Remembering Socrates (1954-2011)

Brazilian Socrates

One of the fun aspects of sports is nostalgia, those times when we recall the greats of yesteryear as they were in their primes. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes the obituaries of those luminaries to jar our memories.

An item of shockingly sad news from the soccer world recently was the Dec. 4 death of Brazilian soccer great Socrates at the tender age of 57. Septic shock resulting from an intestinal infection was given as the cause of Socrates’s death. But to those who followed his career, his early demise doesn’t come as a complete surprise, unfortunately, as the former player was known to smoke and drink, reportedly spoke of liver problems and had been hospitalized three times in the past four months.

Doctor Socrates a popular and beloved figure

Despite any excesses Socrates might have had in the greater game of life, he was one of the most respected and adored players to ever step on a soccer field. He also gained respect off the field by earning a medical degree at age 24 — a rarity for soccer players in any nation — and by speaking out against the military government that ruled Brazil during much of his career. As a sign of respect, Socrates often was referred to as “Doctor” by fans and commentators.

A great generation of Brazilian stars

Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira — but known by a single name in the sporting tradition of his country — belonged to a generation of Brazilian soccer stars that included Zico, Paulo Roberto Falcao, Junior, Oscar, Edinho, Toninho Cerezo and Eder. His glorious career also overlapped those of Careca and the late Dirceu.

Soccer greatness ran in Socrates’s family, too, as younger brother Rai went on to captain Brazil at the 1994 World Cup (Rai was unceremoniously benched in the middle of that tournament, however, as Brazil went on to win the Cup with Dunga wearing the captain’s armband).

Elegant, intellectual and cool

Soccer fans of the Baby Boomer and older generations might recall the class that Socrates brought to the field. A tall (6-foot-4) player with a lanky build (he also was sometimes known as “Big Skinny”), the attacking midfielder played with an elegance all his own. He was a prolific scorer and a great passer, the back-heel pass being his signature move. An intellectual player with great vision and the ability to play with both feet, he often wore headbands and earned the distinction as one of the coolest players of his time. Sporting long hair and a beard, he often looked the part of a pop music star, an actor in a Biblical movie or the Greek philosopher whose name he bore, thus enhancing his uniqueness.

One of the greatest teams to not win the World Cup

The 1982 and 1986 World Cups under the late coach Tele Santana are recalled well here. Socrates served as captain of the 1982 squad that went down in history as one of the greatest to NOT win the World Cup. Some pundits argue it was the last of the Brazil squads to play jogo bonito, or the “beautiful game” for which Brazilian soccer became famous. Brazil got eliminated after losing to eventual champion Italy, a game in which Socrates scored from a sharp angle in a 3-2 defeat.

A match for the ages

Socrates also had a part in some memorable scenes from Mexico 1986, heading home a goal against Spain with Junior jumping on his shoulders to celebrate. And the quarterfinal match against France was an all-time classic. True, Brazil lost in a shootout, with Socrates missing one of the penalties. But the great French captain, Michel Platini, also missed his shot. And Zico earlier had missed a penalty kick awarded during the run of play. All in all, though, it was a game for the ages pitting two great squads featuring some of the top players of their time, pretty much the 1986 World Cup in a nutshell, as the remainder of that tournament was largely ho-hum (though fans of Argentina’s Diego Maradona might beg to differ).

There is no argument, though, that on Dec.4, soccer lost one of its greatest ambassadors, a most respected man both on and off the field, and one of the greatest to ever play the game.

RIP, Dr. Socrates

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