Socrates, R.I.P.

I read with sadness about the recent passing of Brazilian soccer legend Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio Vieira de Oliveira. Or, Socrates for short.

He has been adequately eulogized already (a decent one can be found here) and I’ve had difficulty for the last couple of weeks gathering my thoughts to celebrate his life.

For one thing, I’m quite certain I’ve already written at some length about him (either on this blog or in an e-mail thread, likely the latter) but I can’t find it. Very annoying.

So: I’ll simply say that it was a combination of this player’s exquisite and alluring play and simple random chance that turned a young soccer fanatic on to the glory of joga bonito.

Back in the great old days of the late ’70s there was a weekly TV show called “Soccer Made in Germany” (check out some vintage footage including commentary by the suave Toby Charles and the epic theme song here).

I seem to recall you could get a free trial subscription to a neat little magazine called “The Globe Kicker” (check it), and all you had to do was sign up over and over to get it free, forever. The little magazine would feature certain players each issue, and I suspect I’m not the only American who developed an otherwise inexplicable affinity for German and South American soccer players, especially the ones that played in the Bundesliga (the league covered by Soccer Made in Germany…get it?).

Anyway, in one of these I saw a two-page overview of one of the game’s rock stars: Socrates. As a ten year old, I naturally had no idea who the philosopher was and yes, I did think it was pronounced So-crates. This, since I already had grown up idolozing his countryman Edson Arantes do Nascimento (also known as Pele), made me a default fan of both the German and Brazilian national teams. I only regret I was not able to tape action from the ’82 World Cup (pound for pound the best action to my memory) and that I was stupid enough to discard my taped coverage of the ’86 action (but then, I had a Betamax). Fortunately, that is what YouTube is for:

By ’86 I was certain Brazil was going to win the Cup (and I know I was not alone). Aside from Socrates the team had the mighty Zico and the team was an offensive powerhouse. They just overwhelmed teams. Of course, just like in all sports, especially college basketball come March Madness, it’s not always the quickest and prettiest teams that succeed; in fact, those teams usually have a crucial weakness that gets exposed. In any event, when it came to penalty kicks –which it never should have and is always a bad sign in World Cup matches– I happened to be on my shift as a bus-boy (having just turned 16 and upgrading myself from cashier at Church’s Fried Chicken to waitress-ogling, tips-making flunky –far and away one of the best and most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had), and I conveniently pretended to attend to important business in the bar as the action unfolded on the projection screen TV.

When Socrates, who was always cool to the point of nonchalance and graceful as a figure skater on the pitch, strolled up to take the first kick for Brazil it was a statement: this is an automatic. When he missed, it was not only shocking, it could be argued that Brazil’s ploy backfired and instead of psyching out France, they inadvertantly spooked themselves. (’86 turned out to be a festival of disillusionment for me as a sports fan: less than a month earlier Len Bias died and less than four months later the Red Sox would do the unthinkable.) This was a soccer equivalent of finding out there was no Santa Claus, or worse, that God was French.

Many years later when much a much less exciting (and necessarily conservative; they learnt their lesson) Brazil team won it all, it was decidedly bittersweet. The team(s) that should have won didn’t. Worse, we had to see Italy and then Argentina win. And if you think I remain salty, just mention Maradonna and the “Hand of God” goal to an England fan…

So what did I like so much about him? Well, you have to be a soccer (i.e., football) fan to understand in the first place. You also probably had to be young and in love with the game. As a soccer freak, I was consistently at awe with how he managed the field. As I got older and understood he got his nickname because of his inconceivable temerity to actually read books, he became a hero on an entirely other level. He also was a chainsmoker. Suffice it to say, those were different days, my friends. More, he was a big drinker. Not celebrating this (indeed, the smoking and drinking undoubtedly led indirectly, if not directly, to his awfully premature death), but just putting it out there: the man knew how to live on and off the field. Oh, did I mention that he actually became a doctor after his playing days? Or that he was very progressive politically? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this motherfucker rocked the beard.

That shirt above is indeed mine and I wear it sparingly with pride and humility. Now I will wear it with an added touch of honor and sadness. Another one of the great ones has left our playing field.

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