The good Doctor

Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend Andrew Downie Simon and Schuster ₹1,216  

Rarely in sport do we remember the losers. The Brazilian side that bowed out to Italy in the second round of the 1982 football World Cup in Spain is however an exception. A very mention of the team, and its various stars, evokes in a whole generation of sports fans a longing for a simpler era, where how you played your sport still appeared to matter.

The squad was blessed with a number of uniquely gifted footballers—many of them deified today, Zico, Falcao, Cerezo and Eder among others—but at the centre of Brazil’s story at the 1982 tournament was its captain, Sócrates, who represented something more than a mere figurehead. He was not only the team’s leader on the pitch, setting, from midfield, the tempo for its dazzling attacking patterns, but also, in many ways, the story of his life exemplified the team’s ultimate shortfalls. It is this tale, of the confounding contradictions of Sócrates’genius, and his apparent unwillingness to place football at any special pedestal, that forms the basis for Andrew Downie’s excellent new book, Doctor Sócrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend.

Stress on education

Downie, a Scottish journalist, who has spent the last several years in Brazil, builds his narrative from a previously unpublished memoir that Sócrates left back after his death in 2011, a collection that Downie describes as an “unusual mixture of footballing memories, history, philosophy and cultural commentary.” By the standards of modern footballers, Sócrates led a curious life. Through much of his teens, his local club Botafogo tried to lure him into signing a contract, but he resisted: his dream was to become a doctor. The night classes to prepare for the university exams, in which his father had enrolled him, took place at the same time the junior footballers trained, so Socrates accepted Botafogo’s offer with one condition: that he’d play the matches at the weekend, but his presence at training would not be guaranteed. A year later Sócrates secured university admission with top marks. At 19, he signed a preliminary contract at Botafogo, but it would not come at the cost of his education. He continued to fit his training sessions around his classes, making himself available only for the games. “The club were not overjoyed at the arrangement,” Downie writes. “But they knew it was his way or no way and they didn’t want to lose their star player.”

From Botafogo, Sócrates would reach the Brazilian national team via a move to the Corinthians, a much more hallowed club based out of São Paulo. Here, Sócrates was often simultaneously a hero and a villain. A hero because of his magnetic abilities, which made him, in Downie’s assessment, one of the most original players of his era. “He used the back-heel as often as he could, although calling it that was to diminish its complexity,” the biographer writes. “…Like no one before or since, Sócrates used every part of his foot to pass the ball. He used the back of his foot for volleys, to flick the ball sideways and to make defence-splitting 20-yard passes, and he would often put his foot on top of the ball and roll it to team-mates behind or in front of him.”

Democratising football

But while Sócrates was a beloved of the fans—they remember him simply as ‘The Doctor’—the Corinthians’ management often found him to be a thorn in their flesh. For he was, as the Economist described him in its obituary, a bit like the original Socrates, the classical Greek philosopher after whom his father named him; Sócrates fancied himself as an anti-authoritarian figure, as someone who could wield his influence to democratise football. And, in this, he achieved much.

At Corinthians, together with his team-mate Wladimir Rodrigues dos Santos, he co-founded the ‘Corinthians Democracy,’ by, the standards of any time, a radical movement aimed at revolutionising the way football was run. It aimed at giving the players control over the club and its management, with a view to putting an end to the totalitarian regime of its owners, who, for Sócrates, mirrored the country’s governance by its military dictators. Matters of routine, such as the time the team would train at, when they’d eat their lunch, the off-days they were entitled to, were all put to vote through a show of hands among the players. This democratisation, Sócrates hoped, would ultimately percolate across football clubs onto the national stage, on which the junta ruled.

Sócrates, through much of the latter part of his career, constantly demanded the conduct of free elections in Brazil; in November 1982, without heeding to the warnings of the football association, and led by Sócrates, the Corinthians’ players wore shirts emblazoned with the words ‘Dia 15 Vote’—‘Vote on the 15th’—printed on their backs, encouraging people to vote at the upcoming state elections. As the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was a devoted Corinthians fan at the time, would put it, “Corinthians Democracy helped take the message of change and democracy to lots and lots of people. Corinthians is one of the biggest teams in Brazil and seeing players putting democratic ideas into practice showed how important that fight was.”

Sócrates not only shaped the idea of what sport can mean to its fans—forever putting beauty above victory—but he also showed the world that there was a place for dissent even in sport, that a struggle for freedom needn’t be restricted to the realm of the outwardly political.

Downie’s book, in telling Sócrates’s story, is, therefore, of particular contemporary relevance, given that today’s sports stars, bar a few notable exceptions, can often find themselves in a bubble of their own.

Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend; Andrew Downie, Simon and Schuster, ₹1,216

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 3:55:50 AM |

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