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Monday 20 January 2020

Socrates: hard-living football philosopher

The hard-drinking, chain-smoking Brazilian football legend Socrates, who has died at the age of 57, is remembered for scoring one of the most glorious goals ever to grace a World Cup final.

Captaining his country against the USSR in Spain in 1982, he picked up the ball 40m out, waltzed past two defenders and launched a screamer into the top corner.

It was a strike typical of his swashbuckling, free-scoring style. Socrates was the star of a gifted Brazil team that played the beautiful game with a poetic motion and swagger to rival that of Pele's 1970 heroes, demolishing Ireland 7-0 in a May 1982 warm-up.

Sadly, swagger was to be their downfall. They met Italy, needing just a draw to progress, but shutting up shop wasn't their style. Socrates scored another fine goal, but, casual to a fault, Brazil were mugged by Italy's predator Paolo Rossi who bagged a hat-trick in a shock 3-2 win.

Last year, Time selected that match as the greatest ever seen, but Socrates had to live with constant reminders that he'd led arguably the greatest team ever not to win a World Cup. A far inferior Brazil, featuring his brother Rai, lifted the trophy in 1994.

Born Socrates de Oliveira in 1954, he exhibited mercurial footballing skills and a fierce intelligence from childhood. Aged 20 he joined Botafogo, a small club with a pedigree of producing big players, before moving to Corinthians and starting his trophy collection.

Playing for Botafogo, he qualified as a medical doctor in the club's home municipality of Ribeirao Preto, where he lived and practised medicine after his playing days.

While his residence in Brazil in those years is well documented, Socrates became the focus of a bizarre urban myth that persists today. It insists that he studied medicine at Dublin's Royal College of Surgeons and played for UCD reserves in the late 1970s. Outlandish embellishments include alleged sightings of him demonstrating keepy-uppy at Dublin's St Patrick's Parade, and playing for a Gaelic football team.

The myth first entered print around the 1986 World Cup, when Socrates again hit the limelight, and it grew legs as a quirky staple of table quizzes, eventually reaching Beijing where, in 2006, the China Daily described him as "an alumni of the College of Surgeons in Dublin".

The Chinese could hardly be blamed. In 2000, in response to an inquiry from The Guardian, the late Brendan McKenna, an ex-FAI press officer, confirmed Socrates had played for UCD. In 2002, The Guardian firmed up the yarn by reporting that Socrates had quit UCD rather than quit smoking as his manager demanded.

In 2009, Socrates told an Irish journalist that he had never set foot in Ireland, but the myth is still alive and kicking in cyberspace. Paying tribute this week, Socrates's old nemesis, Paolo Rossi, noted that the Brazilian "seemed like a player from another era", and it was vices shunned by most of today's footballers that hurried him to his premature end.

While playing he was a heavy smoker, and in retirement his already heavy drinking accelerated. He died of septic shock linked to digestive problems caused by drink. In September, medics urged him to seek a liver transplant after he was hospitalised with liver damage.

In 1984, he signed to the Italian side Fiorentina, at a time when the top Italian clubs were waging war on the old football culture of rich food, good wine and late nights. The new fitness regime sweeping Serie A came as a shock to his system, and he fled home after one season.

He later reflected: "The way of life is so correct and organised in Europe. It's not like that in Brazil. With Fiorentina, sometimes I didn't want to train, but to hang out with friends, party, or have a smoke. There's more to life than football."

His world view far exceeded the dimensions of a football pitch. Despite Corinthians lifting three league titles in the early 1980s, he founded a democracy movement in the club demanding an input of player power at management level.

In 1982, he got into the riskier business of defying Brazil's military dictatorship who'd ruled since a coup in 1964, taunting their critics with the slogan: "Brazil -- Love It Or Leave It". Socrates persuaded his teammates to wear shirts bearing the pro-democracy message, "I want to vote for my president". The junta fell in 1985.

Socrates once listed his heroes as Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and John Lennon, and after retiring from football in 1989 he became an in-demand and impassioned writer on politics and economics as well as sport.

This week, Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, said the nation had lost "one of its most cherished sons".

She added: "On the field, with his talent and sophisticated touches, he was a genius. Off the field he was active politically, concerned with his people and his country."

Aged 50, in 2004, his maverick life took another strange twist when he joined non-league Leeds club Garforth Town for one month for no pay. He played just 10 minutes, but the coach said the lift he gave Garforth propelled them to promotion.

In the words of one admirer this week: "He was the apex of cool."

Socrates de Oliveira. February 19, 1954-December 4, 2011. Survived by his wife and six sons

Damian Corless

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