This World Cup Needs the Spirit of Sócrates
In the 1970s and ’80s, Brazilian footballer Sócrates used his sport as a vehicle to challenge military dictatorship and fight for democracy. Qatar's ugly World Cup needs more of that heroic spirit today.
Sócrates may never have gone beyond the quarterfinals of the World Cup, but he remains one of the most iconic players in the history of the tournament. Instantly recognizable by his curly black hair, Che Guevara-esque beard, and the way he loomed over his opponents with his slender 6’4” frame, he looked every inch the revolutionary.
At Mexico ’86, where he missed a fateful penalty as Brazil went out to France in a shootout in the quarters, he wore the headband — improvised from a teammate’s sock — which has come to define him in the mind’s eye of millions. While he later added different slogans — “The People Need Justice,” “Yes To Love, No To Terror,” “No Violence” — his first was perhaps the most powerful. After the Mexico City earthquake the previous year, a disaster which killed thousands and exposed the bitter injustice within Mexican society, the host nation was deeply wounded. Sócrates came with a simple message: “México Sigue En Pie” — “Mexico Still Stands.”
Explaining the rationale behind the message later in life, Sócrates said: “When we got to Mexico, the disaster caused by a terrible earthquake that had struck the country before the start of the World Cup was the trigger that made up my mind to seize the opportunity, at a time when the whole world was watching the event, and to highlight some critical points of social reality.” He took inspiration for his headband after seeing a young girl wearing a tiara on television, making up his mind to protest against “the absurdities that exist in humanity on my forehead.”
He was angered and distracted when, having donned that first headband before facing Spain at the group stage, there was an error and the Hymn to the National Flag came over the stadium speakers rather than the Brazilian national anthem. “Any reactions against poverty, wars, imperialism, social injustice, endemic illiteracy, and many other topics were overcome as I shook my head upon hearing the first chord, and I listened to the mistake,” he later admitted. “But it was worth the attempt. It is much better to try, I believe, than to conform.”
Sócrates was no ordinary footballer, even at a time when the game was far closer to its communal roots. A charismatic leader and creative genius on the pitch, he became a romantic hero in the popular imagination for his exploits off the field. He smoked and he drank, living with the same freewheeling nonchalance that characterized his time on the ball. He called himself “an anti-athlete.” He was also a qualified medical doctor — hence his nickname, Doctor Sócrates — a contradiction that only reinforced his credentials as a nonconformist.
Nonetheless, he understood that it was his talent with a ball at his feet that gave him a platform to speak to untold numbers of people. It was some talent, too. He was an intelligent and measured midfielder, a beautiful passer, but also a flamboyant goal-scorer who was so good at backheels that Pelé, Brazil’s three-time World Cup winner, was meant to have said that Sócrates played better going backward than most did going forward. The Brazil side he captained at Spain ’82 is often cited as the best team not to win the tournament, going out after a 3–2 defeat to eventual winner Italy at the second group stage — a quirk of the era — in what Sócrates’s international teammate Falcão described as “one the greatest games in the history of football.”
After his career ended — the defeat to France at Mexico ’86 was his last game for Brazil — Sócrates said: “While I was a footballer, my legs amplified my voice.” He used that voice to champion radical politics and speak out against injustice at home in Brazil and abroad, too. Though his time with the Seleção made him globally famous, his most important political intervention came during the six years he spent playing his club football with Corinthians in São Paulo. There he became a central figure in the Democracia Corinthiana (Corinthians Democracy) movement, positioning himself in direct opposition to the brutal military dictatorship which had ruled Brazil since 1964.
Initially, Sócrates was a reluctant dissident. Having grown up in a middle-class family with a father, Raimundo, who was obsessed with education — hence his being named after an ancient Greek philosopher — Sócrates had a formative childhood experience when he witnessed Raimundo destroying books on left-wing politics after the military seized power. Nonetheless, in one of his first big interviews in 1976, when he was in his early twenties, he took an apolitical stance, even saying that censorship was necessary because otherwise “things would get complicated for the government.” He was a voracious reader, however, and continued to educate himself with his father’s encouragement, becoming increasingly attuned to Brazil’s social problems and the intense repression of the military regime.
Once Sócrates joined Corinthians in 1978, he started to gravitate toward the Left. Before long, he and his teammate Wladimir — later joined enthusiastically by Casagrande, another future Brazil international — were the leaders of a movement that, with the support of director of football Adilson Monteiro Alves and club president Waldemar Pires, would introduce a form of direct democracy at the club. Everyone at the club voted on how it was run, while the players would decide everything from training times to when to stop the team coach for a toilet break with a show of hands. They also loosened the strictures of the concentração, a tradition in Brazilian football where players would be effectively confined in a hotel or training camp before a game.
Pushing back against the authoritarian concentração was especially symbolic, turning Corinthians into a metaphor for Brazilian society. As well as openly challenging the dictatorship by adopting democratic methods at such a high-profile sporting institution, Sócrates and his teammates showed that rejecting apathy and individualism in favor of collective politics could be enormously effective. The club was highly successful under democratic management, winning the Campeonato Paulista twice, in 1982 and 1983, during the Democracia Corinthiana era. “Our movement was successful because of many points, but the most fundamental was Sócrates,” Casagrande told the Guardian last year. “We needed a genius like him, someone politicised, smart and admired. He was a shield for us. Without him, we couldn’t have Corinthians Democracy.”
The movement soon transcended the club, with Sócrates and his teammates making a direct challenge to the regime. In 1982, ahead of Brazil’s first multiparty elections under military rule and amid the gradual process of “abertura” (“opening up”), Sócrates and his teammates took to the field wearing shirts emblazoned with the words: “Dia 15 Vote” (“Vote on the 15th”). Before winning the Campeonato Paulista in 1983, the team, led by Sócrates, entered the field holding a giant banner which read: “Ganhar ou Perder, Mas Sempre com Democracia” (“Win or Lose, But Always with Democracy”). He scored twice against São Paulo over two legs, raising his clenched fist in celebration — and a salute to the Brazilian people — on both occasions.
Sócrates went on to take part in the Diretas Já (Direct Elections Now) movement which — supported by trade unionists, workers, artists, students, and a wide cross section of Brazilian society — brought millions out onto the streets and spurred the transition to democracy in 1985. In a moment that became a defining part of his personal folklore, amid interest from clubs in Italy, he stood on stage in front of a vast crowd of demonstrators in São Paulo and promised not to leave Brazil if a constitutional amendment paving the way for free elections passed. The amendment was defeated in a temporary setback, but Sócrates, in an act of defiance, left for Fiorentina. The story goes that, when he arrived in Italy, he was asked which Serie A great he admired most, Sandro Mazzola or Gianni Rivera. “I don’t know them,” he said. “I’m here to read Gramsci in the original language and study the history of the labor movement.”
Sócrates is still “an idol” for many Brazilians, including Rosie Siqueira of Fiel Londres, a London-based Corinthians fan club. “He was a guy beyond his time, his views and ideals in terms of social causes and politics enlightened so many fans, not only Corinthians fans, but Brazilian fans,” she says. “He was also a social cause leader, influencing players and the club staff. Sócrates was a leftist, standing against the military dictatorship we had in Brazil and defending freedom and right of speech . . . we don’t see that happening very often in football, be it either South American or global.”
While the ways in which Sócrates transformed the club are well-documented, the significance of the club’s identity — and that of its supporters — to him is often overlooked. “We feel very proud to be one of the only clubs with such a beautiful chapter in our history,” says Siqueira. “The message behind it will always live with Corinthians now, and it keeps reminding us about our history, our origin, our purpose. Corinthians comes from poor, immigrant, working-class origins. We should never forget that. Having Democracia Corinthiana in the pages of our history book will help us keep this ideal alive.”
Sócrates died in 2011, aged fifty-seven, after struggling with alcoholism, on the same day Corinthians secured the Brazilian league title. He had continued to advocate radical politics as he grew older, practicing medicine after his retirement from football as well as becoming a pundit, writer, and lecturer. He was a supporter of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — also a vital figure in Diretas Já and, coincidentally, a Corinthians fan — during his first spell as Brazil’s president, saying: “His government has been the best in Brazil’s history.” Sócrates was never uncritical, though. Asked to rate Lula’s presidency, he said: “Not 10, you’d have to change everything all at once for that. I’d say a seven or an eight. That’s pretty good.”
Today, as they compete at a tainted World Cup that they are expected to win, the Brazil national team has become a symbol of political division, riven by ideological fractures and fault lines. Ahead of October’s general election, won by a resurgent Lula, far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro encouraged his voters to wear the national team’s famous canary yellow shirt, with his supporters long having co-opted it for rallies and Bolsonaro-aligned protests. Consequently, many Brazilians who oppose Bolsonaro — whose diehards have advocated for a repeat of the 1964 military coup after Lula’s victory — have stopped wearing the shirt altogether. It hasn’t helped that several prominent Brazil internationals, most notably Neymar, openly endorsed Bolsonaro, with Lula alleging that the Paris Saint-Germain forward backed his rival for tax reasons.
“With what’s going on at the moment, Sócrates is still a hugely important figure,” says Andrew Downie, journalist and author of the book Doctor Sócrates. “You hear a lot of people in Brazil — especially during the election campaign when you had guys like Neymar saying they supported Bolsonaro — say things like: ‘How we miss a guy like Sócrates, who stood up for social causes, who stood up for human rights, who stood up for democracy and progressive positions’ . . . he was a guy who stood up for what he thought was right.”
Several former footballers gave their endorsement to Lula, however, most notably Sócrates’s old friend Casagrande and his younger brother Raí. A fantastic player in his own right — and, unlike his brother, a World Cup winner — Raí raised his right hand to make an “L” shape while presenting the inaugural Sócrates Award at the Ballon d’Or ceremony before the presidential runoff. “We all know which side Sócrates would be on,” he said with a smile.
Given FIFA’s aggressive intervention against even the most inoffensive pro-equality gestures in Qatar, this World Cup is crying out for a player to evoke the spirit of Mexico ’86. For Brazilians looking to wrest back the national team’s shirt — and their national emblems more broadly — from Bolsonaro supporters, the towering figure of Sócrates is a reminder that the far right will never have a monopoly on the heritage of the national team. “We’ve beaten Bolsonaro in this election, but that doesn’t mean Bolsonarismo is done, and ideas around prejudice, sexism, and totalitarianism are still around in the country,” says Siqueira. “In my opinion, football, as usual, plays an important role in society and we will need Sócrates’s spirit alive with us.”