As with most sports, football history is littered with stories of athletes overcoming insurmountable odds to achieve greatness. Diego Maradona, one of the greatest players ever, grew up in desperate poverty, sharing one bedroom with seven siblings in the shanty town of Villa Fiorito. He once fell in the family cesspit whilst still a toddler and was rescued from drowning in his relatives’ faecal waste by his uncle, who screamed at him “keep your head above the shit, Diegito!”

Ronaldo (the chubby Brazilian one) grew up in the favelas of Rio and was so poor he missed his first trial at Flamengo because he couldn't afford the bus fare.

One player who surely endured the harshest of tribulations on his journey to greatness was the Brazilian Garrincha, the ‘Little Bird’.  He was born into poverty in Rio in 1933, with an alcoholic father and several serious birth defects. He had a severely deformed spine, with a right leg that bent inwards that was two inches longer than his left, which was also turned outwards. He was certified a cripple by the local doctor. It was pretty fair to say that life had dealt little Garrincha a dud hand.

At fourteen, Garrincha started working nine hour days at a textile factory, where the other workers would refer to him as a ‘cripple boy’. He started drinking around the same age, and lost his a goat.

"Call me...?"
He was already married and a father by the time he became a professional footballer aged 19, and scored a hat trick on his debut for Botafoga. Garrincha went on to shine at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden when, three games into the tournament, he and Pele were called up to the starting line-up, transforming Brazil into a side that would go on to win the World Cup for the first time. The pinnacle of his career came four years later, at the World Cup in Chile: with Pele injured after two games, Garrincha became the team's heartbeat, inspiring Brazil to victory much as Maradona would do for Argentina many years later.

He played football the same way he lived his life, pleasing himself and disregarding team tactics or concerns. Perhaps the finest dribbler the world has ever seen, he regularly beat a man and then waited for him to recover position, simply to have the pleasure of beating him again. His style of play filled fans with joy, but there was something else about his appearance and irreverence that chimed with Brazilians. They loved him because he was a reflection of themselves, providing hope in the way he triumphed over his obvious handicaps. He turned a physical limitation into an advantage – his crooked legs leant to the left while his trademark move was a sharp swerve to the right. The national side never lost a game in which he and Pele were in the lineup.

For all his on-field genius however, Garrincha’s life off it was a mess, largely due to his chronic alcoholism. He donated some of his World Cup bonus to the community in Pau Grande, but kept most of it in cash under his mattress, as he didn’t believe in banks; only to find it again years later, rotted through due to his persistent drunken bed-wetting.

He ran over his own father whilst heavily intoxicated at the wheel in 1959, and ten years later inadvertently killed his mother-in-law when he crashed into a truck with her in the passenger seat. He was married three times and fathered a total of fourteen children to five different women.

He died in 1983 of cirrhosis of the liver aged just 49. At the Brazilian national stadium,  Estádio do Maracanã, the away team dressing room is known as ‘Pele’, and the home room is ‘Garrincha.’

By George Odling

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