Brasilia: The Mane Garrincha National Stadium in Brasilia is a breathtaking structure in keeping with the crown jewels of Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture that surround it, from the bows of the National Cathedral to the curves of the Congress building. The audacity of Brasilia itself, in fact, is at one level the most fitting place to honour Brazil’s second-greatest footballer, who died from lifelong alcohol abuse three decades ago: Garrincha’s football was audacious, his trademark the intricate, head-spinning dribbling that often gave opposing defenders, to borrow a phrase, twisted blood.

To call Manuel Francisco dos Santos (Garrincha, meaning “little bird", is a nickname) Brazil’s second-greatest footballer is only to keep within standard definitions of greatness; he is certainly as loved as Pele, if not more, and those who saw him play—or, indeed, studied enough of him on YouTube—might even rank him higher. While Pele was given the title O Rei (the king), Garrincha was known as alegria de povo (joy of the people). Perhaps an analogy with Indian sport would be Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath; though perhaps a more accurate analogy would be with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Garrincha clearly was yin to Pele’s yang; where the one lived his life to a plan (and still does), Garrincha lived and died for the moment. Pele has maintained his image with care; Garrincha was a drunk and a womanizer. Pele accumulated money and is a millionaire several times over; Garrincha accumulated money but seemed not to care for it and lost it all, including, legend has it, wads of notes locked away in a suitcase for so long they simply rotted away.

I could look for Garrincha all day, all year in Brasilia and find no evidence of the man except his name and his face. For Brasilia, for all the audacity of its architecture that seems futuristic even today, is cold and logical and planned to the nth degree, seeking to fulfil its aim of being a national capital without the baggage of a past. Brasilia stirs the mind but somehow doesn’t capture the soul. Garrincha lives in the people’s soul. His funeral, in his hometown of Pau Grande, near Rio de Janeiro, was characteristically shambolic but attended by thousands. And of the half-dozen Brazilians I have asked (admittedly all 30+ males), each one picked Garrincha over Pele without hesitation.

Like Luiz Pereira, an environmentalist who works in Brasilia but whose heart belongs to Botafogo, the Rio club where Garrincha spent his best years. He never saw Garrincha play (though he did see Pele at the Maracana) but grew up on the legends and the stories and picked him as the greatest. Why, I ask him. “Pele scored goals. Garrincha played beautiful football."

The Mane Garrincha National Stadium in Brasilia. Photo: AFP

What made Garrincha so good? First, he had some help from nature—he was born with both legs bent in the same direction, outwards on his left. It might have crippled others; it merely made him unpredictable, so defenders never knew which way he would dribble. Stories, maybe myths, about his dribbling abound; how he once continued running even though he didn’t have the ball, and the defender, possibly mesmerized, followed him; how he beat several players and the goalkeeper, walked up to the goal line, waited for one more defender to come and beat him too before finally scoring. It’s similarly unconfirmed, but not implausible, that the “ole" chant was first sung in tribute to him.

He was loved by his fans but his sheer lack of match and team awareness probably made him the despair of his teammates. Nonetheless he was a key player in Brazil’s first two World Cup wins, in 1958 and 1962, and it was in that first tournament that he struck up his partnership with Pele. In the eight odd years they played together, Brazil never lost a match when they were in the same team. Indeed, if the 1970 side is considered the greatest football team of all, then the team of 1958 comes high up in the order, if only for offering the first sighting of the beautiful game.

So why this stadium was named after him—or why there was a need for a national stadium when the Maracana is the home of world football—remains a mystery, especially since he never lived here and only played one match at this venue, an exhibition game arranged after the original stadium was built in 1974. It’s in keeping with other inexplicable decisions taken by the organizers in respect of Brasilia, which was allotted seven World Cup matches, equal only to Rio de Janeiro, and reportedly upped its planned seating capacity from 40,000 to qualify as a host for the knockouts.

Perhaps Brasilia’s connection with Garrincha stems from its shape; two curved wings and a central column suggesting a bird. Not really a little bird, though, more an airplane. Garrincha himself would probably have laughed at the confusion.

Jayaditya Gupta, executive editor of Espncricinfo and a columnist for Mint, will be writing from South America for the duration of the World Cup.

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