When the news broke in September last year that Sócrates, the legendary Brazilian midfielder, had been rushed to hospital for an emergency operation, I feared the worst. O Doutor had been a committed fan of alcohol and cigarettes for many years, I assumed his illness was related to his lifestyle choices. It appeared at first that he might be able to shake his sickness off, like he had so many opposing players. This time it was one attacker too many for him. Sócrates lived life by his own rules, and when the rules didn't suit him he changed them. He was a marvellous footballer and always politically engaged, something he continued after retiring from playing. Indeed it is his involvement in the 'Corinthians Democracy' that particularly drew me to read about his life.
He was a stylish midfield general, directing play for Corinthians and the Seleção in his prime. He captained Brazil at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. Many photographs show him in blue and yellow, a full beard and straggly hair - and that is how I always picture him.
He began his career at Botafogo, and was transferred to Corinthians in 1978. Otherwise known as the 'Timão', or the big team, Corinthians are the largest club in São Paulo, Brazil's most heavily populated city and the industrial and financial engine of the Brazilian economy.
Corinthians were also Brazil's first 'working class' club, founded by a group of workers in the Bom Retiro neighbourhood in 1910. Until then Brazil's other teams had been established by expat workers or local elites. The name was taken from the English Corinthians Football Club who had toured Brazil earlier that year. (FIFA)
Sócrates came of age as a footballer during a period when Brazil was ruled by an autocratic military regime. Their rule lasted from 1965 to 1984, and the regime was to have far-reaching effects on Brazilian life and culture.
Following Brazil's World Cup win in 1970 the regime tried to manipulate the national euphoria, exploiting the victory as much as possible for political gain. As well as using football to promote their version of Brazil, the autocratic rulers wanted to change football so it reflected their military values. They used their influence to exert pressure on the national team manager Claudio Coutinho to change the style of play into one that reflected this militaristic vision of Brazil. Instead of bohemian individual expression and artistry the new, modern Brazil should instead focus on discipline, obedience and physical strength.
This autocratic system of rule for football was also prevalent in the nation's club sides. It particularly found expression in the idea of 'concentracão' or 'bringing together the troops'. This word describes the preference of the club's managers for shutting up footballers in training camps and hotels for a few days before a match, regulating what and when they ate and drank, when they slept and expressly forbidding visits from wives and girlfriends.
The implication was that players weren't responsible enough to behave properly if left unsupervised. Alex Bellos provides a telling quote from former national coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, 'Footballers are not mature enough to behave themselves before games without anyone supervising them. It's been proved that sex before a game isn't bad for you. But, for our players, they don't do things by halves. At home they behave more normally. Away from home, with their other sexual partners, they want to prove that they are the best lovers in the world. So they go carousing and tire themselves more, to the point that their performance on the pitch is affected.' (Bellos, 2002:366)
This typified the autocracy that Sócrates found when he first moved to Corinthians. Initially he went along with it. After a few years though it had begun to trouble him, and catching the wave of political expression building in Brazil outside of football, he co-founded a movement that typified the feeling of the nation. By the early 1980s the military regime was losing power and influence, and grassroots political movements were gaining strength. The popular uprising wanted 'abertura' or political liberalisation and a change from the restrictive, dictatorial regime that was so at odds with Brazilian culture.
If you were able to vote in the 1982 presidential elections for Corinthians football club, you would have seen two names on the ballot, 'Order and Truth' and the 'Corinthians Democracy'.
Sócrates, along with fellow players, Wladimir and Walter Casagrande, was behind the Corinthians Democracy. This system for running the football club was a 'utopian socialist cell' that sought radical change for Corinthians. They proposed that every decision should be made by consensus, right down to simple daily tasks like what and when to eat, when to go to bed and when you were allowed to have sex with your wife. Everything would be voted on. The Democracy was in harmony with the wider political changes being sought in Brazilian society. The new system:
'...heartily embraced the style of the popular Brazilian soccer tradition, emphasising the playful aspect of the game as well as the players' right to control their own lives.' (Shirts, 1989)
The other option on the ticket represented the old system of hierarchical control, with decision-making taken away from the players. The power would remain concentrated in the hands of a few administrators and the club owners, known as cartolas, or top-hats.
Sócrates said he would retire from football if the old, oligarchical system triumphed in the election. It didn't though and the Corinthians Democracy began to alter the culture at the club. Now instead of just reflecting the general mood of the country, the Democracy became figureheads for the wider abertura movement.
They wore shirts emblazoned with 'Democracy' and 'Vote on the 15th', in an attempt to encourage people to vote in the May 1982 elections for federal deputies, senators, mayors and governors, a step on the road towards the end of the military dictatorship. The team would also carry "Democracia' banners on the pitch in São Paulo.
Brazilian society was beginning to realise that political change was possible. Sócrates:
'The idea of talking about democracy was something unimaginable for the greater part of the Brazilian population.' (Zobei, 2003).
And again in 1983:
'I'm struggling for freedom, for respect, for ample and unrestricted discussions, for a professional democratisation… and all this from a soccer player, preserving the lucid and pleasurable nature of this activity' (Shirts, 1989).
The idea of football, and indeed Brazilian culture in general, that Sócrates is referring to was something far removed from the paternalistic vision imposed upon the players and the rest of the country by the military regime. As Alex Bellos says, the Brazil team of 1982 looked they played for enjoyment (Bellos, 2002:358). Also Jonathan Wilson's recent article on the 1982 Brazil v Italy game suggests that in this World Cup the old, joyful self-expression last seen in 1970 had returned.
The stand the Corinthians' players took reflected the growing mood within Brazil, and they in turn inspired others. The Corinthians Democracy was an important step on the road to Brazil rediscovering itself, politically and culturally. As with so many nations football is at the heart of the Brazilian culture, it is fitting that the sport should have played a role in the liberation.
It was also fitting that a player like Sócrates should have been at the heart of the movement for greater freedom and openness. He lived like he played, and in 1982 he demonstrated the languid, stylish and effortlessly skilful image that remains of him in YouTube videos and memories.
Bellos, Alex (2002) 'Brazil needs to lose for its own sake' in the Guardian, June 28, 2002, p16.
Bellos, Alex (2003) 'The president wins the midfield battle' in The New Statesman http://www.newstatesman.com/node/146626
Bellos Alex (2002) 'Futebol:The Brazilian Way of Life' Bloomsbury, UK.
Shirts, Matthew (1989) 'Playing Soccer in Brazil: Sócrates, Corinthians and Democracy' in The Wilson Quarterly Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring.
Zobei, Gibby (2003) 'Postcard from Brazil: The beautiful game in South America' at http://www.urban75.org/football/brazil.html
Follow Alistair on Twitter @AlistairCubbon.