Updated Tuesday, 23rd August 2005
‘Garrincha' by Ruy CastroBorn with congenital deformities in both legs, unable to read or write,
a school leaver at the age of only 8 years old, not a great lover of football and addicted to sex and alcohol. Not, one would imagine, the greatest ingredients for one of the greatest players the world has ever seen, but such was the background of Manuel dos Santos, or Garrincha.
Garrincha was born in 1933 in Pau Grande, a textile-making town near Rio. Callipers could have straightened his deformed legs easily, but no-one thought of such procedures then. His right leg bent inwards and
his left bent outwards, and as a boy he was smaller and lighter than his peers. His sister nicknamed him ‘Garrincha’ or ‘little wren’ in Pau Grande parlance. His father Amaro was a heavy drinker and sex addict, and he would pass both traits to his son. His mother died when he was only 15 years old.
At 12 he lost his virginity to a goat, the girls of Pau Grande not being interested at that stage. The author makes this out to be a common event. Do Aberdeen fans know about this? They should check flight availablity as soon as possible – there may be some sheep there too. At 14 he started work, or rather he got a job. Not the hardest worker in the America Fabril plant he should have been sacked many times over but his fledgling skills on the football field saved his career such as it was. In these games he also showed the first signs of the untutored genius that would mark his career: he loved dribbling up the right wing but beyond that had no real interest in the game was going. Tactics were not for him, nor tracking back or tackling.
In March 1953 Aratay, the famous left back for Botafogo came to town. He was to referee a game between SC Pau Grande and a work team from the
regional bank. He saw Garrincha wreak havoc and demanded his Rio team
sign the lad, now 20 and married with a young child. His trial became the stuff of legends when with his first touch he back heeled the ball over the defender’s head and volleyed it off the crossbar from distance. Garrincha had not grown up a football fan and had no favourite team as such, and was delighted to sign for one of the big teams from Rio.
His nascent marriage would not be a happy one. Garrincha had got Nair pregnant at 16 and married her. He would manage the ‘getting her pregnant bit’ with ease as they had eight daughters over the years, but he would not be faithful and she would not leave Pau Grande to join him in Rio. There were endless woman, and in time this would bring shame to the family and to Garrincha. The women may have been attracted by his talent or fame, or for another reason. His penis was around 12 inches long and his stamina legendary; lovers stated that he needed only 10 minutes to recover and could make love all night. This sex addiction would dominate his life, as would another more deadly addiction.
At first though no-one would mention what Garrincha did in his free time in Rio or when he hung out with his pals from home. Nair seemed resigned, and when back in Pau Grande Garrincha spent more time drinking than womanising. His ability to drink spirits and remain relatively sober was also legendary. This more than anything would return to haunt him as he grow older.
As a player he reached a worldwide audience and his peak of fame and creativity in the World Cups of 1958 and 1962. The eagerly anticipated game against the Soviet Union in 1958 saw Garrincha rip the organised and efficient Russians to shreds, whilst 1962 saw many Brazilians consider Garrincha to have won the cup on his own. With Botafogo he won the Carioca championship twice, and toured the world. His presence in the team could double or triple appearance fees, but the games put added stresses on his body which took their toll.
He was loyal to Botafogo. He had no real desire to play abroad at that stage, and did not argue with Directors as any business talk bored him. If they wouldn’t sell him he wouldn’t be going. Garrincha was always confused and bored by signing talks – often signing blank contracts – and business propositions. He never wore suits and never showed much passion for anything. Laid back, he could be wryly amusing, and far from sophisticated he spent his money and time working out ways to have sex and find alcohol without team bosses, wives or girlfriends knowing.
His true love was samba star Elza Soares. The two met and for the first and only time Garrincha fell in love. They were together for 15 years but the affair would ruin them in many ways. Nair’s lawyer, alcoholism, jealousy, the gutter press: all conspired to turn Garrincha slowly from Brazil’s greatest star to home wrecker and hate figure, and Elza was the ‘bitch’ who stole him away. The greatest enemy to the couple though was his damaged knee, which slowly and surely stole his power to twist, turn and accelerate. He continued to play with the injury for years but he was never the same and his ability to earn and to generate warmth from football fans diminished. Elza suffered also and the couple were forced to move to look for work: to Sau Paulo, to Europe. As he played less he drank more, and Elza resembled a Mother more than a lover. Nair’s lawyer also closed in and demanded more and more of his earnings and savings. His grip did not loosen for many
years, and this also denied Garrinch and Elza a real chance to settle
down, save and maybe make some progress. Always the need to work; to try and play through the pain.
Tragedy began to visit him also; he killed Elza’s Mother in a traffic accident, which he was at least partly to blame for. He slipped into depression and drank more; he then drank more to combat the sweats and shakes he would face when he sobered up. The last few years were spent moving house, chasing deals, losing money. Elza eventually left after he started hitting her. His last partner was Vanderlea, who was a calm and stoical woman who tried her best to calm him down but by now he was an alcoholic and spent more and more time in hospital. He died of alcohol related illnesses on 19th January 1983 aged only 49. He left perhaps 15 children, ex wives, ex lovers and debts but by the end he had been embraced once again by the Brazilian people – 140,000 turned out for his testimonial match.
The book is a superb look at his life, career and human weaknesses. In
his career he played many games before widespread TV coverage, and it is fascinating to read about how highly rated he was. To most Brazilians he was far more crucial than Pele in the 58 and 62 World Cup wins. The book does not excuse his actions but tried to contextualise them: he was a simple man, uneducated and it was not uncommon for such men to drink hard, play hard and punish their bodies. It shows he often drifted through life, less pro active and more reactive.
So many decisions were made on a whim, or without legal advice. So many decisions were made by his need for sex and alcohol, and quite often football seemed just something he was good at. But he was good at it, and more than that he was a genius. The word is over used these days but in this case it applies, if only to the footballer rather than the all too human man.