* This article originally appeared in The Inquistor.
Football doesn’t have any great characters these days. The increased professionalism of the game, with its emphasis on athleticism over skill and hard running over creative intelligence, has produced a generation of footballers remarkable mostly for their pathological dullness. David Beckham? Steven Gerrard? Useful enough players I guess, but hardly likely to leave you breathless with some mesmerising bit of match day inspiration. It’s even worse when they’re off the pitch. Stick a microphone in front of them and they’ll struggle to articulate a complete sentence, let alone provide a memorable soundbite. An interview with a guy like Michael Owen leaves you with the uneasy question of whether somebody could really be that emotionally detached without being a cyborg or a closet psychopath. That’s modern footballers for you. Good at chasing around after a pig’s bladder and buying sports cars, but as dim as a bowl of porridge and just about as charismatic. The hell with modern football I say. The 70’s and 80’s were where it was at. Back then there were some real renegades. And you had some teams who could play with real style. I’ll take a coke-addled half-bonkers Argentinean midget as the best player in the world over some new fangled pampadoured designer clothes hanger any day of the week. Or how about Socrates, the chain-smokin’, beer swillin’ leftist revolutionary and anti-athlete, who was just about the coolest guy ever to kick a football.
Even amid the more individualistic football landscape of the 70’s and 80’s, Socrates stood out as something of an anomaly. The vast majority of the great Brazilian players came from a background of poverty. They were slum dwellers who played their way out of the favelas and into superstardom. But Socrates came from a relatively comfortable, well educated middle class background and was born in Belém in the distant north-eastern state of Pará – not exactly one of Brazil’s football hotbeds. He wasn’t considered a major prospect as a youth team player, and wasn’t groomed for the top from the very beginning, in the manner of today’s South American wonderkids. In fact, he didn’t even really emerge as a big name player until his mid twenties. This appeared to suit the laid back Socrates just fine. It allowed him to complete his doctorate in medicine. Yep, that’s right, Socrates studied to become a fully qualified doctor while turning out for Botafogo in the Campeanoto Brasileiro on weekends. It was only after moving to the big Sao Paulo club, Corinthians – and shortly after winning his first cap for the Brazilian national team – that Socrates really began to come into his own on the pitch.
Few major football players ever looked less suited to their profession. With his tall, gangling almost skeletal figure, shaggy unkempt hair and funky beard, Socrates might have been mistaken for a Colombian pimp, a slightly demented Vietnam vet or a bohemian poet, but never a professional sportsman. Yet he played with a grace and fluidity of movement that belied his seemingly awkward physique. Socrates was not what you would call an explosive player, but his loping, long-legged gait could cover the pitch with deceptive speed. He had that elusive quality that only the greatest players possessed, the ability to make time and space for himself on the ball amid the fracas of a match. From his preferred position slightly advanced of centre midfield, Socrates would pick out passes all over the pitch with exceptional vision. He had a lovely touch on the ball and unflappable composure. When challenged, he would simply glide out of range and pass the ball on. His was an elegant style suited to a more aesthetically pleasing era of the game, based around skill, precision and efficient movement rather than the thundering pace, lung bursting stamina and frantic closing down of space in modern football. For a player like Socrates, his brain was far more important than his body.
Football is not really a political sport in this day and age, but in previous decades, football clubs would tend to be affiliated with various political movements. Corinthians of Sao Paulo were founded by immigrant labourers and associated with the working class and Brazil’s left wing political movement. Socrates, something of a vocal activist himself, did not take the affiliation lightly. He saw the popularity of football as a catalyst for political change. Along with team mate Wladimir, Socrates co-founded the “Corinthians Democracy” ideological movement. On one level, this involved an organised player protest against the stultifying “Concentracao” culture then extant in Brazilian football, which dictated every aspect of the players’ lives, from how they conducted themselves in public to what time they had to eat lunch. Perhaps more importantly, the movement involved a protest against Brazil’s military dictatorship. In 1982, Corinthians won the Sao Paulo state championship with the word “Democracia” printed on their shirts, described by Socrates as: “Perhaps the most perfect moment I ever lived. And I’m sure it was for 95 percent of the others too.” Today, Corinthians Democracy is heralded in Brazil as an important and influential part of the wider popular movement that eventually brought down the dictatorship.
Brazil in the 1982 World Cup
The defining moment for Socrates on the world stage – and one of the most brilliant passages in the glorious history of Brazilian football – was the 1982 World Cup, held in Spain. Brazil did not manage to win the tournament. In fact, they did not make it to the semi-finals. A rather less talented Italian team went on to pick up the trophy. Brazil of ’82 are nonetheless widely regarded as one of the very best football teams in history and the best international side (along with Hungary in 1954 and Holland in 1974) to never win the World Cup. In some sense, the team’s ultimate failure actually enhances their legend. They went down but remained true to a unifying principle: that football is something more than mere sport. It’s also a form of aesthetic expression. As Socrates himself explains:
“That Brazilian team represented fantasy, idealism, an idyll. Italy represented efficiency, effectiveness. But at least we lost fighting for our ideals. And you can compare that to society today. We have lost touch with humanity, people are driven by results. They used to go to football to see a spectacle. Now, with very few exceptions, they go to watch a war and what matters is who wins. For me beauty comes first, victory is secondary and what really matters is joy!”
Then, as is very much the case now, football is largely a defensive game. A team’s first priority is not to score goals, but to prevent the opposition from scoring goals. The same lesson is drummed into young footballers time and time again: the fewer risks you take, the greater the overall chance of victory. Hence, football becomes less of a spectacle of entertainment and more of a 90 minute grind to an inevitable result. Players who can overpower the opposition through superior strength, stamina and speed are emphasised over players in possession of individualistic brilliance. The enthralling but risky dribbles, tricks and feints that separate football from lesser sports and elevate it to the level of exuberant spectacle, are discouraged in favour of brute force. Football is becoming just another athletic competition, rather than – in its finest expression – a thrilling game of imagination and skill.
But Brazil in 1982 saw things rather differently. The philosophy of team coach and football mastermind, Tele Santana became known as “jogo bonito” (beautiful game). Rather than being forced to adhere strictly to a rigid tactical formation, each player would be given free scope to express himself on the pitch. The emphasis was firmly on free flowing, cavalier attacking football. Collectively, the team would dazzle the opposition with an intricate, pinpoint passing game. Heedless chasing after the ball was actively discouraged. Precision and skill would be the order of the day. Players were strictly forbidden from engaging in reckless challenges and cynical acts of gamesmanship. The players would take confidence in their superior abilities and actively attack the opposition. They would triumph not through caution and rigorous tactical discipline, but by simply playing the pants off everybody they came up against. It was an adventurous, idealised conception of the game, and an enthrilling, mesmerising spectacle to watch.
Brazil had such an unusual and exciting team in 1982 that it’s worth looking at the first eleven in some depth. For all of its prodigious talent and wonderfully imaginative play, there’s no escaping the fact that Brazil were carrying a few fatal flaws. The goalkeeper, Valdir Peres, was average at best. Brazilian football culture has traditionally maligned the keeper, who is seen more as an instrument of divine providence than an actual football player. To your average Brazilian, its superstition rather than ability that governs a keepers success or failure. For this reason, Brazil has rarely had a strong and reliable goalkeeper, with Peres being no exception. The centre backs, Oscar and Luisinho, were both comfortable on the ball, but hardly world class when it came to their defensive capabilities. They tended to engage in more ball juggling than was strictly necessary, and could get caught out by swift counter attacks. And Serginho, the centre forward, did not really fit into the team’s style of play. He could be a very effective striker on his day, but he wasn’t especially skilful for a Brazilian. He was more of a big, battering ram type of player, who tried to unsettle opposition defenders with rough play and dirty tricks. Tele Santana didn’t really approve of this kind of game. In fact, he much preferred Careca as his first choice striker – young, fast, dashing and skilful – with lethal finishing power. But Careca suffered an injury on the eve of the tournament and had to pull out of the squad.
As always, Brazil had exceptional fullbacks: Junior and Leandro. Junior, in particular, was a super talented offensive weapon who deserves better recognition than he gets these days. Eder, the left wing forward, was unusual for a flanking player in that he was not especially fast. But he did have exceptional close control and a powerful physique, which made him a tricky customer for opposition defenders to deal with. He was capable of occasional moments of outrageous brilliance. He was not a prolific scorer in the mode of previous Brazilian wingers such as Garrincha and Jairzinho, but he had an absolute canon of a left footed shot and tended to fire home spectacular long range goals at opportune moments.
Brazil’s real brilliance was in the midfield quartet – probably the greatest midfield of any team in history. Most modern teams will assign two or even three midfield players to defensive duties. In Brazil of ’82, all four midfielders were orientated towards attack. Toninho Cerezo was the most energetic and combative, and would handle more of the running and ball winning. Falcao was the masterful midfield general with his unerring positional sense and magnificent passing range. He could hang back and function as the “quarterback” – dictating the play from deep on the pitch – or boldly stride forward and join in the attack.
And of course there was Socrates, Brazil’s captain and spiritual leader. The intellectual, eloquently spoken midfield creative force, who appeared to sum up the team’s emphasis on imagination, aesthetics and intelligence over brute, functional athleticism. Socrates loped around the midfield with cool, collected purpose, caressing the ball with his feet. He always seemed capable of fashioning opportunities. His trademark became his cheeky back-heeled passes. Pele remarked that Socrates played better backwards than most players did forwards.
In the actual tournament, Brazil did not so much beat opposition teams as awe them into submission. Nobody seemed to have an answer for their fluidly improvised play, in which players would freely turn up unlooked for in attacking positions to dish out beautiful punishment. The quality of the passing play, in which each player appeared to have an instinctive understanding of the perfect position to run into or play the ball, was mesmerising, at a level never before seen. It was like watching football supermen from another planet skip, dance and dribble their way through and around their lumbering, earthbound counterparts.
In their first game, Brazil came back from a goal down to beat a tough, highly fancied Soviet Union side. Socrates scored the equalising goal, one of the tournament’s best, beating a defender and then evading another before lashing home from long range. The results kept coming, each more impressive than the last. 4 – 1 against Scotland. 4 – 0 against New Zealand. Brazil qualified from the first round at the top their group, with three victories.
In 1982, the group stage qualifying teams were placed in a second stage group of 3 teams a piece, with the winners of each group going through to the semi-finals. Brazil were up against the winners of the 1978 World Cup, Argentina, featuring a highly lauded young player by the name of Maradona, who would go on to become perhaps the greatest footballer in history. Brazil ripped the world champions apart in a dazzling display of football acumen. The 3 – 1 score line flattered the defending champions. Brazil were simply on another level. By now it was virtually written in stone that they would go on to win the World Cup.
Brazil went into the deciding group match with Italy, requiring only a draw to qualify for the semi-finals. Common wisdom would have it that any team in this position would play it safe, put men behind the ball and secure the road to the final stages with a combination of caution and resilience. But this Brazil side were not like any other team. They threw caution to the wind and carried on with the very same style of swashbuckling, balls out attacking football they had employed throughout the rest of the tournament. They would win the game in grand style or not at all.
Italy did not look like having much of a chance against Brazil. Although they had very good players, Italy had limped through the first group stage with three straight draws. They had narrowly beaten Argentina in the second group stage. They had only managed to score 4 goals (with 3 conceded) in 4 games, with Brazil having scored an incredible 13 (with 3 conceded) in the same number of matches. Italy’s main striker, Paolo Rossi, had just returned from a two year ban for being involved in a betting scandal, and had not looked like scoring for the entire tournament up until that point.
In truth, however, Brazil underestimated the tactical and defensive resiliency of the Italians, who were slowly beginning to build a momentum. They did not have the impudent individual brilliance of Brazil, but they had several world class players and were very capable. They could soak up pressure and then counter attack swiftly and effectively. Disaster struck in the fifth minute of the game, when Paolo Rossi capitalised on a moment of confusion in the Brazilian defence to score from outside the area. Rossi was not the most technically skilled striker around – he wasn’t even particularly fast or strong – but he was a super savvy operator and lived to prey on the sort of defensive errors a team like Brazil were prone to commit.
But in the 25th minute, Italy suddenly managed to put a cross into the penalty box. Keeper Valdir Peres was always weak at dealing with high balls. He flapped uselessly as Rossi stooped in and headed home his second goal. Italy were once again in the lead.
At this point, the match was there for Brazil to take home. Again, they only needed the draw to top the group and go through to the semi-finals. Most coaches would take the opportunity to substitute an attacking player for a more defensive one at this point, instructing his team to camp out in their own half for the rest of the match. This just wasn’t the way Tele Santana wanted to play the game, however. No substitutions were made, and Brazil continued to pour forward in waves, attempting to win the match. But they were also getting tired, and the fatigue made them increasingly careless. With 25 minutes remaining, Paolo Rossi got on the end of another counter attack to complete his hat trick. It was the last goal of the match. Brazil had been bested by Italy three goals to two in what was one of the greatest World Cup matches in history.
It was a crushing blow for Brazil. They had played some of the most scintillatingly brilliant football the world had ever seen, winning the affections of football fans across the globe, only to crash out. The result sent shockwaves through the sport. Such was Brazil’s creative brilliance, people felt they were somehow ordained to win the World Cup by divine right. The rest of the World Cup, deprived of its greatest entertainers, was an anti-climax. Italy went on to win the tournament, having already triumphed over their most formidable opponents.
Brazilian football would never be quite the same again. Although Brazil continues to produce excellent footballers in greater numbers than any other nation, much of the magic has gone. These days Brazil play pretty much like everybody else – using defensive tactics and superior athleticism to edge out their opponents. Brazil of ’82 were the last team to value skill, flair and imagination over everything else, including even victory. Brazil would go on to win the World Cup on two further occasions, in 1994 and 2002, but they lacked the fantasy of the great Brazilian teams of old. Most Brazilians prefer the magical losers of ’82 to the more prosaic winners of ’94 and ‘o2. It was a team that best represented the Brazilian attitude of life as playful, creative expression, rather than as a laboured ordeal for success.
Brazil vowed to come back and win the World Cup in 1986, but by that time, the magic had already gone. Many of the same players returned, along with coach Tele Santana, but age and malaise had set in. Brazil performed to a decent standard, but it was nothing like the superlative displays of just four years earlier. Socrates, with his love for beer and cigarettes, was really starting to slow down by this point, but nonetheless emerged as perhaps the team’s best overall player. His clever promptings from midfield were at the heart of everything good that Brazil did. But it wasn’t enough. Brazil were eliminated in the quarter-finals at the hands of a talented French side, featuring the great Michel Platini. It would be the last international match Socrates would play. He had won 60 caps, scored 22 goals and notched up countless assists for Brazil – an exceptional international record.
Prior to the ’86 World Cup, Socrates had finally left his beloved Corinthians to seek out the fame and riches then on offer for South American players in Italy’s Serie A – probably the best domestic football league in the world at that time. Socrates never really settled in at his new club, Fiorentina, however. In the ultra professional standards of Italian football, with its strict dietary and training regimes, there wasn’t really a place for laid back character like Socrates, with his pack-a-day smoking habit and enthusiastic consumption of cold beer. He enjoyed a reasonable enough stint at Fiorentina, but returned to Brazil after just the one season, pottering around for a series of clubs before finally hanging it up in 1989.
These days Socrates can be found mooching around his favourite bars and haunts in his hometown of Ribeirao Preto, where he carries on a sports medicine practise. He’s said to be a down to earth guy who will readily engage anybody and everybody in conversation. He rejects the ambassadorial role currently played at by former footballers in Brazil such as Pele, describing it as involving “commercialism and all that rubbish”.