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Review: Doctor Socrates by Andrew Downie

Andrew Downie’s biography of footballer Socrates, Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend, is the fascinating story of a true legend.

books Updated: Jun 03, 2017 09:00 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Legend: Scotland’s John Wark marks Brazilian captain Socrates at the 1982 World Cup Finals in Seville, Spain on June 18, 1982.
Legend: Scotland’s John Wark marks Brazilian captain Socrates at the 1982 World Cup Finals in Seville, Spain on June 18, 1982. (Bob Thomas/Getty Images)

He was the most unlikely athlete ever. He smoked and drank, he hated running, training, and the gym. Erudite, well read, informed on a wealth of subjects, he was in many ways an antithesis to those he shared a dressing room with.

Socrates, captain of Brazil at the 1982 football World Cup in Spain, captain, therefore, of the greatest Brazil team to not have won a World Cup, was a player without precedent. “I smoke, I drink and I think,” is how he described himself. There had never been a player like him. There never would be one again.

Andrew Downie’s new biography relies on an unpublished memoir Socrates himself wrote as well as exhaustive interviews of the player’s friends, peers, coaches, family, and many others. Downie, who has lived in Brazil for 17 years, and is Brazilian football correspondent for Reuters, pieces together the gripping, remarkable, and inimitable story of a man who was as prodigiously gifted as he was staggeringly self-centred.

Early on we find out how Socrates, with his inadequate muscle mass and unacceptable fitness levels, found a way to thrive in the upper reaches of his chosen sport. “I started to play one-touch football; as soon as I got it, I laid it off because I couldn’t stand the physical contact… Whatever I could use with just one touch I would use – whether it was my backside, my knee, my elbow and my back-heel, which ended up being my signature move. It was pure sensibility, survival.”

But Socrates was not merely a footballer. He was a qualified doctor who studied for his degree while beginning his career as a player. The arrangement with his early clubs was that he would not be involved in practice or training, taking classes at the university instead, and would return only to play games on weekends. It was a unique arrangement, but one that clubs agreed to because of Socrates’s ability to influence matches.

Andrew Downie (Courtesy the author’s Facebook page)

As his celebrity grew, and as he realised the weight his words had come to acquire, Socrates threw himself into politics and public movements like no other footballer before him. At his Brazilian club, Corinthians, he led a revolutionary movement called Corinthian Democracy. It aimed at allowing players a huge say in every aspect of the running of the club, from training to recruitment to pay. He also became an increasingly vocal and potent voice of the movement to free his country from military dictatorship.

The pulsating heart of this book, though, is the 1982 World Cup in Spain in which, led by Socrates and made incandescent with the talent of Zico and Falcao, Brazil expected to emerge handsome winners. Their play was joyful, vibrant, often mesmerising, and they won the public imagination.

But needing only a draw with Italy to progress to the semi-final, Brazil lost 2-3, and went out of the World Cup. It was the biggest shock of the tournament, and one of the biggest in the history of the World Cup. It was testimony to the fact that in sport, the better team does not always win. Socrates later called it “the best game I had ever seen in my life”.

Read more: World Cup 2014: The homecoming

Downie does not turn this book into a hagiography. While his admiration for Socrates is evident, he refuses to look away from the egotism, selfishness, philandering, and opportunism that characterised the man. Here is Socrates’s teammate, protégé, and friend, Casagrande, describing his mentor. “[Socrates] didn’t think of anyone else but himself… He wasn’t a bad person. He was emotionally selfish; he harmed other people.” The book is at its best when Downie brings out the duality within the fraught, complex genius that was Socrates.