The everlasting Joy of the People
© AFP

Thousands upon thousands of people lined the streets of Rio de Janeiro one summer's day in 1983. Fuelled by a outpouring of emotion, the masses also perched themselves on tree branches and frantically jostled for position atop of bridges, the focus of their attention a large, red vehicle which was crawling from the heart of the city.

This was not, however, carnival time in Brazil and although the vehicle was not carrying a performing act, as it does during Rio's esteemed annual parade, it was channeling another legendary source of entertainment. That source was Manoel Francisco dos Santos, or Garrincha, whose deceased body was being transported from the Maracana stadium to Pau Grande, the small, nearby town in which he was born.

Fans had traveled from afar to pay their last respects to the man who inspired Brazil to the FIFA World Cup™ titles of 1958 and 1962, and due to their influx, traffic had come to a standstill on the roads leading into Rio de Janeiro. Such was the magnitude of this occasion that some had even abandoned their cars and ran miles to catch the proceedings.

Garrincha's funeral was every bit as eccentric as his life and career had been. This was Brazil's incomparable farewell to one of its most-loved performers.

On his epitaph read the words: 'Here rests in peace the one who was the Joy of the People - Mane Garrincha.' And today, exactly 25 years on from his death, aged just 49, the former winger's popularity remains singular, even to those born after his passing who have since marveled at footage of his playful terrorisation of opponents or bizarre tales of his lifestyle.

Popularity
Several off-the-field factors contributed to his popularity, but there is no doubt that Garrincha's inimitable, enthralling style of play catapulted him into the hearts of his compatriots. Hypersonic changes of pace, hypnotising body swerves, cheeky flicks and menacing dribbles - they rendered him a terrace idol and a nightmare for adversaries, whom he mischievously nicknamed 'Joao' (John).

Garrincha's markers would sometimes ask to be substituted and in the deciding game of the 1957 Carioca Championship, when Botafogo overwhelmed an all-star Fluminense side 6-2 to seize the title, Tele Santana famously begged Nilton Santos: "You are already the champions. Please tell Garrincha to stop embarrassing our players."

Improbably, Garrincha overcame physical handicap (he was born with badly distorted legs and his mother was told he may never be able to walk) to become an incomparable creator of goals, but he also possessed an accurate, fierce shot and in 579 matches for Botafogo, he was on target 249 times - an incredible statistic for a right winger. He also finished as the joint-leading scorer at the 1962 FIFA World Cup in Chile, where he propelled A Seleção to glory in the absence of Pele, who had been injured in their second outing.

Pele was an athlete and Garrincha was an artist. Put them together and you had a perfect, unstoppable combination.
Brazilian journalist Armando Nogueira

The pair did not spend much of their spare time together when on international duty. Garrincha was a practical joker who indulged in women and alcohol. Pele, on the other hand, was a model professional. What they did have in common was an exceptional footballing talent and when they were on the field of play together, Brazil never lost a match.

"Pele was an athlete and Garrincha was an artist," remarked journalist Armando Nogueira. "Put them together and you had a perfect, unstoppable combination."

Outside of Brazil, Pele is recognised by a large majority as the greatest footballer in history. Inside of the South America's vastest country, debate rages on as to whether he or Garrincha was the best ever.

O Rei himself is one of his former team-mates biggest admirers. "Garrincha was an incredible player, one of the best there has ever been," he said. "He could do things with the ball that no other player could do. Without Garrincha, I would have never been a three-times world champion."

Pele and Garrincha got on famously and they met up for the last time in late-1982, reminiscing and joking before embracing affectionately and vowing to meet up the following year. Fate dictated otherwise.

Nevertheless, A Alegria do Povo (The Joy of the People) remains entrenched in the souls of his people. Brazilians not only pride themselves on success but also on boasting a peerless capacity to excite. No player has ever - or perhaps will ever - thrill in the way that Garrincha did.

Twenty-five years on from his death, mention of his name continues to bring that unmistakable smile to their faces, to provoke pride in their hearts and enthusiasm in their voices.

Garrincha, quite simply, is an infinite Joy of the People.