Garrincha's Swedish Son
When Garrincha toured Sweden with Botafogo, memories weren't all he left behind
The scene is familiar enough: a famous foreign footballer on tour with his team spots a beautiful local woman— and goes on to spend the night with her. That tends to be the end of it, but this footballer was Garrincha and the next morning there was a knock on his hotel-room door.
Manuel Francisco dos Santos was born on 28 October 1933 in Pau Grande, a small town in the Magé district of Rio de Janeiro. The newborn seemed an unlikely candidate for sporting glory, as he was born with a deformed spine and bent legs, one 6cm longer than the other. But as young Manuel grew older it became obvious to everyone that he was blessed with prodigious skill, and football clubs in the area started taking an interest. The only problem was that the interest wasn't mutual.
Small, fragile and uncommonly gentle of disposition, Manuel was given the fitting nickname 'Garrincha'— 'the Little Bird'. He was a carefree and thoroughly unambitious character, and despite of earning a reputation as an unrivalled dribbler on the streets of Pau Grande he refused to take football particularly seriously. Alex Bellos writes in Futebol, The Brazilian Way of Life that when Garrincha reluctantly agreed to go on trial with the big Rio clubs he did so in a spectacularly half-hearted manner. At Vasco he forgot to bring his boots and was sent home, while at Flamengo he left early to catch a train home. At Botafogo however he undid the left-back Nílton Santos, a member of the national team at the time and widely regarded as one of the greatest full-backs there has ever been, in such a comprehensive manner that the club swiftly signed him up.
Two months later Garrincha scored a hat-trick in his first full game for Botafogo. He would go on to play 518 times for Botafogo, scoring 232 goals, but he is best remembered for his performances for Brazil. Between 1955 and 1965 he played 50 times for his country, and the seleção famously never lost a game when Garrincha and Pele were both in the starting line-up.
Having played a starring role as Brazil won their first ever World Cup in Sweden in 1958, Garrincha returned to Scandinavia the following year on a European tour with Botafogo. In the less than pulsating city of Umeå in Northern Sweden Botafogo casually beat a local select team, and while it wasn't the most glorious of victories Garrincha was not a man to pass up the chance of a celebration. The cold climate in Northern Sweden compelled several Botafogo players to stay at their hotel, but Garrincha went out and only returned late at night— characteristically disregarding the team's curfew. According to Garrincha's biography, written by Ruy Castro, he met a girl who took him home. Although it was never fully verified, legend has it that while the two were enjoying themselves in the bedroom the girl's parents were watching television elsewhere in the house.
The next day the girl turned up at Garrincha's hotel. The girl, her father, and the police. His team-mates instantly feared that their star player was about to be arrested. As it turned out, all they wanted was a blood sample from the famous foreign footballer. Garrincha also signed documents accepting responsibility for any offspring that might result from their night together. Nine months later, on 10 February 1960, Garrincha's Swedish son was born. By then, of course, Garrincha himself was on the other side of the world, and the young mother decided to give the child up for adoption. While Sweden was a reasonably liberal country at the time, being the single mother of a child conceived during a one-night stand with a South American footballer simply would not do.
Impulsive, inventive and explosive, Garrincha seemed to embody the Brazilian way. His bent legs gave him an awkward centre of gravity, which flummoxed a series of defenders, particularly those from overseas who had never seen him before. Most remember him from Brazil's World Cup wins in 1958 and 1962, but winning never seemed to be Garrincha's main priority. He is often said to have reduced football to a form of bullfighting, one where nobody died. As Tim Vickery notes, "The worst that happened was that a succession of left-backs were made to look ridiculous." This style and mentality stuck a powerful chord with the Brazilian public. Pelé is Brazil's greatest ever player, and he is idolised and revered, but Garrincha is loved. As Bellos concludes, "Pelé, above everything else, symbolises winning. Garrincha symbolises playing for playing's sake. Brazil is not country of winners. It is a country of people who like to have fun." Garrincha's other nickname, Alergia do Povo (Joy of the People), could not have been more accurate.
When he returned to Brazil after Botafogo's tour of Europe in 1959, Garrincha drove a car to his hometown of Pau Grande where he ran over his father and drove away without stopping. On the pitch Garrincha was a free spirit, unpredictable and seemingly oblivious to the boundaries of convention. Off the pitch Garrincha was exactly the same. The characteristics that contributed greatly to making him the Joy of the People also made his private life a disaster area. And his problems were aggravated exponentially by the fact that he had been a heavy drinker since his teens.
In 1952, seven years before his encounter in Umeå, Garrincha married a factory worker called Nair Marques. The wedding had been forced on him as the girl was pregnant, and together the two had eight daughters. While he was playing his football, Nair stayed in Pau Grande, and Garrincha fathered two more children with a woman he maintained in Rio. He separated from Nair in 1965, having had untold numbers of affairs with various women. In March 1966 he was married again, this time to the samba singer Elza Soares, a woman who had, like him, seen her talent carry her from humble beginnings to fame and recognition. In 1969 Garrincha was driving with Elza's mother when he hit a lorry. His mother-in-law was killed, and the incident sent Garrincha into a depression. At that point, his career as a footballer was effectively over, a knee injury having reduced his ability to play since the early sixties, and Garrincha took to drinking even more. The Joy of the People was unravelling.
Back in Umeå, Northern Sweden, possibly as far from the swaying rhythms of Rio as it's possible to come, Garrincha's son had been adopted by Alf and Margareta Lindberg, who gave him the name Ulf. The family moved to Halmstad on Sweden's south-western coast in 1974, and there Ulf enjoyed the benefits of an unspectacular upbringing in a Scandinavian social democracy. When he was still a young boy his adoptive parents revealed to Ulf who his biological father was. The boy was proud, but managed to keep his famous father a secret. It remained a secret until 1977, when Garrincha inexplicably told Ian Wooldridge of the Daily Mail that he had a son in Sweden. It was big news in Brazil, as it was in Sweden when the story inevitably reached newspapers there. When the news broke that 17-year-old Ulf Lindberg from Halmstad was the son of one of the greatest footballers ever to play the game, the local team Halmstads BK wasted no time in inviting the youngster for a trial. Unfortunately for Ulf, rheumatism barred him from pursuing a career as a footballer.
It was around that time when Ulf and his father briefly exchanged correspondence. Only a few letters were sent, but it enough for Garrincha to tell the Brazilian media in an interview that he'd be looking to bring his Swedish son to Brazil, where he could play football. But by this time Garrincha's situation had deteriorated. His career was over, decades of alcoholism had taken its toll and, incredibly, he was broke. As naive and carefree off the pitch as was on it, Garrincha had been exploited by Botafogo for years as the club only paid him a fraction of what his ability and fame merited. In an attempt to turn his life around, he moved to Italy with Elza Soares.
But living abroad failed to improve his lifestyle-problems and they moved back to Brazil, where they eventually had another child. If the baby was intended to encourage Garrincha to get his act together, it had the opposite effect. His drinking got even worse, and he started beating Elza. In 1977, after 15 years together, she decided to leave him. Garrincha married a third woman, Vanderléia Vieira, and in 1981 had his tenth daughter, but he still kept filling his days with alcohol. Plans were afoot to set up a meeting between Ulf Lindberg and his biological father in Spain, in connection with World Cup 82, but nothing came of it. In 1983 Garrincha died, just 49 years of age, his mind and body ravaged by the effects of alcoholism.
Ulf Lindberg continued to live a perfectly ordinary life in Sweden. He married, had two children, re-married and had three more. Apart from some pictures and some newspaper clippings in Portuguese which he keeps in his home, there is no way of telling that this Swedish family man is actually the son of Brazil's most loved footballer. In 2005 Ulf, who at that point was working at a hot dog stand in Halmstad, travelled with one of his sons to Brazil for the first time to meet some of his relatives. With him was a journalist from Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, who reported home that "Garrincha's Swedish son created chaos when he visited the hero's home country."
And there was considerable havoc being caused by Ulf's arrival. TV-crews, journalists and photographers all wanted a piece of the filho de Garrincha, the son of Garrincha. Ulf obliged, he shook hands, signed autographs, posed for pictures and kicked footballs. A sizable crowd turned up to watch Ulf and his son Martin play in a friendly game in Pau Grande, and Ulf's visit was covered by a number of newspapers. It's highly unlikely that any other Swedish hot-dog salesman has ever received a similar reception on his first visit to Brazil.
Ulf returned to Brazil in 2008 for the 50th anniversary of Brazil winning their first ever World Cup, and again there was much ado. But apart from a set of high cheekbones eerily recognisable as Garrincha's, there are hardly any similarities between Ulf Lindberg and his illustrious father. In fact, it's hard to imagine two more contrasting fates— from the ecstatic glory and profound tragedy of Garrincha to the remarkably unremarkable life of the Swedish middle class. For all the joy and elation Garrincha brought to millions of Brazilians, his personal life was soaked in chaos and alcohol. And one imagines that for all the women, the cars and the free drinks, the little bird who once went fishing instead of following Brazil's fate in the 1950 World Cup final might actually have been better off doing something else.
And for Ulf, who never knew his biological father, not having to live in the immediate shadow of such an iconic figure might have been a hidden blessing. As Ulf himself remarked in the midst of all the commotion sparked by his visit to Rio, "You wouldn't want it to be like this every day."