When it comes to producing footballing legends, few countries do it quite as well as Brazil. Ronaldo, Pele, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Ronaldinho, Dunga, Romario, Zico are just a few of the names which roll off the tongue. With their distinctive yellow kits and skilful and attacking style of flowing football, the five-times World Cup winners are favourites amongst football fans worldwide.
What does Brazilian football have to do with Yorkshire, you may well be asking? Well, remarkably, in 2004, Brazilian legend Socrates turned out for Leeds-based non-league side Garforth Town.
Socrates is one of the finest players Brazil has ever produced. He won 60 caps and appeared in two World Cups, captaining the side in the 1982 tournament. In the same year he appeared for Garforth Town, he appeared in Pele’s FIFA 100 list of greatest living players. Football journalist Jonathan Wilson, writing for FourFourTwo, once said of him, ‘Socrates was the brain of Brazil. He might not quite have had the flair of Zico, but he was the central intelligence.’ After a glittering career, he finally retired in 1990.
What made one of the greatest ever players come out of retirement and play for Garforth? This incredible story begins in 2003 when Simon Clifford became the owner of the club. He came with big ideas and even bigger ambitions. He wanted to take them from the lowly Northern Counties East League to a Premier League side within 20 years. He stated, ‘There shouldn’t be any limit to what you could achieve. I was big in setting high hopes and crazy dreams, some not entirely rational today. I look at things differently now. But there shouldn’t be limits on what you can achieve – when that (winning the Premier League) started getting repeated in the press, we went with it and the publicity.’
To help him achieve these ambitions, Clifford signed another high-profile player in ex-Manchester United star Lee Sharpe who was coming towards the end of his career. Following this transfer, talk of signing the Brazilian legend started to circulate. The recruitment of the player (Which one – Sharpe or Socrates?) was seen as the catalyst for a drive for promotion. A quick look back at Clifford’s career shows that this prestigious signing had its origins in the setting up and development of his Brazilian Soccer Schools.
The idea for the schools came from his time working as a PE teacher in Middlesbrough. Clifford had already developed a passion for coaching local children’s football teams in his spare time. In a quirk of fate, Clifford bought a season ticket for his beloved Middlesbrough Football Club, which put him a few seats away from the father of club legend Juninho.
This led to him developing a blossoming relationship with the player. Clifford managed to convince Juninho to attend his after-school football coaching and meet the children. Here he introduced Clifford to Futebol de Salao which is a smaller, heavier ball, widely used in Brazil. This new ball, combined with Juninho’s knowledge of South American coaching techniques, saw the birth of the first Brazilian Soccer School. To develop his knowledge of Brazilian coaching, Clifford found funding for a trip to Brazil which was filmed by the BBC. On the trip, he met the likes of Zico and Revellino and observed them coaching first-hand. The publicity created by the trip led to increased interest in the schools.
Clifford’s contacts and reputation in Brazil made a move as audacious as inviting Socrates to play for Garforth Town a reality. The motive for bringing the 50-year-old Brazilian legend to Garforth went beyond him playing matches for the club and was, in fact, more to do with driving interest in the soccer schools. Socrates himself explained, “I’m here because I was invited by Simon to see his children’s project which I find very interesting. He’s using sport, particularly football, to help the children to socialise and to help the physical condition. The point is not playing football. The point is Simon’s project and I’ve fallen in love with it.” It is hard not to be understanding of Clifford’s motives especially when the schools are doing so much to help children and their communities.
Socrates signed as a player-coach on a one-month deal. His debut against Tadcaster Albion was highly anticipated and made local and national news. The town was hit by samba fever and tickets were highly sought after with fans wanting a glimpse of the magical skills of the Brazilian.
The 1,000 strong crowd and the bitterly cold West Yorkshire winter were a long way from the grand theatre of the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, which was Socrates’s footballing home in his prime. The weather was clearly a shock to the system for the player, who can be clearly seen in one of the images from the game wrapped up in a coat and scarf on the substitute’s bench eagerly waiting to come on.
Garforth started the game well racking up a 2-0 scoreline for themselves at halftime. However, after Town conceded two second-half goals, the cries of ‘we want Socrates’ came bellowing from the crowd. So, in the 78th minute, the Brazilian legend came on adorned in the number 6 shirt. The crowd went into raptures. His influence on the game, however, was limited: he managed only a few passes and he ran at a pedestrian’s pace. The years seemed to have caught up with the master. The game finished with the score unchanged at 2-2.
While Socrates’s effect on the game wasn’t quite what the fans had hoped for, it didn’t stop several of them descending on the pitch at full time to get a closer look at the Brazilian. Socrates himself was longing for the warmth and comfort of the dressing room, complaining of a headache brought on by the cold. He later said, “It was far too cold; the second I got out there I had an incredible headache. I’m just not used to it”. However, he followed this by saying, ‘But I really enjoyed it and it was an interesting experience.”
This 12-minute cameo saw the end of his Garforth mini-career. While Socrates was happy to play more matches, Clifford decided against this. One reason was based on the Brazilian’s rather unusual pre-match preparations. These consisted of drinking two bottles of Budweiser and smoking three cigarettes. With his advancing age and declining fitness, Socrates called time on his career and returned to his homeland to concentrate on TV work. Both Garforth Town and Tadcaster Albion have the honour of staging the final match of one of football’s greatest ever players.
Watch highlights of it here:
Whilst his Brazilian signing’s Garforth career was over in a flash, Clifford spoke of the positive influence the player’s presence had had on the club which helped them achieve promotion by the end of the season: “Socrates brought a kind of magic. The club was almost bankrupt but he became part of our crusade for promotion. He showed great grace in playing for me. He took no money for playing, and he will always be special to us.”
This impact was also felt by Clifford’s soccer schools as it gave them worldwide exposure. This helped them expand into countries such as Nigeria, Poland, Hong Kong and South Africa. Children across the globe can now play and learn football the Brazilian way.
Sadly, in 2011, Socrates passed away due to intestinal infection in a hospital in Sao Paulo. He was aged just 57. Tributes poured in from across the globe. Zico, his former teammate, stated, “He was a spectacular guy. As a player, there is not much to say: he was one of the best that I ever played with. His intelligence was unique.”. Italy legend Paolo Rossi remarked, “Socrates seemed like a player from another era. You couldn’t place him in any category – on the pitch and even more so off it.”.
Socrates will forever be part of history both in Brazilian and world football. His skills, intelligence and eccentric personality are written into the game’s folklore. Garforth Town, a small non-league club in West Yorkshire, is part of that extraordinary story.