Romance, grace and football | by Mark Espin

by Mar 15, 2012Magazine

socratesWhen people write about football they often employ a series of overstated adjectives and nauseating hyperbole. The death of Sampaio de Sousa Vieira de Oliveira in December last year required that football writers be much more careful about their use of language when assessing his life and career. More commonly known as Socrates, he was the captain of what is regarded as the best national team never to win the World Cup. The 1982 Brazil team, with Socrates, Falcảo, Cerezo and Zico in the centre of the park, were sublime when they were in possession of the ball, but were largely inept in defence. The fact that star striker Serginho was completely out of sorts throughout the tournament did not help matters either. An attacking central midfielder who strode around the field with a languid grace, Socrates made 60 appearances for Brazil from 1979 to 1986. His younger brother, Rai, was the captain of the squad which went on to win the World Cup in 1994. He was not chosen to play in the final, though, and the team that day was captained by Carlos Dunga.
Socrates was a qualified medical doctor, acquiring this qualification while playing as a professional footballer, and after retiring from football he ran a medical practice in his native São Paulo. He contributed regular articles to newspapers and magazines on subjects ranging from politics to sport. Before each national game he would stand in the team line-up for the national anthems with a sweatband bearing a slogan proclaiming non-violence. He died having suffered from an intestinal infection, but it is widely believed that his death was attributed to his apparent heavy drinking. He had always demonstrated leftist political sympathies throughout his life, and while a player at the Corinthians club he helped institute the Corinthians Democracy movement which aimed at applying clear democratic principles in all aspects of the club’s activities. This movement was also a sign of protest against the ruling military junta, but it failed ultimately when the bourgeois class who held shares in the club brought a halt to it. Socrates, who had threatened to leave the club if this happened, followed through on his promise and spent one year playing at Fiorentina in Italy. He smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol throughout his playing career and contended that this never had a negative effect on his performances on the field. He did admit too that he was too thin to be a footballer and that he never ran for the ball if he did not need to and hardly tackled opponents at all. Socrates was a keen supporter of the parliamentary democracy which Brazil has experienced in the last few years and expressed an admiration for the work that former president Lula da Silva had done.
In contrast, though, he was a fierce critic of football in his country and decried what he termed the cautious and conservative approach that the national team coaches had begun to take in recent years. He was working on a fictional account related to the 2014 World Cup tournament before he died. At a time when football is beset by corruption, greed and cynicism, Socrates is a most exemplary symbol of the more rewarding qualities that can still be found in the game.
Mark Espin is a lecturer at the English department of UWC, a published poet and soccer enthusiast.
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