The Death of Socrates

The Brazilian football legend Socrates died.  It was not unexpected given that his health had been so poor for some time, a remnant of his days of heavy drinking, smoking, and all-around good living.  He was 57.

Socrates will forever be associated with Brazil’s glorious 1982 World Cup squad, a side that also contained Zico, Falcao, and Cerezo.  Those four players made up one of the finest midfields the game has ever seen.  The team played a devil-may-care brand of futebol arte never seen before, even by the legendary 1970 side of Pele and company.  One of the great tragedies of World Cup history is that the 1982 team fell to Italy in the second group stage.  Yet despite that early exit, the ’82 side is still spoken of in the same breath as Hungary 1954 and Holland 1974, beautiful losers remembered more clearly and more fondly than the actual winners.

The 1982 side is particularly poignant because it they remind the world that Brazil abandoned jogo bonito.  More than any other nation in the world, fairly or not, Brazil is expected to play beautifully and win imperiously, a legacy of a now-distant past.  Socrates in particular was massively critical of how Brazil (as he saw it) abandoned its footballing identity.  (In turn, Dunga, the former Brazil player and manager and the embodiment of the nation’s results-oriented football, said that the 1982 team was only good at losing.  Given how Dunga’s 2010 World Cup ended however, perhaps he should not have been so high-handed.)

Socrates cut a striking figure, bearded, stick-thin, and, as befitting his name, incredibly intelligent (he was also a medical doctor).  His back heel kicks may have been the best in the game.  But he was more than merely a smart ball player.  A staunch supporter of left-wing politics, Socrates helped form a democratic movement at his club Corinthians–a dangerous political statement and a direct challenge to the ruling military dictatorship.  Both the former and current Presidents of Brazil have issued statements mourning and commemorating the loss of Socrates.

Although Socrates could not exist in the modern game, he is a legend without peer.  He was both hero and conscience of the game.  Not bad for a player who never won the World Cup.

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