December 5, 2011
Socrates was a Brazilian football player who played for the ill-fated Brazilian teams of the 1980s. He had long curly hair and a Jesus-esque beard. He was a qualified doctor who smoked a pack a day throughout his playing career.
He was a left-wing activist in a country that at the time was ruled by a right-wing military junta, organising Brazil to vote in elections, creating an intra-club democracy as a player and speaking out against the arbitrariness and shadows of things being done the wrong way by unknown men in power. His father named him Socrates to make sure that he would be different, a thinker to follow the original one from Greece.
He was the personification of the team who in the 1980s swaggered and were irresistible but lost 2-3 to Italy in the 1982 quarter-finals and 1-1 (and penalties) to France in the 1986 quarter-finals, maybe the two best matches in World Cup history. I don’t mean that he was symptomatic of the losses but of the unhurried quality on the ball, the dominating midfield rhythms of that Brazil team who were really the only post-Pele incarnation of Brazil that lived up to the samba cliché. Socrates controlled all of this in midfield, making the passes when necessary but at his own smoker’s, dreamer’s pace. But his midfield-heavy, forwardless and defenceless team somehow lost despite being nominally the best ‘ball’ team at both of those World Cups, and Brazil ever since has ditched the midfield, figuring (I guess, correctly) that defence and forwards win titles and letting midfield magic wither.
Although he lived a life of fulfilment and excess, his death aged 57 leaves me feeling like, with the loss of this person of such ability and potential in so many areas, so much could have been done but now can’t be. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories but I do believe in a strange, vaguely sinister force that prevents anything new and innovative from ever occurring and helping our race attain higher goals. Whenever something or someone emerges that can change anything, it’s quickly snuffed. America’s only chance to emerge from being an ultra-conservative country was the Kennedys, and look what happened to them.
A book that I read only weeks ago about Brazilian football (Alex Bellos’ Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life) devoted its last chapter to a café conversation with Socrates, as if he should be the one to have the last word on what Brazilian football had achieved on-field and hadn’t been able to achieve off it because of the nefarious people who drag it down. As long as he was around, there would be someone to provide a voice of enlightenment in a fog of corruption and confusion. And barely after me reading that, he died. That’s why his death affects me.