Socrates: polemics, philosophy and he could play too

Captain of arguably the greatest Brazil side to never win the World Cup, the mercurial midfielder talks to Andy Mitten.

Socrates in typically elegant stride during one of arguably the World Cup's greatest matches: Brazil v Italy in 1982. Italy won 3-2 and the trophy would elude Brazil for another 12 years.
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Captain of arguably the greatest Brazil side to never win the World Cup, the mercurial Socrates talks to Andy Mitten in Sao Paulo about his remarkable achievements both on and off the field Socrates shakes his head when he recalls how the Brazil side he captained were eliminated from the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

In arguably the greatest World Cup match ever played, Brazil dominated against Italy, passing beautifully, but a Paulo Rossi hat-trick sent them out in a 3-2 thriller and Italy went on to win the World Cup.

"Our loss to Italy was not simple," Socrates says. "It was like achieving the conquest of the most beautiful woman in the world, but then being unable to do what matters with her. But it can happen, in life and in sport. "Some say that we were the greatest side never to win the World Cup. They tell us that to this day ... People remember our team because we lost, not won. But nobody tried to copy Italy, the pragmatic team which lifted the World Cup. The beautiful team, with the art and creativity, lost."

To rub salt into the wounds, the Italian team bus blocked in the Brazilian one after the game and the losing side had to wait for an hour behind the poky stands of Espanyol's old stadium as the victors celebrated. Socrates curses at the memory as he tucks into his steak in an upmarket restaurant in Sao Paulo. Internationally, Socrates retains almost mythical status among generations of football fans based on his Espana '82 exploits. They were entranced by his elegance, his two step penalties, his name, full beard, rolled down socks and the way he appeared to be playing purely for fun, while gasping for a cigarette. But in Brazil he is as renowned for what he did off the field as his achievements on it.

"I have three idols," says the father of six, in his husky voice. "Che [Guevara], Fidel [Castro] and John Lennon." Socrates travels once a week to Sao Paulo, South America's biggest metropolis of 15 million people, to appear on a talk show where he puts forward his nonconformist views with intelligence and passion. His giant frame (1.9m) fills the boxy studio set. He also has a television show in his home city of Ribierao Preto, where, ever the social activist, he interviews politicians and journalists, artists and writers.

"I'm a normal guy who loves to meet people," he says. "I only get scared when it's too many people at the same time so you can't communicate. But with one, two or five people, I love to talk, laugh and learn. "My life's objective is to learn. And everyone you meet has something to teach you. The main goal I score in my life will have nothing to do with football." The player known as Magrao (big skinny bloke) was exceptionally bright. So clever that he had the capacity to study medicine, captain Corinthians, the top Sao Paulo club, and his nation, while all the time leading a campaign for democracy against Brazil's then military government. He even looked like Che Guevara, though there is a much more prosaic explanation for his facial hair.

"The beard is not to remind me of Che, but because I have oily skin," he says. "I had too many spots, but the beard reduced and hid them. "I do have a son called Fidel, though," he says. "Cuba represents my dream, where there are the same opportunities for everyone, an egalitarian vision for every citizen. I think it's very interesting that a small country, with no strong economy in any aspect, can survive with high literacy rates, medical levels and sporting excellence which sees them win more Olympic gold medals than any other Latin American country. I wish I was born in Cuba."

Socrates has his father to thank for his unusual name. "My father was from was a very poor family in the Amazon who taught himself to read. He was a man with no education but he built a huge library. I went to see him and read a lot, too. He was interested in ancient Greek philosophy and called me Socrates. He wanted to name all his children after Greek philosophers, but he only knew three. So there's Socrates, Sofocles and Sostenes.

"In 1964 there was a military coup. I was 10 and remember my father burning his book on the Bolsheviks. That started my interest in politics. "The football came by accident. I was a child of the dictatorship. I always had my eyes turned to the social injustices in the country and I had colleagues who had to hide and run away. I just happened to be good at football." Socrates played for local club Botafogo while studying at one of the best medical universities in South America.

"What I liked about football was the social mix. I found it democratic, but it also taught me about the country I lived in and I realised that I had to try and change it. "I carried on playing while I did my studies and that was difficult because I might have an exam when Brazil were playing Argentina." In 1978 he transferred to Corinthians, where he soon tired of the way players were treated by the management, an authoritarian regime which he saw as an extension of the unjust politics of Brazil.

"With my teammate, Wladimir, I rose up against the owners by founding a socialist cell called 'Corinthians Democracy'," Socrates says. "The clubs wanted to have complete control, whereas we felt that the players should be consulted and not treated like children. We did not just object to the simple problems, but the bigger political picture." Corinthians won the state championship in 1982 with "Democracia" printed on their shirts.

"At election time we had 'Vote on the 15th' on our shirts. That was a perfect moment," he says. "That was the greatest team I ever played in because it was more than sport. My political victories are more important than my victories as a professional player. A match finishes in 90 minutes, but life goes on." Beyond Brazil, he was one of the stars in the 1982 side which was widely expected to win the World Cup.

"There were tensions in the team which needed to be fixed beforehand," he says. Although the captain, he did not call the shots. "Zico was the king. He was much better than everyone else. When there is a king, the rest fight to be close to the king. So it was Zico who should lead. It was Machiavellian, but I was the prince and Zico the king." Internal divisions sorted, Brazil won their group games against the USSR, Scotland and New Zealand.

"My strongest memory is of singing the national anthem before the first game," he says. "I was the captain of the team, father of 150 million Brazilians. That was the most important moment in my life." Old rivals Argentina were next and were comfortably beaten 3-1. "Pele or Maradona, that's what people ask me," he says. "The only time I played against the artist Maradona in the World Cup I won.

"I felt relaxed about our opponents in the quarter-finals, Italy. I'd tried to stop smoking. I was a doctor - still am - and know that smoking is not good for anyone, not least a professional athlete. But I enjoyed it too much and still do." Socrates also played in the 1986 World Cup, but claims that Brazil side was "inferior." "The '82 team took three years to build, but the '86 team came together in two weeks and there was nobody physically as good. That's why we didn't win," he says.

Two years earlier, in 1984, Socrates spoke in front of 1.5 million people at a political rally. The huge crowd cheered as he told them that if congress passed a constitutional amendment to re-establish free presidential elections he would turn down an offer to play in Italy. The vote did not get through - although the ground swell of public support would eventually lead to Brazil's free presidential elections in 1989. So Socrates went to Italy to play with Fiorentina for a season.

"I found Europe very regimented," he says. "There's more to life than football and sometimes I didn't want to train, but to hang out with friends, party or have a smoke. They didn't appreciate that. In Brazil things are far more spontaneous." Such cultural differences, he thinks, partly explain why Brazilian players don't always thrive in England. "The culture is so different so it does not surprise me when talented Brazilian players do not do as well as they should. England is also far too cold for Brazilian footballers," he adds.

Socrates has played in England, very briefly. In 2004, more than a decade after retiring, he agreed to a one-month player-coaching deal with Garforth Town in the northern city of Leeds. He made his only appearance for the club against Tadcaster Albion, coming on as a substitute towards the end of the game and still laughs at the memory. "I went to teach children to play football and was invited to play in a game. I thought it was a joke when I was asked to sign an official form. I was 50-years-old, but the media had been told I would play and I didn't want to let anyone down. That was the last time I played."

Such a distinctive character remains easily recognisable in his homeland, something he enjoys and values. One of the cult figures of football, larger than life, he has genuinely earned his legendary status.