Sócrates (1954-2011): « I smoke, I drink and I think »

Legendary footballer Sócrates was a self-styled free spirit. He passed away nine years ago, but not before leaving an inspirational legacy that reflects the powerful political echo of football in Brazil’s history.

Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, lived a life as unique as his name. Sócrates was reagarded as one of the greatest midfielders in the history of football. Unlike most footballers, he did not turn professional until age 24 as he was studying medicine at the same time. His medical degree and his political involvement along with his magical skills and intelligence in the field earned him the nickname « Doutor Sócrates«  or « The Doctor ».

Sócrates played for Brazil for seven years, scoring 22 goals and winning 60 caps for his country. He captained the team in the 1982 FIFA World Cup; playing alongside Zico, Falcão, Toninho Cerezo and Éder, considered the best national team to never win a world Cup.  He also played for Botafago, Corinthians, Flamengo and Santos in Brazil and for Fiorentina in Italy. He retired in 1989 aged 35.

An athlete who’s an anti-athlete

Bearded, thin and popularly known as Magrão (Big Skinny), was 6ft in tall and weighed just over 12½ stone. Lacking power and stamina, he avoided rough physical contests and developed the famous one-touch playing style in which less physical strenghth is demanded. 

Sócrates is chased by Ossie Ardiles during Brazil’s 3-1 victory over Argenita in the second group stage of the
1982 World Cup. ©TheGuardian

I am anti-athlete. I cannot deny myself certain lapses from the strict regime of a sportsman

Sócrates certainly did not regard himself as athletic. He repeatedly admitted that he never had the physical build to play football nor he had adapted his body to football’s athletic demands. Nevertheless, this is a part of what made him special from every point of view. He was different from any other footballer and hardly conformed to expectations.

«  I smoke, I drink, I think. »  This isn’t the sort of thing a normal professional football player would usually say but there was nothing normal about Sócrates. Chain-smoking, beer-drinking footballer wanted to be accepted and loved as he was. As long as he got the job done, (which was the case) who can object? 

Politically astute

Sócrates denunciation of the military dictatorship and fight to redemocratize Brazil extended his legacy beyond the football field. During the time he played for Corinthians, a Brazilian club team from São Paulo, he co-founded the Corinthians Democracy movement. This latter was a social and political cell that fought against the authoritarian way the club’s management controlled its players. The team became a symbol of resilience and resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship. 

My political victories are more important than my victories as a professional player. A match finishes in 90 minutes, but life goes on.

Off the pitch, the team personified democracy by resolving to make communal decisions. In other words, the team gave a lesson on how he wanted his country to function. Everything was decided by a vote of directors, technical staff and players. Decisions included when to have lunch, when the bus should stop and where, what time to meet for practice, and even when to have a toilet break.

On the pitch, the team would wear football kits and headbands featuring anti-dictatorship slogans such as “No violence”, “Democracia” and “Vote”. The team would often send messages to the country’s government by taking to the field with banners demanding ‘Direct elections now’ or ‘I want to vote for President’. In 1983, Corinthians ran on to the pitch with a banner stating “Win or lose but always with democracy”.

Sócrates and the Corinthian democracy. ©Graffiti

At the time when people were still frightened to raise their voices against the regime, Sócrates did literally politicize football; and he was more proud of his team’s vigorous contribution in assisting dismantle the dictatorship regime than he was of his own football achievements. 

Dead, but forever alive in our hearts. 

Brazil’s most resplendent footballer died on the day Corinthians won the championship against Palmeiras in December, 2011.  It matched a professed desire of his, having previously mentioned that he wishes « to die on a Sunday when Corinthians win a trophy ». A minute’s silence was held pre-match and everyone in the stadium raised their closed right hand up in the air, imitating his trademark celebration after scoring. More than 1000 people attended his funeral in Ribeirao Preto, São Paulo.

Corinthians fans hold a banner that reads « Socrates, rest in peace » before their match against Palmeiras in Sao Paulo December 4, 2011. ©The New York Times

Brazil had lost one of its most cherished sons. On the field, with his talent and sophisticated touches, he was a genius. Off the field, he was active politically, concerned with his people and his country.

-Brazil’s ex president Dilma Rousseff

There are undoubtedly countless factors why Sócrates will be remembered as a legend. But primarily, he will be recalled for his social activism and resistance of the dictatorship and for bringing a new sense of political awareness to footballers. 

Obrigada Doutor! 

Imane Adouay

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