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Spectator sport

Spectator Sport: The legendary Socrates

10 December 2011

1:00 PM

10 December 2011

1:00 PM

The great footballer Pat Nevin, as fluent, funny and intelligent an ex-player as you are likely to find, tells a wonderful story about using the word ‘equidistant’ to a referee when they were lining up a free kick. The players looked at him as if he was an alien and the referee nearly booked him for swearing.

One of the reasons why, notwithstanding the manly virtues and short back and sides of Bobby Moore’s World Cup heroes, for pasty, middle-class fans like myself who grew up when a footballer with an O-level was regarded as a freak (so much so that they were all nicknamed Bamber by the newspapers), the arrival of a player like the wondrous Brazilian midfielder Socrates was heaven-sent. He was middle-class like us, he liked Camus and looked like Che Guevara, he trained to be a doctor, he wore a bandana saying ‘NO TERROR’, he had great hair, and he smoked and drank.

He captained the legendary Brazil side of 1982, which winged it, and now both are remembered with love and awe and passion. Socrates epitomised the spirit that there was more to sport than just winning. There is a wonderful picture of him in the ’82 match against Argentina. His body, whip-thin (that would change), coiled like a perfect S, his back straight, his head perfectly balanced, strong legs, lean arms, clear eyes focused on the ball. It is a model of what an athlete should be.

The whole team was entirely instinctive and that’s why they were flawed. But how would you rather have your sportsmen? Rob Andrew or Barry John? Glenn Hoddle or Billy Bremner? David Gower or Kepler Wessels? Socrates played sport the way it should be played, but not necessarily the way that worked best. But that’s why we love teams like that, I guess. What about England 1990? Bobby Robson’s side’s campaign had it all, late goals, drama and tears, not just Gazza’s either, before losing a penalty shoot-out with Germany. Or the Dutch of 1974, still the most perfect side I can think of, with Cruyff, Neeskens and Johnny Rep losing to Beckenbauer’s Germany in the final. Or Chelsea at any point before they were bought by Roman and run by José: cavalier, cheerful and almost permanent losers. Football fans adored Chelsea. Now, well, not so much…

It was Socrates the smoker we loved too. It just made you feel a bit better about being so dumb as you lit up again, knowing that this godlike figure was probably doing something similar. He wasn’t alone either: among top sporting smokers are Zinedine Zidane, who fronted an anti-smoking campaign as well as having a serious Marlboro habit; Johan Cruyff of course; the legendary Serge Blanco, rarely without a gasper when off the pitch; and Shane Warne, who it was said had a two-pack habit before taking on a $200,000 deal with Nicorette. He was then seen lighting up before the deal was over. Or maybe the pick of them all, and I am indebted to the late, great and always lamented Ian Wooldridge for this: Herb Elliott, the best 1,500m runner of his generation and never beaten over a mile in his career, who got through 30 a day.

Thanks to Graeme Swann and a jolly evening of Times hospitality for this excellent sledging story. England were batting against the Aussies. Michael Atherton gave the thinnest of snicks to the keeper Ian Healy. There was a massive appeal. ‘Not out,’ said the umpire. Healy launched into a ferocious outburst at Athers. ‘You ****ing cheating ****, why don’t you **** off where you belong, you ****,’ and so on and so on. Athers turned to Healy: ‘When in Rome, dear boy, when in Rome…’ A couple of overs later, a baffled and furious Healy came up to Atherton. ‘What do you mean Rome? We’re in Sydney…’

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.

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