More than Best

Garrincha was one of Brazil’s most celebrated footballers – and classic celebrity victim


Garrincha: The Triumph and Tragedy of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero
Ruy Castro. Translated by Andrew Downie
2004, Yellow Jersey Press
416 pages

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

WHAT IS IT with footballers? The pattern is always the same: they get the ball, they dribble a bit, feign, then dart off clutching it between their nimble feet like a chimp before tripping, or being tripped, or sliding, or skidding, or some such. But that dream – the dream of a score – just picks them up and off they go. Glory – or mud. Again and again.

Garrincha was no different. He may have been the greatest dribbler in Brazilian soccer history – and so, by definition, probably the greatest dribbler ever – but all that fame, all that celebrity, was as of nothing. He just loved his football… and a few women along the way… and, come to mention it, a few drinks too.

Born Manuel dos Santos, the hometown boy from Pau Grande who had crooked legs and could barely string a sentence together rose to become a two-time World Cup winner’s medal holder and living legend in the country that turned football into a performance art.

In his heyday, Garrincha was feted by presidents, hunted by actresses, showered with adulation. Lionised to the very bottom of the bottle, it seems just about everyone wanted a piece of this talented man’s action.


But the agility turned into over-indulgence, and the energy lapsed into infidelity. When it all finally imploded, he ended up being chased by policemen, persecuted by lawyers, and eventually – briefly – domesticated by doctors.

For Ruy Castro’s biography demonstrates, above all, that this genius on the ball was the classic celebrity victim – frail off it. Garrincha – “Little Bird” – was neither prepared nor equipped for the lifestyle that his unique physical skills accidentally dragged him into. All he really wanted was to kick about with his boyhood pals, Pincel and Swing, and chat up the girls leaving the factory.

Dos Santos drank himself into an early grave at 49 – numerous women, 14 children and a string of accidents and personal tragedies later. That this all took place in an era before the marriage between football and television only makes his rise and fall more poignant – you clearly don’t need a camera stuck in your face to become a George Best or a Gazza, slowly swigging yourself deeper into a nightmare of your own making.

Castro’s exquisitely researched book and passion for his subject make this work both an important contribution to the historiography of sport, but also an illuminating study in self-destruction. We’ve clearly been here before – and it always seems to be footballers.

As Andrew Downie – whose masterful translation achieves the rare distinction of delivering to us a piece of writing that genuinely straddles cultures – points out in his introduction, Garrincha was “more Best than Best ever was”.

Eugene Carey is a journalist