Socrates: the Arthur Scargill of world football

Like the miners fighting Thatcher, the Brazil team of the Eighties was defeated by its own outdated philosophy.

Duleep Allirajah

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For many Guardian-reading, fortysomething football fans, the legendary Brazilian captain Socrates, who died last week, was the epitome of cool. He was their idealised sporting self-image: an elegant playmaker who strolled through games; a chain-smoking bon vivant; a doctor, playwright, newspaper columnist and left-wing intellectual who defied the military dictators and idolised Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and John Lennon. Socrates was the ultimate polymath; Eric Cantona minus the cod-philosophy.

The gushing tributes to Socrates in the UK reflect our enduring reverence for the 1982 Brazilian side which is often lauded as the ‘best team never to win the World Cup’. Socrates himself has been described as a ‘Renaissance man’, ‘football’s king of cool in the Eighties’ and the ‘thinking man’s footballer’. Pelé once said ‘Socrates can play football backwards better than most can play facing forwards’. Watching the 1982 World Cup on TV, I, too, was in thrall to Socrates and the Samba Boys. I can vividly remember party tricks, the mesmerising whirl of midfield movement and, above all, the spectacular goals. Socrates, Zico, Eder, Falcao – they could all score long-range goals for fun.

To be honest, the 1982 World Cup apart, what I know about Socrates is from what I’ve read rather than what I’ve seen. Perhaps this explains our rather sepia-tinted memories of the stylish midfielder. We didn’t have YouTube’s ‘mad skills’ video compilations back then. In the pre-Sky TV era, Brazilian footballers still possessed a certain mystique. Quite simply, they played a brand of football which was alien and exotic to those of us who’d grown up watching the stodgy fare served up every Sunday on The Big Match.

Socrates’ goal against Italy was memorably greeted by Motty screaming ‘Socrates scores the goal that sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football’. It’s this ethos, the adherence to jogo bonito – ‘the beautiful game’ – which explains Brazil’s enduring appeal to the commentariat. Not only were they technically excellent but Brazil and, in particular, the ‘anti-athlete’ Socrates are seen to embody a sporting ethos which is at odds with the cynical win-at-all-costs pragmatism of the Italians. ‘To win is not the most important thing’, said Socrates after Brazil’s exit from the ’82 tournament. ‘Football is an art and should be showing creativity. If Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas had known when they were doing their work the level of recognition they were going to have, they would not have done them the same. You have to enjoy doing the art and not think, “Will I win?”.’

Watching those old YouTube clips of Socrates is great fun. But I’d take issue with his canonisation. Sure, he was one cool dude but was he the ‘Da Vinci of Brazilian soccer’, as one journalist described him? I see him more as the Arthur Scargill of football: a man who fought modern battles using outdated tactics. Let me explain. Scargill made his name in 1972 when, as the firebrand leader of the Yorkshire miners, he led the mass picket which shut down the Saltley Gate coking plant in Birmingham. Twelve years later, as president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Scargill took on Margaret Thatcher and lost. His attempt to recreate Saltley Gate at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire, failed miserably. Scargill’s anachronistic faith in the sanctity of the picket line was no match for the Tories who had had been preparing for a showdown with the miners since the 1974 Ridley Report, which proposed a raft of measures such as a large mobile force of riot police to counter mass picketing.

Just as Scargill believed he could re-stage Saltley Gate, so Socrates and Brazil tried to win the 1982 World Cup by playing the same style of buccaneering football as the great 1970 team. However, as they discovered to their cost, in the intervening 12 years, their international rivals had developed tactics to counteract Brazil’s beautiful football. If you watch footage of the 1970 tournament you can’t help but be struck by how much time the Brazilians had on the ball. By 1982, their European opponents were fitter and had started pressing more. This made it more difficult for the Brazil midfielders, skilful as they were, simply to pass the ball through the middle.

However, it was Brazil’s neglect of the defensive side of the game which proved to be their fatal flaw. Requiring only a draw in their final group match to reach the semi-final, Brazil came unstuck against an Italian team which could soak up pressure and counter-attack. In one of the most memorable matches in World Cup history, Italy led twice through goals from Paolo Rossi but Brazil twice drew level. With the score at 2-2, Brazil could have shut up shop but instead pushed forward in search of a winner. Inevitably, they were hit on the break, Rossi scored a killer third goal and Brazil were eliminated.

I think it’s time to rethink our nostalgic reverence for the 1982 Brazil team. They were wonderful entertainers but shockingly naive. The greatest team never to win the World Cup? I beg to differ. The Netherlands in 1974 or Hungary in 1954 deserve that accolade. Dutch total football was revolutionary in the 1970s whereas Brazil’s buccaneering tactics were long past their sell-by date by 1982. They had a brilliant midfield quartet but, in my opinion, their disdain for defending undermines their claims to greatness.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside

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