Sócrates is number 29 in 90min’s Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series
Modern footballers are often derided for their lack of intellect and disengagement from the real world.
In many ways this isn’t their fault. Any whiff of a player taking a stance on a political issue is often shot down, either by their club’s PR team or an onslaught of dissent on social media.
It was not always this way though.
One player who certainly does not fit this profile is Sócrates, the legendary Brazilian midfielder who was a genius both on and off the pitch.
Poised, rangy and wickedly creative, he found football so easy that the stereotypical South American passion when scoring a goal was absent from his game. Why celebrate something that comes as second nature?
He was also not afraid to stick his head above the parapet politically – even during a time in his country’s history where it was extremely dangerous to do so.
Named after the famed Greek philosopher, Sócrates began his career at Botafogo. His time at the Rio de Janeiro based club was split between being sent off for showboating (this actually happened) and studying to become a doctor.
At aged 25, Sócrates made the decision to focus fully on football, putting his medical career on hold until his retirement. He declared himself eligible for selection for the Brazil national team and completed a move to Corinthians. This was when his legend began to form.
His time at the People’s Team was marked with a number of defiant gestures against the country’s military government. As a boy, Sócrates has experienced the oppressive nature of the ruling elite in Brazil, as his father was forced to destroy philosophy books that could have led to severe punishment after the coup d’etat of 1962.
Now, with a platform to challenge this injustice at a club with a strong history of political activism, the Doctor helped coordinate a new way of organising a football club now known as the Corinthians Democracy.
It represented a radical break from the status quo, with football club governance in the 1970s and 1980s mirroring the country’s authoritarianism. Club executives held absolute power over their players, even confining them to their hotel rooms in the days leading up to a game to prevent any mishaps.
Sócrates, alongside a few teammates, pioneered a new system whereby players were afforded a vote on any issue that affected them – no matter how big or small. Although this may seem trivial it was a significant challenge to the military junta and the movement received endorsement from the nation’s intelligentsia.
It is now credited by academics as a key moment in Brazil’s path to democracy.
The apex of Sócrates radicalism came in 1984, when he addressed a rally of half a million people and stated that unless the government reinstated free presidential elections he would be moving to Italy. They did not, and the midfielder stayed true to his word, signing a deal with Serie A side Fiorentina.
The fact that Sócrates had the platform to make such a gesture was partly down to his performances in the 1982 World Cup.
Prior to the tournament, the heavy smoker and drinker cut down significantly on both of his vices to ensure that he was in tip top condition to captain his country. The Brazil team at that tournament is widely acknowledged as the best side to never win the World Cup.
Set up in a 4-2-2-2, the two holding midfielders Falcao and Toniho Cerezo provided the solidity for Selecao’s offensive foursome to wreak havoc. Zico provided the flair, Sócrates the intelligence, Serginho the strength and Éder the power.
Brazil breezed through the first group stage with Sócrates scoring their first goal of the tournament in their 2-1 win over the Soviet Union. Victories over New Zealand and Scotland followed to set up a second stage ‘Group of Death’ including Diego Maradona’s Argentina and Paolo Rossi’s Italy.
Brazil managed to defeat their continental rivals 3-1, meaning only the Azzurri stood in the way of a place in the final four. Tragically, Sócrates would fall short in one of the greatest World Cup games of all time.
He would play his part, effortlessly slipping in behind the Italian defence via a sumptuous one-two with Zico before smashing it past Dino Zoff. It was not enough though, with a Paolo Rossi hat trick earning Italy a 3-2 win.
Though they did not clinch the World Cup trophy, Brazil won people’s hearts with their performance. The summer of 1982 was an orchestra of attacking, team football and their captain was the conductor.
It was a story indicative of his career. Sócrates did not win a huge amount silverware but will always be remembered for his cultured playing style, remarkable impact on football and fight to democratise Brazilian society.
For more from Matt O’Connor-Simpson, follow him on Twitter!