In Memory of Socrates

Posted on December 15, 2011

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Charismatic, dynamic and enigmatic. Perfect words to describe the six foot four inch Brazilian giant, Socrates.

A legendary figure, adopting an almost mythical aura to more recent generations, such was his sublime talents and iconic image. To a generation of football fans he was the personification of “cool”. In the 70s and 80s, his black curly locks, beard and headband stood out in an era where footballers were more conservative. His skills, unorthodox lifestyle and personality were showcased to the world in successive World Cup tournaments, where he was revered as one of the finest players ever.

An exalted, authoritative leader, commanding his team from the focal point of midfield, he was renowned for his ingenious and creative passes, seemingly slicing open and dismantling defences at will. He was equally acclaimed for his flamboyant yet composed style, one minute assaulting the goal with vicious strikes, the next nonchalantly performing his irresistible trademark back-heel flicks, gleefully perplexing his exasperated opposition.

Socrates was never the archetypal footballer, for like his philosophical Greek namesake, he too was a noted intellectual. He was also an ardent supporter of left wing politics and causes and a doctor of medicine and philosophy. In addition to his impressive talents, both physical and mental, he was also infamous for his chain smoking and copious amount of alcohol regularly consumed, with beer his particular drink of choice, going as far as to call it his “companion”. He would even be seen with two or three beer bottles in the changing room immediately after a game. However, he always maintained that it in no way affected his performance on the pitch and one would be inclined to agree.

He began his career with Brazilian club Botafogo in 1974, serving them for four years, making 57 appearances and scoring 24 goals. It was during this period he remarkably studied for his medical degree, a feat then unheard of; a professional footballer plying his trade while attaining major qualifications. Such was his determination to achieve in his studies and avoid compromising his studies for football – despite possessing obvious colossal talent – it was not until 1979, after he had completed his degree, that he made himself available for selection for his country. By this time he had turned 25 and he had moved from Botafogo to Corinthians, a Sao Paulo based club regarded as the biggest in Brazil.

A move to a more befitting club for Socrates could not have been possible after his transfer to Corinthians. This was because politics and the left wing concerns of the ordinary working public were of the utmost importance to him, citing his early heroes to be Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and John Lennon. In Corinthians he found a club with the same ideals and principles. The club had been formed from the pro-democracy movement of immigrant labourers who opposed the military dictatorship that had governed Brazil for the majority of his youth.

His time with Corinthians would also see him receive the first of 60 caps for Brazil, for whom he would score 22 goals. A six year stint at Corinthians saw him enter his prime as a midfield maestro, appearing 297 times and scoring an impressive 172 times. However it was his breath taking appearances in the iconic yellow and blue of Brazil that would earn him true global adoration.

He was captain for Brazil’s infamous 1982 World Cup finals campaign, widely regarded as the best team never to have won the World Cup. Leading by example, Socrates struck the first goal in the opening match against the Soviet Union, edging them out 2-1. He commanded the legendary team, which included Zico, Falcao and Cerezo among others, to emphatic victories over Scotland, 4-1, and New Zealand, 4-0. They further captivated a worldwide audience with victory over bitter rivals Argentina, before unexpectedly capitulating to eventual champions Italy.

Of that now fabled Brazil team Socrates shone the brightest and such was his talent, supporters globally voiced frustration and dismay that the last four of the tournament would be devoid of his delicious tricks and turns, sublime flicks and flamboyancy, and savage strikes. His potent combination of power, skill and intelligence in which he approached the game resulted in a devoted following of ardent fans in every country.

By the time the 1986 tournament in Mexico had come around, both Brazil’s and Socrates powers were waning; not quite the force they once were but still fiercely popular and still better than most. However, Brazil failed to make the semi-finals once more, this time succumbing to France, albeit by penalty shoot-out. Despite his talismanic status, Socrates missed the first spot-kick. Brazil’s spirit fatally wavered and France took decisive advantage. This would also be one instance where his laid back style would betray him; his famous stop-start run up to the spot perhaps too relaxed and the French goalkeeper easily foiled his effort. This would also be the year his international career ended, at the age of 32.

He remained effective at club level, but nowhere near as supremely as his Corinthian days. In 1984 he had joined Italian club Fiorentina. However his first spell outwith Brazil was largely unsuccessful, only making 25 appearances and scoring six goals. He also viewed with disdain what he perceived as undue regimentation in training rituals, preferring the freer lifestyle he enjoyed in his native country, to which he returned after a single season. Back in Brazil, he joined Flamengo in 1986, and Santos in 1988, both largely disappointing spells, with sporadic appearances and goals. By 1989, at age 35 and firmly past his prime, he decided to retire.

Despite not winning that elusive World Cup, he achieved accolades such as being a member of Brazil’s prestigious Hall of Fame and being voted South American Footballer of the Year 1983, as well as achieving legendary status among fellow pros and fans alike.
Bizarrely, Socrates was not quite finished with the game. Despite being retired for more than 15 years, in 2004 he joined Garforth Town, a tiny Yorkshire club playing in the Northern Counties East League in England. Initially accepting a month long player-coach role, despite the sheer absurdity of the deal, few actually believed he would feature as a player. However he duly did, at 50 years old, making one substitute appearance against Tadcaster Albion with 12 minutes remaining. Performing only one notable action, he unleashed a ferocious drive defying his age and providing those in the ground with a nostalgic blast before returning to Brazil.

Since retiring Socrates practised medicine and engaged in television punditry in his native country and often writing political columns for newspapers. His death came as a result of complications following food poisoning; his depleted digestive system ravaged by his years of heavy drinking and smoking.

Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieria de Oliveira, footballer and physician: born Belem do Para, Brazil 19th February 1954; played for Botafogo 1974-78, Corinthians 1978-84, Fiorentina 1984-85, Flamengo 1986-87 and Santos 1988-89; capped 60 times by Brazil 1979-86; married (six children); died Sao Paulo, Brazil 4th December 2011

By Jamie Dunn

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Posted in: Feature