As widely covered in the international media, the Brazilian football player Sócrates passed away yesterday. Football fans around the world are familiar with his feats in the field (and a search on youtube will yield countless videos with his best moments). Here, however, I’d like to highlight the political significance that Sócrates has had in Brazil, in particular for the transition from a military dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, as this aspect of his life is bound to be less well-known outside Brazil.
Sócrates himself claimed to be an anti-athlete. He was a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker (the drinking habit in particular eventually led to health complications and ultimately his demise), also during his career as a player. Moreover, he had a degree in medicine (he only started to focus on his football career at age 24, when he moved to Corinthians in 1978, the team that is most strongly associated with his club career), was extremely articulated (not that there is an incompatibility between being a football player and an intellectual!), and highly politically engaged. Here is an accurate account from the Guardian obituary:
But for Brazilians who lived through the 21 years of the country's military dictatorship, Sócrates will also be remembered as a social activist and campaigner for democracy, both within the game and on the wider political stage.
While a player at Corinthians, he co-founded the Corinthians Democracy movement, an idealistic but effective political cell that fought against the authoritarian way the club's management controlled its players, a microcosm of the way the country was governed by the military. Sócrates, together with team-mate Wladimir, organised the players to discuss and then vote with a simple show of hands on all matters that affected them, from simple things such as the time they would eat lunch to challenging the dreaded concentracão, a common practice in Brazil during which players are practically locked up in a hotel for one or two days before a game.
After winning battles within football, Corinthians Democracy broadened, using football's popularity as a catalyst to strive for political change. In November 1982, despite warnings from the Brazilian football association, the players wore shirts with "Vote on the 15th" printed on the back, urging the public to take part in the upcoming elections that were one of the first moves towards ending the dictatorship.
At a time when most people were still afraid to speak out against the regime, Sócrates politicised football; and he was as proud of his team's valiant contribution in helping dismantle the dictatorship as he was of his considerable football achievements. At the end of 1982, Corinthians won the São Paulo state championship with "Democracia" printed on the back of their black shirts. Sócrates told Alex Bellos, the author of Futebol (2002), that it was "perhaps the most perfect moment I ever lived. And I'm sure it was for 95% of [my teammates] too."
The importance of his political activism cannot be overestimated. One must bear in mind that, in the early 1980s, even though the most violent phase of the military dictatorship was over, Brazil was still not a democracy (in fact, the first real elections for president took place only in 1989!). Football had been widely used by the military regime to promote their own interests, in particular the 1970 World Cup victory in Mexico. The Corinthians Democracy went in the opposite direction; by establishing a democratic structure within the club, the players (led by Sócrates, Wladimir, Casagrande and Zenon) were clearly also making a statement against the authoritarian state of Brazilian politics in general, and demanding democracy and political openness.
I was 6 years old in 1982 (ok, so now everybody knows how old I am!), and have been profoundly marked by these events. My father was a communist*, a medical doctor and a Corinthians supporter, and together with friends who shared the same attributes (and thus felt the additional 'doctor' connection with Sócrates), believed that something novel and deeply moving was going on with the Corinthians Democracy. Plus, Corinthians was on a roll with championships and cups, as it had not been for decades! Sócrates was our hero both for his football and for his politics. Indeed, the 1982 election that is referred to in the quote above (not for president, but for state governor and parliament) is one of my most powerful childhood memories (there I was, standing by one of the voting sites and distributing flyers for candidates at age 6), as is the Corinthians victory in the state championship of 1982 – and sadly, also the defeat to Italy in the 1982 World Cup… Sócrates is part of each of them, and I can only thank him for being such a unique and inspirational role model for me and millions of others at such a crucial time in Brazilian history: he was making history with football.
After he stopped playing, Sócrates had a fruitful career as a journalist and sports commentator. His superior intellect made it so that it was always worth listening to what he had to say (see this moving account by Gavin McOwan), and it is truly tragic that his voice will no longer be heard.
* In those circumstances, being a communist actually amounted to being pro-democracy and against the dictatorial regime.