Widely regarded as the greatest midfielder of his generation, a social activist, campaigner for democracy in his homeland and a fully qualified doctor, time to pay homage to Brazilian Football’s self-confessed anti-athlete: Sócrates
With a full-bodied beard, Bjorn-Borg style headband and straggly hair, he resembled more of a 1980s rock star than that of an elegant footballer. An admirer of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, naming his youngest after the latter, he was a strict adherer to the philosophy of the beautiful game who deeply involved himself with political issues that stretched far beyond the football field. Sócrates was not your average footballer.
Refusing to play professional football until he completed his medical studies at the age of 25, the qualified doctor emerged as the perfect remedy to cure Corinthians lengthy title drought. During his highly influential six-year spell with Timão, the man nicknamed ‘Magrão’ (Big Skinny) became nothing short of a cult hero. His elegance and composure on the ball, leadership and outstanding goalscoring prowess – scoring at total of 172 goals in 297 matches – proved significant as he guided the club to Campeonato Paulista wins on three separate occasions, 1979, 1982 and 1983. And whilst he enjoyed further success in 1983, being crowned the South American Footballer of the Year, his concern for the wider Brazilian community during the country’s military dictatorship was apparent. Sócrates saw that football could be used as a medium for social activism.
Just as Castro and Guevara had inspired millions of Cubans to revolt against the Batista regime in 1950s Cuba, so Sócrates, together with teammate Wladimir, came to spearhead their own revolutionary movement in the mid-1980s in Brazil, known as the Corinthians Democracy. Protests by the players against the club’s management of them was seen as a rejection of the current regime and a microcosm of the wider injustices experienced by the Brazilian people under the military dictatorship. In November 1982, Corinthians players had the slogan “Vote on the 15th” printed on back of their black and white shirts – a daring public act of defiance urging the public to vote in the upcoming elections and one of the first moves towards ending the dictatorship. Indeed, his revolutionary manner off the pitch was equally visible on it.
Despite his slight build and tall frame, so much so that he stated: “I am an anti-athlete […] You have to take me as I am,” Sócrates’s unmistakable elegance, composure on and use of the ball was clinical yet simultaneously effortless in its own way. With his almost-telepathic vision and pinpoint passing, the midfield maestro was able to instigate moves that routinely had great defenders fooled, unlock even the tightest of defences and consequently open up goalscoring opportunities for the strikers. He played with expression and creativity, so much so that he came to pioneer the now famous back-heel that prompted Pelé to once remark that Sócrates played better going backwards than most footballers going forward. Nonetheless, the 1982 FIFA World Cup Finals was to be both his greatest and yet most painful moment in football.
Following his debut for A Seleção in May 1979, he quickly became the heartbeat of the National Team, which gained notoriety within the world of football for its free-flowing 4-2-2-2 formation, jogo bonito philosophy and eye-catching movement, captaining the side at the 1982 FIFA World Cup Finals. His and Brazil’s first goal of the tournament against the Soviet Union – a wonderful right-foot strike from 25 yards out, having seamlessly slipped past two challenges – has become the most replayed in World Cup history. However, his dreams of becoming the fourth Brazilian captain to lift the trophy were agonisingly dashed as Paulo Rossi inspired Italy to overcome Brazil in the Second Round of the tournament. To this day, the 1982 Brazil side is still widely regarded at the greatest side never to win the FIFA World Cup.
Sócrates experienced heartbreak again four years later in Mexico, with Brazil exiting the competition at the Quarter-finals stage on penalties to France. Eight years later though, his younger brother Raí succeeded where his elder brother had failed on two previous occasion as he helped the National Side to win the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the USA under the captaincy of Dunga. Following his retirement from the game in 1989, he went on to become a popular TV commentator and columnist, always offering a unique philosophical perspective and never shy to express his, at times, controversial thoughts be it, most recently, on the malaise of the current National Team set-up under head Coach Mano Menezes through to criticism of the 2014 FIFA World Cup planning committee. The 57-year-old has undoubtedly left behind an endearing legacy.
His midfield mastery, terrific reading of the game and pulling of the creative strings – all embodying the romantic side of the beautiful game – had a lasting affect on a generation of supporters who came to fall in love with A Seleção. Moreover, Dr Socrates, as he came to be known, was an intellectual – a man who possessed eclectic football knowledge in addition to an acute awareness of social issues and cultural interests. His thoughts on the progression of the game, namely advocating nine-a-side football, and exploits outside of the sporting arena, made him stand out and above from the rest. Perhaps the aforementioned Paulo Rossi best encapsulates the iconic midfielder: “You couldn’t place him in any category — on the pitch and even more so off it […] He was unique from every point of view.”
Perhaps it was written in the stars, that on the same day that news of his death was announced, Corinthians clinched their fifth Cameponato Brasileiro title. Whilst it was exactly what O Doutor would have ordered, the manner of the victory left much to be desired. A far cry from the footballer that possessed an unrivalled instinct for the game fearlessly challenged a regime and came to be idolized by the Brazilian people. Sócrates was truly one of a kind.