The Socrates philosophy

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The legendary Brazilian midfielder, who died yesterday aged 57, believed it was how you played rather than if you won that counted most – as his 1982 side showed

Now, the sight of him would horrify most Premier League managers. He drank, he smoked, he had opinions and, worse, they were left-wing opinions. Sir Alex Ferguson, a very different kind of socialist, insists that the manager must always be the most important factor in a football club. Socrates' vision was of a club run by its players.

He was what Keith Richards would have been had he fallen in love with the 1953 Hungarians rather than Chuck Berry, although Socrates' drink of choice was beer rather than Jack Daniels. Like George Best he never properly acknowledged that alcohol was killing him until it was too late. As a footballer he practised what he preached; as a doctor, he did not.

It is perhaps just as well that Socrates believed that it was how rather than whether you won that mattered because he is the central figure in one of the most gloriously spectacular failures of any World Cup. Like Hungary in 1954 and the Netherlands 20 years later, the 1982 World Cup should have been won by Brazil.

Ever since he uttered the phrase "o jogo bonito" – which is just about the only memorable thing Pele has ever said – there is a myth that Brazilian football has always been about "the beautiful game". The sides that lifted the World Cup in Los Angeles in 1994 and Yokohama in 2002 were functional and almost Germanic in their relentlessness. The boys of '82, the side that the tall medical student from Ribeirao Preto captained, was the only one that was truly beautiful, the only one that stepped from the shadows cast by the team of 1970.

Looking back to a stiflingly hot night in Seville, Alan Hansen thought them the finest side he had ever played against. Scotland were good enough to leave Kenny Dalglish on the bench and took the lead through a goal from David Narey that looked as if it was fashioned in Brasilia, rather than Dundee. Jimmy Hill, perhaps typically, suggested it had been a toe-punt.

Retribution was swift. The Scotland manager, Jock Stein, had packed five in midfield in an attempt to smother Zico, Cerezo, the adopted son of a circus clown, Socrates and Falcao, the only member of Tele Santana's side to play outside Brazil. It was never remotely enough. With every flick, spin and Socrates' trademark back-heel, Scotland died a little more. It finished 4-1.

Hungary and the Netherlands at least reached the final. Brazil did not make the semis. Their 3-2 defeat by Italy is one of the great World Cup encounters and Socrates' strike is one of the great World Cup goals. He plays the ball to Zico, who with one flick leaves Claudio Gentile floundering with the delayed reactions of a cartoon character. Zico then plays in Socrates, who is facing Dino Zoff at an improbably tight angle. The shot cracks into the net.

The team of 1982 is often compared to the 1970 side in terms of the way they performed but there is one critical difference. The boys of 1970 were the subject of rigid discipline and preparation.

Brazil was under a fascist government that wanted a World Cup to promote itself every bit as badly as the Argentine junta did in 1978. Their training camp had security guards, dogs and searchlights; their fitness programme was based on the Nasa regime that had sent men to the moon the previous year.

Twelve years later, the military was still in power but under Santana and Socrates, the training regimes were relaxed affairs and perhaps the reduction of discipline cost them. Paolo Rossi may have scored a hat-trick in Barcelona's Sarria Stadium but Brazil's defensive slackness is, nearly 30 years on, jaw-dropping. They fell behind in three of their five games and this time they could not make up the deficit. Rossi scored his second after Cerezo passed across the face of his own 18-yard line.

Four years later, Santana and Socrates would try again. This time they reached the quarter-finals on a succession of clean sheets but the great midfield was worn down by injury and the magic was missing.

In a pounding, brilliant match against France Socrates might have scored three times in Guadalajara but his last act was to miss a penalty in the shoot-out. He took two steps, swung his right foot and saw the ball heading for the top corner until Joël Bats somehow pushed it away. It was almost sublimely cool, just a little arrogant and just a little flawed. It summed things up.

Socrates' finest moment came in 1982, not by lifting the World Cup but by captaining Corinthians to the Brazilian title in November. He had forced the club to become virtually a workers' co-operative, with decisions taken by a players' vote. Their shirts had no sponsors, just the world "Democracy" on their backs. "Perhaps it was the most perfect moment I ever had," he said. "The best thing that football gave me was a chance to get to know human beings. I got to meet people who suffered a lot and those on the other side of society that had everything."

He lived in Ribeirao Preto, a region that, in all sorts of ways, is the nearest Brazil comes to California, and the people that attracted him were on the planet's wilder shores. He named his son after Fidel Castro and was entertained in the Libyan desert by Colonel Gaddafi, who suggested he run for the Brazilian presidency.

He only played twice for clubs outside Brazil – Fiorentina, which was handy for the Uffizi Gallery and Garforth Town, which was handy for Hartshead Moor Service Station. He was 50 (left) when he turned out in 2004 for the Yorkshire club, who sold 3,000 tickets for a game against Tadcaster Albion. Socrates spent most of the match on the bench, with a woolly hat, overcoat and scarf before coming on and producing a 20-yard shot. It was like being in a graffiti-strewn underpassand hearing a busker play Mozart from memory.

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