Rest in peace, the 'heel of gold'

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By Simon Romero NYT News Service
  • Published 5.12.11

Rio de Janeiro: Socrates, the soccer legend and medical doctor who transcended the sport through his involvement in Brazil’s pro-democracy movement and his outspoken defence of his own bohemian excesses, died on Sunday in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He was 57.

The cause was septic shock from an intestinal infection, according to a statement from Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, where he was admitted on Saturday.

Socrates, the captain of Brazil’s team in the 1982 World Cup, had been hospitalised three times in the last four months. In recent interviews, he had described liver problems related to decades of heavy drinking, for which he was sometimes pilloried.

“This country drinks more cachaca than any other in the world, and it seems like I myself drink it all,” he once told an interviewer, referring to the popular Brazilian spirit made from fermented sugar cane. “They don’t want me to drink, smoke or think?” “Well,” he said, “I drink, smoke and think.”

His exuberant style reflected an expansive and multifaceted career. In addition to playing soccer, he practised medicine and dabbled in coaching and painting. He also wrote newspaper columns, delving into subjects as varied as soccer, politics and economics, and made forays into writing fiction and acting on the stage.

Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira was born on February 19, 1954, in the Amazonian city of Belem do Para, Brazil. His upbringing was more privileged than that of many Brazilian professional soccer players, who often rise from abject poverty.

Emerging in the 1970s as a promising young player in Ribeirao Preto, in the interior of Sao Paulo State, he studied medicine while playing for provincial teams before attaining his medical degree at age 24. After that, he moved up to Corinthians, the famous Sao Paulo club with a big following among Brazil’s poor.

Known to his fans as “Doctor” and “Big Skinny,” a reference to his spindly 6-foot-4-inch frame, his arrival at Corinthians occurred at a time of intense political activity in Sao Paulo, a period when anger and resistance was coalescing against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil.

Socrates, in addition to organising a movement advocating greater rights for Corinthians’ players, spoke at street protests in the 1980s calling for an end to authoritarian rule.

Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, praised Socrates in a statement on Sunday. “Dr. Socrates was a star on the field and a great friend,” said Da Silva, a Corinthians fan who is undergoing treatment for throat cancer at the hospital where Socrates died. “He was an example of citizenship, intelligence and political consciousness.”

On the field, Socrates was known as a wily strategist who could elegantly employ his signature move, a back-heel pass.

He is survived by his wife and six children.