The first things most Botafogo de Ribeirão Preto fans noticed about the 17-year-old Socrates were his height – he stood approximately 6’3 tall – and his slender, willowy frame. They soon forgot about the teenager’s somewhat ungainly appearance when he got on the ball, though. Faster, much faster, than he looked, he had vision, an eye for goal and the insouciance to play cute back-heeled passes to his team-mates.
As the inimitable midfielder explained years later in Jorge Vasconcellos’ book Recados da Bola (Football Messages) he developed such skills more as a defence mechanism than as a means of expressing his superb technique: “When I started out at Botafogo I was nowhere near as physically strong as my opponents. I found myself up against some very fit people and I had to develop a different set of skills just to get by.”
Elaborating on his survival plan, he said: “I started to play one-touch passes only. I’d get the ball and pass it straightaway because I couldn’t handle any physical contact. I didn’t have the body for it. I was very tall and thin. I used whatever I could to play the ball first time, whether it was my backside, my knee, my elbow or my heel, which became my signature trick. It was a question of survival. It was my way of solving a problem and I ended up becoming a better player because of it.”
In the years that followed Socrates improved to such an extent that his velvet touch became his trademark. In the meantime, his speed of thought and acute intelligence would play an increasingly important role in the avenues he pursued off the pitch. In the early 1980s, by which time he had completed his medical studies and established himself as an idol with Corinthians and the national team, he would draw on these other attributes to make his influence felt outside the football world.
At a time when Brazil was still run by a military dictatorship, Socrates headed up A Democracia Corinthiana (The Corinthian Democracy) one of the most effective revolutionary movements the game has ever seen. And in speaking out in support of the popular movement Diretas Já (Free Elections Now), he showed he was not just a football star but an influential figure at all levels of society.
“There’s never been another player like Socrates in the history of Brazilian football,” enthused Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s most eminent sportswriters, in the film Ser Campeão é Detalhe – A Democracia Corinthiana (Winning Is Not Everything: The Corinthian Democracy). “I’m not saying he was the best, even at Corinthians – Rivelino was a better player – but he is the most unique player Corinthians and A Seleção have ever had.”
Socrates the revolutionary
A creative, politically aware footballer far ahead of his time, Socrates stood out from the crowd at an early age. On his arrival as a callow teenager at Botafogo, he convinced the club’s directors that he was more than capable of playing football and pursuing his medical studies, which he was determined to finish.
A player unlike any other, he proved that training at a slower pace to his team-mates would have no adverse impact on his career and that the Botafogo board made the right choice in allowing him to stay on at medical school.
Years later, with his degree safely secured, he left O Fogão a hero and signed for Corinthians, completing his meteoric rise by earning a call-up to the national side ahead of the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™.
Appointed team captain by Seleção coach Tele Santana, Socrates struck up memorable partnerships with Zico and Falcao, the trio bewildering opponents with their quick interplay – which involved many a backheel – and continuous movement. Yet despite scoring superb goals against USSR and Italy, he ended the tournament in tears, along with millions of his compatriots, following a shock second-round defeat to the Paolo Rossi-inspired Italians.
“I’ve never felt so much at a loss as I did during those 30 days,” Socrates later said, though he could console himself with the fact that he had left an indelible mark on world football as the leader of a side that conjured up a magical and joyful brand of football and which figures among the finest representatives of true Brazilian style. “It was one of the greatest sides never to win the World Cup. It was a tragedy, which has only helped to give the team its legendary status.”
Socrates the innovator
It was with that fabled side that he introduced the ideas he would later apply in breaking down some of the preconceived notions that beset Brazilian football, a task in which he was aided by the close ties he forged with other similarly strong-minded players and by the freedom Santana gave to the team.
“Even though he was a conservative, Santana was the most democratic coach I ever worked with,” Socrates once said in an interview with ESPN Magazine. “He never imposed a line-up on you or a style of play. He let the team shape itself.”
At Corinthians, and in conjunction with his team-mates Casagrande, Zenon and Wladimir, he used the same ground-breaking philosophy to create a system whereby club employees and players had a say in matters such as training times and flights and even forced an end to pre-match team get-togethers, all with the consent of the Corinthians board.
“We were a group of people who thought differently, who didn’t agree with the accepted way of doing things,” he once said. “Even so, we never felt that we could start a revolution. Everyone had an equal vote at that time. The kit man and the masseur had as much say as the president, and the third-choice goalkeeper was just as important as me, the only Brazil player at the club. It was the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Between 1982 and 1984 Socrates’ Democracia Corinthiana won the Sao Paulo state title twice, though their biggest triumph was the political awareness they generated and the way in which the club’s idols took their ideas to audiences far beyond football. As an example of that, Socrates spoke at a number of rallies in support of Diretas Já, and even pledged that he would not go through with a proposed move to Fiorentina if the Corinthians board went back on the changes made at the club. The democratic ideals he helped introduced remained untouched, however, and he made the switch to Florence.
A legacy that lives on
His stay in Italy proved to be a short one. “It was a reaction to the politics of the country,” he explained. “I didn’t feel any connection whatsoever. I had a sad year there and I ended up coming home. My world is here in Brazil.”
Into his 30s when he returned, he signed for Flamengo and then Santos and returned to the World Cup stage under Santana at Mexico 1986, where he missed a penalty in the quarter-final shootout defeat to France. His legacy remained intact, however. An original, revolutionary thinker and astute with it, he held nothing back in his career and proudly carried the flag for a country he fought so hard to improve.
As his name suggests, Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira was more than just a great football star. He was, first and foremost, a great Brazilian.