Doctor Socrates: More than a playmaker

Brazil playmaker

Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend.

As the above title of the wondrously insightful new book on his colourful life indicates, Socrates was many thing to many people: a footballer; a philosopher; a legend. But a fantasista?

The brilliant Brazilian certainly exuded fantasy, but whilst his style and positioning on the pitch still defies specific classification, his bohemian free-spiritedness, creativity and penchant for the beautiful game was definitely in line with a classic number 10, as was his technical excellence and goalscoring capability.

It’s a delightful coincidence, then, that the book’s Forward has been done by another symbol of the beautiful game who defies classification – and perhaps the greatest who does – Johan Cruyff. It’s also sadly ironic that like the book’s subject, Cruyff is also no longer with us; taken away far too young, with so much still left to give the world of football.

In the book Cruyff laments never having sat with Socrates to discuss football and life. He agreed with Socrates’ view that football changed (for the worse) when the excellent Brazilian side were eliminated by the ‘defenders’ of Italy during the 1982 World Cup, perhaps seeing similarities with his own plight as part of the Dutch ‘74 side – another team widely regarded as the best never to win the World Cup. If ever there were dream dinner party guests to talk football with, these two would surely have made most people’s list.

For Socrates’ view, on life as well as football, we’ll now have to make do with Andrew Downie’s wonderful biography, and that’s no bad thing. It’s the closest anyone can now get to Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira (to give him his full name), who died in 2011, due to the access Downie had to the cult footballer’s personal notes.

Indeed, Downie, who now works for the Reuters agency, was originally due to translate a book Socrates had written before he passed. It was a mixture of philosophy, memoir and cultural/historical essays, but lacked in the one thing he was best known for – football.

The pair agreed that more on his sporting life needed to be added but Socrates, in true bohemian fashion, disappeared for 12 months…and then forever. With the help of former teammates, family and friends, Downie decided to continue on and complete the book befitting the legend.

The result is this truly fascinating read.

How could it not be when the subject was the true stereotype of an imagined playmaker – a caricature brought to life, with his headband, dark curly hair, cool, languid gait and love for cigarettes and alcohol. That’s before we even get to his one-step penalty kicks and affection for a backheel (he was once nearly sent off early in his career for stopping on the goalline and scoring with his heel – an act of unsporting humiliation according to the referee – in a match for Botafogo Juniors against Batatais, before his captain convinced the official that that was just Socrates’ way).

He was an unconventional player who led an unconventional life. Not a lover of running, he once asked Fiorentina staff “Why do I have to run up hills? I want to run with the ball.” Whilst smoking up to 40 cigarettes a day at his peak, at half-time of matches Socrates would run to the toilets to feed his addiction.

Socrates’ own father convinced him to concentrate on being a footballer rather than becoming a doctor – parental advice which seems unfathomable to many – because he could study afterwards. Later, Socrates would win the right to train on his own at nights so he could study for his degree, but admitted he’d sometimes run just one lap then meet his friends to enjoy a beer.

His infamous parts as leader of the Corinthians Democracy and as midfield partner to Zico in Brazil’s exciting 1982 World Cup campaign are all recounted, plus many other eclectic tales about The Doctor.

“I was in Florence for a year with Fiorentina and sometimes I didn’t want to train, but to hang out with friends, party or have a smoke,” Socrates once said.

“There’s more to life than football.” This book, thanks to Downie, explores it all.

‘Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend’ by Andrew Downie and published by Simon and Schuster UK is available to buy now.

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