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Updated: December 6, 2011 00:06 IST

Requiem for a wise man

Nirmal Shekar
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Former Brazil's soccer player Socrates
AP Former Brazil's soccer player Socrates

The Socrates persona was as contradictory as it was compelling

HE was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking free thinker grappling with the higher reaches of truth passed on to posterity by Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx in an awesome Victorian auditorium of a Rio de Janerio University.

He was a head-banded, flamboyant young man with curly brown locks unlocking the splendour of Brazilian country music to an entranced audience.

He was a fiery-eyed left-wing activist, a Che Guevara-type radical spouting slogans while leading a student march to restore democracy in his country.

He was a professional paediatrician hugging sick children at a UNICEF health camp with the missionary zeal of a Mother Teresa.

Socrates Brasilero Sampio de Souza de Oliviera, who passed away on Sunday in Brazil, was all of these…and more. He was one of the most gifted players produced by the greatest of soccer-playing nations, Brazil, in the post-Pele era.

Rebel with a cause

A rebel with a cause, Socrates had a stupendous ability to combine stardom with creative ability on the field. His one-two passing symphony with his team-mate and friend Zico had a Mozartian magnificence.

As the eldest of a middle-rung government official's 10 sons, as a brilliant young medical student, Socrates was intensely in search of an identity in the fragmented world of the late 1970s.

“I am not a footballer. I am a human being,” he screamed at mediapersons early in his career, apparently fed up with their one-track line of questioning. It was the cry of a man trying to free himself from the chains of a media-manufactured image, the struggle of a very intelligent human being trying to shake off a straitjacket.

It is this protean quality that set Socrates apart from some of the most brilliant players of his era. Deeply rebellious against the over-ordering of life, on and off the football field, he was quintessential nonconformist.

“He would sing a song and all of us wound enjoy it. Then, almost suddenly, Socrates would go into a shell, an impenetrable shell of his own. We knew him, yet we did not know him,” said a team-mate of his when Socrates was playing for the Sao Paulo giant Corinthians.

Multi-faceted persona

To be sure, it would take more than an average footballer to have come to terms with Socrates' multi-faceted personality. For, the Socrates persona was as contradictory as it was compelling. He was a man in search of individual freedom in an age ruled by conformity and organisation, both in and out of football.

If you ever saw a cold-blooded master of life's capriciousness — someone with knowledge of Nietzsche's amor fati — then you can picture Socrates striding back nonchalantly after missing a crucial penalty in a World Cup semifinal against France in Mexico.

It is not as if Socrates was an incurable eccentric with a finger on the self-destruct button. He loved the game as much as he loved anything else in life. But he knew sport was just sport, not a matter of life or death. He would have been more devastated by the death of a child in a Rio health facility than a missed World Cup penalty.

Doctor for the poor

Never one to beat around the bush, Socrates admitted early in his career that it was for big money that he temporarily abandoned his life as a doctor to become a footballer. “As a footballer, I get much quicker to the financial stability I need to be what I want to be: a doctor for the poor,” he said.

On the field, he was a master. With Zico and Falcao, he was part of a midfield that was rarely matched in the entire history of the game. So confident were these men about their own skills that they ignored their defensive weaknesses as a resurgent Paolo Rossi of Italy claimed a hat-trick to dump them from the 1982 World Cup.

He made his presence felt in the 1986 World Cup too, but soon the game was up for Doc. But another one, perhaps more rewarding — serving the poor as a doctor and becoming a sagacious commentator on television — began.

“Life is not about quantity. It is about quality,” Socrates said over 30 years ago. By modern standards, he died young.

He drank his way to his grave, like so many other sportspersons. But the difference is, he was a wise man who did know exactly what he was doing. It was his hemlock.

SOCRATES showed his talent on the football field and now I have come to know his other qualities - he was a true character and captain of the Brazil team which won the World Cup. A very fine article indeed by Nirmal Shekhar and thanks to THE HINDU which covers a LOT for sports at both national and international levels.

from:  SRIKRISHNA
Posted on: Dec 8, 2011 at 17:14 IST

Nirmal Sekhar is branded as an eminent writer on Tennis. It is felt he should confine himself to writing on Tennis rather than tread into uncharted domains. The article seems to eulogise the pursuits of Socrates in hitting the bottle and chain smoking rather than his extra ordinary soccer skills which any other writer associated with Soccer and more familiar with the nuances would have done balancing the personal with the exploits on the field. Socrates had his mirror in George Best the eccentric Irish soccer genius who passed away some time back. The only difference being Socrates rose to the pinnacle of his career whereas Best remained a flawed genius unable to get out of his stupor at most times.

from:  R.VIJAYKUMAR
Posted on: Dec 8, 2011 at 06:33 IST

I was not even born when he played football.I grew up watching the videos of football played at that time and as the whole knows what a player he was, so skillfull and he was class act to watch along with Zico.He showed the world how to play football and esp in midfield thse classy moves n touches.Fantastic player...........R.I.P Socrates

from:  Prashant Gupta
Posted on: Dec 7, 2011 at 20:18 IST

Thank you for posting this fantastic tribute! I was a kid and I remember watching Socrates being egged by my elder brother... and I still remember those funny moments when I used to pester my brother to understand Football.. I still remember waking up early in the morning to watch the Foot ball matches being played at Mexico World Cup! And Now Nirmal Shekar's brilliant article is a "Rare Tribute" to a 'Rare Genius'... There is a lot to learn from Nirmal Shekar including the fantastic flow of English like the Socrates - Zico Passes! Thank you Nirmal Shekar and 'The Hindu' for having made me go back 25 years back and bring back fond memories of my formative years!

from:  Suresh Chandrasekaran
Posted on: Dec 7, 2011 at 12:32 IST

I will never(until the day i die that is) forget the joy and sheer brilliance of Socrates' team at the 1982 world cup. I get goosebumps evertime i recollect Socrates' goal against Italy(not to mention the one against Russia) in the final group stage. I dont care if he drank/smoked himself to death i will remember him for his football which was beyond cool and no one( not even the greatest player right now) can match his style or skill. Also i dont think there ever will be a player who will show me that football can be played without breaking a sweat. An amazing player who played football because he enjoyed it and not particularly to win anything( such a rare quality these days). Sadly their flamboyance was their undoing. But i dont think that would have mattered to Socrates as winning was never the idealogy of Tele Santana's team. It was to play brilliant football. Which they did. And i cannot thank them enough for playing the way they did.I am extremely sad to hear this news. R.I.P

from:  dharanish
Posted on: Dec 6, 2011 at 18:19 IST
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