Mark Elliott1 Comment

SÓCRATES AT FIORENTINA

Mark Elliott1 Comment
Socrates FIORE.jpg

The writing was on the wall and all over the newspapers the day he turned up to training in gloves. 1984 was a particularly cold winter in Florence, and Socrates, from Belem do Para in the sun-kissed Brazilian northeast, needed an extra layer to keep out the ice in the air.

The trouble was that the press were already on his back after a series of lacklustre performances for Fiorentina. The Doctor was in alien territory and the trouble had begun almost as soon as he'd stepped off the plane.

Pre-season didn't go well and Tito Corsi, the club's sporting director, later recalled that training in the mountains did not suit football’s philosopher.

"After the first two days of racing in the mountains, he could not take it anymore, was in pieces. (He) came from Brazil and we would need an adjustment period," he said.

Socrates would never really adjust; he left after one season, in which the club finished ninth. Italy and he were never really compatible.

If Zico was the artistic brain of Brazil's legendary national side, Socrates was its heart and soul. But he was more than that at Corinthians, his club of the past six years. There he was president, spiritual leader and people's champion. He'd been the chief architect of the Democratia Corinthiana, a theory of governance that gave everyone from the groundsmen to the directors an equal vote on all decisions. In a time of military dictatorship it was an incredible and brave achievement.

It was an obvious political statement from a man who would name a son Fidel and regularly profess his admiration for Che Guevara.

At Corinthians Socrates could miss training to continue with his medical education, smoke and drink, and live the life of a gnarled old intellectual rather than an athlete in elite sport. His supreme ability with a football, visually accentuated by his languid style, had allowed him to get by.

In Sao Paulo Socrates could do what he liked but he'd certainly earned the privilege. 172 goals in 297 appearances for the Timo do Povo had made him a legend. The style, elegance and grace he allied to that statistical effectiveness confirmed his genius.

20 goals for Brazil and membership of one of the two great teams never to win a world title only enhanced his popularity. But in 1982 it had been Italy who'd capitalised on the tactical naivety of Socrates and Zico, Falcao, Cerezo and Eder to knock them out. It was a sign of things to come, Socrates' Brazil were gloriously out of time with a game that had moved on.

In Serie A there were moments when the 30-year-old's brilliance was apparent. A wonderfully struck free kick which dipped and swerved into the left hand corner of the goal in a 1-1 draw at Cremonese and a beautiful chip in a 5-0 demolition of Atalanta set him apart. But a return of six goals all season was just not enough.

His coach, Giancarlo De Sista, looked back on his time with the club with a mixture of admiration and frustration:

"Socrates was a very intelligent man, he had great class. I remember that he was an objector, he wanted to know everything: why he couldn't smoke on the team bus, why we had to be in retreat on the Saturday nights before games. He was an intelligent person who was interested in politics, although he smoked and drank a bit too much."

Predictable rumours of a feud between Socrates and his captain Daniel Passarella soon emerged. The dressing room is said to have divided around these two polarising figures. Passarella was a dedicated professional who embodied the disciplined collective as much as Socrates represented individual expression. It was Passarella who infamously dropped Fernando Redondo whilst coach of Argentina after the midfielder refused to cut his hair.

The crowd were divided too. Those moments of genius were enough to create a cult following among some yet others were scathing in their criticism. Socrates was the only player where the folds of his newly ironed shirt were still visible after the game they said while rumours of local tobacconists and bartenders refusing to serve him were circulated enthusiastically.

Not that Socrates was completely enamoured with the game in Italy either. In 2007 he told France Football that Italian football was "a well organised mafia". He also accused his teammate Eraldo Pecci of encouraging the team to draw a game. "The goal was not the championship but the bets," he said. Pecci denied the accusations and blamed them on a personal disagreement between the two.

In all, four of the five midfielders who played against Italy in Barcelona spent some time in Serie A but only the two deep-lying players enjoyed any real success. Toninho Cerezo won the league at 36 with Sampdoria, while Falcao won a championship with Roma. His time in the capital ended in a whirlwind of rumours surrounding his own playboy lifestyle, including an alleged fling with the actress Ursula Andress. Despite scoring 19 goals in his first season, Zico won nothing in two at Udinese.

Despite his failure to adapt on the pitch and combative nature off it, Socrates did make friends in Florence. Upon his death the team wore black armbands and the club held a minute's silence before a league game against Roma. His former teammate Giancarlo Antognoni recalls:

"I was injured that year (1984-85) and didn't play much but I have great memories of Socrates. He was a true personality, above the rules with his own methodology, his way of life and his ideas. He struggled to adapt to our football but he was an authentic champion, full of refined class, great charisma and character.

During the game a banner unfurled referencing his signature move. "Doctor fly in the sky and do a backheel worthy of God," it read.

In his second career as a writer, politician, TV host and social provocateur, Socrates continually campaigned for equality and always defended expressive, creative football. Fiorentina and its fans seem proud to have been associated with him, despite the brevity of his stay.

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