Socrates: Footballer who led one of Brazil's greatest sides

 

The charismatic Brazilian giant Socrates, a legendary figure of sporting cool in the 1980s, when he enjoyed his regal pomp and his colourful personality was showcased in successive World Cup tournaments, was a footballing force of nature. Hailed in some quarters as one of the finest players of all time, he was a visionary midfield general who could slice apart the most clamlike of defences with his incisive, imaginative passing. He was equally revered for his swashbuckling yet somehow relaxed style, the sudden savage strikes on goal with either foot vying for attention with his delicious trademark backheel flicks and his piratical appearance, usually complete with beard, headband and flowing locks.

As befitted a man named Socrates, he was a noted intellectual, too, an eloquent espouser of left-wing causes, and a doctor of medicine and philosophy. Then there was his much-merited reputation as a bon viveur – he was a famously heavy smoker and admitted to having had problems with alcohol, which he described as his "companion", though he maintained that it never limited his effectiveness on the pitch.

Socrates began his professional career with the Botafogo club, based in the Brazilian town of Ribeirao Preto, serving them for four years from 1974. During that period he worked for his medical qualifications and although he was clearly endowed with colossal football talent, so determined was he not to compromise his studies that it was not until 1979, a season after he had moved to the Sao Paulo-based Corinthians club and having passed his 25th birthday, that he made himself available for his country.

Politics, and the lot of ordinaryworking people, had always been of immense importance to Socrates, whose early heroes were Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and John Lennon. Thus Corinthians, which had grown out of the pro-democracy movement, had been founded largely by immigrant labourers and had opposed the military dictatorship which ruled Brazil during much of his youth, was always an institution dear to his heart.

That year he made the first of 60 appearances for Brazil, which he adorned with 22 goals, and moved swiftly into his prime. In his 297 games for Corinthians he scored 172 times, but it was for his expansive displays in the yellow shirt of Brazil that Socrates earned global renown.

Captaining a fabulous team which included the likes of Zico, Falcao and Cerezo, he shone brightest of allduring the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain, but after captivating audiences with sumptuous displays against the Soviet Union, Scotland, New Zealand and, especially, Argentina, the Brazilians succumbed unexpectedly to the ultimate champions, Italy. Supporters of that Brazil side, one of the mostbrilliant not to win the World Cup, were dismayed at their ejection, particularly bemoaning the absence from the last four of Socrates, whose combination of skill, intelligence and power hadcultivated a devoted following in virtually every country in which the game was played.

Come the 1986 tournament in Mexico, by now not quite such a seductive force but still wildly popular, Brazil again failed narrowly to reach the semis, this time bowing out to France in a penalty shoot-out, with Socrates missing the first spot-kick. This was cruelly ironic as fans loved his seemingly casual stop-start method of addressing the ball, but on this occasion he miscalculated and was foiled easily by the French goalkeeper Joel Bats.

That year his international career ended, but he remained effective at club level. In 1984 he had joined Fiorentina, though he never settled in Italy, rebelling against what he saw as undue regimentation and preferring the freer lifestyle of his homeland, to which he returned after only one season. In 1986 he enlisted with Flamengo, then joined Santos in 1988, but by then he had reached the veteran stage and he laid aside his boots in 1989 at the age of 35.

However, Socrates, whose honours included a place in Brazil's Hall of Fame and being voted South American Footballer of the Year in 1983, had not finished with the game. In 2004, somewhat bizarrely, he accepted a month-long assignment as player-coach of Garforth Town of the Northern Counties East League in England. He was 50 and made only one appearance in a game, for 12 minutes as a substitute against Tadcaster Albion, before returning to Brazil. Later he explained that Yorkshire had been a little cold for him, but added that he'd had tremendous fun.

For some years after leaving the professional game, Socrates – whose brother, Rai, was part of the Brazil squad which lifted the World Cup in 1994 – practised medicine in Ribeirao Preto, later becoming a philosopher and a television football pundit. He died of complications following food poisoning.

His judgement was sound, too. Once asked for his views on the English game, he replied: "English football? I think of Paul Scholes. He's good enough to play for Brazil. I love to watch Scholes, to see him pass, the boy with the red hair in the red shirt." Coming from such a fêted fellow midfielder, this was not the least of the many honours collected by Manchester's finest.

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

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