There are few footballers whose names live on for generations and there are plenty more whose names should be remembered. However such is the inevitable march of time that sometimes we see unnaturally gifted players be reduced to a footnote in football’s comprehensive history. While Mane Garrincha is a name you’d expect plenty of football fans to know, his genius is sometimes under-appreciated, says Cabral Opiyo.
The perfect prototype of the modern footballer is Cristiano Ronaldo; tall and imposing, hulking, well toned muscles that are regularly flexed for the cameras, endorsement deals due to dazzling Hollywood looks and a marketability due to a superficial charm or theatrics off the pitch. In the current football climate Mane Garrincha would not be looked at twice by companies that want to market their products, probably the equivalent of Dean Windass, he was that hideously deformed. Born with multiple defects that ruled him out of various potential moves to clubs who deemed him too far gone and incapable of producing anything worthwhile on a football pitch. How wrong they were because it was due to his deformed spine and a right leg bent outwards and a left leg half a dozen centimeters shorter bent inwards that allowed him to hook the ball in that special way that conjured those mazy dribbles that dazzled many fans.
Anjo de Pernas tortas (the bent legged angel) lived life on his very own terms, small to the point of insignificance, his sister named him Garrincha ‘the little bird’ and he would go on to make the terraces sing his name every time he was on the ball. Ludwig Van Beethoven was born to an alcoholic father and a family of various troubles yet that did not impede his other worldly talents as a composer, indeed some of his greatest works including the Missa Solemnis were written when his hearing had started fading and he was in ill health. Both Garrincha and Beethoven have somewhat lived in the shadows of their more illustrious colleagues Pele and Mozart, Beethoven less so. The genius that both showed has been swept under the rug due to circumstances that were beyond their control but their enduring brilliance is evident to those who look under the carpet.
Mane Garrincha lived as if there was no tomorrow and played football like after the final whistle, it would be outlawed and he would be escorted to his grave. On the pitch he dazzled with no regard for tactical strait jackets, he did what he wanted to do. Most of the time this was to leave a trail of destruction behind him by putting as many defenders on the seats of their pants as there were on the pitch. He used defenders like training cones, with the football cradled in his ungainly crooked legs that acted almost like a hockey stick he slalomed, shimmied and drew audible gasps from the ever burgeoning crowds that had been drawn by tales of the man who played like a god amongst mere mortals. He was neither calculated nor disciplined, he threw himself into his football with wild abandon and every marker on the pitch was just another obstacle to be negotiated. From what has been said of him, he was somewhat of a psychopath and enjoyed torturing the defenders though he did not do it to spite them, he did not recognize faces. He just played for himself and for the fans.
A tale is oft told of Garrincha after the World Cup in Sweden 1958 when he visited his home of Pau Grande and he ran over his father and continued driving unaware of what he had done because he was drinking. That should give you insight into what type of man Garrincha was and the intersecting irony of the disease that would finally claim Alegria do Povo (the people’s joy) probably inherited from the very father he ran over. He was a tortured soul and off the pitch the bottle was his constant companion interspersed with conquests of bedding as many women as he could- indeed it is said that in Sweden during the World Cup he fathered a child by a local. He just did not seem to care; he lived with an aura of inevitability, as if life was a passing inconvenience. A disturbed soul at peace.
He made his long overdue debut alongside Pele the man whose fate will always be intertwined with his like a Siamese twin, Brasil’s World Cup was hanging in the balance and the introduction of the two geniuses sparked a juggernaut that rolled over everyone enroute to the Jules Rimet trophy. While Pele was lauded as a star born, Garrincha’s impact was arguably just as palpable. When they faced the Soviets, in what has become famously the greatest three minutes of football as described by one writer, Garrincha was electric right from kickoff and dribbled, teased and feinted seating no less than five Soviets on their arse and hit the post. The mood had been set and even Lev Yashin was awed by the artistry and magic of the trident that consisted of Garrincha, Pele and Vava and it was he who assisted Vava’s goal. The 1962 World Cup was Garrincha’s World Cup. Taking the mantle that Pele had vacated via injury and picking up the slack of his considerably tiring team mates, Garrincha single handedly dragged the Canarinho to the World Cup trophy again. The tale from that World Cup was that he had been sent off in the semi finals against Chile but he was given special dispensation by FIFA to play in the final against Czechoslovakia anyway, he was that enchanting.
His life story reads like a wonderfully crafted script whose writer had gone into depression. He was the joy of the people and lived his life trying to please them but in the end when his crooked legs could not spell bind anymore, when he could no longer entrance hundreds of thousand s of fans with a wiggle of the feet or a shimmy and burst past a hapless defender, when he no longer taunted defenders to early baths, when he could no longer round the keeper and wait for all the defenders to get up just so he could have his fun with them before scoring, he was alone after alienating the only human who stuck by him through the troughs Samba singer Elia Soares. He lived like he knew how to, he dazzled and captured many a mind; he hypnotized many a defender into a near stupor that would only wear off after he was several meters away beguiling another luckless defender. Describing him always seems like hyperbole but he probably has been understated and under appreciated. Yet he died alone, in a sense he had always been alone trying to replace the din he oft created in stadia with women and alcohol. He died of Liver Cirrhosis in squalor and deplorable conditions, alone and lonely.
Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!Ole!Ole! were the chants that often accompanied Garrincha’s sharp twists and turns when he rocked the ball to sleep in his instep, cuddled it and swathed it in technique and lulled it to sleep then proceeded to use it as a weapon against defenders. The ball was truly mightier than a sword at Garrincha’s feet. He brought such an immaturity to the game and that is what possibly served him best and differentiated him from his footballing twin Pele; where Pele was calculated and ambitious, Garrincha was carefree and not only crept along the genius and madness fence, he often straddled it. He was neither intelligent nor clever, it is doubtful whether he had a brain capable of anything complex, his personality and feet were different entities and his feet were the Einstein of that era, the Beethoven of the times. At the end of it all he was just a little bird, a little twisted bird that would chirp no more.
Written by Cabral Opiyo
A continental football subscriber, Cabral is interested in the revival of Serie A football and the dynamics of mid-table teams all over Europe.
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