One of his legs was two inches shorter than the other. He lost his virginity to a goat, slept with hundreds of women and sired at least 14 children. When he played for the Brazilian national team in the 1950s and early 60s, he scored 34 goals and won the World Cup twice. He killed his mother-in-law in a car crash, then died of drink. His name was Garrincha, and his exploits make Paul Gascoigne look like an amateur.
"When Manuel was born, the midwife was the first person to notice that his legs were crooked. The left leg bent out and the right leg bent in, as if a gust of wind had blown them out of position." Ruy Castro begins his biography of Garrincha with the most unlikely fact about this extraordinary footballer: his wonky legs. With his swaying walk and slim frame, he looked like a little bird, which was how the young Manuel dos Santos gained his nickname: Garrincha, the wren.
Garrincha was born in a British town. At the end of the 19th century, a British company had arrived in Pau Grande, about 45 miles from Rio de Janeiro, cut down the trees, laid roads, built a factory and created a new town for its workers. British bosses clothed and housed the Brazilians, ruling every aspect of their lives. Along with the virtues of hygiene and hard work, the British taught their employees one more vital lesson: how to play football.
Like every other resident of Pau Grande, Garrincha started working in the factory a month and a day after his 14th birthday. Although he played for the factory's football team on Sundays, he showed little interest in the wider game. When Brazil hosted the World Cup in 1950, loudspeakers broadcast the matches in the town's main square. During the final, Garrincha went fishing. Returning home, he found everyone in tears - Brazil had lost to Uruguay - and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.
Castro describes Garrincha as "the most amateur footballer professional football ever produced". He never trained. He had no agent, didn't bother reading his contracts, and usually signed them before the figures had been filled in. When he was given a bonus after the World Cup, he handed the cash to his wife, who hid it under the children's mattress. Years later, they remembered the money, and discovered a rotting mass of sodden paper. The bonus had been destroyed by bedwetting.
On the field, Garrincha was selfish, undisciplined, unpredictable and indisputably brilliant. Among Castro's many neat anecdotes, he describes Garrincha's behaviour during the 1958 World Cup game against the USSR: "After leaving a defender on the ground Garrincha put his foot on the ball and with his back to the player offered his hand to help him up." Having hauled his opponent to his feet, he dribbled past him and ran on. Even in the biggest games of his career, he would nutmeg a player, run past, wait for him to catch up, then nutmeg him again. Just for fun.
His career had a depressingly familiar structure: dazzling success, bacchic excess, swift decline. He went to three World Cups, and won two. His performances in 1958 and 1962 turned him into an international star and a revered symbol throughout Brazil. By 1966, drink and injuries had ruined him. He played his last game for Brazil in Liverpool; they collapsed 3-1 to Hungary. It was his 60th game for Brazil, and the first defeat with him in the team.
While more self-disciplined players had been training their bodies and expanding their bank balances, Garrincha just played, drank and screwed until he collapsed. Turned away by the big Brazilian clubs, he searched for a job abroad, touting himself around Portugal and Italy, but no one wanted to hire the swaying, stuttering drunk. A Saudi Arabian team showed some interest, but Garrincha refused to play for teetotallers. His relationship with Elza Soares, the love of his life, disintegrated when he punched her in a drunken rage. Incontinent, impotent and penniless, Garrincha vainly tried to find work as a player or a coach, and played his last game only three weeks before his death. He died attached to a drip in the alcoholics ward of a Rio hospital.
Castro's biography is passionate, fascinating and surprisingly moving. Although marred by occasional lapses into awkward prose, and lacking any discussion of social or political contexts, the book is a worthy tribute to a footballer who has been neglected merely because - as the translator points out his introduction -"He played at a time before the marriage of football and television."