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When he was the figurehead of a peculiar revolutionary movement sweeping through Corinthians football club in the late 1970s, Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, MD, used to invite other people, non-footballers, to come and talk with the squad on Fridays before a game.

For Brazilian footballers were traditionally sequestered away in the build up to a match and he got bored easily. They had never been trusted, always having to deal with the idea that if they were let off the leash for a second then they’d be off, a pint of Cachaça held one hand and a woman being fondled with the other.

Although, to be fair, this was often not an unfair supposition.

In Garrincha’s day a senior player would make sure he had booked another room on a higher floor in the same hotel where they could relax in peace. With fags and booze and anyone else who fancied killing a few hours with a bunch of testosterone rich, finely tuned athletes in the prime of their lives, trying to stop themselves climbing the walls.

Those rooms stunk to high heaven when they were done with. The air was pungent and thick. But desperate times call for desperate measures, after all.

The concentração was a purgatory for most. They were locked up like itinerant children after dark with nothing to do other than talk to other footballers about football.

So Socrates invited all these artists and writers and musicians and philosophers to the hotel.

People who understood the machinations of the world outside of white touchlines painted with predictable certainty on green, green grass. People who could keep his enormous brain ticking over.

He didn’t look like a footballer, the Doctor. His limbs were just too long. Before receiving the ball he seemed to almost teeter, his legs were like the upturned branches of a Silver Birch. His chest so long it was like he’d been wrung through an old fashioned, hand-cranked mangle.

I probably romanticise Sócrates more than anyone else to have played football. Unfairly, and from a distance, I’ve somehow elevated him from being a really good footballer to being the high water mark of human artistic and moral achievement.

I like the fact that he smoked and he drunk, even though it was probably his addictions that killed him in the end. I love the fact that he was a trained medical professional but he spent his time kicking a ball around with a grace that few have managed before or since. I love the fact that he didn’t look like a footballer. He wasn’t even pretty. his skin was pockmarked, his ears flappy, his haircut uncertain.

I love the fact he was willing to stand up to bullies and tyrants, and to do so he used the one thing that Jock Stein once said both footballers and miners understand more than almost anyone else. Togetherness.

And I love the fact that he was interested in other people, in other things, in the outside world.

I was thinking about Sócrates just recently.

I’d just come back from seeing the live recording of a podcast for 11Freunde with Neven Subotić  invited along as the special guest.

Subotić  had only been at Union for a matter of weeks.

And he is never going to be beloved in the way that a Micha Parensen is, he cant be, its an impossibility – he’d probably only played three games for the club at this point – but he was already becoming somewhat of a hero.

He’d talked about how he’d get the train to the stadium. How his transient background had given him a unique view of the world.

How he believed in the unique strength of the fans.

And he’d played superbly in places, too. He was a Champions League finalist. A league and cup winner, and it still showed. He would make up ground in two steps that most would need three for. He would roll the ball to a teammate when others would have to hit it.

It all helped.

But he looked a little awkward during the initial exchanges on the stage. He played along with the somewhat enforced jokiness, and he indulged the hosts and the full theatre watching with anecdotes about his life in the game, but you could tell he was ready to move on already.

So he started talking about the foundation he started when he was eighteen years old. He was so lucky, he said, in his life.

He knew he had to give something back to someone else. He had to do something important. More important at least than beating a hulking centre-forward to a cross arriving near the penalty spot, using his full weight to barrel through him.

More important than threading a little ball out to a full-back with wit and calm, mathematical precision and musical timing.

He talked for another half an hour, almost without pause, about the desperation for water in sub-Saharan Africa. About what he had achieved and what he still had to do. He urged everyone to help. He sparkled and hectored and he sat forwards when he could have leaned back to show that this was actually really fucking important.

I was introduced to Subotić  after the recording, and he listened politely, though a little distractedly, as he sized me up out of the corner of his eye. I tried to be cool, but probably failed.

I told him I liked his jacket.

It had a round-necked, Beatles collar that is the distinguishing mark of a gentleman, but he said he had just picked it up after his luggage had got lost.

And as I said how much I’d like to interview him, he looked a little bored already.

“Sure I’ll talk to you,” he said. But there was a caveat waiting, a Sócratesian punchline that made me want to sing out in joy.

“Just as long as it’s not about football.”

Image by Tim.Reckmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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