This morning, after a long battle with illness, the great Socrates passed away, in 1982 he made me stare saucer-eyed at the television set in pyjama-clad wonderment.
I was much too young to have my mind blown by Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops though I’ve consequently heard all the tales. Suburban straight-laced Britain believed he was an extraterrestrial beamed down to a studio in Hertfordshire. Though in hindsight such incomprehension is touchingly naive I can relate completely. My Ziggy – my alien – was a Brazilian midfielder with a gait so languid it made even the fieriest of games a laid-back elegant affair. At a World Cup that only seemed to deal in primary colours he stood out like a beacon, from his signature blind heel passes that bordered on the nonsensical to the way he stroked the ball with the same loving care of a besotted teen brushing back his first-love’s fringe. Everything was done with effortless style. It was flamboyance in slow motion.
My At-At Walker stood forgotten in the hall carpet and I was utterly, hopelessly entranced. He didn’t look like a footballer. He resembled a disillusioned writer in a French film who eventually sleeps with a girl far too young for him. He resembled a pamphleteering political activist. He resembled a pothead Christ who fashioned bongs from waste material. To my nascent eyes, watching him nonchalantly stride through the world’s elite, he looked like an extraterrestrial beamed down to a pitch in Seville, Spain.
Four years later – a little older, a little wiser – I discovered that he was a chain-smoking qualified doctor whose boy-hood heroes were Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and John Lennon. I found out that – like his famous name-sake - he was an intellectual philosopher. Back home he used his fame to publicly challenge his countries military dictatorship, co-founding the Corinthians Democracy movement, and he wrote extensively and knowledgably about sport, politics and economics.
The leader of that team was never going to be a palm-punching growler, all rabid stares and commitment, but come on, this was ridiculous. Just how cool could a single individual be?
He played sixty times for his country, scoring twenty-two goals, some of which were so audacious it’s impossible not to emit a chuckle of childish delight.
Winning either of those tournaments was unnecessary. Let Rossi have his redemption and Maradona his tainted glory. Far better to be burnished in legend as the greatest side to have ever graced a lush green turf. The Jules Rimet was fool’s gold; the supernatural football served up by Zico, Eder et al was Fool’s Gold, a funky psychedelic carnival of imaginative samba-beat and vision. Those otherworldly Brazilian mavericks forever stole the hearts of anyone who was privileged enough to witness their triumph of style over pragmatism. Idealism over tactical nous. There simply isn’t a chunk of metal in the world with enough value or lustre to suitably reward that.
And all of the magic – the swerving, dipping thirty yard free-kicks and unfathomable passes - was orchestrated by a man who liked a tab and a beer whilst thumbing through Das Capital.
Socrates was born in relative affluence and considered education to be an equal to football. Although he would parade his sublime talents for Botafogo each Saturday he didn’t turn professional until his mid-twenties by which time he’d completed his doctorate in medicine. From there he moved to his beloved Corinthians for six glorious years where he secured the Sao Paulo State Championship and celebrated in a provocative t-shirt that simply read ‘Democracia’. In 1984 he enjoyed a brief and successful stint in Italy with Fiorentina before winding down his career with Flamengo and Santos. He played sixty times for his country, scoring twenty-two goals, some of which were so audacious it’s impossible not to emit a chuckle of childish delight. But the above is just condensed biog stats that don’t even begin to paint the picture of the man’s genius. Like stating that Michelangelo once sketched on a ceiling. If you have half an hour to spare I heartily suggest you YouTube the man and revel in a football fantasia.
Some people are larger than life, Socrates transcended it. Yet it is all-too-easy for me now, as an adult, to correlate the years of heavy drinking, womanising, and endless smokes with the news that he has died.
The child still in me however can’t help but be jolted by the fact and to face the startling realisation that the bearded colossus in yellow is mortal after all, like you and I.
Your place in the pantheons of the all-time greats is secure Socrates. I only wish you hadn't gone there so soon.
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