If football’s longest-running debate has been over the relative greatness of Pelé and Maradona, the next most contentious must revolve around this: Which was the greatest team never to have won the World Cup? There are three contenders—Hungary 1954, Holland 1974 and Brazil 1982—and those lucky few who have seen all three would probably rank them in that order.

Bidding adieu: King of cool, Sócrates will be remembered for his iconic nonchalance. By Allsport/Getty Images

That was a pretty good year for Indian sports lovers. It began with Gundappa Viswanath’s double century against England in the Chennai Test and ended with the Delhi Asian Games, but the middle bit was all about the football World Cup in Spain, the first one to be telecast live in India.

None dazzled more than Brazil, who burst on to our screens playing the kind of samba football we’d always read about; it was like visiting a country you’d long wanted to, and finding it exactly as it was in the books. They had stiff competition in the skills department from France and their great midfield of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Bernard Genghini, the precursor to the “Carré Magique" (Magic Square) that won Euro 1984. France might even have won more hearts than Brazil, thanks to the drama surrounding their exit in one of the greatest World Cup matches, but their Gallic genius lacked the jaw-dropping magic of the South American game.

Zico was the main draw with his box-office looks but Sócrates, a lanky, bearded Amitabh Bachchan to his Rajesh Khanna, was the team’s soul. News of Sócrates’ death came a few hours after we’d heard of Dev Anand’s passing and perhaps that was a more apposite comparison: Sócrates was the king of cool.

A comparison for today’s reader could be made with Dimitar Berbatov; from the nonchalance—“lazy" is, well, a lazy label because their hard work was done in the head—down to the cigarette smoking. Yet he had sudden, short bursts of acceleration that could leave defenders for dead, as he did while scoring in that fateful second-round loss to Italy that sent Brazil out of the tournament.

With them went a certain innocence of style because that Brazil side was possibly the last to play without specific tactics, other than their coach Telê Santana’s directive to play as they wished. That naivety persisted even in the Italy game; Brazil merely had to draw to make the semi-final but instead of a percentage game, they played the beautiful game. A year later, in a different sport, another great team that played without tactics—and also featuring at its heart a bearded, beer-swigging colossus—was similarly sucker-punched and with them ended the calypso art of winning world cups for fun.

Sócrates and Vivian Richards shared something else: their willingness to stand by their political beliefs and, in the case of Sócrates, actively espouse them. This is not unusual today, even in these times of anodyne quotes and all-censoring player agents, but in the era before social media, it was far more dangerous. The 1978 World Cup was hosted by Argentina, a country under a military dictatorship whose notorious excesses almost prompted the Dutch to withdraw from the tournament, and Brazil in 1982 was also run by the army. A qualified doctor, Sócrates—like the philosopher he was named after—used his position and intellect to question the status quo, exposing first his teammates and then his compatriots to democratic processes so that their life could match their football.

The landscape today is different. Brazil, little more than a Nike franchise since the 1998 World Cup final, are too often caught between their instincts and their instructions; France are too often caught among their egos; even Barcelona and Spain, for all their intricate, spellbinding passing, are (Messi excepted) far too technical and programmed to set the pulse racing, too much of the training ground and not enough of the playground. There are glimpses of that glorious near-naive spontaneity in Arsenal’s play and, most spectacularly, in Germany’s demolition of England in South Africa last year, but the kids have a habit of growing up.

One never forgets where one was at a life-defining moment—where you were when Indira Gandhi was shot, or when you first heard A.R. Rahman’s music, or when you first saw a Sachin Tendulkar straight drive. A whole generation of Indian fans can remember when they first saw a Brazil match; the TV sets were black and white but the football was in glorious technicolor.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

Also Read | Jayaditya Gupta’s earlier articles

Write to Jayaditya at extratime@livemint.com