Socrates playing for Brazil against Italy in the 1982 World Cup in Barcelona. Photo: oyasan Socrates playing for Brazil against Italy in the 1982 World Cup in Barcelona. Photo: oyasan

Footballers have not always been divorced from political struggle. Sean Ledwith remembers a legend of football and socialism

As the 21st football World Cup unfolds in Russia, many older viewers no doubt will be wallowing in nostalgia regarding the great players and matches of bygone tournaments. Fans inside and outside Brazil will look to that team in particular to re-create the artistry and magic of previous eras that seemed less contaminated by the commercialism and cynicism that is now associated with the world’s biggest sporting event. The Brazilian teams that won three tournaments in 1958, 1962 and 1970 with their iconic yellow shirts and blue shorts are still regarded by millions as establishing the benchmark of how free-flowing, attacking football should be played. For those who remember the 1982 World Cup, the Brazil side of that year was equally worthy of being associated with their forerunners- apart from the inconvenient fact that they were knocked out in the second round.

Magrao-the Skinny One

The charismatic figurehead of that team was a lanky and bearded 6”4 midfielder, bearing the unforgettable name of Socrates. As team captain, however, he owed his elevated status not just to his eye-catching back-heels and thunderous shots on the pitch, but also to his not insignificant role in mobilising resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship, which had terrorised its people since 1964. When Socrates died in 2011, Brazil’s now deposed President, Dilma Roussef of the Workers Party, noted his dual legacy:

On the field, with his talent and sophisticated touches, he was a genius…off the field… he was active politically, concerned with his people and his country.

In the age of the bloated Premier League, it seems inconceivable that a professional footballer would make a stand on political principles (with a few honourable exceptions, such as Irish player James Maclean refusing to wear a poppy). We have become used to modern footballers programmed by PR watchdogs to mouth banalities about ‘focus’ and ‘going forward’ in post-match interviews. Socrates, in contrast, was renowned for his articulate and outspoken views on the game and its place in society: 

Football came by accident. I was more interested in politics. I always had my eyes turned to the social injustices in the country. I just happened to be good at football, which gave me entrance to a very different and privileged environment…If people do not have the power to say things, and then I will say it for them. While I was a footballer, my legs amplified my voice.

Football versus fascists

Socrates acquired his name from his philosophy-reading father, a tax inspector from Sao Paulo. As a young man, Socrates initially wished to pursue a career in medicine, which he regarded as being more directly useful to help alleviate the country’s notorious levels of poverty and inequality. His father persuaded him that Brazil’s love affair with football would also provide a platform to highlight social and political issues. Socrates started his career at Botofago but it was at Corinthians FC from 1978 that he developed a politicised attitude to football that recognised the sport’s potential to expose the rule of the generals. Players at that time were subject to a repressive regime of team discipline that reflected the rigid mentality of the junta. The system known as ‘concentracao’ required footballers not to go out unaccompanied the night before a game and to be in bed by 10pm. Tactics and selections were entirely matters for the coach with no input from the players who were effectively treated like unskilled labour.

Revolution in the dressing room

In 1981, Adilson Alves, a sociology graduate with left-wing views was appointed club director of football. Alongside Socrates and a black player named Wladimir, these three individuals spearheaded a radical approach to the club and the game that would become known as the Corinthians Democracy movement. Socrates identified that the regime’s attempts over the years to bask in the reflected glory of Brazil’s World Cup triumphs actually provided an opportunity for footballers to organise political alternatives that would be too dangerous for conventional politicians. The club would be transformed into an embryonic democracy, thereby providing an ideological rival to the generals. The sport’s unique popularity in the hearts of the country’s giant working class would prevent the regime from intervening in the running of the club.

Socrates’ biographer, Andrew Downie explains the principle of the movement: 

Socrates thought the masseur, the laundry woman and the stadium janitor played almost as important role as the right back, the reserve goalkeeper… and proposed that they take a percentage of the win bonuses. Under the new leadership, practically all matters at Corinthians – both on and off the pitch – became the subject of debates, voting and accountability. From key questions as to which players to sign, to apparently mundane matters concerning menus, the club became the laboratory for a unique version of ‘player power’.  One of Socrates’ teammates described the cumulative effect: Our responsibility grew. We created a democracy that had an effect overall country. And every game was a final. In 1982, the team ran out onto the pitch for a game with ‘I Want to Vote for My President’ emblazoned on their backs, in blatant defiance of the regime.

Socrates and Lula

Obviously, it would be absurd to suggest Socrates was the driving force of Brazil‘s transition from military dictatorship to democracy in the mid-1980s. The growing confidence and militancy of the country’s huge working class were the decisive factors in undermining the rule of the generals. Lula Da Silva, an autoworker from Sao Paulo (and devoted Corinthians fan) became the face of the resistance. The genuine intersection of football and proletarian power was spectacularly visible, however, at a gigantic rally of almost 2 million protestors in 1982. Standing alongside Lula, Socrates addressed the crowd and threatened to leave the country unless the regime facilitated a transition to democracy. When the generals failed to cooperate, he kept his word and departed to play in Italy (albeit unhappily for one year).

Glory before victory

Socrates transferred his politically aware approach to the game from club to international football when playing for Brazil. He even speculated on how their untimely elimination from the 1982 World Cup at the hands of Italy was actually preferable in moral and political terms. A more functional and less aesthetic version of the game was becoming the norm, reflecting the rise of the neoliberal order that would take over both Brazilian society and its national football team. He commented:

That Brazilian team represented fantasy, idealism, an idyll. Italy represented efficiency, effectiveness. But at least we lost fighting for our ideals. And you can compare that to society today. We have lost touch with humanity, people are driven by results. They used to go to football to see a spectacle. Now, with very few exceptions, they go to watch a war and what matters is who wins.

Headbands with a message

In the 1986 World Cup, Socrates would frequently appear on the pitch wearing a headband with an apposite political message. The US had bombed Libya that summer with the usual disregard for civilian casualties. Socrates’ response was the declaration ‘Yes to Love, No to Terror’ on his head.  Mexico, hosting the tournament that year, was recovering from the impact of a devastating earthquake the previous year. Observing the predominantly poor victims of the disaster at first-hand inspired Socrates to wear a headband with ‘Mexico Still Stands’ for another match. He explained his reasoning:

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.

Football for freedom

Before his untimely death aged just 57, Socrates had observed how Brazil’s problematical transition to democracy failed to deliver the promises of the Democracy movement. He considered standing for the Presidency against his old friend, Lula, who came to personify how political democracy, although preferable to dictatorship, was still leaving millions of the country’s citizens in horrendous poverty. When he died in 2011, Socrates was working on a novel about the upcoming World Cup to be staged in Brazil. It prophetically described how the tournament would be characterised by white-elephant stadiums with over-priced tickets, beyond the reach of the millions stranded in the poverty-stricken favelas of the big cities.  

At a time when the politics of football is dominated by the neoliberal behemoth of the modern World Cup (and even worse, the hideous racism of the DFLA), it is worth remembering that the life of Socrates illustrates how socialists can not only enjoy the game, but also use it creatively to help liberate the oppressed.




Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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