By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 5, 2011) US Soccer Players — Those of us that grew up in the televised soccer wasteland that was the United States for a lot of years probably share a similar story and a similar affection for a collection of video tapes.  After all, it was how we saw what we read or heard about.  The great moments from games that we had little or no access to prior to the availability of video on the internet. 

It wasn’t just about finding the videos, it was about finding them in the right format to play on a North American VCR.  Thus the likelihood that you or somebody you knew had 500 Greatest Goals, maybe a couple of the official World Cup films, and selections from an almost random variety of English videos that had been improbably converted for the US market.  Match of the Day The 70’s for instance. 

Now that we sound like dinosaurs talking about an abandoned format and items that probably went the way of all things years ago, I’ll get to my point.  On one of those highlight video compendiums that I had, we see footage of Socrates with his club team.  It’s been years, and I don’t remember which one.  We find him directing his own run, pointing to where he’s going, getting there, and insisting on an unlikely pass.  He knocks that high pass down, turns and lays the ball off for an on-rushing player who has gotten the message.  Why it made the video is because it’s Socrates who actually scores, knocking in the rebound after his teammate was unable to complete his vision.  He celebrates like it went exactly as planned. 

Here’s where I half considered tracking down the clip on the web, but I might be misremembering and I would prefer not to know.  What I thought of when I read that Socrates had died was that moment.  Him not in a Brazil shirt, not connecting with Zico at World Cup level, and not in one of his truly classic moments.  We’ll assume the producers of that video didn’t have access to the truly great stuff.  What I remembered was a glimpse of a player that stood out years later from the bulk of those 500 Greatest Goals.

Too often in the contemporary era, that’s not enough to appropriately eulogize a sporting figure.  We’re supposed to get past what happened on the field, figure out the individual, and judge accordingly.  It’s an exercise in popular psychology in the true sense of that term.  We have to know more, and only them can we really have an opinion. 

Biographies and re-examinations of the importance of musicians almost always centers on this move.  You take someone who should be able to stand on what they built through recordings and performances and sweep away any and all presumptions.  Then you go after what’s left, the true or real story that usually ends up dispiriting the work – the art – that brought us there in the first place. 

Have you ever seen an internet forum go after a popular act or album?  Make no mistake, even the most reviled mainstream release will have someone claiming it’s actually the best thing the artist ever did.  That will be chased by those that can’t understand how the artist in question ever drew an audience to begin with.  Then we’ll normally see someone go after the artist’s influences as more than influences.  If you’re into the electric guitar heroes of the 60’s and 70’s, there’s a message board somewhere eager to let you know that the successful ones are sloppy, derivative, personally suspect, and ultimately of questionable value. 

Yes, but did any of the critics ever enjoy the music? 

That’s Socrates, overcoming his own back story as the soccer playing physician with the wild beard who had to be told to celebrate his goals.  How he did that was by giving up enough of his game to fit in at the highest level for the best soccer playing country in the world.  Setting aside all the talk of visionary and maverick that seems to tag any successful player from the 70’s who managed to setup a goal or score it while his manager was yelling in frustration from the sideline, we get a player who saw how his theories could work in practice at that top tier over 90 minutes. 

It doesn’t take more than a highlight to see that Socrates was using the sport of soccer as a platform to think through his own unique ideas.  Why not try this, and if it works we all win?  That’s a recipe for frustration in most settings at that level.  Even the samba version of Brazil needs players sticking to roles and assignments.  To prosper with an individual style there is world’s apart from entertaining on a Saturday in the English League in the early 80’s. 

Where that leaves us is a fully appropriate obituary.  Socrates was different, and those Brazil teams adjusted accordingly.  They made that choice, they made him captain, and they ended up doing enough to make two Brazil teams that didn’t win World Cups as memorable as some of those that did.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.