dos Santos, Manuel Francisco

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Manuel Francisco dos Santos


Soccer player

Manuel Francisco dos Santos, better known as "Garrincha," wowed Brazilian soccer fans and even world audiences with his amazing athletic talents. Considered one of the best players the country ever produced, the diminutive right wing was an impressive, evasive dribbler as well as a shot-scorer despite—or perhaps because of—the bent legs with which he had been born. Widely known by his one-name moniker that means "little bird" or "little wren" in Portuguese—Brazil's main language—Garrincha played a key role in Brazil's first-ever World Cup victory in 1958 and helped his national team retain that title four years later.

Like many Brazilians, Garrincha was of mixed-race heritage. The country was one of the last places in the world to outlaw slavery, which happened less than fifty years before he was born in 1933. He was part black and part Fulnio Indian. This was one of the two-hundred-plus indigenous Indian tribes of Brazil, but the Fulnio Indians were known as genetic carriers of a birth defect that caused infants to be born with bent legs like Garrincha's. Orthopedic braces might have corrected this, but Garrincha's family was too poor to afford them. His right leg bowed inward, while the left leg bent outward and was two inches shorter than the right one, though he later had surgery to correct that. The future soccer star "grew up looking as if a gust of wind had blown his legs sideways, as in a cartoon," wrote Alex Bellos for London's Guardian newspaper. He was a sweet, good-natured child, which prompted his older sister Rosa to dub him "Garrincha."

Garrincha grew up in a town called Pau Grande located in the state of Rio de Janeiro. A textile factory was the main employer there, and he went to work at the site at the age of fourteen. He was fired for his poor job performance but then rehired because the company soccer team realized what a talented player he was. Urged to try out for the quartet of professional teams that dominated the state of Rio de Janeiro, he finally agreed but was turned away once for not having the proper shoes; at another tryout he left before it was completed. When he went to audition for Botafogo, he was teamed with one its best players on the pitch, and, when dribbling the ball, he actually passed it through the other man's legs.

Taunted His Opponents

Garrincha was signed to Botafogo, which means "(he who) sets fire" in Portuguese and was also the name from a beachfront neighborhood in the city of Rio de Janeiro, and he made his game debut in July of 1953. In that match he scored a hat trick, the term given to three consecutive goals, which is somewhat of a rarity in soccer. He emerged as the newest star in the game and was to become famous for his specialty kicks and fantastic dribbling abilities, though he also committed his share of fouls and could be merciless in his taunting of an opposing player. "Garrincha seemed to play for the fun of it," noted Bellos. "He relished fooling defenders with his skilful moves, taunting them like a champion toreador taunts a bull. On one occasion he deliberately forgot the ball and carried on running. His opponent, the Argentinian defender Vairo, followed the player without realising the ball was left behind."

Officials of the Brazilian national team decided against giving Garrincha a place on the roster in the lead-up to the 1954 World Cup, believing he did not yet have enough experience, but he continued to impress during regular-season and championship play over the next few years. The team won the 1957 national championship, and both Garrincha and another new star of Brazilian soccer, Pelé, were not put in a game together until a fourth-round match-up against the Soviet Union. "The onslaught of the opening three minutes," wrote Bellos, "showed an audaciousness and skill not seen before in international football. They are considered by many as Brazilian football's greatest three minutes of all time." Brazil went on to beat the host team, Sweden, in the final by 5-2.

The victory of the World Cup—then, as now, believed to be the most-followed sporting event on the planet—ushered in a new, dominant era for Brazilian soccer on the world stage. Suddenly, the hardscrabble South American country known more for its beaches, samba music, pre-Lenten Carnivale, and endemic poverty was producing champions of the game. Garrincha's best World Cup moments came in the 1962 event, which was held in Chile. His teammate Pelé was injured early on, but Garrincha and another Brazilian star, Vavá, led the way to a stunning victory against England in the quarterfinals. In the second of Garrincha's two goals in a game that Brazil won 3-1, he made a curved shot known as the "banana kick." The Brazilians repeated that score when they beat Czechoslovakia in the final for the World Cup victory that year. Garrincha fared less well in the 1966 World Cup, with Brazil losing its title to Hungary.

Sidelined by Injuries and Alcohol

By then, Garrincha was in his thirties, and his physical defects were beginning to hamper him. By 1963 the cartilage in one of his knees was so damaged because of his bent leg that it had to be drained regularly, and he was rarely able to play two regularly scheduled games in a row. The condition would have occurred regardless of his choice of career, and finally in 1964 he underwent surgery to fix the problem but never fully recovered. Garrincha also drank prodigiously, and lived somewhat recklessly; he and his wife often stashed his salary in cupboards at home, and one of his World Cup bonuses was hidden under the mattress in their children's bedroom. When they remembered to look for it later, the bills were ruined because some of the younger of their eight daughters had wet the bed so often. But Garrincha was also victim of club management, who considered him uneducated and easily duped, and on a few occasions the club actually gave him blank contracts to sign; Botafogo management would fill in the amount of his salary later.

Garrincha's final World Cup appearance was at the 1966 games, an event hosted by England. When Hungary beat Brazil 3-1 early on, it was Garrincha's sixtieth game with the national team, but the first one they had ever lost when he was playing. That same year, Botafogo sold him to another team, the Corinthians of São Paulo, and he later played for a Colombian team briefly before returning to Brazil to play with Flamengo, one of Botafogo's Rio rivals. His final professional stint was with Olaria, another Rio team, with which he remained until 1972. After that he played the occasional exhibition match.

Garrincha's personal life continued to be tumultuous. His first marriage, to fellow factory worker Nair Marques in 1952, produced eight daughters, but he had several liaisons outside of the marriage and other children. In the mid-1960s he famously left Marques for Elza Soares, a well-known samba singer. Garrincha's drinking caused several automobile accidents, including one that killed Soares's mother in 1969. Following that tragedy, his drinking worsened, and he reportedly attempted suicide. He and Soares nonetheless had a son in 1976, but Soares left him a year later when he became physically abusive. Garrincha's final years were spent in reduced circumstances, for his salary was gone and he was unable to hold down even the most basic of jobs. Once, Brazil's coffee trade group recruited him to serve as a goodwill ambassador, which required him to merely show up at industry events, but he was a perennial no-show. He wed again in the early 1980s, and in January of 1983 his wife called for help when he passed out after a day of heavy drinking. He never came out of the alcohol-induced coma and died several hours later, on January 20, from cirrhosis of the liver. He was just forty-nine years old.

At a Glance …

Born Manuel Francisco dos Santos on October 28, 1933, in Pau Grande, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil; died of cirrhosis on January 20, 1983, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; married Nair Marques, 1952 (separated, 1965); partner of Elza Soares, 1966-77; married again, early 1980s; children: (with Marques) eight daughters; (with Soares) Manuel Garrincha dos Santos Jr.; possibly five more children.

Career: Botafogo de Futebol e Regatas, 1953, right wing; member of the Brazilian national team, 1958-66; traded to the Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, São Paulo, 1966; also joined Atlético Junior of Barranquilla, Colombia, 1968, and later that same year the Clube de Regatas do Flamengo, and played with Olaria Atlético Clube, until 1972.

Garrincha had been forgotten for several years, but news of his death prompted an outpouring of national grief. The funeral procession from the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio back to his birthplace of Pau Grande drew thousands of mourners. A soccer stadium in Brazil's federal capital, Brasilia, is named Estádio Mané Garrincha in his honor; "Mané" is short for his given name, Manuel, and he was commonly called "Mané Garrincha" during the height of his fame in Brazil. Some twenty years after his death, he was the subject of renewed interest, with a biography written that even appeared in English translation. Brazilian academic José Sérgio explained to the Guardian's Bellos about the enduring appeal of Garrincha, noting that he "was identified with the public. He never lost his popular roots. He was also exploited by football, so he was the symbol of the majority of Brazilians, who are also exploited."



Guardian (London, England), April 27, 2002; August 14, 2004.

Times (London), June 11, 1962.

—Carol Brennan