It was coming up to 11am on 12th June, 2003—Valentine’s Day in Brazil. The bus jolted me awake as we rolled into the truly unremarkable Brazilian town of Ribeirão Preto. I’d barely slept. There was a gnawing in my gut—might have been nerves; might have been the parasite I’d recently contracted that had rendered me sober for the past month. I’d even jilted the girl I’d been seeing at the time to make the twelve-hour journey from Rio de Janeiro.
Instead, the reason behind the trip and the object of my Valentine’s affections was a 6’4”, 49-year-old, bearded Brazilian man sporting a decent beer gut and six names: Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira. Or Doctor Sócrates to me and you.
My first football memories are from Mexico 86. While Diego Maradona was the undeniable star, it was the gold and blue Brazilian team who captured my imagination—none more so than their chain-smoking, hard-drinking doctor, who strolled around the middle of the pitch with the beard of a Cuban revolutionary and a headband that demanded an end to violence. In the ensuing years, I’d seen the goals from Spain 82, and read up on his time at Corinthians, where he’d fought for democracy and an end to Brazil’s military dictatorship.
So this was no ordinary footballer I was meeting and, to be perfectly honest, it seemed all too improbable. I was just 22 and enjoying a year ‘studying’ at one of Rio’s universities. Having not done very much at all (in daylight hours), I decided to undertake some research for my dissertation on Brazilian football (yes, that’s right) and ask for an interview.
I’d got his number through the local sports paper (in an era where you could just ask for a player’s number) and made the call expecting very little. Why would Sócrates want to talk to me? Surely he was a busy man. I rambled through the gist of my project in my best Portuguese, and he cut me short—”yes, of course, can we do it over a beer?” “Um … absolutely.” “Then meet me in Pingüim at midday on Thursday. It’s a great bar.”
True to his word, Pingüim (penguin in Portuguese) was a great bar. The slogan had me hooked—’the only place in summer where penguins stay cool.’ I grabbed a table and let the waiter know who I was waiting for, receiving a knowing look. Once again, that nagging pain in my stomach. He wasn’t going to come.
Twenty of the longest minutes later, in he strode—tall, taller than imagined, grey beard, pale lemon shirt, Bermuda shorts, cigarette hanging from the mouth, and a twinkle in his eye. He greeted me warmly and ordered us two beers. I explained to him I’d caught a parasite and couldn’t drink—”Of course you can. The worst you’ll get is a bout of the shits. Trust me; I’m a doctor.”
I got through the formalities, nervously put my tape recorder down (this was 2003, remember) and started my questions. What followed was fascinating, with insight into his years at Corinthians and musings on the political power of footballers.
When the hour was up, I thanked the great man for his time and got ready to leave, wondering what the hell I was going to do in Ribeirão Preto until my bus left for Rio later that night. “Aren’t you going to stay for lunch?” he said.
Lunch turned into more beers, and the afternoon flew by in a blur as I lost any earlier signs of journalistic integrity and grilled him as any fan might.
Favourite player? “Cruyff—a true artist who played for the team and not himself.” Best player? “Pelé by a distance.” Not Maradona? “Not even close, even if I enjoyed watching Maradona more and preferred him as a man.” He elaborated as to why football should become 9-a-side—”increased fitness means less space, and with less space players lose their technique and vision”; how he never wanted to play in Italy and “only drank beer for a year in Florence”; and how he saw himself eventually living in Paris despite his undying love for Brazil.
I was lucky enough to meet and interview Sócrates on a further two occasions over the next decade before his untimely death in 2011—including once in his flat, when I had to wait for two hours as he slept off a hangover with a copy of Playboy on his coffee table as my only available reading material. Each time, he was humorous, opinionated, thoughtful, warm, and extraordinarily generous with his time—every bit the legend I had hoped him to be.
And ultimately the good doctor was right. If there is one lesson that you can take away from this story, then it is this: if you have worms, then don’t drink beer before a 12-hour bus journey. You will get a tremendous bout of the shits.
This piece originally appeared in Issue 011. If you were into it, you can subscribe to a magazine full of lots of things similar to it and get it sent to your door. Kinda nice, huh? Issue 013 is now available for pre-order too.