Sunday, December 04, 2011

So. Farewell then, Socrates of Brazil

Today is a sad day for people of a certain age. News that the great Brazilian soccer player Socrates has died from an intestinal infection at the age of 57 reminds everyone who watched the 1982 and 1986 World Cups that we are mortal and we shall die.

It was a different era. There is saturation soccer coverage now – so much so that it’s easy to forget that one of the reasons the World Cup was a big deal previously is because there was nothing else.

In Ireland, what you knew about soccer you read in the papers or saw in highlights or what you saw in those strange midweek European Cup games, where Liverpool or Nottingham Forest would play in Belgrade or Budapest in a stadium ringed by an running track and a phalanx of heavily-armed military with the crowd deep in the shadows.

And then, every four summers, weeks and weeks of the stuff. Because you didn’t know who the players were, you were always ready to believe the hype, that these were colossi who bestrode the very earth, while mortals worshipped at their feet. Or at least, that's how they looked to a child.

Ricky Villas and Ossie Ardilles were the only players from outside the British Isles playing in England, and they both had to go back home to Argentina when the Falklands War broke out. Pre-internet and pre-satellite TV, all you knew were names and reputations – Rummenegge of West Germany, Platini of France, Maradona of Argentina. And everyone who played for Brazil. Every one of them.

Brazil arrived at the 1982 World Cup with too many central midfielders and not enough wide men. In a language that had yet to be invented, Brazil saw that as a feature, not a bug.

Brazil lit up Spain playing in a 4-2-2-2 formation, with Zico and Socrates as the penultimate two. Nobody had ever seen anything like it, nor would again. Brazil were at once fire and ice, rapier and broadsword, and became the most beloved international team since their own 1970 incarnation.

And then they lost. Brazil met Italy, the supreme pragmatists, in Barcelona’s Estadio Sarriá in the final game of their second round group. Brazil needed only a draw to go through. They lost, 3-2. Paolo Rossi scored a hat-trick and Zico would later describe the game as “the day football died.”

That was Zico enjoying the benefit of hindsight. Because four years later Brazil returned to the World Cup, and they lustre still shone just as brightly from the famous yellow jerseys.

Mexico 1986 was the last great World Cup. It was the last World Cup to showcase a man who was undeniably the Greatest Player in the World (don’t forget, Messi has yet to perform on the greatest stage, as Maradona, Cruyff (when he was bothered) and Pele have all done). Not only that, it had a number of teams who could have won it and deserved it just as much as Argentina did. Chiefly Brazil. Of course.

What a magnificent, frightening team Brazil were. Zico was a fitful due to injury, but Socrates was still there, pulling the strings. Unusually tall and gangly for a soccer player, with a distinctive thick black beard, he looked both completely at home and strangely out of place.

Brazil met the European Champions France in the quarter-finals. France weren’t that good, but Brazil ran out of luck that day in Guadalajara, losing to France on penalties.

The game turned on a penalty during the ninety minutes. Socrates had been taking them all during the tournament. He had a bizarre action – one step before striking the ball – but it worked. Keepers had no idea what to make of it.

But Zico had come on as a sub just before the penalty. Zico wore Brazil’s iconic No 10 shirt. Zico had never missed a penalty in his career. Zico had to take the penalty, because he was Zico.

France’s Joel Bats guessed correctly in goal. Zico missed, and the game went to penalties.

Socrates stepped up for the first. Bats was inspired by the earlier save of Zico. Bats saved Socrates’ shot, France won the shootout 4-3, and Brazil were gone. France went onto face Germany in the semi-final, and lost 0-2, to goals by Andy Brehme at the start and Rudi Völler at the finish. Bats was at fault for both of them.

And meanwhile Brazil are gone forever. The world waits for another Brazil to turn on the magic like they did in the 1960s and 1980s but that’s thirty years ago, and counting. The game has moved on. Whether it’s evolved or devolved is a debate for those who still love it. I don’t. Not any more.

All I do know is there once was a man, Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, whom the world knew simply as Socrates, and he had magic in him. May God grant the eternal reward due him for the joy he brought to millions and millions of people, all over the world.