Garrincha: Rings Around the World

Football, only more so
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"You have destroyed this event."

—Lynn Davies to Bob Beamon after that jump, Mexico City, 1968

This year sees the eightieth anniversary of Garrincha's birth, and this week the thirtieth of his death. By chance, a recent stray thought about a current player (which will have to wait for another day) led me in an unlikely way to consider Garrincha again, to spoil myself with archive footage and once more read Ruy Castro's biography in Andrew Downie's fine translation. The first half of the book abounds with stories of Garrincha dribbling, dribbling, dribbling—perhaps better than anyone else, almost certainly more often than anyone else. The stories have the whiff of apocrypha, except that if you've seen the footage, you can well believe them. (See for yourself.) Dribbling is what he did. He could do other things too (his shot was ferocious, for example), but his whole game started, and often ended, with the dribble.

In a trial game for Botafogo, the 19-year-old was already sending the great Nílton Santos into a spin. ("The boy's a monster. I think you should sign him. It's better to have him playing for us than against us.") In a tour match in Germany against Rot-Weiss Essen, Garrincha was put clear into space on the right wing by a Didi through ball; instead of crossing or cutting in unchallenged towards goal to shoot, he waited for a defender to catch up with him, just so he could beat him. He would knowingly infuriate Didi by refusing to pass until he had beaten the requisite number of opponents. He would dribble past whole defences and pass instead of shooting into the open goal.

In another tour match, in Paris against Stade Reims, Botafogo led comfortably with five minutes left, and the word went around that they were to conserve their energy by playing keep-ball. Which Garrincha did, all by himself. He wouldn't pass the ball, and no opponent could get it off him. He scurried in all directions and even chased Reims players while in possession, the hunters getting captured by the game. He was having a ball, and the French spectators, like so many who encountered Garrincha on Botafogo's exhaustive travels, loved it. "The whole stadium," writes Castro, "rose to give him a standing ovation and the match ended with the ball still at his feet."

Castro writes: "for him, the joy of playing didn't come with scoring goals, or winning games or even making money. Goals, victories, win bonuses—they were all just the inevitable products of the business of football. For Garrincha, the fun was in dribbling. Just dribbling."


One way of looking at football is as a fundamental chaos that occasionally resolves itself into some kind of order—a slippery pig that sometimes gets caught, and sometimes even leaps from your grasp, bounds to a computer and types out the words Oh time thy pyramids. (Or perhaps it can be put less verbosely: it's a game with a midfield.) But this chaos is itself also a kind of order. This is how football has willed itself to be. Of all the possible combinations of rules, it has settled on this one, because it has best prepared the ground for a broad consensus as to how the game should be played.

The rule change that occasioned football's definitive stylistic shift was the revising of offside from a rugby-style rule (ie. you can only play on your own side of the ball) into something resembling the soccer rule of today. Descriptions of early matches make it sound like a cousin of kabaddi. A forward (one of seven on a team) would dribble the ball towards goal, trying to outrun the other team's three backs, until he had a shot on goal or was dispossessed, in which event the other team would repeat the procedure in the opposite direction. With the change in the offside rule, teams started to adapt. Who was primarily responsible (Sheffield? The Royal Engineers? Queen's Park?) is disputed, but the "combination game" quickly became the norm. Put simply, teams began to pass: long and short, forwards, backwards and sideways.

Every style of football that has arisen since has its origin in this discovery: that the shortest path between two points is anything but a straight line. Even the most basic hoof-it-to-the-big-lad-up-front stuff requires a degree (just the one, mind) of lateral thinking. Teamwork and timing are still key, even if the number of moving parts is kept to a minimum. It can still be polished until you can see your face in the side of the bomb.

"As the combined game developed," wrote Geoffrey Green in The Official History of the FA Cup, "so a greater strain was thrown onto the defences. The dribbler, pure and simple, slowly went out of the game; the individual gradually became absorbed in the general mechanism of the side; the speed of the game increased." (The italics are Green's.) The very change that gave football the form it made hay with turned dribbling into a suspect activity. An epithet given to the new pass-oriented styles was "scientific". Football now had ideas and theory. It had added some new dimensions to its thinking, whereas the dribbler had just one: a straight line to goal. Dribbling was so literal. It was made to seem almost infantile by the dawning combination game: it was a self-centred phase you grew out of once you became aware that you were not actually the centre of the universe. To be tolerated, it had to be brought under control, made subservient to the whole. It was shunted to the margin.

To the margin, to the wing. That was the only place fit for the flaky talent of the dribbler. You were a liability if you tried to take on a man and failed, so away with you to where you can do the least harm, where you can play your fancy tricks and shirk the hardest work. (Said the sturdiest of wing-halves, Duncan Edwards: "Personally I am not enamoured of the dallying type of winger.") Yet the dribbler couldn't be dispensed with totally. They were like explosives: they were to be feared and even demonised, but what were you going to use when you actually needed shit blown up?


Botafogo's manager, Zezé Moreira, once tried to cure Garrincha of his dribblophilia. He placed a chair at the edge of the penalty area. Garrincha was to pretend the chair was the last man, taking the ball past "him" and crossing into the box. "Garrincha dribbled the ball, stuck it through the chair's legs and crossed it into the middle," says Castro. Moreira didn't bother after that.

In a game against Fiorentina before the 1958 World Cup, Garrincha beat the entire defence, including the keeper. He could have shot into the open goal, but a defender had chased back. So he let the defender hare all the way to the goal line, dropped a shoulder and walked the ball in. For this, he was excoriated by his team-mates and called "childish" by a member of the technical staff.

"Every Sunday, he committed the worst sin a winger could commit: he was greedy," says Castro." He would beat one or two men with ease and then lose the ball to a third or fourth when he could easily have laid the ball off to a team-mate. One regular criticism of him around Botafogo at the time was: 'Yet another pointless demonstration of his undeniable talents as a dribbler.' His team-mates started to get annoyed and the fans swung between rapture and despair. When Botafogo won, he was the man whose dribbles brought them victory; when they lost, it was because he dribbled too much."

There was no way around it: Garrincha was on the outside of everything. To those from Rio, he was a simple kid from the sticks (almost literally: his home town was named Pau Grande, 'big stick', for a giant tree that once stood there). As much as he loved playing the game, he didn't follow it very closely; he seemed unperturbed by the national team's failure in 1950, unlike the rest of Brazil. He was largely unconcerned with the trappings of fame, even with being called up to the national team for the first time. (Not that he minded being doted on as everyone's favourite player, until fame turned viciously against him.)

Garrincha didn't just slither in and out of fissures in the game: he was playing his own game. It was more id than ego, as if the conventional way was just something he'd had a sip of and not really fancied. He wasn't necessarily going to spit it out in disgust: he was just happy with his own gear. He was so unorthodox that he should have been deemed faulty by the pro game's industrial processes. Or he could have become a complement, an ornament, a sideshow: the crooked-legged hick savant with the outrageous skills that make crowds of foreigners cry '¡olé!' and keep the tours rolling along.

But it didn't happen. There have been mavericks who were too good for the game, who could be labelled toxic and safely sealed off. But Garrincha could overwhelm the game. It's strangely moving to watch his great moments in that light. In the 1962 World Cup quarter- and semi-finals against England and Chile, he showed up everywhere and did everything. He scored two goals in each match: two were long-range crackers and the other two, good God, were headers. As Cris Freddi notes in the Complete Book of the World Cup, "Only Maradona has ever left such a mark on a World Cup quarter-final and semi." For the duration of those matches, he was reinventing football. This was the revenge of the "dribbler, pure and simple".

Garrincha broke football and put it back together again as something different, something that was magical as much because of its very difference as because of its visual delight. The temporary destruction of the sport's order won't necessarily yield chaos, but can affirm the beauty of the game by giving the old thing the spin of its life. And the destruction is always temporary; the consensus always closes in again (the Wingless Wonders won the 1966 World Cup, for example). But it's good for the soul to be reminded that there's something else there—something that can come at you from a place beyond your quotidian thought. Garrincha's innate irreverence was a thing of joy. His game wasn't some mutant strain of football—it was football, only more so.

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