"Football is freedom," Bob Marley said, and no player epitomized that idea more than Sócrates, both on and off the soccer field. The midfield maestro of the last Brazilian team to embody their country's jogo bonito ("beautiful game") philosophy of open, attacking soccer died of septic shock on Dec. 4 at 57. He and his teammates never won the World Cup though their thrilling play at the 1982 tournament remains legendary but their stylish, free-spirited performances earned them an eternal place in the Valhalla of the game. Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira was also lionized by Brazilians who resisted the military dictatorship that ruled for 21 years, until 1985. Current President Dilma Rousseff called him one of Brazil's "most cherished sons."
The dictatorship saw soccer as a release valve for popular frustration, expecting Brazil's players to be both brilliant and obedient. Sócrates would have none of it. Like his hero Che Guevara, the bearded 6-ft. 4-in. (193 cm) rebel held a medical degree, which he completed during his early years as a pro. He used soccer's exalted status as a platform to agitate for change, founding a democracy movement at his São Paulo club, Corinthians, so players could encourage Brazilians to demand the vote. Later, he completed a Ph.D. in philosophy and became a media figure, speaking out for the poor. He also got his last wish, having once expressed a hope to die on a day when Corinthians won their league's title. They did, hours after news broke of his death.
This text originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2011 issue of TIME magazine.