Brazil’s Garrincha may have died drunk, broke and alone, but when he lived, he was the prophet of absurdism and happiness.
In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. In this context absurd does not mean “logically impossible”, but rather “humanly impossible”. – Wikipedia, of course.
He fathered 14 children with 5 different women, he was a hopeless alcoholic alongside being a womanizer and a cheat, he was born with a physical abnormality in his knees, he ran over his own father with a car while driving under the influence of alcohol, and most controversially (and allegedly)… he lost his virginity to a goat. On the basis of just these facts, the man I am going to describe would seem like a human being laughing at the face of pragmatism and would not be someone people would admire. Yet, the very same man was the heartthrob of the great footballing nation of Brazil, and the best player in his position in the World Cup of 1958 where Brazil won the competition for the first time. The same man was the best player in the world 4 years later in 1962, when he single-handedly won Selecao the World Cup, scoring braces in the Quarter and the Semi Finals. The man, the legend is, of course, Manuel Francisco dos Santos, or as he is more affectionately known, Mané Garrincha.
Often called as Alegria do Povo (People’s Joy) and Anjo de Pernas Tortas (Bent-Legged Angel) by the Brazilian faithful, Mane Garrincha was born in Pau Grande, a small Brazilian village, in 1933. Garrincha was born with several defects. He had a deformed spine and his right leg bent outwards, whereas his left leg curved about two inches inwards. None of these physical abnormalities would, however, impede the phenom’s career as a professional footballer, or his legacy as quite simply, the greatest dribbler that this game has had the pleasure to witness.
Cicero was born with a pebble. Therefore, no one expected him to amount to much. Cicero practiced public speaking with the pebble in his mouth. Sometimes he almost choked on it. He learned to use simple words and direct sentences. He learned to push his voice past the pebble in his mouth, to articulate, to speak clearly even when his tongue betrayed him. He became the greatest orator of his age. – Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie.
Due to his disabilities, theoretically, Garrincha should not have been able to walk properly, let alone play the game of football. Yet, he did, despite himself, like Cicero. Initially, Garrincha was rejected by a host of Rio De Janeiro’s’ top clubs until Botafogo came calling in 1953. When he arrived at the training ground for his trial, he was thrown up against the Brazilian national team fullback, Nilton Santos. The soon-to-be legendary winger dribbled past Santos with the consummate confidence of a showboater. The story goes, after that incident, the fullback grabbed him by the hand, took him to the club president, and told him to sign the winger, so that he wouldn’t have to play against him. The world met the Grin, and they fell in love at first sight. Garrincha was beautiful. He did tricks not to humiliate the defenders; he did them to entertain the audience, with a perennial smile on his face. Then he probably went home and played football with the local kids again after a bottle or two of cachaça (distilled spirit made from sugarcane juice).
The smiling forward became an instant phenomenon at Botafogo, with his carefree attitude and his simple desire to enjoy the game while entertaining the audience making him a fan favourite. It is often said that Garrincha was the only player in the country to be loved by every single football fan, regardless of which club they supported. His presence was integral in elevating Botafago’s status as the best club in a country that apotheosised football.
Due to his club success, Garrincha was called up to Brazil to represent them at the 1958 World Cup. He and another future legend (you might have heard of him), Pele, made their debut in the third game of the group against USSR, a game that would change Brazilian football forever. Within the first 3 minutes of the game is when the world was gawking at the genius of Garrincha, goosefleshed from Guanabara Bay to Guantanamo – everyone who had anything to do with football, and had a working line of cable, tuned in. In a moment forever preserved in the amber of history, Garrincha dribbled past 4 defenders from Fiorentina and the goal-keeper, standing near the near the open goal, he waited for them to gather themselves, only to dribble around them once more before planting it hard into the collective imagination of an entire generation.
He was an integral part of Brazil’s first World Cup-winning squad, with Pele and him (amongst others) inspiring Brazil to a world cup victory. Four years later, Garrincha went to Chile to represent his team again in a World Cup. His more famous teammate, Pele, got injured during the second game of the group stages, and was declared to be out of the remainder of the tournament. Naturally, the nation was distraught. Up until that point, Garrincha had never been a leader and he had never listened to tactics. Garrincha just went in, dribbled past defenders, and regardless of the result, went home happy. However, in that tournament, a star turning into a red giant. The carefree boy from Pau Grande became a man, and the best player in the world – he became the nation’s lightning rod, and led his team to their second world cup title – and he did that literally single-handedly. In that World Cup, Garrincha devoured defences and goalkeepers with the gravitational pull of a slowing star. The legend became a God in the Brazilian pantheon when the final whistle of the final game blew. It was done. That World Cup campaign was probably the best individual campaign any individual had had at that point in history, and even 55 years later, only Diego Maradona’s exploits in the 1986 World Cup match it.
Borrowing some words of Eduardo Galeano, the leading political poet of Sudamericana: “His club was aptly called Botafogo which means ‘firelighter’. He would be the one climbing out of his training camp window, because he heard a far-away back-alley call off a ball asking to be played with, music demanding to be danced to, a woman wanting to be kissed.
Garrincha’s affair with national singer Elza Soares made him a much less likeable personality in the public’s eye, and in consequence, adultery made the adulation wobble momentarily. But that was enough. As a script of Greek tragedy would have it: Eventually, he succumbed to a long-term knee injury. The fact that he had become Botafogo’s icon did not help, as the constant games and self-medication eventually diagnosed him with retirement. He had arthritis, and soon, he lost his tricks, and finally he lost his game. His drinking got out of hand, and soon after, so did his life.
Football’s brightest was imploding, collapsing into itself. Despite being called up for the 3rd time to play in the World Cup, Garrincha’s performances looked like the game had been draining the lifeforce out of him. Like the failing electromagnetic fields of a ball of gas and fire, as it spins slower, he was running on empty, and the pirouettes on the ball took two revolutions longer. Botafogo had released him, and the once brilliant player tried to revive his career at different clubs, albeit failing each time. Garrincha, bereft of his only validation, drove himself to the point of suicide. No star in football’s horizon burned this vividly and fell off the horizon as dramatically.
Paraphrasing Ken Liu in Paper Menagerie: it is the event horizon around a black hole where the greatest stories are to be found. A womaniser, alcoholic and probably as sex-addict, Garrincha got a local girl pregnant while on Botafogo’s trip to Sweden on World Cup duty. When he returned, he ran over his father while drunk out of his wits, while his wife gave birth to his fifth child and his mistress announced her first pregnancy a while later.
In the modern world where the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo see themselves under immense scrutiny merely due to some antics, how would Garrincha’s have fared? What exempted Garrincha? It was simply because when he stepped on the football pitch, for 90 minutes, hardened football supporters squealed like a kid in a circus, clapping his hands, frantically. It was fitting that he emerged in the era of black and white television, and became the man who ushered football fans into technicolour dreams. “Carpe diem”, you know that hackneyed phrase? Garrincha would have you think he came up with the aphorism in the first place.
A Garrincha without his vices wouldn’t be a Garrincha at all. He once pulled down his teammate’s trousers during a formal interview, he would disappear from Botafogo for days, and appear suddenly in his hometown, recovering from the alcohol and the women. Garrincha was a child in a man’s body. Critics consider him to be a greater player than Pele himself, while adding that the latter was aided by a sound PR strategy expanding on his myth. If Garrincha were alive, he’d probably laugh that away and offer to buy a round of drinks.
There was Heleno, the “Prince Cursed” who came before our protagonist and scandalised Brazilians with his skill and his escapades off the pitch, Garrincha oftentimes just amused them. Oh, that silly Garrincha, what is he upto now? George Best, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli, Mauro Icardi, Luis Suarez, John Terry, Joey Barton, Diego Maradona, Di Canio, – no one wore a broken halo over his head like Garrincha did, no one will ever have their wrists slapped as affectionately. No one, not even Pele, contributed as much to football’s self-realisation and the actualisation of the beautiful game as Mane Garrincha. Blessed were those fans who could witness his dribbling divinations from inside the stadium; we have to be content with choppy YouTube clips.
There may be a next Pele in the making somewhere, maybe even a Maradona kicking his ball ragged against a wall, as a solitary bulb swings against the chill, in a shack that belongs to the night of Villa Fiorito or the daytime of villa in La Principal – but the world might never see a player like Mane Garrincha ever again; such was his inimitable spirit.
Life for him wasn’t a box of chocolates, but more a pack of cheap cigarettes. He was addicted to the heady high. Unlike other footballers, his blood may not have gushed to his head when he ran, but administered like an IV drip of the stoicism of nicotine, laced with the gallantry that absurdism brings – maybe even, cold-blooded like certain predators when they go in for that last dash.
When he dribbled, his craggy countenance resembled the famous Sugarloaf mountains of Guanabara Bay, a spearhead. He was not much to look at – but to Brazilians, he is a symbol of the bravado in the face of odds, the spirit that encapsulates how song, dance, and dribbles can overcome the pointy, flailing studs of fate – and that for them was savagely beautiful. That was a savage sort of beauty that disarms you even if you happenchance drop all your groceries by bumping shoulders with it on the way to the market. His teammates described him as a person who spoke little when he did between his ear-to-ear smiles, and when he left the room, you felt wittier, important, and happier for him having been there. Ah, that Garrincha.
Once vacant, retired, the cigarette box turned to a shelter for cobwebs he couldn’t twist or turn out of, like he always could. His faults and fall ultimately add sheen to his absurd ability to discount the dimensions of realism in the realm of chalk drawn boundaries. Football didn’t mourn when he drew his last breath at the age of 49, it reminisced. An unstoppable force capered around most immovable objects, but not danse macabre.
Garrincha was more than his sins: in the entire history of football, no one made more people happy. To very loosely paraphrase Ken Liu again, Garrincha chose to light his candle at both ends, and lived an incandescent life. When his candle ran out, he died sick, addicted, and much too young. But each day of his life he could decide, “Am I going to be brilliant today?” There is a lesson in there somewhere.