Garrincha: Lost To His Demons

There can be a Garrincha in every team, even in your team. But sadly not in the best way.

Called “The Joy of the People”, this Brazilian idol was a victim of alcoholism until his death, at the age of 49.

If I say Manuel Francisco dos Santos, you probably won’t know who I’m talking about. But if I quote his nickname, Garrincha, the fans of genuine Brazilian football around the world will remember how he used to dance with the ball in so many victories of Seleção in the 60’s.

This is how the world remembers Garrincha: a dancer with the ball at his feet. Unfortunately, outside of Brazil there’s not many people who are aware of how life was tragic to the Seleção and Botafogo hero, who lost the battle against alcoholism and died at the age of 49.

Only three years before his death, Garrincha gave to his Brazilian fans a glance of how deep he had fallen after leaving the fields. One of the stars of the Carnival parade of Mangueira, the most popular of Rio’s Samba Schools, the two time World Champion (Sweden-1958 and Chile-1962) showed up prostrated by the alcohol, and passed the entire parade seated, almost static, in a horrendous contrast with the music and dance which surrounded him. The antithesis of “The Joy of the People”, which was what he was called when he used to bring fun with his genuine style of playing.

We can’t tell that success and fame were the villains which lead Garrincha – or should I say Manuel Francisco dos Santos, the man behind the idol – to alcoholism. The addiction was probably there before, and nothing guarantees that he would stop drinking only if he was an ordinary man. But, yes, in many cases success, it doesn’t matter in which area, brings the treacherous idea that the person can do whatever he wants, with no consequences. And it can also be a barrier to seek help. Garrincha wasn’t the first player to lose this match. Sadly, far from being the last.

His alcohol addiction was openly known by anyone who was close to Garrincha on a daily basis, including teammates, journalists and some fans. Among those who tried to help him, we can highlight the great Nilton Santos, one of the best world’s left-back ever.

Eight years older than Garrincha, Santos was already a Botafogo star when the young boy from the little rural city of Magé, near Rio de Janeiro, made his first audition at the traditional carioca club, at the age of 19. Garrincha had both legs lightly curved to the same side, which made them look like two commas. Still, or maybe because of that, who knows, he became one of the greatest dribbler of all time.

Together, Nilton Santos and Garrincha won several international tournaments and three Carioca Championships with Botafogo, besides the two World Cups with Brazil. More than victorious teammates, they were friends, and Santos was invited to be the godfather of one of Garrincha’s daughters.

Santos used to act as an older brother, and during their entire careers tried to persuade Garrincha from drinking. As times went by, many people tried too, saddened by the continuous loss of skill and strength at his late years in football. None of them were successful, not even Garrincha’s wife, the famous singer Elza Soares.

One of the most brilliant players of the Brazil’s football Golden Era, Garrincha died as a poor man, something impossible to imagine nowadays, when a good player with some talent, good luck and a good agent earns luxury salaries – yes, it can be also a trap if you’re not well prepared to deal with, but this is another topic.

Garrincha’s life – in all its glory and failure – was the subject of the biography “Estrela Solitária – um brasileiro chamado Garrincha” (Lonely Star – a Brazilian Called Garrincha, in Portuguese), where the writer Ruy Castro describes his singular personality without masks. 

The trajectory of one of the most skillful players ever is still remembered in Brazil as a genuine example of how difficult it can be to deal with huge success in football, a popular sport that sometimes has a touch of Cinderella, turning almost instantaneously a poor, anonymous young man into a crowd hero. There are plenty of Brazilian players who have lived similar stories since then and now.

The victories in football have a shadowy side: they hide countless personal dramas which surround those who use the sport as an escape from their own ghosts, sometimes even without knowing.

Footballers are susceptible to a high pressure for victories, and live in a circle of rewards and punishments. Publicly. Love and hate. To both of them there are several escapes: alcohol, parties, sometimes drugs, most of the time silence and loneliness.

To a footballer in suffering there is a forbidden exit: talking, asking for help, opening his heart. First consequence: be seen as a weak person, a death knell in sports of high performance. What comes after: his skills are put in doubt. Then, the last stone is thrown at him: he can’t handle the pressure, they would say. A label which can follow him forever.

Those who could help them – coaches, club officers, even journalists – sometimes call for the use of  psychiatry in football as an ultimate lifeline.  But only to help results, not to assist the man. A debate that distorts the real importance of mental health support in high performance sports.

Normally, they only remember psychiatry when things are not going well on the pitch, as if mental support was a tool to bring victories. Football players need help not to win, but to live with the unbearable obligation to win.

Football players are public men who are daily exposed and rated in every step on and off the field. Glorified in victories, shamed after tough defeats. And needy for support in both cases.

But, winners or losers, they are doomed to be mute. They shut their mouths while people around them shut their eyes, look at the Samba School dancing around and pretend not to see the old agonising idol who dares to hit them with the grim reality: I gave my life to your joy.

If you or someone around you may be struggling with their relationship with alcohol, the NHS course of action is available here.