So Long, Socrates, the Da Vinci of Brazilian Soccer

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Bob Thomas / Getty Images

Brazil's Socrates out-runs USSR's Tengiz Sulakvelidze for the ball during the World Cup in Seville, Spain, June 14, 1982.

“Football is freedom,” Bob Marley once said, and the legendary Jamaican musician — like all of the African Diaspora and the Global South in general — claimed Brazil as his own proxy representative at soccer’s World Cup. No player better epitomized Marley’s idea, both on and off the field, than did Socrates. The visionary midfielder who served as captain and orchestrator of the last Brazilian team to embody their country’s “joga bonito” (“beautiful game”) philosophy of free-flowing attacking football, confident that they could always score more than the goals they’d ship through defensive lapses, died on Sunday morning at age 57 – the fact that food poisoning took him in the end seems so absurd it might have made him laugh. He laughed easily, this man of the people, hailed by President Dilma Roussef as one of Brazil’s most cherished sons. Socrates had distinguished himself not only by demonstrating unique abilities on the field; like Roussef, he had accepted the obligation of citizenship to fight for democracy against Brazil’s military dictatorship. And his relentless pro-democracy stand confounded the generals’ efforts to use football – “futebol” – to distract Brazilians from thinking about their rights.

“On the field with his talent and sophisticated touches, he was a genius,” said Roussef. “Off the field, he was active politically, concerned with his people and his country.”

Flash back, courtesy of YouTube, to a moment in the 1982 World Cup, played in Spain. Socrates (full name: Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira) seems to have all the time in the world, as he languidly sidesteps the challenge of a sliding Soviet defender. Time stops — or, more correctly, the Brazilian captain seems to stop time, rolling the ball onto his right foot. His team is 1-0 down, struggling to break down a disciplined Soviet defense; the maestro takes charge. Will he pass it out to the right, switch it back to the left, pick out the deadly Falcao for the give and go? Thirty yards away, waits the best goalkeeper in the world, Rinat Dasaev — and between him and Brazil’s captain, a sea of Soviet defenders. The TV cameraman doesn’t think a shot is on; the goal itself is out of his frame, he’s waiting for the pass. So is Dasaev. Too late. In the stillness of that moment, Socrates has made a pathway for a vicious right-footed shot into the top left corner of the goal.

For many, that spectacular strike was the goal of the 1982 World Cup, when Socrates and the ensemble of artists he led gave the world its last glimpse of a Brazilian team playing “Joga Bonito” — today that’s little more than an advertising slogan; Brazil plays as negatively and defensively as the Italians who dumped them out of the ’82 tournament. Together with Zico, Falcao and Cerezo in the finest attacking midfield ever assembled (although no coach today would dare play more than one such free-spirit in today’s over-organized and defensive version of the game), Socrates embodied art and poetry in a game now based more on science and engineering. Their outrageous first-time passing, flicks and back-heels and swarming movement gave the impression of a bunch of really talented guys kicking a ball around on the beach. But they were thrashing the world’s best drilled defenses. And orchestrating it all, the long-limbed skipper who scarcely seemed to bend his skinny six-four frame and rarely seemed to break a sweat, his passing and vision bringing out the best in all of those around him — and leading by example.

My own favorite goal of that tournament came after Brazil had, through a schoolboy defensive error borne of giddy attacking exuberance, gone a goal down to Italy, the most defensively accomplished team in the world. No matter. Brazil could always score more. Socrates picks up the ball in his own half and advances into the Italian half. A thirty yard pass finds the left foot of the sublimely gifted Zico, who can feel the Italian hard man Gentile breathing down his neck. But Zico is the foil. He holds the ball, back-heels and turns, giving himself a half yard of space through which to thread the ball into the path of Socrates’ run. The captain’s languid, gamine stride belies his pace. He’s through, in the Italian area, stretching the defense out wide. Still, the Italians imagine, with no sight of goal, he’ll have to cross. But Socrates has spotted a gap, and lashes the ball inside of Italian keeper Dino Zoff from an acute angle. A goal for the gallery of all-time greats, precisely because the defense appeared to have had all the angles covered.

Socrates may not have been as individually skilled as Zico, but it was his intelligence – and ability, using only the ball and his runs, to make the whole team execute his vision – that made Socrates unique. That, and his persona off the field: There was no dividing line for Socrates between being a footballer and being a citizen. He studied medicine during the first years of his professional career at the Sao Paulo club Corinthians, and graduated. Later, when his playing days were done, he completed a Ph.D in philosophy.

The Brazil in which he came of age was ruled by a U.S.-backed military dictatorship, and the generals had viewed football as a useful outlet for popular frustration — you may not have freedom of speech or to choose your government, but look, Pele’s winning us the world cup! The junta had invested heavily in the success of the 1970 team in which Pele starred, and it expected footballers to keep the citizenry’s mind off politics. Socrates was having none of it: At Corinthians he helped found a democracy movement among the players, that challenged authoritarian practices inside the game, but urged the Brazilian people to demand the same. They wore shirts emblazoned with the word “Democracia” where a sponsor’s logo would typically be, ran the team on a democratic basis — and publicized the fact, the fact that they became a championship team underscoring the power of their message. President Lula Da Silva, then a trade unionist and democracy activist, became a good friend and collaborator of Socrates.

Almost unthinkably for today’s Brazilian stars, who mostly ply their professional trade in Europe’s elite leagues, aside from one season in Italy Socrates spent his entire playing career in Brazil. And afterwards, he became an active public intellectual, weighing in as a newspaper columnist and TV pundit on issues ranging from the composition of the national team to racism and the economy.

He loved life; loved to drink and smoke, which brought on the illness that killed him – he’d been hospitalized, previously, with liver complaints caused by drinking. Socrates lived the values of the common people in Brazil, and spoke up for them from beginning to end of his career.

“If people don’t have power to say things, then I can say it on their behalf,” he told the BBC last year. “I got to meet people who suffered a lot and also those on the other side of society, who had everything, so I could see both sides of the society we live in.”

Socrates never won the World Cup, yet he and his team, for the beauty they created, are far more fondly remembered than the Italian side that beat them and went on to win the title in ’82. He did, however, live to see his people shake off the yoke of dictatorship and turn Brazil into a dynamic democracy whose people could elect a government that would make the economy work for them. And he also got his dying wish, having once told an interviewer that he wanted to die on a Sunday when Corinthians won the league title. They did, hours after news broke of Doctor Socrates’ passing. And tears flowed freely among Brazilians, and the world’s football cognoscenti; tears less of grief than of gratitude for the gift of the life he had lived.