It’s the most English of scenes at Garforth Town Football Club in West Yorkshire. On the horizon two giant concrete powerstations churn out fumes into the winter chill. Pitchside fans huddle around mugs of weak tea and watery chicken soup, waiting for the kickoff. At close to freezing the weather matches the mood.
But this is no ordinary match for Garforth town fans. Today (Saturday) their team sheet boasts a celebrity name: footballing hero Sócrates, who played in Brazil’s legendary 1982 and 1986 World Cup teams alongside greats like Zico and Falcão.
Troops of supporters line up clad head-to-toe in the dazzling yellow and green of the Brazilian flag. The world’s media crowd around the dug out, fighting for a snap of the pot-bellied 50-year-old. For one day only, the local papers announce, Samba has arrived in West Yorkshire.
“It’s pretty strange being here,” confesses Sócrates before the match. “One minute you’re in a hot country like Brazil and the next you’re here in England. But I hope that I’ll be able to deal with the small amount of time I’ll be playing today.”
Sócrates is here to promote the Futebol de Salão training schools, the brain child of Garforth Town chief Simon Clifford. Set up in 1996, there are now 600 centres nationwide teaching 150,000 young English players the Brazilian ginga (moves): skill, control and flair.
“In the future I will own the England team,” says Clifford of his plans to train the British Ronaldos of the future. “People will be shocked by what I achieve.”
Clifford also claims his team will be in the Premiership within 25 years. “It’s pie in the sky actually,” he says confidently after the match. “I think I’ll do it quicker than that.”
For Garforth fans there are more urgent matters. Their team has thrown away a two goal lead, and with only 20 minutes left they’re looking for inspiration, more precisely Brazilian inspiration.
When opponents Tadcaster Albion give away a penalty, the terraces erupt with cries to bring on the Brazilian and his world-famous back-heels.
“Sócrates is going to come on and score a hatrick,” enthuses Garforth fan Ben Clark, from the sidelines. Sócrates, unfortunately, has lost his shin pads and without him Garforth miss the penalty.
Finally with 10 minutes to go, Sócrates comes strutting out from the tunnel and onto the field, in his trademark yellow shirt and baggy blue shorts.
Soon he’s made the first of four touches, an audacious shot on goal that the keeper catches easily. “He’s lost his fitness and his looks but he’s still got the magic touch,” agrees Adam Rothera.
Elsewhere the crowd aren’t so impressed. “Get him off – he’s choking,” shouts one young fan. “He’s having a heart attack,” says another. “Look at the state of him.”
Behind the Tadcaster goal there’s talk of a conspiracy. “How do we know it’s him anyway?” says one. “And not someone they picked up down the pub last night?”
The ordeal doesn’t last for long. “Gostei (I liked it),” a visibly exhausted Sócrates gasps in the centre circle as the referee blows the final whistle. The score is 2-2.
“The event took over. He was better than I thought he would be, but it wasn’t a great idea to put him on,” complains Gary Marsh, a Garforth fan of six years.
When Sócrates has got his breath back he’s more expansive. “It was so cold. The moment I stepped on the pitch I had this terrible headache. I’m just not used to it.”
“The game is really quick here, much faster than in Brazil. It was a bit too fast.”
As well as being the thinking man of world football – Sócrates has a degree in Medicine and is known in Brazil as ‘o doutor’ (the doctor) – he’s also a heavy smoker.
“It’s total incompetence on my part,” he jokes.
His manager is more generous. “He found the cold quite tough. He was coughing a lot from that… but he really added something meaningful to the game and did himself credit,” Clifford said.
Sócrates says Clifford’s work is about finding a ‘third-way’ between English and Brazilian football.
“We have another racial structure. It’s very different. We’re more mixed, we have influences from all kinds of peoples including the English. We play with much more creativity and happiness. But the English are much more organised. We need to join the two sides.”
Sócrates also believes football teams should be reduced from 11 to nine men, and is writing a PhD about his ideas.
“Thirty years ago players ran about 3km per game, now they run an average of 10km per game. The idea is that to bring back the qualities of more space and less violence you need to reduce the number of players.”
Sócrates, who at his peak played in front of 80,000 fans in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã, plays down the glamour of playing before 1,000 Garforth fans in grim November weather.
“The pleasure of playing football doesn’t depend on where you’re playing, it’s how you’re feeling,” he said.
“Generally I don’t really pay much attention to the past, I prefer looking to the future… The point was not really to play football but to take part in this project, which I’m falling in love with the more I know about it.”
And before heading off to the bar for a beer with his teammates the Brazil star has one final word:
“It’s not the beer you drink that’s important but who you drink it with,” he says.
With Simon Clifford set on elevating Garforth to the English Premiership, the thinker of Brazilian football may well have chosen a good drinking partner.
Tom Phillips is a British freelance journalist who has lived in Brazil for two years. He writes for the Independent and the Sunday Herald and has had his work published in newspapers around the world. You can contact him on: email@example.com.