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The Extraordinary Garrincha

Brazilian players of bygone generations were often overshadowed by the mighty Pelé, but there were some whose star shone just as bright—and sometimes brighter—than that of their legendary teammate. One of these iconic athletes was Mané Garrincha, a tricky speedster who defined the winger position and became one of his nation’s most revered players.

The Little Bird

Manuel Francisco dos Santos received the nickname Garrincha (the Little Bird) from his sister when he was a child because of his slight, fragile frame. Even though he was born with a physical disability—an inward-turning right leg that was six centimeters shorter than his outward-turning left leg—he pursued his dream of becoming a football player.

A pacy winger with devastating close control and skill, Garrincha made his international debut against Chile in 1955 at just 21 years old. Over the next decade, he would rack up fifty caps for Brazil, and it was on the biggest stage where he truly excelled.

Rise to Stardom

Garrincha properly introduced himself to football fans at the 1958 World Cup. After some uninspiring early performances from his team, Brazil coach Vicente Feola switched things up by starting Pelé and Garrincha against the Soviet Union, and it worked wonders. The two mercurial attackers transformed the side from sluggish struggler to an unbeatable juggernaut, culminating in the Seleção winning their first World Cup.

Four years later, with Pelé out injured, Mané Garrincha took center stage. His four goals and spectacular performances earned him the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball and, most importantly, helped his nation defend its world championship. In 1966, Brazil embarrassingly exited the World Cup in the group stages despite having both Garrincha and Pelé in its arsenal. A 3–1 loss to Hungary in the second game marked Garrincha’s only ever defeat in a Brazil shirt, and it was his final appearance for his country.

Legacy

The Brazilian was the first of his kind, the original winger, a position that has since undergone several evolutions. Wide players, like Garrincha, were deadly weapons up against the old back three, but the arrival of the four-man backline eventually rendered ineffective their primary strength of exploiting the space behind defenders. Wingers had to become more than just pure athletes with the occasional trick in their repertoire. Even players who operate in more complex roles, like “mezzale” (half wingers), had to adapt to modern football, and nowadays, they are some of the most effective protagonists on the field.

Mané Garrincha’s dazzling dribbling ability made him a fan favorite, and he was aptly dubbed “the Joy of the People.” He prematurely passed at just 49, having struggled with alcohol abuse his entire adult life. After his death, a bust bearing his image was placed inside the hallowed halls of the Maracanã to commemorate his brilliance. The Little Bird will always be remembered as one of the best to have ever graced a football pitch.

 

Illustration by pinisantoro.

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