Socrates's illness has highlighted alcohol's impact on Brazilian football, reports Robert Shaw

Brazilian football legend Socrates left hospital on September 22 after two stays for stomach haemorrhaging and liver-related problems that could yet necessitate a transplant. Given that doctors admit that the 57-year-old's condition was life-theatening, the relief among friends, family and the better part of 190 million football fans is tangible.

Former team-mates joined his brother Rai, and an eclectic mix of São Paulo media and society, to visit Socrates, who is also a qualified doctor – he joked with the medical staff who attended him about the treatment he received. That the health problems are alcohol-related is unsurprising for someone who started drinking at a young age and famously continued to drink (and smoke) through an illustrious playing career. In retirement the habit continued, with Socrates a familiar figure in bars in Ribeirão Preto, his home-town in São Paulo state.

When quizzed about his intake Socrates admitted he would drink "a little in the morning, then some more in the afternoon", acknowledging this would classify him as an alcoholic, but that it always been an open part of his life. Predictably, he used the media attention at his bedside to call for open, direct elections for the presidency of the Brazilian Football Confederation, while living up to his progressive reputation by arguing that if he needed a transplant he would have to go to the back of the queue.

Other leading players have also succumbed to temptation. Most cite Adriano, whose turbulent social life has included the excessive drinking that caused his departure from Inter, São Paulo and Roma, complicated his spell at Flamengo and threatens to do the same at his current club, Corinthians.

Alcohol had a direct impact on the career of Valdiram, the leading scorer in the 2006 Copa do Brasil. Vasco released him due to repeated problems linked to drinking. Paulo Cesar, the midfielder who featured for Brazil in the 1970 and 1974 World Cups, had an open battle with the bottle but now says that he has recovered. Other players from the 1970 team are also rumoured to have had similar problems, although the extent is difficult to gauge due to the media's limited interest in the private lives of
pre-1980s players.

While the tabloid press in the UK has always sought out stories about players' drinking, in Brazil the media is less intrusive. If anything it is fans who are trying to regulate the players. Fluminense's international striker Fred was pursued by members of an organised supporters' group who spotted him in a Rio restaurant drinking less than 48 hours before a game.

Culturally, Brazil is closer to a model of Mediterranean drinking, where consumption is moderated by principally drinking at meal times. But with a relatively high amount of disposable income and at times leading a cloistered lifestyle in pre-match preparation, young Brazilian players can become easy prey, especially if there is a drinking culture among more established team-mates.

Some clubs, such as São Paulo, have incorporated education about alcohol and drug abuse into their youth programmes, but club officials admit there is limited tolerance. Repetition can lead to the exit for young players. But more education in this area might help young footballers in a culture where the cervejinha (little beer) is the frequent accompaniment to kickaround games. The government's strict Lei seca (dry law), introduced in 2008, only deals with drink driving – and celebrities, including footballers, often exercise their constitutional right to refuse a breathalyser test.

While the sale of alcohol is prohibited within Brazilian football grounds, it is freely available within yards of several stadiums. The ban was introduced to please FIFA, although ironically it will have to be lifted for the duration of the 2014 World Cup, for which one of the sponsors is a leading brewer. Top brands of beer in Brazil have been involved with individual players and with the national team.

Inevitable parallels were drawn with Socrates and the problems that beset George Best and Paul Gascoigne. But the most common reference point is Garrincha, one of the stars of Brazil's double World Cup-wining team of 1958-62, who died of cirrhosis aged just 49. Socrates' health problems have created concern about alcoholism among footballers and there has been a widely-expressed hope that he can overcome his addiction – at the moment the Brazilian game is lacking free-thinking personalities on and off the field.

From WSC 297 November 2011

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