Why has Garrincha been remembered as one of the greatest Brazilian players ever?

On the anniversary of his death, we look back at what made Garrincha so important to football in Brazil

Garrincha, Brazil,

Garrincha signs autographs for young fans. Image: PA Photos / PA Archive/PA Images

In few, if any other countries, is a love of football so strongly linked to the national identity than Brazil, where the game's roots are both elite and populist, spreading across all sectors of society.

For many, few figures are tied to that better than Garrincha, perhaps the last and the greatest of the amateur factory or worker footballers turned professional, a man beloved by Brazil as a nation and one who embodied the spirit of the game in the country.

Brazil's history is one which has been influenced by many factors: colonisation, slavery, European industrial exploitation, its wealth of natural resources and its unique demographic. As a result, the culture of the enormous country is as diverse as the people within it.  

If one element of the Brazilian psyche is common to all of Brazil, it is that of football. The Brazilian national seleção is widely regarded as one of the world's best and is the most succesful team in the history of the World Cup, with an unparallelled five wins. As such, Brazil's obsession with the sport is justified, as Alex Bellos notes in his book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, “no other country is branded by a single sport [...] to the extent that Brazil is by football”. 

To understand just how Garrincha became so popular, you have to return to the somewhat contradictory beginnings of the sport in the country. Bellos describes how “football was acquiring opposite reputations. It was both the private hobby of the rich and the preferred past time of gangs of poor youths”. While the lower class Afro-Brazilians and mulattos were not allowed to play or even attend the games, they were able to form their own impromptu games, and football became a universal feature of Brazilian society.

Image: Neal Simpson / EMPICS Sport

The opening up of football clubs to those outside the elite was a longer process, however. Football took hold first in São Paulo, but eventually Rio de Janeiro became the hub. There were two main leagues set up as a result, the Campeonato Paulista for the teams from the São Paulo region and the Campeonato Carioca for the teams from the Rio region, in 1902 and 1906 respectively.

The original clubs were set up within rowing clubs, another popular English sport in Brazil at the time, and they soon became attached to businesses and factories, where it was promoted as a leisure activity which fostered integration amongst the employees.

As such, the local teams and factory towns began to field players who were employed in their businesses, and the real break with elitist tradition came from the club Bangú, an offshoot of the Companhia Progresso Industrial textile factory.

It was geographically isolated and as such could not draw on a base of white elitist support, so needed to recruit locally. While there were many Europeans in their original line up, they eventually moved on (promoted or returned home) and had to be replaced by workers from the factory. Bangú's stadium was home to a crowd of non-elites, another break with tradition, as the fans were not segregated and were either co-workers or family and friends.

If Bangú had bent the taboo, then it was Vasco Da Gama who broke it, a club set up and run by Portuguese business owners in Rio. Their actions in recruiting from the talented suburban leagues and not sticking to the elite meant that they forced the hand of the elite clubs. When Vasco won the championship in 1923 after being promoted that season, the rest of the traditional clubs were outraged with the semi-professionalism of the team. A new league was formed and Vasco were excluded, on the grounds that they had no stadium. Many other measures were introduced to keep the lower class players out of the league, by introducing the requirement to sign one's name before every game.

Vasco however, were not to be stopped and responded by building the largest stadium in Rio and giving their players crash literacy courses. They also offered their players jobs with local merchants so as to disguise their incomes. Between both Bangú and Vasco, the concept of the worker footballer had been invented and popularised. 

With the introduction of these players to the leagues, the other squads began to recruit players from a lower social class. As a result, the clamour for professionalism grew, coupled with Brazil's poor performance in the World Cup of 1930 with a squad which largely excluded players of other races.

By 1933, Brazilian football had turned professional, spurred on by the experience of the Argentine clubs, who lost players to professional European clubs, particularly to Italy.

Vasco's success and style had created a great interest in football, but the upper class elites would regularly do their best to ensure that the new class of players joining the game knew they were not welcome. As such, they developed a different style, based on guile and ability, and derived from a variety of factors. As Domingos da Guia told Bellos, “I was scared to play football, because I often saw black players, there in Bangu [sic], get whacked on the pitch, just because they made a foul, or sometimes for something less than that”.

The new Brazilian style of football represented another break from tradition, with roots in capoeira and samba, a style replete with a swinging of the hips and guile. Those were qualities which were most certainly present in Manuel Francisco dos Santos, or Garrincha.

Born in the town of Pau Grande in 1933, with crooked legs, Garrincha began his life on the same path as the rest of the young men in the town: attending shcool (although Mané, as he was known, was not particularly fond of it), and on his fourteenth birthday beginning work in the local factory América Fabril. However he was not a diligent worker, and spent most of his time, as he had in his childhood, playing football whenever possible.

He moved from his local team of Pau Grande to Botafogo in 1953, where he was a sensation from his first trial, where, after one half of play, the coach sent him to meet the directors to sign a contract that day.

His dribbling was unparalleled and unstoppable, and he would regularly beat an opponent, wait for them to return to their position, and beat them again. Although his crooked legs often led people to believe that he wouldn't pose a problem, he bewildered them with his movement.

His favourite trick was to run off and leave the ball behind, forcing the defender to run with him. He would repeat it several times before eventually moving with the ball, leaving the defender standing still and the crowd cheering and laughing. He was an amateur footballer in the best sense of the word, and derived pure joy from the game, from dribbling past opponents.

Garrincha was called into the World Cup Squad for 1958 – and became an instant sensation. Although he didn't play for the first two games, Garrincha earned his spot for the third, and most crucial game - a group decider against the USSR.

Image: AP / AP/Press Association Images

Within the first three minutes, Garrincha had sealed his place in the hearts of the Brazilian nation, as well as the onlooking Swedish crowd. There had been a great fear on the part of the Brazilians, as they felt the USSR played a scientific brand of football that would be unstoppable.

However, Garrincha could not be figured out by any computer. He was able to run the defenders in rings, and leave them fighting amongst themselves as to who should be marking who. At one stage in the match, Garrincha sat his opponent down with his skill, turned around, offered him his hand to help him up, and ran on with the ball.

The first minute or so of this youtube video concentrates on Garrincha's performance in the 1958 World Cup

From that point Garrincha was known as a star, however his personal life was not as brilliant as his performances on the pitch. He was, at heart, a rural boy, but he also inherited a reliance on alcohol from his father which was eventually to kill him. 

His love affair and marriage to singer Elza Soares was the stuff of tabloids, but his drunken car crash in 1968, which killed his mother-in-law was not. Towards the end of his career, his drinking ruined any chance of continuing in football, and his name soon became synonymous with farcical contracts, having been sold to Corinthians, appearing once for Colombian club América, and also having a short spell at Flamengo.

Many other clubs offered him contracts, but having seen his fitness and bloated appearance from alcoholism, they decided against taking the risk. Garrincha had come crashing to earth having won the World Cup in 1958 and again in 1962. It was a rags to riches story which had turned on its head again by the end.

Although Garrincha had run the gauntlet of fame and fortune and returned to his starting place, his funeral was still attended by thousands of mourners who blocked the traffic on the local highway for hours in a procession. It was indeed alcohol which killed him in the end, dying of a pulmonary oedema on the 20th of January 1983.

While many footballers have also struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, similar to Garrincha, few are remebered as fondly as he was. As the last of what was perhaps a generation of worker footballers, he represented the amateur love of the game and the professional desire to succeed. He also represented a hope, to rise beyond stigma of race and appearance, to become a star.

The racial utopia which the Brazilian football team represents is often a mask for a more seirous undercurrent of social problems, and with the decline in the worker footballer, those who would once have had both employment and access to the sport, now find themselves in areas of high unemployment, deteriorating school systems and where crime is prevalent.

The “factory footballer” has disappeared, yet the problems which plagued Garrincha and those who followed him have not.