The triumph and troubles of the Sócrates, and how he ended his remarkable career in West Yorkshire

The triumph and troubles of the Sócrates, and how he ended his remarkable career in West Yorkshire

Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, MD, pulled on a familiar-looking football kit one cold November Saturday afternoon: a bright yellow shirt with blue shorts and socks. A constant chant of ’SOC-RA-TEES, SOC-RA-TEES’ echoed through from the stands and into the changing room.

That was where the familiarity ended, though. He’d had to pull the jersey over a rotund beer-belly that hadn’t been there the last time he had donned his boots and shin pads 15 years earlier. His trademark unkempt hair and beard were shorter and greying. He didn’t understand many of the words that were given in the teamtalk by his friend, Simon Clifford – the owner and manager of Garforth Town.

But he did feel comfortable enough to give his new teammates a pep-talk of his own, even though he spoke very little English. The message was clear to them all: enjoy the occasion; enjoy having the ball; enjoy being together; all men are equal.

As the team jogged out onto the pitch, buoyed by the fabled hero in their midst, Sócrates strolled out nonchalantly. The crowd cheered and the camera shutters of the national press snapped vigorously. He waved and smiled at them in thanks for their worship, before putting on a large blue Garforth Town club coat and thick black gloves.

The bitterly cold temperatures and cutting wind a far cry from the tropical shores of Rio de Janeiro, the rolling Yorkshire valleys that surrounded him a million miles from the super-metropolis of São Paulo; the attendance of 1,350 somewhat different from the 100,000 inside the Maracanã he had thrilled during his pomp and glory.

As the game got underway, the kind folks that were positioned close to him as he sat on the tiny wooden substitutes bench were quick to donate hats, scarves and extra gloves to the hero from a long time ago in a footballing galaxy far, far away. He watched a game that only barely resembled the same sport that he had played professionally for almost two decades.

There was little of the grace and poise that had set him apart from his peers a quarter of a century earlier. But the blood-and-thunder was entertaining enough to keep out the cold as the light turned to dark and the floodlights lit with their unmistakable thud.
With 20 minutes remaining and the promotion-pivotal clash against rivals Tadcaster Albion poised nervously at two goals apiece, the home side were awarded a penalty.

Clifford instantly looked towards the legendary spot-kick taker that he had at his disposal, but with several layers now covering his legs and hands, there was no chance of getting Sócrates ready in time to take it. So usual penalty taker Greg Kelly got his chance to be the potential match-winner in front of both the biggest crowd of the season and the national TV cameras – only to see his penalty saved.

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As the match approached its dying embers, Clifford gave the frizzy-wig wearing crowd what they had come to see and sent Sócrates into the fray to rapturous cheers. He gave the delirious supporters a 13-minute cameo they would never forget, but only after a rather unique warm-up – a cigarette and a bottle of Budweiser.

Twenty-three and a half years earlier, it was the summer of 1981. They were all superstars. But they hung on every word of their leader as he, typically, held court in a busy Stuttgart bar. The Seleção of 1981 were quickly emerging as one of the finest international teams the world had ever seen. But their captain, ‘Doctor’ Sócrates, was different to the rest of them. He was different to anyone – especially in the footballing world.

They had just completed a three-match whirlwind tour of Europe’s finest in preparation for the following year’s World Cup, which was to be held in Spain. A 1-0 win over England marked the Three Lions’ first-ever home loss to South American visitors; just three days later they saw off France 3-1 at the Parc des Princes, and finally West Germany were flattered by being on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline.

Erudite and articulate – especially when his vocal chords were lubricated by the cerveja – Sócrates commanded any room and orchestrated the subject matter and the mood. With a beer bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other, witnessing him perform in this arena was almost as mesmerising as watching him grace a football stadium.

It was rare that those in Europe would see South America’s finest footballers outside the cauldron of the four-yearly World Cup, and the sensational dismemberment of their own resident global stars had thrilled but shaken them. The media instantly installed Brazil as clear favourites for upcoming tournament and allowed the names of Sócrates and his compatriot Zico to be added their unofficial list of current world greats, which included Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Ruud Krol and Kevin Keegan.

One such set of reporters saw and heard the joyous celebrations – the gangly frame of Sócrates, sporting a black mane of unkempt frizz and a matching scraggly beard – surrounded by beer bottles as he entertained his audience. After the polite request for an interview was made, Sócrates agreed and the cameraman began to hastily set up his oversized shoulder-mounted equipment.

Meanwhile, the interviewer began to move some of the dozens of empties that filled the tables like unfelled bowling skittles. ‘What do you think you are doing?’ Sócrates asked. ‘I don’t want to compromise your image,’ the reporter replied. ‘Put them down!’ Sócrates yelled, jovially. ‘I drink when I want to drink. I’m an adult with children. I’ve already got a father and I don’t need another one.’

Named by his academic father after the Ancient Greek philosopher, Sócrates was the eldest of six brothers. His story was the antithesis of that of most Brazilian stars – that of the poverty-stricken upbringing; rowing up kicking a tatty old ball around a dusty favela and honing the skills playing beach soccer, football providing them and their families the only possible way out of the hellish lifestyle. The classic rags-to-riches story we love.

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Rather, Sócrates was born in February 1954 into a solidly middle-class family and raised in Ribeirão Preto, a small city 200 miles west of São Paulo. From an early age, he fell in love with books and learning. He grew conscientious and articulate and was sure that he would be a doctor. Football was just a game he played as a release mechanism from the intensity of his school work and extra-curricular swotting.

The problem was, he found his hobby very easy. He had a natural poise and grace, although little pace or power – his long limbs wrongly gave the impression of clumsiness as he quickly grew over six-foot tall. His intelligence and natural ability to learn gave him a vision and technique unrivalled in his age groups, even without training at the game to improve his skills as his peers in the junior ranks of local side Botafogo did. Whilst they frantically tried to get better, Sócrates would read and study.

The Botafogo first-team came calling for him the moment he reached 18, but he refused to sign a professional contract as he still considered football a mere pastime and didn’t want it to distract him from his medical studies any more than it already did. But the management were persistent and so an arrangement was made whereby Sócrates didn’t need to train – only play in the first-team games. This enabled him to earn money playing the game he loved, whilst remaining a full-time university student.

The huge step up in quality to playing professional football in the rigorously competitive São Paulo state championship, against some of the biggest club sides in Brazil, didn’t appear to dampen the eye-catching playmaker’s ability to control games from the free role he tended to award himself.

Officially a goalscoring midfielder who could also play as a traditional centre-forward, Sócrates would glide all over the pitch in his languid manner. Always in space and demanding the ball, he would distribute it with pace and directness, inevitably choosing and completing the correct pass regardless of how difficult it may be to pull off. And if his team were struggling, he would move further up the field into more dangerous areas and inevitably grab an important goal himself.

Sócrates quickly became Botafogo’s most important player, and soon it wasn’t only his studying-over-training that the hierarchy there were having to turn a blind eye to. He was more than a little partial to alcohol, cigarettes and partying and would stroll into the changing room looking and smelling far more student than professional footballer.

The subservient nature of his teammates concerned him. Many were black and from poor backgrounds – their ancestors amongst the estimated four million Africans that were imported to Brazil prior to the 1888 abolition. The slaves and their descendants were subsequently forced into lives in the cities slums, or favelas, with a life of crime, violence and poverty almost inevitable.

For the children most talented at football, there was a way out – but the sport subsequently had a hold over them. Sócrates didn’t like the power the clubs held over their players and backroom staff. Contracts were weighed heavily in the organisation’s favour, renewal or extension solely at the discretion of the club, giving the player little or no bargaining power regarding pay increase or possible transfer. But Sócrates’ insistence that he was only there temporarily, until he passed his medical exams and became a full-time doctor, turned that leverage on its head.

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In 1977, at 23 years of age, Sócrates became a qualified physician as he achieved a bachelor’s degree from the medical university of São Paulo. As he considered which city he would take his first hospital placement in – meaning a move away and working shifts, bringing an end to his football career – Botafogo made him an offer that dwarfed the salary he could ever hope to earn in medicine.

Knowing his stethoscope would always be there for him in the future, he decided to sign the contract and finally commit himself to football – but without slowing down on the booze and cigs. As he controlled games with his craft and plundered goals at will, he took the small, provincial team to their first notable silverware. But inevitably, the giants of the Brasileiro were soon circling.

In the summer of 1978, Corinthians won the scramble for the most sought after signature in Brazil. Sócrates had narrowly missed out on a place in Cláudio Coutinho’s World Cup squad for the tournament in neighbouring Argentina and many believed the reluctance to call him up to the Seleção was once more down to his laboured manner, hedonistic social life and his ragged, cadaver-like appearance. But he changed for no manager – as the hierarchy at his new club would shortly find out.

Sócrates enjoyed a turbulent first few seasons at Corinthians, whose enormous working-class fan base insist that the players that represent them show passion and provide blood, sweat and tears weekly for their paying pleasure. But Sócrates was not of that ilk; he was a cerebral footballer who sincerely believed that football was played with the mind, and the body was merely the vehicle that brought out the imagination. This made him an easy target for criticism from the supporters and local media after poor performances or results – luckily, they were rare.

He soon established himself as the on-field leader of the team and finally made his debut in the famous yellow jersey of his beloved Brazil. He drove Corinthians to state championship glory in his first campaign there and his star was ascending uncontrollably. He had even developed an original trademark on the field – so perfect was his anticipation and technique, that he had taken to passing perfectly weighted through balls with his back to goal via back-heels.

By 1981 he was the captain and unlikely face of both club and country. At 27, the social inequalities that surrounded him in Brazilian football and everyday life within a country that was long oppressed by a right-wing military dictatorship were stark and concerning. When a younger, more progressive director of football was appointed at Corinthians, he and Sócrates built up a solid relationship and the club captain saw his opportunity to begin a revolution from within.

He began a movement which would later become known as Corinthians Democracy and soon, everyone at the club, from the president down to the cleaners and the kit-man, had an equal vote – and every issue from how and when to travel to away matches to which player to sign next was voted on. Win bonuses were split equally amongst all players and a percentage shared out between all of the club staff. The movement was given the motto ‘Freedom, with Responsibility’.

Corinthians have 27 million supporters in Brazil, and they were proudly taking notice of what was happening inside the organisation they adored. They began to cheer and chant in the name of democracy, and the corrupt footballing institutions and beyond were nervously taking notice.

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The world’s attention was on the Seleção as they arrived in Spain ahead of the 1982 World Cup. The media clambered around the clear favourites – particularly it’s two main stars, Sócrates and Zico. In an interview, they pressed Sócrates to give a name to their swashbuckling style of play that had taken the world by storm. Whist the Dutch had introduced Total Football in the previous decade, and Pelé’s vintage had given us ‘Ginga’, Sócrates paused for a second before devilishly titling his side’s brand “organised chaos”.

But in their opening game, the USSR had no intention of sticking to the script and were a goal to the good for the majority of the match. With 75 minutes gone and the pressure building on Brazil to deliver, the Soviets weakly cleared their lines as attacking yellow shirts poured forward.

The ball was collected by Sócrates almost 40 yards out from goal. He skipped past the first attempted tackle and then dropped his right shoulder to drift past another defender, before unleashing a cannonball of a shot that flew into the top left-hand corner of the goal. Éder added a late winner, but Sócrates would later describe his own equaliser as “not a goal, an endless orgasm”.

But the fabled campaign was destined for glorious failure. Needing just a draw against Italy in the second group stage to advance to the semi-finals, Sócrates’ promise of organised chaos turned into a premonition, as both the coaches and the players stubbornly refused to play for a single point, despite being behind twice and coming back to level on both occasions, firstly through Sócrates. The third and final Paolo Rossi counter-attack goal was enough to end the fairytale and break Brazilian hearts.

All eyes were on Corinthians when the ultra-competitive Campeonato Paulista restarted following the World Cup. Politicians, business leaders and media tycoons had spent decades telling the oppressed people that democracy didn’t work and that their abject poverty was all they could ever hope for in life; but now they feared the Corinthians Democracy project could spark a wider movement in a country where the social and economic inequality was as stark as anywhere in the world.

Corinthians met São Paulo – the team regarded as representative of the wealthy and conservative – in the two-legged final with more than just another Paulista star for the history books at stake. The banners and hatred transcended sport in the cacophonous atmospheres both home and away as Corinthians and the democracy they were representing won by an aggregate score of four goals to one.

When Sócrates scored, he stood motionless and silent with his right arm raised stiff and skywards and his fist clenched in what was clearly a rebel salute.

The movement gathered pace and the same final was repeated 12 months later for the 1983 Paulista title. Again Sócrates led out his loyal disciples. Again they won. Again he scored. Again he saluted. A giant banner flowed over the Corinthians supporters that read: “Win or Lose, But Always with Democracy”. Again, the movement gathered pace.

Rich and glamorous clubs from Europe and beyond were courting Brazil’s talisman, but he felt committed to staying in his home country and at the club that had provided him with the vehicle for his journey of change while ever he could make a difference and help his 170 million compatriots.

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Sócrates and the Corinthians supporters were now one and the same. He had fallen in love with the club and they worshipped him for more than just being their footballing leader. “I want to die on a Sunday, the day Corinthians win a title,” he had told them.

The Brazilian economy was crashing and inflation was soaring. The rich had become richer. The poor longed to be just poor once more as they were now starving and dying. An uprising had started. Rallies began to take place in cities all over the country as they called for the people to be allowed to vote in the upcoming elections – a right taken away from them long before. Thousands in attendance at rallies soon became millions. They demanded change, and early in 1984, they demanded democracy.

The patriotic national colour of yellow was chosen to represent the protest and Sócrates urged all of his teammates to wear something yellow on their person during matches – be it tape or sweatbands. They did as their capitão requested.

A brave congressman put forward an amendment suggesting that the people get the vote they desired in the upcoming election. On 16 April 1984, Sócrates was the main on-stage attraction at the final rally in São Paulo in front of over a million people. They cheered his every word as he cajoled them like a seasoned leftist campaigner.

Rumours that he was moving to an Italian club were rife, but he made a promise to the masses that if the amendment was passed and the progressive movement continued, he would never abandon them. The media was awash with the frenzy he had caused, which added additional leverage to the politicians to vote in favour of future democracy.

But the intimidating leverage applied by the violent ruling military was not to be underestimated, and 113 congressmen failed to cast their ballot papers on the crucial evening. The amendment fell 22 votes short of the two-thirds majority it required to pass.

Forever true to his word, Sócrates signed for Fiorentina in an act of rebellion, but his solitary season in Italy was a disaster. Injuries, the defensive style of football, changing-room cliques and a freezing Tuscan winter campaign conspired to make Sócrates appear overrated and overpaid. At a time he should’ve been making friends to help him, he made more enemies at the club.

If his chain-smoking, excessive drinking and tatty appearance wasn’t insulting enough to the slick and suited Italians (he was known to cut teammates Armani ties off with scissors if they dared to enter his house wearing a full tailored suit), he continued his socialist activism. With a right-wing employer paying huge wages for an underperforming and controversial foreigner at a time only two overseas players were allowed, Sócrates’ European adventure was destined to be a short one.

He was rescued from his self-inflicted hell by Flamengo and flown from the bitterly cold mountains to the summer sun of Rio. They had also re-signed Zico from his own spell in Italy with Udinese and had reunited the Brazil superstars to the ecstasy of their fanatical supporters. But Copacabana was hardly the stable environment a semi-alcoholic professional athlete who had missed his Brazilian fun and frolics.

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But he believed some debauchery was the exact tonic he needed. Still one of the most famous faces in the country, he soon found himself in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons as drunken scandal became his new man-marker. He didn’t even have the same motivation to continue his political activism, as he had returned to a country that had finally overthrown the military-rule that had plagued them since Sócrates had been a small boy.

Due to the movements in which he had played such a dynamic role, Brazil now had a civilian president and a new democratic constitution.

Predictably, he struggled to shake off his injuries but did manage to find some form ahead of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. He was no longer seen as a suitable captain to lead his country and the number 18 jersey given to him by loyal coach Telê Santana showed how far down the pecking-order he had fallen in that same number of months.

He battled with his fitness and his vices to win himself a starting berth and scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot in their tournament opener against Spain. However, his choice of headwear for that game became the abiding memory; Mexico City had been torn apart by a massive earthquake just nine months before the tournament. Over 10,000 people had died and left a once beautiful city in ruins. Sócrates had been humbled by the devastation of the disaster and so had a headband created with the message ‘Mexico, Stand Tall’.

Brazil stuttered into the quarter-finals where they met the European champions in Michel Platini’s France in Guadalajara. The 1-1 stalemate was destined penalties, and an exhausted Sócrates missed his spot-kick on the way to a shootout elimination. It was his final kick of a football in the yellow jersey he adored. He scored 22 goals for Brazil in the 60 times he represented them.

The injuries and the drinking continued on his return to Rio. Sócrates played only 20 matches for Flamengo in another brief and controversial spell. The supporters saw him and Zico start only one match together – a 4 -1 win over their most hated neighbours, Fluminense.

When he realised he would once again be starting the next game amongst the substitutes, Sócrates put his boots in the bin on his way out of the training complex and immediately announced his retirement and waived the lucrative salary he was contracted to for another year. As he always promised he would do, he returned to his hometown and began a university course to refresh his medical skills and qualifications.

But as with many things in his life, Sócrates quickly realised he had taken his unique career for granted. He missed football and fell in love with it all over again by signing for Santos – wearing the same club shirt as Pelé and the team of superstars from the 1960s that he had fallen in love with as a boy. Finally, he bookended his career with Botafogo, playing his final professional match in November 1989 for the same club that he had played his first for 17 years earlier.

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Never quite settled or truly happy in life, he spent his retirement flitting between one spontaneous passion to another. In his personal life, he traded his long-suffering wife for a 20-year-old tennis player but would end with a final tally of four marriages and five children.

In his professional life – if you can really call it that – he would regularly ditch political ventures for medical projects, and then drop his surgery aspirations to coach a semi-professional football outfit for an old friend. He also sauntered into the realms of writing, music and television. Whenever boredom set in, either to a marriage or on a project, Sócrates would push the self-destruct button that he always happened to find whilst sat on a bar-stool.

But the underlying and common theme of all his whims and flights-of-fancy,was an urge to help people; to give those worse off than he or the younger generations a helping hand up the ladder.

In 1996, Simon Clifford became friends with diminutive genius Juninho during the Brazilian international’s unlikely love affair with Middlesborough. This friendship opened up further contacts for ambitious young coach Clifford – a firm believer in Jogo Bonito – who subsequently travelled back and forth to Brazil to study the coaching and the culture. He subsequently set up Brazilian Soccer Schools and introduced futsal to Britain.

When Simon bought and became manager of Garforth Town in 2003, his dream was to flood the team with the graduates from his now globally expanded academy – but his fledgelings weren’t ready yet.

Highly respected in the game, Clifford had been able to attract former Manchester United and England winger Lee Sharpe to play for the club. He also wanted to enhance the Brazilian link he dreamt of influencing the academies and eventually Garforth Town. Simon reached out to various retired legends he had in his expansive arsenal of contacts, including Zico, Rivellino and Jairzinho.

News of this opportunity soon arrived at the door of the eternal free-spirit that is Sócrates. Clifford and the legendary figure became acquainted and a friendship was born. Sócrates accepted the offer to come to Britain and inspire the youngsters at the Soccer Schools.

Whilst there, Clifford also persuaded him to sign a short player-coach agreement at the lowly Northern Counties East Football League club he owned and managed. Did Sócrates want to help Garforth Town achieve promotion to the eighth tier of the English pyramid? Of course he did.

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Both immediately before and after Sócrates’ solitary playing appearance for Garforth Town, the media scrum was what you might expect to see at a royal wedding. “I’m here because I was invited by Simon to see his children’s project, which I find very interesting,” Sócrates said. “He’s using sport, particularly football, to help them socialise and to develop their physical condition.”

He also attended the following week’s match, at Pontefract Collieries, but opted not to play. He chatted freely and jovially with staff and supporters alike, using the best English he could muster. He posed for photos and signed memorabilia.

Simon and Sócrates embarked on a tour of the Brazilian Soccer Schools around England and Scotland, providing awe-inspired children a glimpse at a mythical World Cup god. “We would often get back to Leeds late in the evening, if we did one of those long trips in the day,” Simon Clifford tells These Football Times. “We would go out for a meal and a long talk. Because I was the only person here who spoke Portuguese, I would spend every evening with him. We had some great times and some great chats about football and more.”

“He got me into smoking”’ Simon confesses. “He just encouraged me after a meal one night. I ended up having one with him and it turned into a habit. I smoked for a good while – which is not good.”

Inspired and enriched, Brazilian Soccer Schools went from strength-to-strength following Sócrates’ influential tour of Britain, and franchises were soon opening up all around the world, and are still a well-respected global brand in football academy today. “Sócrates was in heaven when he was here.” Simon continues, speaking warmly about his friend. “He fell in love with what we were trying to do. I was trying to make changes in English football and the coaching of young players by bringing in futsal and various other things. He was as passionate about it as I was.

“He was always happy full of life. He had a curiosity about him that you might only find in a child. He loved coming to England because he’d never been here properly, not to have a real look around. He was a student of life, a student of people, and a very intent listener. I’ve met lots of people in my life – outstanding people – but he was different to anyone I’ve ever met before. He had a presence and a wisdom about him that I don’t think I’ve seen before in anybody. He became a great friend.”

Sócrates’ infamous drinking continued into his 50s and, even though no one knew the inevitable medical consequences better than he did, he refused to slow down. He spent much of 2011 in hospital with cirrhosis as his body weakened terminally, and he finally died on 4 December after a bout of food poisoning his broken body could not fight.

Later that day, Corinthians played a Brasiliero home match against state rivals Palmeiras. The supporters held up their fists in honour of their fallen deity. A goalless draw was enough to confirm Corinthians Série A champions. It was a Sunday.

By Steven Bell @steven_bell1985

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