perhaps started) what is now a tired cliché about the difference between the former colonies and the colonisers, Mazzoni was right, at least when it came to Garrincha. Brazil won their second World Cup in a row – this time, with Garrincha the undisputed main man.



Garrincha arrived at a time when professionalism had taken over the game worldwide. Turning football into a profession introduced a calculated brutality to the game, a fear of losing over the glory of winning, and the value of the team over the individual. He showed them that raw talent, enthusiasm and individualism still had a part to play, a legacy of the anti-establishment roots of Brazilian ‘samba’ style. His character on the pitch prompted the journalist Eduardo Galliano to proclaim:

“When he was on form, the pitch became a circus, the ball became an obedient animal, and the game became an invitation to party.”

However all parties must come to an end – some sooner than others. Garrincha’s contemporary, Pelé, who the world thinks of when they think of football, spent his last couple of years as a player in the glamorous, wealthy, but ultimately unimportant North American Soccer League (NASL) for the New York Cosmos. Garrincha spent his as a journeyman struggling with a knee injury. While Pelé spends his twilight years making lists of the top 125 players, starring in advertisements about erectile dysfunction, and participating in an ongoing (and frequently hilarious) public spat with Diego Maradona, Garrincha died at the age of 49 from the effects of alcoholism.

The title of “Greatest ever” is synonymous with a select few names. For most people the choices are rather obvious. But in Brazil, Pelé seems to always come after Garrincha. Pelé was the world’s first international footballing superstar, but Garrincha was someone the people could, or perhaps wanted, to see in themselves – a young boy, barefoot, bent-legged, smiling as he weaves a merry path with the ball, teetering on the edge of an embankment in Pau Grande.

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