HE was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking free thinker grappling with the higher reaches of truth passed on to posterity by Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx in an awesome Victorian auditorium of a Rio de Janerio University.
He was a head-banded, flamboyant young man with curly brown locks unlocking the splendour of Brazilian country music to an entranced audience.
He was a fiery-eyed left-wing activist, a Che Guevara-type radical spouting slogans while leading a student march to restore democracy in his country.
He was a professional paediatrician hugging sick children at a UNICEF health camp with the missionary zeal of a Mother Teresa.
Socrates Brasilero Sampio de Souza de Oliviera, who passed away on Sunday in Brazil, was all of these…and more. He was one of the most gifted players produced by the greatest of soccer-playing nations, Brazil, in the post-Pele era.
A rebel with a cause, Socrates had a stupendous ability to combine stardom with creative ability on the field. His one-two passing symphony with his team-mate and friend Zico had a Mozartian magnificence.
As the eldest of a middle-rung government official’s 10 sons, as a brilliant young medical student, Socrates was intensely in search of an identity in the fragmented world of the late 1970s.
“I am not a footballer. I am a human being,” he screamed at mediapersons early in his career, apparently fed up with their one-track line of questioning. It was the cry of a man trying to free himself from the chains of a media-manufactured image, the struggle of a very intelligent human being trying to shake off a straitjacket.
It is this protean quality that set Socrates apart from some of the most brilliant players of his era. Deeply rebellious against the over-ordering of life, on and off the football field, he was quintessential nonconformist.
“He would sing a song and all of us wound enjoy it. Then, almost suddenly, Socrates would go into a shell, an impenetrable shell of his own. We knew him, yet we did not know him,” said a team-mate of his when Socrates was playing for the Sao Paulo giant Corinthians.
To be sure, it would take more than an average footballer to have come to terms with Socrates’ multi-faceted personality. For, the Socrates persona was as contradictory as it was compelling. He was a man in search of individual freedom in an age ruled by conformity and organisation, both in and out of football.
If you ever saw a cold-blooded master of life’s capriciousness — someone with knowledge of Nietzsche’s amor fati — then you can picture Socrates striding back nonchalantly after missing a crucial penalty in a World Cup semifinal against France in Mexico.
It is not as if Socrates was an incurable eccentric with a finger on the self-destruct button. He loved the game as much as he loved anything else in life. But he knew sport was just sport, not a matter of life or death. He would have been more devastated by the death of a child in a Rio health facility than a missed World Cup penalty.
Never one to beat around the bush, Socrates admitted early in his career that it was for big money that he temporarily abandoned his life as a doctor to become a footballer. “As a footballer, I get much quicker to the financial stability I need to be what I want to be: a doctor for the poor,” he said.
On the field, he was a master. With Zico and Falcao, he was part of a midfield that was rarely matched in the entire history of the game. So confident were these men about their own skills that they ignored their defensive weaknesses as a resurgent Paolo Rossi of Italy claimed a hat-trick to dump them from the 1982 World Cup.
He made his presence felt in the 1986 World Cup too, but soon the game was up for Doc. But another one, perhaps more rewarding — serving the poor as a doctor and becoming a sagacious commentator on television — began.
“Life is not about quantity. It is about quality,” Socrates said over 30 years ago. By modern standards, he died young.
He drank his way to his grave, like so many other sportspersons. But the difference is, he was a wise man who did know exactly what he was doing. It was his hemlock.
This is contributed by Nirmal Shekar from New Delhi