Think you got problems?

No you don’t. At least, not according to the next six fellas..
But then again, most things in life are relative..

Joy of Six: Footballers who have overcome humble beginnings
That old British reptile, the venerable understatement… [shareholdersunite]

Following the rise of Bébé from the streets of Portugal to Old Trafford, here are six other rags-to-riches stories


Garrincha Garrincha enjoyed a stunning career with Brazil but died from liver cirrhosis aged 49. Photograph: Popperfoto

1) Garrincha (Born 28 October 1933, died 20 January 1983)

In football, rags-to-riches stories are 10-a-penny. Consider the tale of one of the world’s greatest ever players, Diego Armando Maradona. He grew up in a shanty town where he shared one room with seven siblings. Sanitation facilities were rudimentary and one night, when a toddler, Maradona fell into the family cesspit after losing his way in the dark. Fortunately his Uncle Cirilo was on hand to rescue the youngster, dragging him to safety while screaming “Diegito, keep your head above the shit“, a supplication that Maradona made his motto for life. And what about the great Rivaldo, who was so impoverished as a child that he lost his teeth to malnutrition, and remained dangerously thin and muscularly underdeveloped into his teens? Or another Brazilian, the three-times Fifa World Player of the Year Ronaldo, whose first chance to escape the poverty-stricken streets of Rio disappeared when he couldn’t raise the bus fare to attend a trial with Flamengo.

An even better player than those two, according to many, was Garrincha, whose tribulations were even worse. The Little Bird was born into poverty with an alcoholic father and several birth defects: a deformed spine, and a right leg bent inwards and two inches longer than his left one, which was turned outwards. He began working in the local factory when he was 14, started drinking around the same time, and lost his virginity to a goat. He was married (not to a goat) and a father by the time he became a professional footballer at 19. On his debut for Botafoga he scored a hat-trick. Over the following years and throughout three World Cups and 50 appearances for Brazil (during which the team lost only once) he was a phenomenon, his impudent dribbling, spellbinding control and enflamed shots scalding opponents and thrilling crowds. Four times in his career he scored direct from corners and in one famous match against Fiorentina he beat four defenders and the goalkeeper, stopped short of the line to wait for the defenders to catch up with him and beat them again before rolling the ball into the net. Not for nothing was he nicknamed Alegria do Povo (Joy of the People). Off the field his joy was riddled with agonies, largely because of his alcoholism. If he inherited that problem from his father, he inadvertently caused retribution by knocking the old man down when drunk at the wheel in 1959. Ten years later his mother-in-law was killed when he crashed into a truck. Garrincha died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 49. Perhaps it is more accurate to say his triumphs were amid adversity rather than over it.

2) Hector Castro (Born 29 November 1904, died 15 September 1960)

The onset of a boy’s teens brings curious changes. For Hector Castro, turning 13 meant coping not merely with the sudden sprouting of hair and pimples but also the loss of his right forearm. Not a natural part of his evolution obviously, but the painful consequence of botched interaction with an electric saw while cutting wood. “Tis but a flesh wound” Castro seemingly concluded and the aspiring striker strided forward in pursuit of his dream. By the age of 19 he was playing for top Montevideo club Nacional, whom he helped to three league titles, most memorably in 1933 when he scored the goal in a championship-clinching 1-0 triumph over second-place Penarol… after, unbeknown to the referee, the ball rebounded back into play off the Nacional physio’s first-aid kit (three Penarol players beat up the ref in protest; the injured official had to be replaced by his assistant, who immediately sent off the aggressors before abandoning the game due to “bad light”). By then, of course, Castro was already a national hero, hailed throughout the land as El Divino Manco after playing a key role in Uruguay’s victory in the 1928 Olympics and scoring the trophy-sealing fourth goal in the first ever World Cup final, a 4-2 win over Argentina. Beyond his goals (seventh most prolific scorer in the history of the Uruguayan league and 18 strikes in 25 appearances for his country), Castro was renowned for his dynamism and ferocious will to win on the pitch, and his drinking, smoking, gambling and womanising off it. As if that didn’t make him popular enough, he became manager of Nacional after hanging up his boots and guided them to four successive titles between 1940 and 1943, and another one in 1952. He may have had just the one but he was more of a man than most.

3) Paul McGrath (Born 4 December 1959)

It was common knowledge during a brilliant career that won Paul McGrath adoration, the 1993 PFA Player of the Year award and 83 Republic of Ireland caps that he liked a drink. But he didn’t. He drank, sure, but not out of fondness but because of loathing, confusion, fear or pain. His drinking was not restricted to drinks – twice he drank bottles of bleach in desperate attempts to end his life. These ordeals, and worse, are detailed in Back from the Brink, surely one of the most harrowing autobiographies in the history of football. In it McGrath recalls, as best he can, the demons, both internal and external, that have assailed him, firstly as a fragile mixed-race child in a succession of Dublin orphanages in the 1960s, then when, as a 19-year-old, he embarked on “a journey of unimaginable strangeness” as he suffered a nervous breakdown, leaving him unable to get out of bed for almost a year, lying with his legs locked so tightly together he would be plagued by knee trouble forever more. He recovered sufficiently to play for St Patrick’s Athletic and attract the attention of Manchester United but even after being feted for the excellence of his play at Old Trafford he remained prone to self-doubt and anguish. Alex Ferguson seemed to judge him too difficult to manage and sold him to Aston Villa in 1989. McGrath felt the need to drain a bottle of Southern Comfort before his inaugural press conference but despite that, and his car crashes, disintegrating family life and further attempts to take his life, he consistently showed supreme elegance, intelligence and power on the pitch during his seven seasons at Villa Park, and during one European Championship and two World Cups with his country, both in defence and midfield. Given that he was one of the most accomplished players of his generation despite “the … the … the madness”, how good would he have been without those problems? A useless question, probably. Rather than second-guess a career and a life, let us savour it.

4) Ricky Otto (Born 9 November 1967)

Before it became a haven for graphic designers clad in Breton tops riding children’s bikes even though they’re fully grown men London’s Hackney was a rough part of the East End. Otto was raised there and soon came to realise it was a difficult place to grow up – 17 of his friends were killed in an 18-year period. He fell in with the wrong crowd and was sent to prison for armed robbery for four years in 1986, while still a teenager. Following his release, Otto could easily have fallen into a downward spiral of crime and punishment but decided to turn his life around. “Even though I did a four-year sentence I didn’t come out and think I was going to carry on down that path,” Otto said. “I applied myself and changed my way of thinking so when I came out I elevated myself.” Otto started playing for Haringey Borough and his performances were good enough for the Southend United manager Barry Fry – admittedly not the most risk-averse man in the world – to fork out £100,000 for him. Otto teamed up with Fry again at Birmingham City in 1994, when he became Blues’ then record signing for £800,000. Unfortunately, Otto was more Garry O’Connor than Christophe Dugarry and slowly sank out of favour. He did not forget his start in life though and when he retired in 2001 he became a probation officer and studied for a degree in theology. “It was weird working with prisoners on the wing and in the cells. The memories all came flooding back and it made me realise how far I’d come as I still have friends doing life sentences,” he said. “To be honest I’m just glad to be alive.”

5) Lauren (Born 19 January 1977)

It is hard enough overcoming a tough start in life when you are a whippersnapper in short trousers armed with nothing more than a catapult. But the former Arsenal full-back was lucky even to be born. His father, Valentin Bisan-Etame, was a politician in Equatorial Guinea and dared to speak out against the country’s psychotic dictator, Francisco Macías, in 1977. It was a brave thing to do: Macías impaled his enemies’ heads on poles, banned the use of the word “intellectual” and hailed Hitler as “the saviour of Africa”. His crimes were so bad he was given 101 death sentences when brought to trial in 1979. Valentin was imprisoned and sentenced to death for his comments but managed to escape to Cameroon with several of his children and his wife, who was pregnant with Lauren. “If our family hadn’t escaped, I probably wouldn’t have been born,” Lauren said. His trials were not over though: his family moved to Spain where he and his 14 siblings had to survive in Seville’s tough Montequinto district.

6) Steve Savidan (Born 29 June 1978)

There are plenty of players who went from non-league football to represent their country. Stuart Pearce started out at Wealdstone, Les Ferdinand was at Hayes and Ian Wright was playing Sunday League when he was spotted by Crystal Palace. But all those players had been taken on by big clubs by their early 20s. Savidan, on the other hand, was still playing semi-professional football for non-league French team Angoulême at the age of 26, putting in shifts as a barman and bin-collector to pay the bills. Savidan believed he was ignored when he was younger because his height – 5ft 7in – counted against him. “I am proof that the system doesn’t always work,” Savidan said. “I was born at the wrong time. I’m from the same generation as Henry and Anelka, and when they were coming through you had to be well over six foot to be picked for youth schemes. I’m quite a bit under.” Savidan was also troubled by mental health problems. “It’s possible that I destroyed myself. Very possible, in fact,” he said. “You could almost say I was suicidal.” But when he signed for Valenciennes, Savidan got help from their GP and helped the club move from the third division to Ligue 1. In 2008, at the age of 30, he made his debut for France against Uruguay. Patrick Vieira invited him for dinner after the game but Savidan turned the invitation down, saying he had to train the next morning. In 2009, Savidan appeared to have secured a move that would set him up for life when Monaco came in for him but his career had one last, savage twist: the medical revealed a heart defect and Savidan was forced to retire at the age of 31.