Sócrates and Fiorentina was a relationship that made sense on many levels. The iconic Brazilian had a fascination with culture and philosophy off the pitch, which was well-suited to a life in Florence. But on the pitch, things never clicked for the offbeat midfielder.
In the 1970s and 80s, Sócrates was one of the most notable Brazilian players. His role in the all-out attacking Seleção sides in the 1978 and 1982 World Cups grew his global reputation.
Sócrates was also well-known in his native country. Long-term spells with two of the biggest sides in Brazil, Botafago and Corinthians, showcased the midfielder’s technical and creative football talents. In addition, his captaincy and leadership skills also came to the fore in Brazil and for Seleção.
The graceful Brazilian was known for his gliding, polished football skills. But his image caught the eye too. The headband-sporting and grizzly bearded Sócrates looked more like revolutionary Che Guevara rather than a football player. It was a unique look that earned him the tag of a ‘symbol of cool’.
To add to his cultured image, Sócrates was a renowned academic and philosopher. He trained to be a doctor and earned the nickname ‘Doctor Sócrates’. Moreover, he was renowned for having liberal and revolutionary political opinions.
In part, it was this deeper level of political ideation that led to the infamous Brazilian moving away from Sao Paulo in 1984. Instead, he traveled to an Italian city full of history, philosophy, and culture.
Sócrates and Fiorentina: An Infatuation with Florence
At Botafago, Sócrates wanted to revolutionize how the club was run. The captain proposed that more player and coach opinions needed to be considered in decision-making.
However, the forward-thinking ideals were perhaps too radical for the Botafago hierarchy. The desire to shake things up was not taken well. Soon, Sócrates found himself searching for a new club as the disagreements reached fever pitch.
In footballing terms, the Italian Serie A seemed the ideal environment where Sócrates could continue his established career. Several Brazilian players were already plying their trade in Serie A. Sócrates’ compatriots and national teammates like Falcão and Zico had already swapped the Brazilian Serie A for the Italian league.
One team in need of a midfielder leader ahead of the 1984/85 campaign was Fiorentina. The Viola had just broken into the UEFA Cup and finished third in Serie A to cap an impressive 1983/84 season. However, club captain Giancarlo Antognoni was ruled out for the early stages of the season through injury. Now available and desperately wanting a move from Brazil, Sócrates provided the ideal replacement.
The Brazilian midfielder was eager to join. Yet not for the desire to do his best work on the pitch. Instead, the Brazilian captain was more interested in the history and culture of Italy.
When asked about his favorite Serie A player, his response was as deep as ever – “‘I don’t know them,’ he said. ‘I’m here to read Gramsci in the original language and study the history of the labor movement.”
Competitive Yet Casual
Initially, Sócrates and Fiorentina seemed like the perfect match. The midfielder took to Serie A football well and quickly became an influential figure for Fiorentina in the absence of Antognoni.
In just his fourth appearance, the Brazilian opened his account in 5-0 home thrashing against Atalanta. It was clear that Sócrates also wanted to make an impression. Under Viola manager Ferruccio Valcareggi, Sócrates started 22 consecutive matches to start his Fiorentina career, emphasizing his pivotal role at the club.
But, while things were running smoothly on the pitch, the Brazilian was not well-regarded by his teammates.
Argentinian Daniel Passarella was another highly regarded figure at Fiorentina. However, his disciplined, defense-minded, and hard-working approach clashed with Sócrates’ free-spirited nature.
Moreover, the Viola‘s manager Valcareggi, often grew frustrated with Sócrates inability to hold a position and with the midfielder’s attempt to provide unnecessary flair. In a period where Italian football was known for its discipline and intense fitness levels, Sócrates did not fit the mold and was known for a casual approach to training.
The Beginning of the End at Fiorentina
1983/84 was a poor season for Fiorentina and Sócrates was perceived as a symbol for the club’s underachievement – a scapegoat for the Viola’s early elimination from the UEFA Cup and a ninth-place finish.
Ultimately, Sócrates’ spell in Florence ended in turmoil. The Brazilian was unable to fit into the team’s system and had few supporters off the pitch. In addition, the financial elements of securing a seasoned Brazilian national team player who underperformed proved costly.
After a fairly consistent first half to the 1984/85 season, Sócrates’ form tailed off. A back injury ruled him out for five of the final eight matches of the campaign as Fiorentina limped to mid-table.
At the end of the campaign, Fiorentina sold Sócrates to Brazilian side Flamengo. Once the philosophical Brazilian departed, Fiorentina decided to take a completely different approach to transfers, focusing on youth.
What Could Have Been for Fiorentina and Sócrates
Sócrates’ was unable to recapture his elite form from his pre-Fiorentina days in Brazil. Injuries, issues with alcoholism, and a growing infatuation with politics, social issues, and academia meant the once-Brazilian great only played three more seasons before retiring.
After his retirement in 1989, Sócrates moved on to several different jobs away from football. Among them, he wrote columns for several news outlets and used his profile to form political projects.
Embedding a player like Sócrates into an Italian side known for discipline and hard work was always going to be a challenge. Ultimately, the move proved a frustrating and expensive experiment for all parties involved. The eccentric midfielder needed a coach who would allow him freedom and someone who could forge him into the leading player in the side.
Despite having a clear ability to perform in Serie A, Sócrates and Fiorentina were at fault for the failed spell. Undoubtedly, the Brazilian midfielder was happy in Florence, but not in the 1984/85 Viola side. But the pricy cost of signing Sócrates should have come with more thoughts about how to integrate such a player, rather than using him as a stop-gap for Antognoni.
Perhaps the demands and rigor of the Italian game came too soon for an individual more focused on politics and deep thinking rather than football.