O Captain! My Captain!Football is much more than a game – it is a way of life. It is passion beyond race, creed and colour, religion and nationality. In 2001, it even featured on the list of nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize; although I must say, I was quite disappointed upon seeing it not win.
My first memory of international football was Paolo Rossi leading Italy to victory over West Germany in the 1982 World Cup. I recall watching the 1985 European Cup final at the then Heysel Stadium, Brussels on television. All of us remember the tragic day which shaped club football in England for the next decade. Then the 1986 World Cup took place and the group stage matches started being telecast in India from the Brazil and Algeria encounter. I remember the performance of the Algerian goalkeeper, Naceredine Drid in that game which was outstanding. I also recall Careca scoring the Brazilian goal. Above all, I remember the Brazilian skipper – a bearded, tall figure, who was always noticeable. My first tryst with English club football was during a visit to London in the summer of 1989 when I saw a televised match between Oldham and Leeds United in the second division. I remember a player coming on as a substitute in the second half. A young, fresh faced Welsh kid, as the commentator described him, with a wild lock of hair. I have since watched many football matches and players, but the tall bearded Brazilian captain and the wild haired young Welsh kid have forever remained etched in my memory.
Who knew, that one day, I’d be penning a tribute to these two greats who left a lasting impression on my mind — Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira or Sócrates as he is popularly known, and Gary Andrew Speed. But this isn’t about them as footballers, their qualities and talents as players on the pitch, because I believe everyone knows that side of their lives, including Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates in heaven who’ll probably include them in his all time best XI team. Mine is an attempt to reveal their humane side – the wonderful human beings they have been.
I am not a big fan of obituaries. I would rather remember a player in his full glory than after his demise. Two words that best describe them – – ‘passion’ and ‘leadership’. Both Sócrates and Gary Speed played the game with a passion that was unparalleled. As players they were very different on the field. Sócrates was a natural with the quintessential Brazilian fluidity somewhat enhanced by his physique. Gary Speed on the other hand wasn’t – he worked very hard for his game and played with passion. It was this hard work and passion which made him the first player to appear in 500 Premiership games. On the field, they were both natural leaders who commanded respect, thanks to their game. But on and off the field, they were admired for their helpful nature.
Sócrates played most of his club football for Corinthians, where he founded the Corinthians democracy movement. This was his way of protesting against the military dictatorship in Brazil at the time. He persuaded the club chairman to allow certain team matters to be decided by players’ votes. Simple factors like what to eat and which hotels to put up in. These may seem very trivial now, but in those days, there weren’t many players’ associations or team hospitality managers around. In 1982, Corinthian players led by Sócrates sported the message ‘Vote on 15th’ on their jerseys urging their supporters to participate in the first multi-party election in Brazil since 1964. The team also played a lot of their games with ‘Democracia’ written on them in support of their beliefs and ideologies. Academically, Socrates was a doctor of medicine, a brilliant achievement since he completed his degree while playing. His childhood idols were Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and John Lennon, which is evident in his socialistic ideology. However, he considered himself a social democrat as opposed to a socialist. He practised medicine in his hometown of Ribeirão Preto, often treating poor patients for free. A heavy smoker and drinker even during his playing days, he was considered a hippie rebel by many but he was a serious intellectual person who liked to live and enjoy life on his own terms. He was also a very accomplished writer who regularly contributed columns in newspapers and journals, not only on football but also on politics and economics. Instead of going on about him, here are excerpts from an interview he gave just before the 2010 World Cup. It practically sums up the Doctor as he was, in his words.
Q) What are you up to these days?
Sócrates: So much stuff I can hardly remember. I give lots of seminars about leadership, human relationships, that sort of thing. I have a consultancy for social projects, cultural projects and I will be moving into sports projects. I write for newspapers and magazines about sport and general subjects such as politics and economics. I appear on TV and I’m starting another book. It’s fiction and it’s about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It will come out in two years, God willing. The idea is to show Brazil to the rest of the world.
Q) What is the book about?
Sócrates: The idea is to create several characters who are foreigners coming to the World Cup. The book will be a compilation of their stories and how they get to know Brazil – the good things of this country and also its problems.
The championship will be pure fiction and the final will be Brazil versus Argentina, with Argentina winning 2-0, both goals scored by Messi. Heh heh. If you have an idea for an English character, tell me, then we’ll come up with various scenarios and then we’ll put them all together. Everyone has different experiences in Brazil and we want to put in the best.
Can you imagine, say, a Chinese man watching a game in Manaus on a Sunday and then having to get to Salvador for a game on Wednesday? Not a chance he would make it! He’ll get lost in the Pantanal [the world’s largest wetland], then fall in love with, say, a Korean. Everyone who comes to Brazil falls in love with someone. Obviously! We’re the most sexualised people in the world.
Oh, I forgot to mention that I’m still playing music and I’ve got a theatre project on the go, too. It is a play that uses football as a backdrop. It’s by Oduvaldo Vianna Filho and its called Chapetuba Futebol Clube and I’ll be on stage, acting. We are raising money for that at the moment.
Q) Do you like the Brazil squad? (Pre-2010 World Cup)
Sócrates: It is a very bureaucratic team, very conservative… they’ll have problems. There’s a new kid at Santos, Paulo Henrique, who is exceptional. He is already the best player in Brazil. He is playing amazingly well and Dunga [the coach] didn’t want to take him. He didn’t take Ronaldinho; he only chose defensive midfielders, players who mark, players who run. If Kaká isn’t playing well, the team will be badly out of kilter.
Q) But isn’t Dunga simply being sensible?
Sócrates: Being sensible isn’t always the best thing. Who says that being sensible is a sign of quality? I don’t think so.
The last answer aptly sums up the man Socrates was.Gary Speed studied at Deeside Primary School which also had Ian Rush, Barry Horne and Michael Owen as pupils in different times. He later attended Hawarden High School in north Wales. He was a fanatical Everton supporter and lived on the same street as the former club captain, Kevin Ratcliffe. He was a paperboy for the locality. Ratcliffe later recalled that his papers were always late as he subscribed to a lot of sports journals which Speed used to read before delivering. Even in street football kick-abouts, Ratcliffe noticed his sublime left foot. He was also a district school cricket player – a medium fast bowler who was also a clean hitting lower order batsman. He was signed up by Leeds United in 1988 and was noticed by the manager while playing for the youth side. He made his debut against Oldham, the match which I was lucky to watch on television in May 1989. Gary Speed played in nine out of the ten outfield positions for Leeds United the following two seasons – a testament to his versatility and dedication as a total team man. A far cry from today when some players refuse to play when put on the substitute’s bench and not in the starting XI. In the 1991-92 season, when Leeds won the old English First Division title, he was outstanding in the mid-field with Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister and David Batty.
Gary Speed was not a very vocal or outspoken person off the field. He was very helpful to teammates, always trying to solve their problems and disputes which made him a natural leader and captain. He was known as Mr. ‘Nice Guy’. He was very particular about his fitness and diet which was not very common for other players of his times. This enabled him to play till the age of 41.
Away from football, he was a keen quizzer who loved questions on History and Geography more than Football or Sports. He had not pursued higher education while concentrating on his playing career but he had a sharp intellect and memory. According to his former teammate Alan Shearer, Speed would have made a very fine lawyer. Speed, like many of his Welsh counterparts, could never showcase his talents on an international stage. As the Welsh manager he was highly respected by his players and was responsible for Robbie Savage’s transformation from a ‘bad boy’ to a team player. Again I would not like to keep on writing about Speed but use his own words to show the person he was. After he was sold from Everton, the club he supported all his life, to Newcastle United, owing to problems with the manager, this is what he had to say – “You know why I’m leaving, but I can’t explain myself publicly because it would damage the good name of Everton Football Club and I’m not prepared to do that.” The words reflect: a real team man and the true human being that Gary Speed was.
People like Sócrates and Gary Speed can never die. They will live within our hearts and memories forever with their football, their passion, their brilliant smiles and above all their humanity. They lived their lives according to their own choices and died in a manner of their own choosing too. Long live the legends!