What do they know of football who only football know?

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Sócrates was as tall a personality as he was of physical stature. Experts agree that a man of his versatility — on the football field and off it — spoke of a rare elegance.

"He looked like a ruffian. But, there was a certain languid air about him. He ambled along, it appeared. Kicking appeared to be beneath him. He caressed the ball. Kissed it goodbye." | AP

It was the name that got my attention at first.

It was 1986. I was 10, portly, unathletic and stupid. Daft enough to dream that I could have a career in sport. I was surrounded by nerds and regarded as one myself, but at that point in time, sport was the only thing that mattered to me. Besides encyclopedias on ‘GK’ and space.

On a good day (for my parents), I dreamt of being an astronomer. On a bad day (again for the old folks), I dared to dream of a career in cricket, football, hockey or tennis. It all depended on what played on Doordarshan (DD). That June-July, the World Cup football was being telecast and to football the neighbourhood gravitated. Maradona and Lineker were the names on everyone’s lips. But, what got me was the name of another lanky, bearded footballer who was playing for Brazil.

Sócrates.

For that was his name. He was tall. Really tall. He had curly locks and a scruffy-looking beard. He looked like a ruffian. But, there was a certain languid air about him. None of the Maradona-style rhinoceros charges. He ambled along, it appeared. Kicking appeared to be beneath him. He caressed the ball. Kissed it goodbye. To say it as it appeared — he made it look easy. Terribly easy. He gave me hope. That was the important thing.

He was on his last legs apparently. A carry-over from the previous World Cup. Reaching the end of his tether. But, he had my fullest attention.

 

One match remains in my memory. The one against France. It was the quarter-final. I remember watching it late at night. Those were simpler times. The household slept by 9. The street nodded off about ten minutes later. A cousin and I watched the game as all around us snored. It was a near spiritual experience. To say the quality of football was superlative is to state the obvious. It was a 'heart-attack every 45 seconds or so' kind of football. The teams charged at the ball and appeared to be within a few seconds of scoring. Platini, the French star was all over the place. And then there was the tall, striking Sócrates whom I took to within ten minutes of the game starting.

His relaxed style had me enthralled. He seemed to know exactly what to do and had all the time in the world to do it. He was cool, calm, composed, collected. His was a serene, ethereal presence even as the others darted around in a frenzy.

The scores were level at 1-1 at the end of the game. The game went into extra-time and a shootout. And Sócrates muffed his penalty. Brazil lost to France. This was the only time I saw him in a live match. But, he had made me a fan for life.

Sócrates never played a World Cup match again. But, I never forgot him.

Sócrates, for that indeed was his given name, was born Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira in 1954. Quite a mouthful. That he began to play football is not surprising. He was Brazilian after all. By 1974, he had graduated to club-class and began playing for Botafogo-SP. In 1978, he joined the Corinthians, the club with which he stayed till 1984. In 1979, he earned the first of his 60 caps for Brazil. His crowning glory was captaining the team in the 1982 World Cup. The 1982 team was one of the finest not to win a World Cup. The loss to eventual winner, Italy did them in.

When Sócrates drifted back into memory recently and the idea of an article came up, YouTube helped. It was refreshing to trawl through old memories by watching the Brazil-France match all over again. But, how good was he?

 

To me, Sócrates exemplifies the fact that sport can be your life for a while, and one could have a very fruitful life after sport, one that need not have much to do with sport at all. One could even prepare for that life when one was still playing the sport.

I was a fan and had become one when young and stupid. As far as football (and much else) was concerned, now I was old and stupid. So, I needed a more informed opinion. My first point of reference was the veteran sports journalist and author, Gulu Ezekiel. When I wrote to him seeking his opinion, he answered back rather quickly and revealed that he too had been thinking of Sócrates and his magic that very morning. An interesting coincidence. His view of Sócrates was that in terms of artistry, he was among the greatest.

My next conversation was made possible through a friend who kindly shared the number of The Telegraph sports journalist Jaydeep Basu. He was a repository of extensive information on the game. Yes, Sócrates was a great player, he said. But, Maradona was definitely greater. Another expert on the game, Novy Kapadia, too shared the same opinion of Sócrates. Only Cruyff and Pelé were comparable to Maradona, he said.

But, what all the three of them agreed was on one thing — the multi-facetedness of Sócrates made him stand out. He was a qualified medical doctor. Also, he was a man who took political stances unafraid of the repercussions. Here was a man who actually defied the dictatorship of his country.

Jaydeep drew a wonderful parallel. He cited a scene from Satyajit Ray's 1966 film, Nayak. In the movie, which is about a filmstar and was played by the real-life Bengali superstar, Uttam Kumar, the reel-life star is taken to a strike by a friend. His friend hopes that the star will say a few words of encouragement to the strikers. But the star drives away, wary of endangering his stardom by involving himself in causes. Sócrates was the antithesis of that, said Jaydeep. He used his stardom to say things. His star status in Brazil was an asset that he employed in worthy causes. He chose to participate in political activities and did so fearlessly.

 

When he was playing for the Corinthians club, Sócrates co-founded the Corinthians Democracy movement in opposition to the then-ruling military government. Sócrates and his team mates protested against the regime's treatment of footballers, and showed support to the wider movement for democratisation, by wearing shirts with ‘Democracia’ written on them during games. In 1984, he spoke out in support of Diretas Já (Free Elections Now), a popular movement that called for direct presidential elections. Juca Kfouri, a Brazilian journalist, recalls how "Sócrates took the risk of saying, in front of two million people gathered on the cathedral square, that if direct presidential elections weren't accepted by the regime, he'd go play in Italy”. His stand against the military dictatorship and fight to bring democracy back to Brazil extended his legacy beyond the football field.

Another interesting side to him was his Leftist political orientation. Here was a man who, when quizzed about how he felt about playing for the Italian club, Fiorentina, in 1984-85 spoke of how he looked forward to reading Antonio Gramsci, that giant among Leftist thinkers, in the original Italian. Now, which other footballer would have said that?

That was the measure of the man. A doctor who went into practice after his footballing career. A leftist. A political thinker. And wait, there’s more. In the course of my reading up on Sócrates, one report I came across mentioned that he had actually completed a doctorate in philosophy too. So, he was a Doctor-Doctor in reality.

Then there was the bad boy side to him. His two-pack a day cigarette habit. His battles with alcoholism, something that he denied, but the world at large always seems to mention that about him. So, it was probably true. At least to an extent.

 

Sócrates was a personality. An amazingly versatile personality. Could there be another one like him?

Gulu Ezekiel takes a considered view. He believes that every generation threw up its own kind of personalities. Sócrates was one such of his time. Novy Kapadia had a more decided opinion. He stated that a personality like him couldn't happen today. Talented kids were shunted off into academies and they only focussed on the sport. They knew little else. Jaydeep Basu had more or less a similar view. In fact, he told me an interesting story about how single-track-minded footballers were. That tale deserves a telling of its own someday. Sócrates was unique in that sense in his time and probably will be so for a long, long time.

To me, Sócrates exemplifies the fact that sport can be your life for a while, and one could have a very fruitful life after sport, one that need not have much to do with sport at all. One could even prepare for that life when one was still playing the sport. Sport need not dominate your life at any point. Also, you could have informed political opinions. And use your stardom for causes — going beyond the regular photo-op or occasional ghost-written column. It means doing it the right way. Getting your hands dirty, so to speak.

Of course, you had to be Sócrates to do all of that.

 

Postscript:

The title of this piece comes with apologies to CLR James who originally wrote it as ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ in what is probably the best sports book ever written, Beyond a Boundary.

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