December 1, 2021

The Magic of Garrincha: The Angel With Twisted Legs Who Won Brazilian Hearts

On a recent wander in Rio de Janeiro I was approached by someone – a senior citizen – who recognised me from appearances on Brazilian TV and had something he urgently wanted to get off his chest.

It was absurd, he said, that way that the media fawned over Pele when Garrincha was so much better.

It is a view that is not uncommon among Rio residents of a certain age. Garrincha was a local hero, a star for the Botafogo club in their glory days. Pele, of course, played for Santos in the neighbouring state of Sao Paulo. Regional variations of this type are important anywhere – how often have people from Northern Ireland argued that George Best was better than either of them – and they are especially pertinent in a country as huge as Brazil.

There is something else, as well. It is possibly the case that it is easier for people to relate to Garrincha. Pele was a footballing machine, a perfect blend of the motivational forces of pride and fear, a man spurred on a mission to make himself an icon – and a man who could not switch off that urge after his playing days were over.

There is something almost ferociously calculating about Pele that is not found at all in Garrincha. The singer Elza Soares, his former wife, recalled in 1997 that “Garrincha was innocent, pure. I saw him as a big kid. He had no malice.” 

And remembering his finest hour, the 1962 World Cup, she said that “he was like a bird, he didn’t even know what he was representing, what he meant at that moment.  He was so naive.”  While Pele was scaling his way up Mount Olympus, Garrincha was more man than god, with recognisably human weaknesses, and ended up drinking himself to death in 1983 at the age of 49.

But for all its seductive power, the argument that Garrincha can be considered greater than Pele is palpably nonsense. Greatness is partly measured in high points. But longevity is clearly another component. And while Garrincha and Pele, seven years younger, both started hitting the peaks in around 1956, in the case of Garrincha there is little of note to record after his knee operation at the end of 1962. Pele was Pele for at least another decade.

But the debate is entirely irrelevant anyway. It was never a case of Garrincha or Pele. In the glory years of Brazilian football, when potential was transformed into reality, it was much more a case of Garrincha and Pele – with the striking exception of a few games in 1962.

They lined up together between 1958 and 1966, from the third game of the World Cup in Sweden to the debut in England. They were in harness for 32 full internationals. Brazil won 28 of those games, and drew the other four. There were also five friendlies against club sides – four victories and a draw. 

In all the competitive games they played together there were only two draws; a controversial last game of the Copa America in Argentina in 1959, when the whistle blew just as Brazil were in the process of scoring a goal against the hosts that would have won them the trophy. And the second game of the 1962 World Cup in Chile, when Pele pulled up early with an injury against Czechoslovakia. 

These were days before substitutions were allowed, and Pele completed the game as a hobbling passenger on the left wing. It was also the moment when, in the absence of Pele and with his team in need, Garrincha began to show that he was much more than a trick artist on the right wing. The 1962 World Cup is the definitive statement of Garrincha’s footballing genius. Until Diego Maradona touched extraordinary heights in Mexico 86, it may well be the most significant individual contribution to a World Cup win.

Pele was at his absolute peak in 1962. And the rest of the team was ageing. It was, essentially, the same side that had won the tournament in Sweden four years earlier. Approaching 29, Garrincha was the third-youngest member of the team. And their 4-2-4 formation was no longer a surprise. How could they retain their title?

The crunch game was the third group match against Spain. After that draw with Czechoslovakia Brazil were in danger of being bundled out of the tournament against powerful opposition. They were a goal down for much of the game, and although they had equalised they were not yet out of the woods as the match moved into its final five minutes. 

Garrincha had made a quiet start to the tournament, but now he set up a goal with a piece of play that typified his art. He toyed with two defenders on the right side of the penalty area, provoking them to commit themselves and waiting for the moment to make his move. The quick burst to the byline, the perfectly flighted cross and the header at the far post from Amarildo, Pele’s replacement, to win the game.

It was a replica of the move that Garrincha produced time and time again in the black and white stripes of Botafogo as well as for Brazil. The way that he teased the full-back, though without braggadocio, turned football into bullfighting. It was uncanny how everyone knew what he was going to do, but no one seemed able to stop him. His control of the ball was extraordinary – he was, apparently, hopeless at keepy-uppies, because he wanted the ball close to his feet – and so was his burst of acceleration. That speed off the mark may have had something to do with his physical condition. One of his legs was a full six centimetres longer than the other and he was knock-kneed. ‘The angel with twisted legs’ was a devil to mark.

True, defensive techniques left much to be desired. He played a time when there was more space on the field, and it is striking to see the way that defenders set up to mark him, in a line, coming in one at a time like villains in a Bruce Lee film. All the way back to Garrincha’s dramatic introduction into the World Cup in 1958, one of the chief beneficiaries of his wing play was centre-forward Vava, who scored many goals as a consequence of getting in front of climbing above the centre-back to convert a cross from the right.

An astute reader of the game, Vava learned that the timing of his run was all important. “He was a player of short sprints,” recalled Vava in 1997. “You never saw him make runs of 30 metres, because he would fall over with his bandy legs. So he gave a short sprint, stopped, then did it again.”

It is a fascinating analysis, and one that casts doubt on whether Garrincha would have been able to adapt his skill set to have the same impact in the much more dynamic modern game.

The main argument for his defence is formed by the next two matches of that 1962 World Cup where, with his confidence up and Pele absent, Garrincha resolved to play not just on the right wing but from the right wing, free as the bird-chasing kid, descendent of indigenous peoples, who grew up in the countryside outside Rio de Janeiro.

He was the difference between the two sides when Brazil met England in the quarter-final. He opened the scoring with a header from a corner – certainly not something he was known for – and decided matters in the second half after England had equalised. 

Brazil’s second goal was the product of one of his vicious free-kicks, a recent addition to his skill set. The ball bounced spitefully in front of keeper Ron Springett, who was unable to hold it, and Vava nipped in on the rebound. And then he clinched things with a superb shot from the outside of the area, struck with such deceptively lazy ease that it almost seemed that he had picked the ball up and stuck it in the top corner.

And then came another similar show in the semi-final, a high-octane game against Chile, the motivated hosts.

Garrincha took the game away from them in the first half. First came another blisteringly precise shot from the edge of the area – this time with his left foot, which no one could remember him doing. And then he met another of Mario Zagallo’s corners with a glanced header for the second goal. And when Chile fought back, his corner was headed in by Vava to restore the two-goal cushion. Brazil won 4-2 but could not count on Garrincha until the final whistle.

Late in the game he flicked a knee into the back of an opponent. It was off the ball but not out of sight. He was sent off, and struck by a stone as he made his way off the field.

By right he should never have played in the final. But diplomatic wheels turned into overdrive behind the scenes, and taking into account his placid nature and disciplinary record he was allowed to line up against Czechoslovakia. Brazil won 3-1, but this one was not his game. Suffering from a heavy cold he made little impact – but his sheer presence on the field drew markers and opened up space for his team-mates.

There were other great days, but not for long. His last afternoon as king of the new Maracana stadium was in December that year, when he tore the Flamengo defence apart on the way to a 3-0 win that sealed Botafogo as champions of Rio. But then came the knee operation and decline.

His acceleration speed gone, he was no longer the winger of old. But, as Chile 62 had proved, there was enough of an all-round footballer in him to inspire hopes of yet more conquests. In 1965 Brazil began the build up to the next year’s World Cup, and with Pele and Garrincha together they kept racking up the victories, including a 2-0 win over Bulgaria in their 1966 opener, when Garrincha was on target with a blistering free kick.

But it was the end of the line. Pele was injured and missed the next game. Brazil went down 3-1 to Hungary – the only time Garrincha was ever on the losing side for his country. It was his last game for Brazil, and the first in a series of defeats that saw him decline with striking speed.

The cause was alcohol. After his playing days were over, said Elza Soares in 1997, “maybe with contempt, he drank excessively. When a person surrenders himself to drink it’s very difficult to turn him round, control him. Perhaps today it would be easier to understand Garrincha’s head, because nowadays other methods exist. But he was born as he was, and he died a child.”

But decades later, those who were children when Garrincha was in his prime – like the old man who accosted me – have still not forgotten the pleasure he gave them with a ball at his feet and a left-back in front of him.

Tim Vickery

Tim Vickery

Tim Vickery is a football writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He covers the South American game for ESPN, the BBC, World Soccer and others.

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