Bird of Passage
A personal quest into the life-story of Garrincha, Brazil’s unrefined legend
Money talks but it don't sing and dance, and it don't walk
Under an unremarkable sky there were four of us out on the backstreet making our rings fly. I thrust my ring away then pulled it in, creating ellipses in the summer air. If it dared to slip I coaxed it back up, bending my knees and bracing my shoulders as I tried to circle the sun. Jill Clapham and Karen Pullen were streets ahead, looping their hoops in a swaying 2/4 rhythm and creating double flirts with their ductile hips. That morning as the larks rose into the sky above Little Switzerland I twirled my first ton.
At two o’clock we all ran in to watch Sweden play Brazil. My father was already crouched in front of our Bush console. I sat beside him on the hearthrug and my mother brought in a jug of Kia-Ora orange squash. On the other side of the bulbous screen a thickset man in a raincoat was triumphantly brandishing a large Swedish flag. The magic mirror then moved its focus to show the opposing teams jogging up and down uncomfortably in the silent rain. At last the referee blew his whistle and the final was afoot. A quarter of an hour into the game the commentator informed us that the effervescent Brazilian fans were singing, “Samba, Samba” even though they were losing 1-0. Garrincha, their right-winger attacked from the fringes. Twice in succession in the first half, he beat three players and his inch-perfect goalmouth crosses resulted in Vavá goals. As the game went on my eyes were drawn more and more to this hunched man who never passed the ball. On 29 June 1958 I was transported to a field of dreams somewhere on another planet.
That winter I gave up hula-hooping and started to kick a rubber ball against our coal house door. I learned to keep the pill on the ground, tame its wicked bounce and make it run. I gained a rhythm that allowed me to twist and dart past imaginary opponents. I found that with the slightest of taps from my left foot I was able to alter the ball’s speed and trajectory. I kept my feet apart, flexed my body and imagined I was Garrincha. My ball slept with me under the sheets as I listened to Bobby Vee on my portable radio.
I set unregistered record after record with that small rubber ball and became a star of the school playground. It was also the last time the skylarks darted out of the turf and diminished to dark specks in the porcelain sky, the last time they would sing their hearts out, momentarily disembodied as they summoned the sun.
It was now 1959 and I had started to go to football matches with my father. I loved the communal walk to the ground, the baying wit of the tribe and the surging swell of bodies tumbling down the terraces. But what I watched on the pitch was a war in which tough men battled it out for a paltry win bonus. The game was prosaic, forbidding and merciless and bore no resemblance to the fluidity of the Brazilian champions.
In the summer of 1966 I got to watch Brazil play for a second time. Garrincha emerged from the Goodison Park tunnel wearing the number 16 shirt. His unstoppable swerving banana kick that had hit the top right hand corner of the Park End net three days earlier had led me to anticipate a repeat performance of the mesmeric sequence of steps I had watched as an 11 year old with my father. After the band had played the national anthems Brazil’s bandy-legged outside-right ambled over to position himself next to two policemen patrolling the far touchline.
Under the floodlights and with the Liverpool crowd’s chants of “Hungary, Hungary” and “ee ay adio ” echoing in their ears Flórián Albert and Ferenc Bene set about putting the ageing world champions to the sword with fast incisive counter-attacks. Just before half-time Kenneth Wolstenholme, the BBC sportscaster, lamented, “Ah, Garrincha seems to have gone now. He has lost all the feistiness and fire and that devastating burst of speed.”
In the second half I noticed that Garrincha sometimes came inside looking for help and on the rare occasions when he tried to get round the outside of the Hungarian defence he was easily cut off and forced to pass. At the final whistle a delirium of appreciation burst forth, as toilet rolls rained onto the pitch. A stray balloon blew up from the Gwladys Street terrace, drifting forlornly in the direction of Stanley Park.
It is 2006 and I am sitting in the Bar Vesuvio in the old cocoa port of Ilhéus watching Botafogo play Vasco da Gama. The ball rarely leaves the ground and always seems to be angled perfectly through the narrowest of channels. Periodically it shoots out to the flanks and is then rifled back across the box. In this game corners and throw-ins are irrelevant. The ball dips and bends as it fires towards goal. Then out of the blue a Botafogo player goes round his opponent on the outside and I blurt out the words, “Alma de Garrincha.” An old man sitting beside me smiled kindly and said, “Garrincha jogou futebol do mesmo modo que viveu sua vida, divertindo-se e irresponsalvelmente!” [Garrincha played football the same way he lived his life, pleasing himself and running wild!]
Back in England football was now an acceptable topic of conversation in the hospital canteen. In fact there were many similarities between the modus operandi of university teaching hospitals and Premier League football clubs. One Tuesday lunchtime after rounds I explained that ‘Garrincha’ was a drab little Brazilian bird with a buzzing flight and a bubbly song that could not survive in a cage. Nobody had heard of Garrincha.
I then got out my laptop and showed them extracts from the 1963 Cinema Novo film Alegria do Povo [The Happiness of the People]. The film begins with black and white photographs of Garrincha to a soundtrack of samba. I fast-forwarded so they could see the Lone Star of Botafogo mesmerising his opponents in the Maracanã stadium.
One of the house officers, a Manchester United supporter reflected, “He plays a bit like George Best.” I replied caustically that Garrincha was Best, Stanley Matthews and John Barnes and a snake charmer rolled into one. “What’s more you don’t need slow motion/3D/surround sound from 23 angles to prove he has more tricks than Messi and more grace than Ronaldo.” I knew that my fuzzy evidence had not convinced them. They smiled benignly but knew their chief was basking in the emotional overglow of an unhealthy reminiscence bump.
Undeterred I continued to watch web compilations of the Little Bird’s sillage, much of which had been posthumously embellished by music. To Moacyr Franco’s song Balada no.7 (Mané Garrincha) I watch him double back before arrowing away to the right. A magnet seemed to be always attracting him to the margin of the pitch. His style was casual, irreverent and highly improbable but never disrespectful. He tormented and teased but never mocked. He was wordless and indefinable. For Garrincha, football was no more than a series of duels against instantly forgettable defenders and foreplay was far more enjoyable than scoring. The more joyous he made the crowd, the sterner became his facial expression. He was football’s Buster Keaton cracking jokes with his bandy legs and dancing to the gaps in the music. In one game playing for Botafogo he was even admonished by the official for flirtatious play. He was a one-man carnival who could turn life upside down with his antics. ‘Seu Mané’ expunged the prison of cause and effect from the game of football.
By the second half of the 19th century Lancashire cotton goods had become almost worthless in Brazil. Even the turbines coming in on the Liverpool boats from Manchester were in far less demand. As a consequence the 1000 or so English expatriates began to invest more in local textile production. John Sherrington, a man who had strong commercial links with Manchester, purchased a stretch of verdant land that nestled below the forested Serra dos Órgãos in the centre of the sate of Rio de Janeiro. Here in 1878 in the grounds of the old fazenda he and his two Brazilian partners constructed a textile mill. The project got off to an ill-omened start when the ancient tree said to have been more than 50m tall and with a trunk circumference greater than 30 human arm spans came down during the construction of a road, but within a few years the factory was functional, converting natural fibres into yarn and then fabric.
The municipality of Pau Grande in the district of Vila Inhomirim 50km outside Rio de Janeiro already had a small railway line. It had been constructed by the English engineer William Bragge in 1853 and connected Raiz da Serra and the Imperial City of Petrópolis with the wharf in the small port of Mauá at the mouth of the Rio Inhomirim. This railway provided a reliable form of transport from the mill to the coast.
The Francisco dos Santos family were descendants of the Fulni-ô Indians, who after being ousted from their coastal homeland by the Portuguese had settled in Águas Belas, a municipality close to the Rio Ipanema. Although they had finally been hounded down near Quebrangulo and forced to take the surname of their oppressor these ‘people of the river and stones’ refused to bow to outside discipline. As their traditional lifestyle was eroded some of their number assimilated with renegade black slaves in the quilombo hideouts of the Brazilian outback.
Manuel Francisco dos Santos was the first to travel the 2000km from the tribal homelands to the boomtown dominated by the mill owned by the América Fabril company. Although the landscape bore similarities with the countryside on the borders of the states of Alagoas and Pernambuco from where he had travelled, Pau Grande itself more closely resembled Delph or Saddleworth on the Pennine ridge.
The several hundred labourers had come from all over Brazil but the mill managers were exclusively English. In return for the privileges of secure employment and accommodation the predominantly illiterate mill workers were obliged to comply with the strict discipline and moral code of the British Empire. Mr Hall, the manager, would sometimes deal with misdemeanours that had occurred outside the factory by administering a caning to the miscreant. Mr Smith, the director, emphasised the virtues of hard work and self discipline and encouraged football on the premise of ‘healthy body, healthy mind’.
On 28 October 1933 Manuel’s brother Amaro dos Santos, who worked at América Fabril as a security guard, became a father for the fifth time. The midwife was the first to notice that the baby boy’s left leg bent out and the right turned in. Manuel Francisco dos Santos had to grow up fast and his love of trapping and caging birds led his older sister Rosa to nickname him Garrincha. In his school reports he was described as quiet but mischievous and impulsive and his teachers considered him uneducable. For the young Mané by far the best thing about Pau Grande was a secluded potholed stretch of grass 60m by 40m high on a bluff that overlooked the factory. There were days when he would return two or three times for peladas [kickabouts]. Barefooted and dressed only in shorts Garrincha and a couple of mates would regularly thrash older opponents. His hunting spear was the ball and his prey lay nestled in the back of the net guarded by a goalkeeper. When he was not running with the ball he would be fishing or hunting with his friends Pincel and Swing, two brothers from the neighbouring Raiz de Serra.
His first job, at 14, was in the cotton room of the mill with its blistering heat, lung-damaging dust and deafening machines. The air had to be kept hot and humid in this the most unpleasant working environment of the factory to prevent the thread from breaking. He was always going absent, often to drink cachaça in a local bar or have sex with the mill girls at the back of the small football stadium belonging to SC Pau Grande, which had been founded in 1908 by workers from the factory. His employers soon gave up any hope of getting a decent day’s work out of him and it was only his footballing deftness that saved him from the sack. With Garrincha in SC Pau Grande’s side the factory team went two years without a defeat.
The coach likened Garrincha to Saci, the pipe-smoking mulatto imp whose spellbinding one-legged footwork created whirlwinds of chaos wherever he went. It was impossible to outrun Saci, who could make himself disappear at will. Sometimes he would transform into Matita Pereira, an elusive bird whose melancholic song seemed to come from nowhere. The only way to placate this legendary trickster was to leave him a bottle of cachaça.
Eventually Garrincha’s dazzling dribbles came to the attention of scouts from Rio de Janeiro and he was offered trials for the big clubs. He arrived at Vasco da Gama’s São Januário ground without boots, turned up late for a trial with São Cristóvão and when asked to stay overnight by Fluminense feared for his job and returned on the last train home. His insouciance counted heavily against him. Eventually a supporter and scout from Botafogo, a modest football and regatta club, but one that had a strong journalistic and intellectual following, dragged SC Pau Grande’s number 7 back to the capital.
On clapping eyes on Garrincha, the Botafogo coach Gentil Cardoso is said to have muttered, “Now they’re bringing cripples to me.” He then asked the young bumpkin, “How do you play, son?” to which Garrincha replied, “With boots!” After watching him kick a ball around Cardoso had seen enough to throw Garrincha into the first-team squad’s practice match. After the game the Brazil left-back Nílton Santos, who had been nutmegged for the first time in his career by the upstart, is said to have told Cardoso that the boy was a monster and should be signed on the spot if only to prevent him being snapped up by one of their rivals. The Rio press enthusiastically heralded Garrincha’s signing as a professional footballer in 1953. Their only criticism was “the boy dribbles too much.”
In Sweden in 1958, Garrincha was the best in the world in his position. Four years later in Chile he was the finest player in the world. After he had been officially announced as the player of the tournament, the poet Vinicius de Moraes composed the sonnet 'O Anjo das Pernas Tortas' [The Angel with Twisted Legs]:
'Didi passes and Garrincha advances
Observing intently the leather glued to his foot
He dribbles once, then again, then rests
Measuring the moment to attack
Then by second nature he launches forward
Faster than the speed of thought.'
In his June 1962 article “O Escrete de Loucos” [The Squad of Madmen] published in Fatos & Fotos, Nelson Rodrigues, the great Brazilian cronista reported that the European squads had been working on strategies to stop Garrincha but had not taken into account that the Brazilian team was a phenomenon made up of pranksters who played the game from the soul. In the last minutes of the final against Czechoslovakia, Garrincha had turned the opposition to stone. One defender even put his hands on his hips in total capitulation. Regarding the earlier 3-1 victory against England in the quarter-final, Rodrigues wrote, “The Englishman plays football whereas the Brazilian lives and suffers every move.”
Garrincha fathered fourteen children by five different women. One of them, Ulf, was born after the 1958 World Cup final and grew up in Sweden1. Garrincha had a lengthy and tempestuous relationship with the samba diva Elza Soares. He drank heavily and was responsible for the death of his mother-in-law in a car accident where he was drunk behind the wheel. When he finally hung up his boots, after a brief comeback with the small Rio club Olaria in 1972, he faded into oblivion. One of his last public appearances was at the carnival in Rio de Janeiro. The shots of his hunched bloated figure sitting alone on the front of the Mangueira samba school float saddened the nation.
Following Garrincha’s death from the complications of alcoholism on 20 January 1983, Hamilton Pereira da Silva, a poet and a politician from Tocantins, composed Requiem for an Angel:
They stood in the cortege
And offered him wings
Hang gliding on the wing
For you who lived as an angel for so many years
These wings would have been meaningless
Before the eyes of the people
In the magical glow
Of those Sunday afternoons…
Two days after the announcement of Garrincha’s death, the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade published an article entitled “Mané and the Dream” in the Jornal do Brasil in which he declared that football had become a panacea for Brazil’s sickness. Garrincha had been a reluctant hero who had temporarily banished the nation’s inferiority complex and inspired the have-nots to greater things, He pleaded for another Garrincha to rekindle the nation’s dreams: “The god that rules football is sardonic and insincere. Garrincha was one of his envoys, delegated to make a mockery of everything and everyone in his stadiums. The god of football is also cruel because he concealed from Garrincha the faculty to realise his mission as a divine agent.”
In his imagined chronicle Diario do Tarde Paulo Mendes Campos wrote that the rules of Association Football did not apply when Garrincha was on the pitch. The pushes, trips and shoves against him went unpunished and it was only when the embarrassed defender fearful of ridicule by the crowd pulled at his shirt that the complicit referee would be reluctantly forced to award a foul.
Despite these chansons de geste by Brazil’s greatest living writers and poets, the truth of the matter was that Seu Mané’s trickery defied literary description. Football was not an art. Garrincha had held a mirror up to the nation.
His body was taken from the clinic in Botafogo to the Maracanã stadium. Nílton Santos insisted that his teammate be buried in Pau Grande and not in the new mausoleum for professional footballers in the Jardim da Saudade. Traffic came to a halt on the Avenida Brasil as the cortège passed by with mourners crowding the sides of the road and others throwing flowers from the overhead bridges. “Garrincha you made the world smile and now you make it cry” had been daubed on a tree. As the mayhem of cars finally approached Pau Grande the bottleneck became so great that people were forced to abandon their vehicles and walk to the little church.
Seu Mané had played the game for its own sake. His fancy footwork, element of surprise and capacity for improvisation had nourished the nation’s soul. A memorial stone was placed in the cemetery. Its inscription read, “He was a sweet child. He spoke with the birds.” Tostão, his teammate, would write on the 20th anniversary of Mané’s death, “Garrincha was much more than a dribbler, a ballet dancer and a showman, he was a star.”
My sentimental quest begins at the Botafogo Sports and Regatta Club on Avenida Venceslau Brás. It’s now used mainly by the young socios (members) to play volleyball and basketball. A picture of Nílton Santos in the entrance reminds the club of its glory years. His black and white striped shirt with its lone star hangs in a display case next to the trophy cabinet.
When Garrincha played for Botafogo de Futebol e Regatas it was a deeply superstitious club. The day before the game a mass communion with eggnog, milk and biscuits would took place and on match day the club’s silk curtains were tied up to symbolise the ensnarement of the opponents’ legs. An hour before the game each player was compelled to take a mud bath and eat three apples. An ex-Fluminense player had to be included in every team. Before each game a stray mongrel called Biriba would piss on the leg of a player. When things were going badly for the team the Botafogo president would release the little dog from the stand to run onto the pitch and distract the opposition. Biriba became so important at the club that he was included in one of Botafogo’s championship winning team photographs.
I set off past the Aterro do Flamengo with its fenced playgrounds full of youths playing football, I look over at the Marina da Glória with the mist-topped Sugar Loaf in the background, heading for Praça Quinze where the boats come in from Niterói. Out in the bay the Ilha das Cobras is surrounded by frigates. I drive fast on the Linha Vermelha heading north in the direction of Galeão. To my left is the vast sprawl of the Complexo do Alemão favela, the Instituto Oswaldo Cruz and the toy-town church of Nossa Senhora da Penha perched on its sacred mount. I reach the artificial brine lake designed to deter the favelados from hanging around the beaches of the Zona Sur and then drive north towards the Federal University Hospital block where I had lectured the day before. A nauseating smell of sewage fills the air. I head north-east through the teeming run-down districts of Baixada Fluminense, which are full of old trucks, new schools and stray dogs.
In Casa-Grande & Senzala [The Master and the Slaves], Gilberto Freyre uses the term bagaceira – the shed where the dry pulpy residue left after the extraction of sugar is stored – as a metonym for the exploitative plantation culture. Freyre wrote that “Brazil is sugar and sugar is the Black” and both were linked in the collective unconscious with sensuality and sexuality. Bagaceira was later used to refer generically to marginalised riff-raff. Football had provided Garrincha with an escape route from enslavement but when all the fibre had been squeezed out of him cachaça left him as bagaceira.
The municipality of Magé with its farming communities guarded by the Dedo de Deus mountain marks the official leaving of Rio de Janeiro. We turn right along a bumpy narrow road filled with buses and motorcyclists, cross the single lane railway track, go past a man on a horse and open roadside kiosks selling tyres. The people seem gentler and more approachable than in Grande Rio. At a birosca that sells buns and cachaça I stop to ask the way to Pau Grande. Chortling, the bar owner points to his groin and says, “Aqui está.” “Pau grande”, I later learned, was slang in Brazilian Portuguese for “big cock”.
After another 15 minutes drive the Estadio Mané Garrincha, the home of SC Pau Grande, comes into view, its rustic white walls and small arched entrance resemble an Andalusian village bullring. The grass is lush and samba drifts from the television in the clubhouse. The president, plump, with a Zapata moustache and dressed only in fading khaki shorts, greets me effusively. In one corner of the clubhouse are three cases of memorabilia, one filled with small trophies, the other two with crumpled newspaper cuttings and posters defining the ascent of the Little Bird. One of the pictures shows an 11-year-old Garrincha sticking out in a team of men and another his father Amaro, looking down affectionately on his young son from a small wooden veranda. In some of the group photographs there are boys who resembled my own teammates from school, pale solemn faces, straight brown hair and small chins.
The president tells me that Garrincha used to love to return to Pau Grande for a pelada with his old friends after playing at the Maracanã. Over a glass of cachaça he tells me the club are hoping to raise money to create a small museum. He also reminds me that the black and white striped SC Pau Grande strip is identical to that of Botafogo except for the star. I offer him money to buy a ball, but he refuses and we settle for just another photograph. I then walk down the cobbled road to the centre of the village where a small bust of Garrincha greets the few visitors. To its right are a series of murals illustrating how Pau Grande used to look in its prime.
América Fabril closed in 1971 and its buildings now operate as a distribution centre for mineral water but the Neo-Gothic grey and white Capela de Sant’Ana that had been overwhelmed by Botafogo supporters at Garrincha’s funeral is unchanged. A car blasting out propaganda for Sandra Garrincha, a candidate in the Magé prefectural elections, drives by, followed by a group of young girls waving flags in support of her campaign.
I ask one of the security guards at the gate of the old factory if I can have a look around. The factory looks much the same as it did in the days when it produced cloth. The chimneystack is still standing but there are now vast empty spaces giving parts of it the appearance of a vacant exhibition space. In some of the rooms machines rumble away bottling water from the mountain springs. I thank my guide and walk back into the village in the direction of the lemon bungalow which the Brazilian football federation had bought Garrincha for his part in the World Cup victory in Chile in 1962. Two of Garrincha’s friendly grandnieces are standing on the veranda talking to a young man astride his bicycle. Grilles guard the windows of the house even though I am told there is still next to no crime in Pau Grande. There is a mural of Garrincha’s head in his playing days at the front door and on the wall of the house looking onto the street is written the legendary number 7 he carried on his back and the words “jogando certo com as pernas tortas” [playing straight with twisted legs]. One of the girls invites me to enter a small shrine at the side of the house. Among the photographs and medallions is a framed tribute fastened on one of the walls:
'Garrincha pretends that he despises the ball, but she knew he would always come back to pick her up.
The dribble was his courtship.
Garrincha, you passed through life, overcoming all obstacles that were put before you. But in the end that relentless adversary Death defeated your dribble.
From that moment on the ball and the football universe became orphans of the most blessed contorted legs football has ever known.'
Pau Grande is still full of gente boa. Doors do not need to be locked at night. Round the corner from Garrincha’s old house an elderly man tells me that the former mill town is still full of Garrincha’s ancestors. He then leads me up a path behind the houses that reminds me of the Brackenwood edgeland of my childhood, full of weeds, plastic bottles and butterflies. After a short walk up a steep incline we reach an empty white outhouse with two palomino horses tied up outside. 20 metres below the high bank is a clearing strewn with twigs and leaves. At either end are goal posts without nets. I climb down and start to run close to the right edge where patches of grass grow sheltered by overhanging trees. I pause. I then sidestep to the right and accelerate. I twist round with my back to the goal, shimmy and shoot. I feel free. When I can fly no more I sit on a bench behind the far goalposts. Once I have gained my breath I rise and walk to the edge of the ridge and look down on the mill, the little chapel and the orderly rows of houses.
An hour later I drive on up to the cemetery at Raiz da Serra. As I am parking the car, a skeletal drunk in shorts, sandals and a fading orange shirt staggers out of the Encontro dos Amigos bar offering to guide me to Garrincha’s grave. He tells me that the previous Friday three Vasco da Gama players had made the pilgrimage from Rio to pray for inspiration before their game against Flamengo. Tucked away in the middle of a row of closely packed tombstones I am shown a faded inscription, which says “Here lies the man who was the happiness of the people Mané Garrincha.” On the worn headstone his date of death is recorded incorrectly as 20 January 1985. There are no flowers or graffiti. A singer and friend Agnaldo Timóteo had paid for the funeral, the tombstone had been paid for by his captain Nílton Santos and a local family called Rogonisky had allowed Garrincha’s remains to be buried in the same grave as their 10-year-old son who had been killed in a road traffic accident.
I then climb up to look at the newer but equally stark and neglected obelisk. Written on a memorial tablet are the words:
The Happiness of Pau Grande
The Happiness of Magé
The Happiness of Brazil
The Happiness of the World.'
As I sit in silence in this deserted cemetery I think that it could only have been my great-grandfathers’ deep loyalty to street, neighbourhood and even mill that prevented them packing their bags during the slump. It was in towns like Oldham that association football first changed from a game played by gentlemen into a profitable attractive Saturday afternoon spectator sport. As I sit by Garrincha’s grave I see their familiar faces under their flat caps, their trunks bent over by the damp and onerous labour, hurrying past the smokestacks and rows of terraced houses to Boundary Park. The Latics were yet another stabilising devotion that stopped them sailing down to Rio on a Lamport and Holt steamer.
Football has been hijacked by television money and sponsorship deals. It was now much more of a spectacle but had fewer magic moments. Running fast with the ball glued to your toes was high risk and was decried by millionaire coaches. Wingers like Garrincha (outside rights and lefts) had been replaced by a new breed of wing-backs that could attack and defend. Power and victory were what counted these days.
A small brown wren-like bird with a large cocked-up tail, sharp beak and shiny black cap flits under a neighbouring headstone and interrupts my litany of regrets. Dusk is falling and with a heavy heart I leave through the dark forests on the steep ascent to Petrópolis. I am now certain that when I have started to dribble my lines, when I can no longer remember my date of birth or the names of my children the alchemist will still be around beckoning me to come and join him for a pedala in the clearing above the cotton mill.