It is just a year ago this week that Socrates died. I didn’t get the chance to pay my respects in this column last year, so I’m going to take the chance now, on this first anniversary. He was a great player, and a man who I admired and took to my heart. It wasn’t just about football.
Like most of us I guess, the first time I saw ‘Socratic football’ was watching the World Cup in Spain on TV in 1982, when a great Brazilian team somehow managed not to win the competition. Actually, the first emotion Socrates aroused in me is not one I’m proud of: it was sheer envy.
It wasn’t just the football he played – though this was the sublime (now a cliché) ‘samba’ football at its languid best. The boys in gold seemed to move round the pitch as if playing in slacks and slip-ons, and the coolest guy amongst them was their leader Socrates.
The envy started on hearing his name. We’d got used to the plethora of Jesus this, and Santamaria that in the Catholic football world; even the occasional Moses, but ‘Socrates’; that was real class. On his birth certificate, his full set was revealed to be Socrates, Brasileiro, Sampaio de Sousa, Vieira de Oliveira – which sounded like a pretty good football team on its own.
Then I learned he was a fully qualified doctor of medicine, and had refused to start his playing career until his mid twenties, so he could complete his medical training. Then I saw he was 6ft4ins tall and handsome as hell. My long-suffering mate next to me on the TV couch said at one point, ‘I bet he doesn’t have any trouble pulling women at the disco’.
Imagine the chat-up line: Hi gorgeous, my name’s Socrates; I’m a doctor and captain of Brazil….’. Get your coat.
His football was sublime but Socrates was a well-earthed guy. In some ways, more like a traditional fan than a top player. He ‘liked a drink’, as they say, and a fag too. He remained a smoker all his life (one tragically cut short with his death at the age of 57yrs), and the combination of alcohol & tobacco no doubt contributed to such an early demise.
But he was also much more directly in touch with the real world than many top players. When he retired in 1989, after scoring 172 goals in 297 matches for Corinthians (from midfield!), he became a GP. And he was already engaged politically in bringing about a democratic system in Brazil with his consistent support for the Corinthians Democracy movement and Lula’s Workers’ Party.
Socrates tried to democratise his own football club as well, with a one-fan: one-vote Constitution, and he was never afraid to speak out against the dictatorial military regimes that ran his country for decades. For me he was like my boyhood hero made real; a flesh and blood Robin Hood, only he could play football like a god too.
As a fully-engaged-with-life human being, Socrates stands (as he did in life) head and shoulders above any other footballer I can recall, though I have other heroes too.
But the beauty of his game; his stature and appearance; his style & cool; his dedication to medicine; his political game too, make him possibly the greatest all-rounder of a personality in football’s pantheon. Appropriately enough, given his name, he seemed to possess real wisdom. As he was quoted in one Obituary this time last year:
“The best thing that football gave me was the chance to get to know human beings. I got to meet people who suffered a lot and also those on the other side of society, who had everything, so I could see both sides of the society we live in.”
THIS WEEK’S ARTICLES:
KEIR RADNEDGE: A EURO FOR EUROPE
ROGAN TAYLOR: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS
MOHAMMED HANZAB (ICSS): EDUCATING TO SAFEGUARD THE INTEGRITY OF SPORT
DELROY ALEXANDER: GREATER MORAL NOT TECHNICAL GUIDANCE NEEDED
Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.
The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Football.