It is strange that the death of Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira (or just Sócrates for short) affected me more than that of Gary Speed as the latter’s suicide had been as unpredictable as the former’s play. Speed was young, at the beginning of a potentially great new career in management and had a young family just taking their steps into the real world. Sócrates was old – a pale, shrunken shadow of the man he used to be, and had been in and out of hospital in recent months with almost clockwork regularity.
Maybe it is the contrary part of me that somehow reacts to the mawkish, competitive mourning that has become especially prevalent in the UK. Gary Speed had played for several clubs, over a very long time in the period where the Premier League boomed into the behemoth it is now today, and his skill and determination impressed millions in that time. He was undoubtedly a good man.
But we seem to be in a situation where grief has to be flaunted by everyone, to be shouted from the rooftops, whether we knew the man or not. Some of this post-Princess Di era crying in the streets wasn’t directed at his family, it was looking inwards, saying “Look at us, we hurt too.”
This is not meant to be directed at those who truly were in mourning, such as the Leeds Utd. fans, whose 11 minutes applause for their former number 11 was breathtakingly moving. They saw many of Speed’s finest years, and are not even the exception, but we shouldn’t have to feel we are being bullied into showing our respects either. It is hardly respectful, is it?
I must apologise. This bares no relation to Berlin, and has as much place in “The Berlin blog” as Leo Messi does in the Oberliga, but allow me to indulge myself briefly. I was four years old when Sócrates scored the goal against the USSR that everybody is talking about again in 1982. That World Cup passed through my consciousness as smoothly as the beautifully named Hungarian Lazslo Kiss went through the El Salvadorian defence during his seven minute hattrick.
In 1986, however, he was already past his best, the boozing was having an effect and his teammates were getting older too. The greatest team never to have won the World Cup wouldn’t stand a chance of it in Mexico, it seemed, but for my first World Cup they seemed otherworldly, defined by a sticker book and some of my formative experiences of the game.
In the middle of that Panini sticker album, was Sócrates. I didn’t know he was a lefty at the time. A smoker. A boozer. A doctor. But I should have – it was obvious. It was the beard. I came from a town in which my Dad had the only beard on show. It’s not like nowadays. It was like Poland, where you see the odd moustache, but beards are only and exclusively worn by bums. Sócrates was immediately special.
I remember patches of the games, but not much. The roar when Zico came on in the France quarter-final was earth shattering to me. Then he missed his penalty. Sócrates was seemingly playing at half pace, I looked out for him, and he missed a penalty in the shootout at the end too, but the way he loped around, somehow lankier than the others, but with the gait of a king. His back was straight, his head held high. He kissed the ball when he kicked it, and it would go in any direction for him, as it loved him as much as everybody else did.
Years later I found out about his roles in helping drag Brazil into democracy, helping his fellow professionals earn the money they deserved and his poisoned tongue towards the corrupt elites that ran the game. But it didn’t need to be said; to me it was always obvious that there was something about Sócrates.
I saw Gary Speed play a couple of times in the flesh, closer than I ever got to Sócrates by thousands of miles. They will both be remembered for a long time, but Speed will be as one that tragically got away. I got the news about Sócrates with a roaring hangover and a fag in my mouth and immediately wanted to watch the goal against the USSR that I never saw at the time.