Doctor Socrates: The Footballing Legend Who Fought For Democracy in Brazil
As I put the finishing touches to Doctor Socrates; Footballer, Philosopher, Legend I spent some time trying to come up with other players to compare the great man to.
It was tough because Sócrates had three very distinct identities, all of which defined him.
The man that most football fans know was the captain of the 1982 Brazil side, the bearded genius who strutted nonchalantly about the middle of the park while everyone else scurried around like their lives depended on it. He led the greatest Brazil side never to win the World Cup with an unchallenged authority. He was Bobby Moore, or Billy McNeil, never screaming, never shaking his fist, but always there when his team mates needed him.
Off the field, he was a hedonist, a man whose early introduction to cigarettes and booze turned into a lifelong love affair. Even though he was a trained doctor, he liked nothing more than sitting in the sun with his pals to drink and laugh and debate over an endless supply of ice cold beer. He married four times and fathered six children before dying at the tragically young age of 57, his liver finally giving way after years of abuse. He was a Brazilian George Best.
The most remarkable thing about Sócrates, however, was that he was a world class footballer who was more important for his politics than for his passes. And it was here that I struggled to find anyone who came close to achieving his level of greatness. Footballers rarely have anything intelligent to say about matters that don’t involve football, even though some of them are clearly smarter than others. Eric Cantona has a well-known love of art and culture; Pat Nevin is well known for his erudite chat on music and literature; and even Joey Barton can articulate a decent argument on social issues.
But Sócrates went far beyond all of them and played a key role in helping Brazil move from dictatorship to democracy. He transcended football and became a hero to millions for his progressive stance on the pressing political issues of the day.
That process began in the 1980s at Corinthians, where Sócrates helped start Corinthians Democracy, the most revolutionary player power movement ever to hit a major football team. Corinthians Democracy gave each player a voice in the running of São Paulo’s biggest club. Players, and it didn’t matter if you were the Brazil captain or the reserve left-back, got the same vote, as did the kit man, the physio and the Director of Football. They decided how long to train each day, whether to stop the coach for a toilet break on the way home from away games, and even who to sign. It would have been controversial at any time but it was truly revolutionary in a nation that had been living under military rule for almost 20 years. The dictators didn’t like him urging people to vote in local elections or arguing for better schools and hospitals for the poor. But by challenging the generals and talking of democracy, freedom of speech and representation he was introducing those concepts to generations of his countrymen who had known only repression.
He was different in other ways too. He turned down millions from the Middle East because "money doesn’t make you happy." He rejected a deal with AS Roma because they wouldn’t allow him to sleep in his own bed the night before games. And he famously addressed more than 1 million people at a political rally in São Paulo and told them that if Brazil’s parliament voted to allow a free and fair election for president he forego a life-changing offer from Italy and stay in Brazil to help with the transition to democracy.
That integrity made Sócrates the stand out footballer not just of his generation but of any generation. In short, there was no one like him. He may have been part Moore and part Best, but he was all Sócrates.