On The Field And In Politics, Socrates' Legacy Lives On

The 1980s Brazilian soccer star known simply by his first name, Socrates, is still revered in the country for his playing. But he is also remembered as a brave political dissenter who opposed Brazil's military dictatorship. NPR's Arun Rath talks to sports writer Dave Zirin about the legacy of Socrates.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The World Cup's host country Brazil won their first match on Thursday. Tuesday they face off against Mexico. Brazil has produced a lot of soccer superstars over the years. But if you ask Brazilians who their greatest footballer is you might hear an unfamiliar name, Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira. Ring a bell? If not don't sweat it. The soccer legend known simply as Socrates has been largely forgotten outside of Brazil since his glory days in the 1980s. Dave Zirin is a sports writer covering the World Cup. His latest piece is a profile of Socrates. He joined via Skype. Dave welcome back to the program.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh hey it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

RATH: So who was this guy known as Socrates? That wasn't his whole name.

ZIRIN: (Laughing) A much longer name than that. Socrates was the captain of the 1982 Brazilian World Cup team. And interestingly enough that 1982 team did not actually win the World Cup. It's not one of the five World Cups that Brazil won. But it's arguably the World Cup team that rests closest to the hearts of Brazilians. The team that most exemplified the beautiful game that Brazil is so proud to have started and launched on the international landscape.

RATH: Yeah, you say that this may have been the most artful team ever to grace the pitch. What do you mean by that?

ZIRIN: Well it means about - in terms of the style of play. I mean the 1980 team believed in an attacking, passing, almost balletic style that drew heavily on the Brazilian traditions of Capoeira, that's the martial arts that involved dance that was practiced on the slave plantations of Brazil and hip movements. I mean people have written entire poems about this 1982 team and how it best exemplifies what people think of when they say Brazilian soccer. But of course what Socrates meant to the people of Brazil is something so more profound than what took place on the field.

RATH: Now of course he didn't just have an impact on the game of soccer. You implied a little bit that he had interests far beyond that.

ZIRIN: Yes, I mean he was a Doctor, he was a writer, he was a poet, and he was a political activist. A proud and open socialist during a time when being a socialist in Brazil could be a death sentence. It was the time of a right-wing military dictatorship that existed in Brazil for decades. And so you have to - this is what people need to understand, Socrates was so famous and so beloved in Brazil that he ran his club team, Corinthians, as a kind of socialist sell, where the teams would decide collectively how they were going to play, how they are going to be coached. And if this had been say a regular neighborhood soccer club it could have been a straight trip to the prisons. But because it was Socrates and because of his popularity he was allowed to sort of operate this soccer team as a symbol of resistance during a period of violent oppression.

RATH: Now Socrates died in 2011, at just 57-years-old. But by then we all knew World Cup was going to be going to Brazil. Did he have any thoughts, was he excited about that?

ZIRIN: Well he was actually very disturbed by it. He was disturbed by the deal that had clearly been cut by the government to build new stadiums. Which he believed would happen at the expense of the public good. And I have to tell you looking back at Socrates's comments before his death, his prescience is stunning because he was saying these things in 2011 when the Brazilian economy was still humming along at a very strong rate. And now of course in 2014 Brazil may be in a mild recession, and yet all of the spending for the World Cup, for the security, for the stadiums, for the infrastructure, all of that has been going ahead unabated.

And that's why there's been so many protests and strikes in the streets. I mean Socrates was somebody who envisioned that this actually could be the result - this level of discomfort and disruption with hosting the World Cup, and so I really - I mean it's to our collective loss that he is not still with us today to comment on what's happening.

RATH: Dave Zirin is a sports writer. His latest piece, a profile of Brazilian soccer legend Socrates, is an excerpt from his book "Brazil's Dance with the Devil." Dave always a pleasure.

ZIRIN: Thank you so much.

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