“In the entire history of football no one made more people happy,” said Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. He was speaking about an angel. Not an ordinary one, but an angel with bent legs (in Portuguese, um anjo de pernas tortas).
It’s how Mane Garrincha became known in Brazil after winning the World Cup in 1958, then almost single-handedly defending the title four years later in the same way perhaps only Diego Maradona would later do in 1986.
Garrincha had several birth defects. His spine was crooked. His right leg bent inwards. His left leg was six centimeters (more than two inches) longer than the right, and curved outwards following childhood surgery.
And yet none of these issues impeded his ability to play football at the highest level. Garrincha was immensely popular in Brazil. While Pele is generally remembered as the most complete player of all time, Garrincha often overshadowed his colleague as a rebel who wouldn't miss a chance to make his opponents look like fools. He was perhaps the finest dribbler the world has ever seen.
Making defenders looks foolish
Garrincha’s favorite trick was to run off, leaving the ball behind but taking his marker with him. He would return and do it again and again, before eventually going forward with the ball, leaving the duped defender stood still.
He played football for Botafogo and Brazil the same way he lived his life, pleasing himself and not following any team tactics or orders. Back in his homeland Pau Grande, there are wild claims that he lost his virginity to a goat. His father was an alcoholic and the player himself drunk a bottle a day of Brazil’s most popular distilled alcoholic beverage, cachaca. His love affair and marriage to legendary samba singer Elza Soares was the main subject of daily tabloids.
Struggling with his knees at the end of his career, his drinking caught up with him. He died at the age of just 49, leaving three ex-wives and 14 different children – one of them in Sweden – behind.
Yet in Brazil, the angel is best remembered by his other nickname: Alegria do Povo. The Joy of the People.
He inspired Brazil to victory in the 1962 World Cup when his team-mates were shell-shocked by Pele’s early departure following an injury.
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