What to say, when asked to write about a player who, in the few months since his death, has been the subject of such a swathe of column inches, the cause of so many dry inkwells (figuratively speaking) and blistered fingers? A player who few saw play in the flesh more than a handful of times, outside of Brazilian football´s south eastern hub and Florence? Who ended his (official) career almost twenty five years ago, before a great number of the readers and writers of IBWM were even born?
The best answer, or at least the only one I could come up with, is to dip into the cloudy waters of personal recollection. But here too are problems. Despite being old enough to have just caught Socrates in his pomp, I was born far from São Paulo and Tuscany. I never saw Socrates play up close. I never saw him play for Fiorentina at all, not even on television. And until a few short years ago, I had never even seen him wearing a Corinthians shirt. Instead, my memories of Socrates spring entirely from a few games played in the heat of a Spanish summer thirty years ago.
I was a ten year old Belfast school kid in 1982. I went to my first football match that year – Linfield vs. 17 Nentori of Albania in the European Cup at Windsor Park. You can read about that here, if you want. In 1982, if you didn’t go to the match, you could see one live game per week, courtesy of ITV’s The Big Match. No Sky. No YouTube. Channel Four’s Football Italia wouldn’t appear for another ten years. This, as far as television was concerned, was the footballing Dark Ages.
What was Socrates doing at the time? Then, I had no idea. I’d never heard of him. I doubt I’d even heard of the other Socrates (the less famous Greek philosopher). So here I must rely on the memories of others. I’ve lived in Brazil for seven years now, and because of that, and the internet and books and grainy documentary footage and stories told to me by friends and neighbours and barroom bores (Brazilians, as you might have heard, are not backward in coming forward), I now know a fair bit about the dictatorship that strangled the country between 1964 and 1985, about Democracia Corintiana andSocrates’ involvement in the Diretas Já movement, the rise of Lula and the Workers Party, and the slow, painful creep towards some semblance of social equality. This, of course, is the beauty of the modern world. We no longer need memories. We can simply borrow those of others.
So all that was what Socrates was doing at the time, as well as leading Corinthians to the 1982 Campeonato Paulista title. In the Campeonato Brasileiro that year, the team was eliminated by Grêmio in the semi-finals (the Gaúchos would go on to lose to Zico’s Flamengo in a three legged final, with almost 140,000 people watching the first leg at the Maracanã). And of course, as Brazil’s captain, Socrates was also preparing for the World Cup in Spain.
Spain 82. I think it was well known Le Havre ultra Marcel Proust who first coined the term involuntary memory, in In Search of Lost Time. Biting into the 19th century Parisian equivalent of a Kit Kat dipped in a mug of tea, the narrator is transported back to a memory of another, childhood Kit Kat dipped in a mug of tea. Socrates is my footballing Kit Kat.
The memories are hazy, but still strong enough. It was the man himself who started things off, side-stepping two challenges then crashing the ball in from distance against the Soviet Union. After that came Eder`s stunning winner in the same game, and a few days later, Zico`s free kick against Scotland as Alan Rough stood rooted, mouth flapping like that of a goldfish. There was Zico again, pirouetting and scissoring home against New Zealand, followed by Falcão`s symphonic third, a wonderful team goal.
By then the myth was in full bloom. This was hypnotic football, football as sorcery, impossibly languid and creative, as louche and seductive as Bowie and Jagger and Richards all rolled into one. These games were won because of what the Brazilians could do with the ball and with what they could make the ball do, not because of how fast they could run after it, or how hard they could smash into an opposition player. To a ten year old Belfast schoolboy, it was impossibly alien, impossibly other. And all of it, it seemed, flowed through Socrates, skinny-legged, socks around his ankles, an imaginary cigarette, almost, hanging from his mouth.
At the same time, whilst no artists, the national team of a country with a population not much bigger than one of Brazil´s minor state capitals was performing miracles of its own. After qualifying for the first time since 1958, Northern Ireland had started off well enough, scrapping out a draw with Yugoslavia, then drawing against Honduras and, famously, beating Spain in Valencia with a Gerry Armstrong goal, to top the group. I remember that game most clearly of all, perhaps because I saw none of it – camping in the wilds of Tollymore Forest, I and fifty other cub scouts only discovered what had happened when Akela bellowed the stupendous news to our tents, over the noise of the gathering storm.
Northern Ireland and Brazil. Two giants of the footballing world, standing shoulder to shoulder in the second round of the World Cup. What would have happened had they met? Would David McCreery have had Socrates in his pocket? Mal Donaghy effortlessly shackled Zico? Probably not. Though one thing´s for sure. The boys in canary yellow would have found it harder to put the ball past Pat Jennings than they had Alan Rough.
We`ll never know. Northern Ireland performed more heroics against Austria in their first second round game, Billy Hamilton`s brace earning a 2-2 draw, but class told in the next fixture as France put four past Big Pat, and that was that. Brazil brushed aside a snarling, petulant Argentina in their group opener, bringing up Italy and that necromancer of the dark arts, Paolo Rossi. Even then, before disaster struck, there was Socrates again, looking for all the world like a man out strolling with his dog as he ambled into the penalty area and slotted home to cancel out Rossi`s opener. But Brazil`s players that day were like passengers on The Titanic, oblivious to their impending doom. Seventy eight minutes after Socrates goal it was all over, and shockingly, Brazil were out. It seemed impossibly soon.
Socrates and I went our separate ways after that. We had 1982 in common, I liked to think, as well as the violent, shady histories of our two very different countries to ruminate upon. Socrates would continue to fight for democracy and freedom in his, whereas I would do nothing in mine, other than pack my bags and move to Manchester to be closer to Maine Road, and, like most people, get on with leading an avowedly unremarkable life.
We would meet again, in the loosest, most metaphorical sense, when I moved to Brazil, and started to learn about Brazilian history and football. By then the fight had been won, at least in kind. Diretas Já had been successful, and Brazil is now a democracy. But it is still in many ways an embryonic, flawed kind of democracy, with the soldiers and generals replaced by crooked politicians and bent bureaucrats. These days two stories jostle for position on the nightly news – the biggest corruption scandal in the country`s history, Mensalão, has finally come to trial, seven years after the event, while at the same time, details are emerging about the biggest corruption scandal since Mensalão, the mafia of influence run by slot machine gangster Carlinhos Cachoeira.
Socrates would turn in his grave, or more likely, pour himself a beer. At times, in Brazil, like in Northern Ireland all those years ago, it seems like the only thing to do. That, and allow yourself to drift back into the sweet balm of memory.
James is a regular contributor to IBWM and World Soccer, among others. He can also be found on Twitter @seeadarkness.