Socrates. A small tribute

8 12 2011

When Socrates recently died after a short illness one of THE names in world football history passed from this existence. As with Zico, Falcao, Junior and Eder the very mention of Socrates’ name puts you in mind of a certain image of 1980s football; skilful, stylish, smooth.  This is not just a cliché;

Socrates was held is such esteem by his old club, Corinthians, that the present players chose to remember him by displaying the international salute of solidarity, the raised fist;

This particular gesture of remembrance was an apt gesture for two reasons. Firstly Socrates was a lefty, he once said; “I have three idols – Che, Fidel and John Lennon.”  Secondly, Socrates had a wider impact on Brazillian society than just being a stylish midfielder in their national football team. He was also a key actor in Brazil’s move away from dictatorship. The Corithian Democracy movement that  he founded with teamates in order to achieve greater democracy within the club overgrew it’s original aims and gave the national democratisation movement an impetus.  When Corinthians wore the word “Democracia” on the back of their black shirts Socrates described it as; “perhaps the most perfect moment I ever lived. And I’m sure it was for 95% of [my teammates] too.” 

I like Socrates because he’s the kind of footballer that transcends the transient glory of the pitch, but even without the political stuff it’s hard not to like Socrates. Whenever I hear his name I think of colourful pictures from my childhood;

When I looked at these pictures and read the uncomplicated prose of Shoot!, Match and the Ladybird World Cup books my imagination flew. I didn’t need television to admire Socrates – the only footage of Socrates playing I distinctly remember watching was his brief appearance in my favourite childhood film “Hero” (the official film of Mexico ’86)  . – all I needed was some pictures and my imagination. I imagine that this may seem odd to youngsters nowadays but that’s how we used to do things.

In my mind Socrates, and others, offered a fantastic view of an exotic world. They wore odd boots and their kit was made by an odd company that was available in odd colours. These players became heroes, they became untouchable images.

Socrates began as an untouchable image but the more I found out about him, and the more saw of him, the more I liked him. The mythical figure gained flesh as I discovered that he was the sort of hero football should have. Socrates was a man who did things with a certain style;

“His style of play was unmistakable: elegant and effortless almost to the point of nonchalance, and with a penchant for the back-heel that prompted Pelé to remark that Sócrates played better going backwards than most footballers going forward.”

How can you not love a player like this? Look at this goal, look at the way Socrates stylishly runs up the pitch;

Brian Glanville remembers his great effect;

“In the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain, Brazil opened against Russia in Seville, deploying a midfield of tremendous talent. Against the Russians, Sócrates was ubiquitous and outstanding, now in the firing line, now dropping deep to cover for the attacking left back, Júnior. After 75 minutes, he struck the equaliser with a fulminating right-footed shot and Brazil went on to win 2-1. In their next match, won 4-1 against a Scotland team which, like Russia, had actually taken the lead, Sócrates neatly set up Brazil’s fourth goal for his fellow midfielder, Falcão. In a second-round group match that his team, in Barcelona, was unlucky to lose to Italy, Sócrates scored another spectacular goal. Receiving a perfectly angled pass from Zico, he somehow found a gap between Italy’s goalkeeper, Dino Zoff, and the near post, a shot of tremendous power which found its billet. But Brazil, which needed only a draw to reach the semi-finals, lost 3-2 and went out in one of the most dramatic games in the history of the tournament.”

How could you not warm to football like this? Some of the iconoclasts that lurk on the When Saturday Comes message board don’t share this view of Socrates so they subjected him to revisionism;

“The Brazil 82 side is the most over romanticised team in history and to be honest Socrates was perhaps the most over romanticised player too.
He played in that team, although he was the most expendable of the midfielders. He was tall, good looking, he had the coolest name, he smoked, he was a rebel. All fine, I think admiration for his cool outsider status gets mixed up with his on field value. It’s no wonder that whenever people think of him, probably all they ever knew of him was that tournament. While Zico, Eder, Cerezo, Junior, Falcao et al are also remembered primarily for that summer in Spain, most of us could think of something else they did in their careers outside that tournament. Probably not the case with Socrates.

He was a You Tube player before You Tube existed to be honest. He had brilliant natural gifts, but achieved little on the field with them. He won next to nothing, three Sao Paulo state titles with Corinthians and a Rio one with Flamengo where he was little more than a wheezing accessory. He never got close to a Brazilian championship, well a single semi-final, nothing in the Libertadores, his European stint with Fiorentina displayed a lack of professionalism and pride in his work that would make Adriano blush.

His lack of athleticism and mobility, pride in his own fitness and performances, unwillingness to put in the work when recovering from injury. Actually there’s a lot of stories from his career which suggests he was a precocious and self centred individual and not necessarily a pleasure to play with, be managed by or be around.”

Although it probably feels good to be this knowledgeable about football, it’s certainly superficially impressive, I’m not sure that I want to be this analytical about football. I’m not sure I could get so miffed, or angry, that a supposedly great player was several points short of my ideal. As Anthony Wilson once said; “If it’s a choice between the facts and the legend, go for the legend”. Sometimes you just have to go for the legend because not every aspect of human existence is an equation to be solved.

Sometimes in football you just have to go for the legend. You have to forget that Puskas didn’t possess a right foot, or that Maradona was a cocaine addict, or that Michel Platini has a vendetta against you. Sometimes you just have to appreciate the evidence of your eyes. If you become too  analytical you may fail to see the beauty in a situation.

The fact that Socrates thought he was unsuited to professional football may provide ammunition to those that dispute his position as a hero. If you thought like this then you’d be reducing football to a simple muscular quarrel. I can’t give any credence to the idea that you dismiss a luxuriously talented player simply because he appears to be “lazy”. During the hustle and bustle of an  important game the approach of the louche player may lead to a goal with a subtle touch, flick or turn? Would people dismiss his contribution then? There needs to be room for the artists doing things at their pace.

Who cares if Socrates didn’t track back, or ran out of puff, he was capable of doing things that other players couldn’t do, or wouldn’t think of doing. Most skilful players are graceful not clumsy. For example look at the graceful way Socrates progresses down the field with the ball for the goal against Italy. Football artists often do their work with an economy of movement that’s not always perceptible to the eye that’s determined to be critical. We should cut them a bit of slack, especially when they reached the very top and still describe themselves like this;

“I am an anti-athlete. I cannot deny myself certain lapses from the strict regime of a sportsman. You have to take me as I am.”

Why should players submit to the authoritarian conventions of mechanised, professional football? More players should be like Socrates, he made football bend his way. He may not have achieved everything that he should have but he remained at the top of world football as a rounded individual, he was a man of moral stubbornness with sublime skills. He was a complete man. 

Socrates proved that there is more to life than being a pro by earning a medical degree at the same time as playing. How many players  continue with their education as well as playing at the top-level? Socrates should be the icon for footballer to emulate. If more players had this attitude football may more enjoyable, it would certainly be less stressful.

Last week Shane Williams retired from international rugby. Barry John mourned the idea that Shane Williams was the last player of his type. You could say the same sort of thing about Socrates, I wonder whether there will be another player like him in the future.




One response

11 12 2011
Sunday Soccer Snips (weekly) « footysphere

[…] Socrates. A small tribute « Llandudno Jet Set […]

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