In late 2019 the world watched in horror as the Amazon rainforest burned. The Amazon is the world’s largest carbon dioxide sink, which means that it plays a crucial role in preventing global warming. The eyes of the world were on Brazil and its new leader Jair Bolsonaro. His blithe inaction to the crisis, going so far as to blame the fires on Leonardo DiCaprio, showed everyone just how rotten Brazil’s democracy had become. 

In 2020 Bolsonaro would continue to surprise the world with his response to the Covid-19 crisis. As the new virus takes over a nation with a population of 200 million, he dismisses all scientific recommendations and adopts negligence as a method of running the country, creating disorientation and putting at risk thousands of lives. Named by the Washington Post as the worst leader to deal with coronavirus, Bolsonaro shows how deadly his authoritarian populism can be.

As a writer and producer of the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy I have spent the last several years watching the rot take hold from inside the halls of power in Brasilia, to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and beyond. It has led me to reflect on my country’s past, specifically the early 1980s in which the military dictatorship that had ruled Brazil since 1964 started to lose its grip on power. Those years were the exact opposite of today: an exhausted, discredited authoritarian regime was teetering on the edge while democracy was on everybody’s lips. 

My parents were both activists back then. I grew up hearing stories about their struggles against the dictatorship in the 70s and 80s. My father, a die-hard football fan, told me the story of how a group of players from his beloved Corinthians – “a fanbase that has a team. Not a team with a fanbase”, according to the journalist José Roberto de Aquino – led a radical experiment in participatory democracy. By direct vote, everyone from the squad to the cleaning staff would set wages, decide which coach to hire, and even whether a player could go home early from a tournament abroad because he missed his girlfriend. Led by their talismanic captain Sócrates, Corinthians’ players inspired millions of people around Brazil and showed them that democracy could work. 

Sócrates used to say, “I don’t live to play football, I play football to live”. A tall, lanky midfielder with a magnificent mane of hair and bushy beard, he and the rest of the Corinthians democrats became unabashed activists against the military dictatorship while also putting in dazzling performances on the pitch. In November 1982, on the eve of the first free gubernatorial elections since 1964, Corinthians’ players ran out onto the pitch with the words, “On the 15th, go out and vote,” on their jerseys. A month later, the team lifted the state championship trophy. By 1985, the Brazilian military dictatorship was over. Sócrates was a genius of a player and the intellectual leader of the movement. With the young rebellious and rock ’n’ roll footballer Casagrande and the jazz-loving defender Wladimir they built a friendship that permeated their football in the pursuit of democracy. 

Given Brazil’s current authoritarian drift, it’s particularly important to remember the story of the Corinthian Democracy, as it means recovering a symbol of the freedom and democratic creativity that blossomed amid the highly conservative world of Brazilian football. How did democracy on the team evolve with or revolt against the politics and authoritarianism of the country? I decided to investigate for myself.

I visited the club, and I spoke to the retired footballer Walter Casagrande, the sociologist and former football director of the club Adilson Monteiro Alves, the journalist Juca Kfouri and the goalkeeper Emerson Leão, all of whom were at the club during the democratic experiment. They provide a powerful testimony of how democratic participation can transform lives for the better. It also serves as a cautionary tale for the fragility of democracy and how those in power are always looking to undermine it as soon as they get a chance. 

Anyone who has studied the Brazilian dictatorship knows that football was part of its propaganda machine. The preparations for the 1970 World Cup were treated as a matter of national security, to the point that the team trained at the army’s centre for physical education in Rio de Janeiro and the technical staff was packed with military personnel. While the Pelé-led national team dominated the tournament, eventually winning the World Cup in spectacular fashion, many on the Brazilian left watched in dismay. They’d say things like, “Each goal the Brazil team scores sets the party’s revolution back ten years” or, “Football is the opium of the people.” 

According to Juca Kfouri, by the late 70s, “The Brazilian intelligentsia, especially on the left, of which as a former member of the Communist Party I was part, looked at football as a factor in the alienation of the working class. That really pissed me off, because I felt Brazil’s leftwing intellectuals constantly turned their backs on two of the most deeply entrenched manifestations of our culture: football and carnival, and there’s no understanding Brazil without understanding them first. They couldn’t see that Brazil’s World Cup success wasn’t a victory for the dictatorship, but rather a victory for Tostão, Pelé, Rivellino and Gerson. I was still moved by the national anthem, because it belonged to Brazil, not the dictatorship.” 

When I arrived for my scheduled visit at the Parque São Jorge, located in São Paulo’s overpopulated and underprivileged east side, I was greeted by Fernando Wanner, the club’s historian. He took me on a tour of the museum and clubhouse, where much of Democracia Corinthiana played out. Radicalism was embedded within Corinthians’ DNA from the very beginning. The club was founded in 1910 by five railway workers, at a time when football was the exclusive domain of the Brazilian elite. The sport was an aristocratic British import played mostly by the rich kids in the city’s private schools, while the (mostly black) working class was shut out. The founding of Corinthians opened up the sport to the mass of São Paulo’s poor. Miguel Battaglia, an anarchist and the first president of the club, once said, “Corinthians will be the team of the people and it is the people who will make Corinthians.” As a result, Corinthians is extraordinarily popular, boasting the fourth largest fanbase in the world. 

In the late 70s, the power games at Corinthians were as cloak-and-dagger as anything in Brasília. The club had become a microcosm for Brazil’s national politics. In fact, in football, almost every club chairman walked hand-in-glove with the military dictatorship. According to Casagrande, they “ran the clubs like the government ran the country”.  

The president of Corinthians was Vicente Matheus, a charismatic political operator. He saw Corinthians as his own private property and he saw himself as the authoritarian patriarch of a large family. He once declared that his was a soft brand of despotism and Corinthians a “benevolent dictatorship”. He was willing to bend any rule and stab anyone in the back in order to stay in power. Matheus first became president from 1959 to 1961. He returned to the presidency in 1971 and there he remained, with a short period out in 1977. Matheus’s tenure was a dictatorship. He always found some way to win the vote at the last minute. 

However, a slight political miscalculation caused a schism that would finally allow something like the Corinthian Democracy to occur. In 1981, Matheus was prevented from running for re-election on statutory grounds, so, in an attempt to continue at the helm, he decided to launch his disciple Waldemar Pires for president, with himself as his running mate. 

What Matheus hadn’t counted on, however, was that Pires would not be content with simply being Matheus’s lackey. 

The situation became tense, and Pires found himself undercut by Matheus at every turn. He soon realised that his rule wasn’t going to last long with his unofficial “vice-chairman” haunting his presidency and the team failing to perform on the pitch. In 1981, they finished 26th in the national league, their worst standing ever at the time. 

So long as Matheus was still hanging round, Pires knew he would never have the legitimacy he needed to turn the situation around. 

So Pires started replacing Matheus’s men with people of his own choosing. He took the brave step of sacking the coach Osvaldo Brandão, one of the most successful managers in Brazil, but with a dismal record at Corinthians. Pires continued with an avalanche of personnel changes, from the dressing room to the boardroom. It was a tumultuous but necessary clean-out. Of all the comings and goings, one particular change would prove key in paving the way toward the Corinthian Democracy: the hiring of a new director of football.

“President Waldemar Pires decided to honor his stripes and took a risk when picking his new director of football,” said Juca Kfouri. “He brought in Adilson Monteiro Alves, a bearded lad straight out of the sociology college, who introduced himself to the squad by saying. ‘I don’t know dick about football and I want you guys to teach me, but I do know one thing: we’re doing everything wrong. There’s got to be a better way. But what?’ … What was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting ended up lasting almost a whole day.”

Adilson describes that night: “It was a Tuesday in early October ’81. I introduced myself saying, ‘I’m thrilled to be here in front of my idols.’ And I spoke of each of them in turn. Then I said, ‘Seeing you all gathered here, it’s obvious to me that there’s massive quality in this squad. You’re workers, because you get up every morning and come to training, put in the hours and go home. But twice a week you hit the stage, and then you’re artists. You deserve to be treated like artists because of the talent you’ve got, but you also need to be treated as workers, with rights and proper contracts. A lot’s being done wrong around here. Lesser teams than us have made the cut. We’re living under a dictatorship in our society and another dictatorship at our club. It’s not written anywhere in your contracts that you’re obliged to win, so why do you accept this? When you win, there are 500 people in the dressing room queuing up to hug you. But when you lose, they’re in there to beat the crap out of you. Football is paternalistic and authoritarian. I don’t know how, but we’re going to change that. I’m here to solve problems as they arise and you can count on me for that.’ 

“Straight off, they asked, ‘What do you think about ritiro [the practice of gathering the players in camp before games]?’ I said: ‘I am totally against locking people up to make them work, but we do need to meet ahead of games, spend time together, discuss the opposition, plan our approach. And as for the dressing room, we’re going to change that too. The dressing room is part of the workplace. You’re the only ones who should be in there. No more supporters, directors, board members. And I’m against bonus pay. Nobody should take extra just for doing their duty, nor should they go unpaid because they failed. We’re going to find another way. Which? I don’t know, we’re going to find that out together’.”

Shortly after the dramatic meeting with Alves, the team went on a tour of Latin America. When they returned, the squad got together and decided that two players who had been on the tour should leave the team. It was a bold move, as one of the players in question was Paulo Cézar Caju, a veteran who had played for the national team.  

In the very next game, when Wladimir scored, he celebrated by shouting to his teammates “Estamos fechados”, an expression in Portuguese that means something like “the pact is sealed.” When the press asked him about it afterwards, he said it was a reference to the team spirit they’d developed at the club since they rooted out “a couple of bad apples”. A team that wants to be champions needs to be united, he said. “We've got that now, so I really believe this Corinthians is going places.”   

With this change of mindset in the dressing room, the team took the 1982 season by storm, putting their dreadful performance in 1981 behind them and winning the state championship.

At the time, Casagrande, who’d made a splash in the youth team, was coming back to the club after a year on-loan at Caldense. Vicente Matheus had basically sent him into exile as punishment for his rebelliousness under his predecessor Brandão. When he was reinstated, Casagrande made it clear he had no intention of staying, but Adilson convinced him to sign a three-month deal as a trial period.  

Casagrande made his debut for the senior team on 3 February 1982, at the age of 18. He burst onto the scene in style, netting four goals against Guará. Three games later, another rebel who’d spent 50 days on strike over an exploitative wage agreement proposed by Vicente Matheus, returned to action. Sócrates, then captain of the Brazil national team, joined Casagrande in the line-up for the first time.  

They hit it off from day one and became the best attacking duo in the Brazilian league during the 82-83 season. Their near-telepathic affinity on the pitch translated into life off-field too. “Sócrates and Wladimir were older than me, but I became good friends with Magrão [Sócrates’ nickname, something like ‘big thin guy’] very quickly,” Casagrande said. “I realised early on that I wasn’t the only one who thought outside the dictatorial box.” 

The director Adilson and the players Sócrates, Casagrande and Wladimir were intent on blowing that “dictatorial box” wide open. According to Juca Kfouri, “Those four turned Corinthians on its head. You had a libertine intellectual doctor called Sócrates, a politicised but eminently likeable black man with astounding people skills in Wladimir, a dazzling rebel whizz kid called Walter Casagrande, who became everyone’s adopted son. And then you had a director of football whose ideas were simply vanguard.”  

At the centre of these changes at the club was the implementation of a daily direct vote on all the issues affecting the players. Assemblies were held in the dressing room or on the field of play to hash things out and take decisions. “It was almost an addiction,” Sócrates would write some years later.

“It was decided that the players had to be consulted before a coach was hired or a player bought. And they had a say in everything from whether to go into ritiro, or whether to stop off for dinner after an away game or head straight home. Everyone had a vote, and that changed the atmosphere at the club,” said Kfouri. Gradually, the players lost any shyness about piping up, and with that came a sense of shared responsibility. And so, in the middle of a dictatorship, a pilot project was underway for a possible democracy – a practice that was still alien to most of those involved.    

“We had no idea what a democracy was,” said Casagrande. “We’d been living under a dictatorship since ’64, and all the country’s companies, schools and clubs were run along military lines: someone at the top gave the orders and you just did what you were told. That was how the nation worked. We fought hard to make a Corinthian Democracy, but we had zero experience in the matter.

“So we had to invent democracy by doing democracy. One of the first things we voted away with was mandatory ritiro ahead of a game for married players. Up until then, if the team had a game on Wednesday, everyone had to present themselves for duty on Monday night. If the game was on Sunday, we had to check in on Friday evening.” 

Contrary to the prevailing belief at the time, doing away with that yielded positive results on the pitch. Sócrates had an explanation for that. “Corinthians won back-to-back state championships, defeating São Paulo in both finals when São Paulo had a better team,” said Kfouri. “Our married players didn’t go into lockdown. They met up with the rest of the team at the hotel at lunch time on match day and travelled to the ground along with the rest of the squad. Sócrates used to say, ‘What does a footballer most enjoy doing? Playing football. What does he hate above all else? Being holed up waiting for the game to start. What’s the difference between Corinthians and São Paulo? The São Paulo guys have been walled in for 36 hours, so they see the game as the last 90 minutes before freedom. But the Corinthians players, who haven’t had to do that, they look at the game and say: ‘Hey, now we’ve got 90 minutes to go out there and do our thing!’” 

Democracy had begun to exist in practice, but it still wasn’t going by its name. 

That changed early in 1982 at an event attended by some of the players, the director of football and the director of marketing. It was held at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, a place known for its anti-dictatorship rallies. At a certain point during the debate on what was happening at the club, Juca Kfouri – who was acting as moderator – described what he saw to be the logic of the movement: “If the players continue voting on their next coach, if they’re going to continue voting on whether or when to go into pre-game lockdown, we’re running a serious risk of ending up in a democracy. A Corinthian democracy, but a democracy all the same.” Present at the event was Washington Olivetto, a Corinthians fanatic and one of the leading advertising professionals in the country. Olivetto had just been invited to take over as director of marketing at the club. He took note of those words and that was that: the Corinthian Democracy was official.  

But the movement wasn’t all about politics. It was also about football, and a very successful brand of it too. In 1982, the team won the São Paulo Championship, with Casagrande putting in many memorable performances, including a four-minute hat-trick against Corinthians’ arch-rivals Palmeiras in what became a 5-1 demolition. The final against São Paulo was more than just a game. “We weren’t just playing for Corinthians, we were playing for Democracy,” said Casagrande. “If we wanted to escape getting steamrolled by the dictatorship, we had to win as many games as we could and land the title. All that stuff we said in interviews wouldn’t mean bunk if we played badly and lost. We had to go out there and win because the enemy was just dying to see us lose. And the enemy wasn’t another team; the other teams were opponents. Our enemy was the military dictatorship.”

While the young Casagrande was becoming an idol at the club, Sócrates had been launched to international stardom as the captain of Brazil’s dazzling 1982 World Cup squad, which, despite exiting the competition in the second group phase, is still considered one of the best football teams of all time. “A team that is more in the heart of the Brazilians than the two subsequent that won in ’94 and 2002”, reminds Kfouri.  

Buoyed by their success on the field of play, the Corinthian Democracy began to connect with all the most progressive developments in culture at the time. Casagrande soon became friends with two concert producers in São Paulo, from whom he received a steady stream of tickets to all the best shows: Maria Bethânia, Djavan, Ney Matogrosso, Novos Baianos, Raul Seixas, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Belchior, Blitz… 

Juca Kfouri recalls that the players’ lifestyles shocked the conservative establishment. “They'd leave the training ground and head straight for the club bar to drink beer. Everyone complained about that, and Sócrates would just say, 'Look, everyone knows a footballer’s real drink is cachaça [Brazilian cane rum]. If we send them straight home, they’ll just get shitfaced on spirits. But no-one knocks back a whole crate of beer. They just have one or two cold ones and go home, hydrated and satisfied.'” Other footballing taboos were also questioned.  For example, when Casagrande was asked if sex got in the way of a player’s performance on the pitch, he said. “During the game, definitely. But before or after, not at all.” It was the kind of irreverent quip that São Paulo's society and press – both staunchly conservative – weren’t used to hearing.   

In December 1982, Casagrande decided to give his jersey to Rita Lee, the queen of Brazilian rock. But when he arrived at the concert with Sócrates and Wladimir, he realised he’d forgotten the shirt. “So when I see this guy in the crowd wearing my number 9 jersey, I say to him, ‘Hey, pal. Don’t suppose you could give me that shirt?’ And he says, ‘What? But you’re Casagrande!?’ And I say, ‘Heck, I know, but I promised Rita Lee I’d give her my jersey.’ ‘In that case…’ says the guy, and he gives me the shirt off his back.” Up onstage, Rita Lee pulled on the number nine and the four danced together. She said, “Viva Sócrates, Viva Wladimir, Viva Casagrande!”. In retribution, Rita – who is a Corinthians fan – goes to the stadium to watch a game. Casagrande promises he would score a goal for her and that would be the “Goal Rita Lee". And he does. “In the 37th minute of the second half,” he says. This unlikely connection between football, rock ’n’ roll, counterculture and politics – in the middle of a dictatorship – was a sign of the contagious power of the Corinthian Democracy.

Faced with the power of the team’s united front, the dictatorship decided to attack the players individually. The conservative press and apparatus of repression were waiting with bated breath for someone to slip up so that they could delegitimise the movement. Sócrates, Casagrande and Wladimir knew the powers-that-be were getting ready to quash this subversive movement by picking the members off one by one, and the two elders also knew that Casagrande was the most exposed of the three. Casagrande says he was stopped by the police at least three times a week in those days. So they decided not to let him out of their sight during that last fortnight of the championship.   

Casagrande had earned himself a reputation as a hard nut since his teenage years. He lived on the fringes of the conservative football world and São Paulo elite. He never concealed his liking for drugs and rock ’n’ roll and enjoyed scandalising the press with his frankness. After joining the Brazilian Labour Party (PT), he was asked if he wasn’t afraid of being branded a rebel. His reply was characteristically adroit: “If standing up for my rights means I’m a rebel, then I guess I’m a rebel.”    

On Christmas Eve, just after their championship win in 1982, the press broke the news that Casagrande had been caught by São Paulo’s violent special branch near a place known as “sin corner” – a hangout for “degenerates abandoned to the pleasures of the flesh and the perdition of vices”. He was in possession of cocaine.  

The police made sure the five-minute drive from his place of arrest to the precinct took almost three-quarters of an hour, giving the press plenty of time to arrive en masse.  During the ride, the cops threatened Casagrande and subjected him to psychological abuse. “If we caught Gilberto Gil and Rita Lee, what made you think we wouldn’t catch a piece of shit like you,” was just one of the insults he remembers. When the squad car finally arrived, the place was a media circus. Casagrande says that he was a cocaine user, but had absolutely nothing on him that day. Of course, to have accused the sergeant of planting the drug would have been asking for even worse trouble. He was released while he awaited trial. However, it was only four days after his arrest that the full magnitude of what happened finally hit him. He realised what it meant for the movement. No matter where he went, there’d be looks and whispers. He reckons it took him about six months to recover fully from the episode.    

Casagrande also says that the full dimension of what was happening at the time was made clear to him only 30 years later, when he visited the declassified archives of the Department of Political and Social Order (DOPS) and was given access to the detailed reconnaissance reports describing his and Sócrates’s every move.

In 1982, the team had the rare chance to bring democracy out onto the field with them. On November 15 that year, for the first time in two decades, Brazil went to the polls for gubernatorial elections. Some weeks beforehand, as Corinthians ploughed toward the state title and the stands were packed to breaking point, the team ran out onto the pitch with an unusual message printed across the players’ backs: “On the 15th, vote.” This exhortation came a time when the far left was running a campaign for a spoiled ballot.   

It was Juca Kfouri’s idea. “By that stage,” he said, “I was convinced that the only way we were going to topple the dictatorship was through politics, not armed struggle, not violence. And we were very aware that the more people who went out to vote, the more would end up voting for the MDB [Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, the main opposition party to the dictatorship]. So, we decided to do whatever we could to instigate people to get out and vote. Of course, you couldn’t just write “Vote for the opposition” on the back of a team shirt, but you could encourage people to vote, full stop. After just one game, the dictatorship filed a complaint with the National Sports Council and Corinthians were threatened with sanctions if they did it again. But we got our message across.” 

The elections ran smoothly and with an unexpected lack of interference. Of the 22 governors elected, 10 were from opposition parties, including those chosen in the three richest and most populous states in the nation: Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In 1983, Corinthians would do something similar again. As they lined out for the state championship final, the players unfolded a banner that read, “Win or lose, but with democracy.” It turned out not to be a day for losing, and Corinthians retained the title. Brazil, on the other hand, would have to wait a while longer to win a democracy of its own. 

At this time, the Corinthian Democracy was working with the Direct Elections movement, which was calling for a change in legislation to allow for direct presidential elections in 1985, to replace the last dictator, General João Figueiredo. It was a nationwide campaign, and Sócrates was one of its poster boys, as was the sports commentator and Corinthian Democracy supporter, Osmar Santos.  

On 16 April 1984, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in downtown São Paulo for one of the largest political rallies in Brazilian history. Sócrates was about to leave for Italy, where he was to play for Fiorentina. To the roars of the crowd, he promised not to go if Congress approved direct elections. Nine days later, the Lower House gave its response and rejected the bill. The new president would be elected indirectly and Sócrates left Brazil to play in Italy. The end of the dream of direct elections came just as the Corinthian Democracy itself was beginning to unravel.

The first post-Corinthian Democracy election held at the club was in March 1983. Vicente Matheus was back, running against his former pupil, Waldemar Pires. The run-off between the ‘dictator’ and the ‘reformer’ made for a hotly disputed election, with club members coming out in large numbers to vote. Politicians, artists, corintianos and even supporters of other teams were eager to hear the result. Waldemar won. 

But the cracks were beginning to show in Corinthian Democracy, and they would only deepen and widen with the signing of the new goalkeeper Emerson Leão in 1983. Casagrande tells that “the decision was taken by the director of football, Adilson Moreira Alves with Sócrates, Wladimir, Zenon and Zé Maria without consulting the rest of the squad.” Leão was an experienced player, with caps for the Brazilian national team, but he was known for being staunchly conservative. It was like inviting the opposition into the heart of the team. “For Leão democracy was a mess led by four or five players. But what he forgot was that those players submitted their ideas and proposals to group vote, every time. And Sócrates told me himself that he lost way more votes than he won,” said Juca Kfouri.

Casagrande recalls that he was totally against Leão joining the team, because he was excessively vain. “He wanted to be the centre of attention on every team he played for, but there was no space for that in the Corinthian Democracy,” he said. “I stood out for the goals I scored, which was inevitable. Sócrates stood out because he was a maestro. But we had an agreement amongst ourselves: it didn’t matter who was man of the match, you shared the laurels with the rest of the team, because that’s what you do in a democracy. But Leão was individualistic, egocentric and centralised everything on himself” he says. “The day he made his debut, we lost one-nil. Later, at about three in the morning, Adilson and Sócrates came knocking on my door. They were drunk and they said: ‘Fuck, you were right. Leão’s going to fuck us all over.’ And I said: ‘You're only figuring that out now? Go fuck yourselves!”. We won the 1983 championship, but things weren’t right…

Casagrande says that Leão was dangerous for the Democracy because he was always the guy who went around putting ideas in the heads of the lads who weren’t making the first team. He managed to win those guys over, saying: ‘See, they’re always in the papers, Sócrates this, Casagrande that, see? You run your ass off and no-one talks about you. He sowed the seeds of discord in people’s heads.’”

Then, all of a sudden, he cut his story short. He said, “But you’ve got to talk to the others, to those who were against us, hear their side. You’ve got to talk to Leão.” 

Emerson Leão was one of the best and longest-serving goalkeepers to play for the Brazil national team – he was a reserve on the World Cup squads in 1970 and 1986, and the first-team choice in 1974 and 1978. He also had a storied career playing for major clubs (particularly Palmeiras, Corinthians’ arch rival). I began our conversation by asking him about the qualities and place of a goalkeeper within a team, without imagining this would lead directly onto the topic of the Corinthian Democracy. “Why did I decide to be a keeper? Because I thought it was cool,” said Leão. “Because he’s solitary, because he never steps outside the box, and you never see him in the pictures, celebrating a goal with all the others. But there’s something beautiful about it. A keeper has personality. I had to be a pseudo-leader first, before becoming a real leader, and that took a special kind of elasticity. If he doesn’t have a strong personality, authority, he will never be a great goalkeeper. Why? Because his whole team may have their backs turned to him most of the time, but through his voice alone he has to be able to position them exactly where he needs them without anyone having to turn around and look at him. If a keeper doesn’t have that, he’ll never be respected. He’ll never be a great keeper. Silence is fatal for a keeper. And he’s got to have powerful intuition, to know what his opponent’s going to do.”  

Leão made a name for himself in Brazil for being one of the first footballers to use his image in advertising campaigns. Goalkeepers tended to be discreet, but he was different. “The goalkeeper is a solitary figure, a commander, playing a team sport. On and off the pitch, he’s got to command respect, otherwise he’ll never prosper. You have to be different. You don’t wear the same uniform. You wear a uniform all your own among a team all dressed the same. The common denominator is the team crest you wear and which you have to honour. My role at Corinthians was to honour that crest, not the Democracy.” 

When Leão agreed to play for Corinthians in 1983, he says he wasn’t concerned about the political transformation going on at the club. “What I want people to understand is that I didn’t sign for the Corinthian Democracy, I signed for Corinthians.” He was brought in to replace two brothers: Solitinho and Solitão. “Imagine, you’ve got two brothers, one is a starter and the other’s reserve, and then along comes this new guy and takes the place of one of them?” Besides getting in between two brothers, he had to produce victories, especially because the team were reigning champions. “Under those circumstances, just imagine it: a new goalkeeper comes in, and instead of ensuring the team retains its title, a team packed with talent like Corinthians was, and with that controversial Democracy they said they had, the club loses that title… well, naturally it’s going to be his fault. All eyes were on me, so I couldn’t slip up. I had to pull twice my weight. I didn’t care about the Democracy. I was a professional, and I behaved professionally. I arrived, trained, went home. My dialogue with the collective was different. I didn’t participate much in the meetings, because, if it was a private meeting, I wasn’t even invited.”   

How did the collective work? Leão is emphatic: “I don’t know, I wasn't a part of it! I didn’t do politics. I still don’t. I did my job. I interacted with the Democracy bosses from a distance. They were political, involved in the campaign for direct elections, liked to take the stage. Why? Because having them there was good for the politicians. These guys were big names. The Democracy was Casagrande, practically a kid, a talented player, all rock ’n’ roll. And Socrates, who did whatever he liked, a thinker. But he was not a professional athlete. He was a marvellous football player, but a professional athlete is something else entirely.”   

For Leão, a professional athlete is the guy who does his duty and refrains from anything that might jeopardise the collective or his own career. The freedom that surrounded the Democracy allowed some of his teammates – “depending on their individual capacity, to some degree” he said – to behave in a way he didn’t approve of. “Flexible times, freedom to keep throwing parties, without much professional commitment. As a keeper, I need my reflexes to be sharp, so I have to get a lot of sleep. I’d go to bed early, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. I worked hard, concentrated. If I'd hit the town the night before, how was I going to train properly? My reflexes would be shot. Where would I find the muscle strength my job requires if I’d burned it all up the night before?"  

In this context, the former goalkeeper attributes the success Corinthians achieved at the time to the individual qualities of the players and the fact that they knew each other so well on the field. It was despite, not because of, how they lived off the pitch. “When a lot of talented players have an on-field rapport, they form a good team. That’s why Corinthians won. For a short time? Yes. But the players managed to hit new heights, and they were happy. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that Corinthians was only Sócrates, Casagrande, Wladimir, Leão. No. We had a great supporting cast. There was Eduardo, who is seldom mentioned, but had perfect coordination. Paulinho, Biro Biro…Those guys rounded the team out.” 

But I have to ask whether that rapport – which began with that first meeting with the new Director of Football (Adilson) – was not, in a sense, fruit of the Corinthian Democracy? Was it not the Democracy itself that made it all the more essential to win? After all, as Casagrande put it, one of their big motivations for winning was because they knew the difference between another team and the enemy, the military dictatorship.

Leão insists there was another side to it all. “There were players who were able to survive in the shade: that place where you go pretty much unseen and the sun never shines, or creeps in only in weak little beams. These guys liked to talk to me, because I represented the other side of the professional reality. They’d say: “Hey, Beast – they called me Beast – thankfully we’ve got you to show us a little appreciation. Now things are a bit more balanced around here. Now there’s someone to stand up to them.” They had no idea what a dumb thing that was to say. I didn’t want to stand up to anyone, nor did I need to. We were just there to play football. They didn’t get that. So they started switching sides, coming over to me. And if they’d let me stay longer, things would have changed even more.” He laughed. “But I wasn’t political. I just wanted to play… the Democracy ended in 85, didn’t it? Just as well I left before that, or they’d be blaming me for it.”   

I asked him needs to be told about that story. Leão reflected a little and said, “You know what I think I ought to tell about that experience? It was there that I realised that individual talent, if put at the service of the team, above any political, religious, or financial principles, or anything like that, really gets you that extra mile. Human intelligence can be used toward prosperity or self-destruction. It’s up to you which.” 

We ended our interview talking about time, and how it smoothes over all controversies, reveals who is who. He said that he is now friends with the Democracy guys and that he combines his work as a ruralist with his love of Brazilian art and design. “People say: look at Leão, now he’s messing with paintings. Well why not? Can’t I study? Can’t I read? Can’t I improve my knowledge? I’ve been studying art for 15 years. It fulfils me.”

Leão tells me twice that he works as a ruralist. In Brazil, the term is used to describe a politico-ideological position, not a profession. He explained, “I have a ranch in Mato Grosso do Sul, near the Xingu indigenous reserve, where I raise cattle and plant soya.”  The so-called ruralists are the strongest support base of Bolsonaro. Mato Grosso do Sul, which is also one of the states where indigenous communities and ranchers most frequently clash, is a ruralist and pro-Bolsonaro stronghold. 

Leão, who describes himself as non-political, makes a point of stating that he did not participate, or participated “very little”, in that political movement within football. But, in some sense, the experience left its mark. Some days later, when Casagrande asked me how the interview went, I told him his former colleague’s last remark about the Corinthian Democracy. The striker repeated the words, giving them a new twist: “individual talent, if put in the service of the team, above any personal principles, gets you that extra mile. But isn’t that … Democracy?” 

During our interview, Juca Kfouri insisted that a certain playfulness lay at the core of the Corinthian Democracy. Those players were doing what they loved. Casagrande seconds the contention. “Corinthians were champions in ’77 and ’79 under Vicente Matheus, and with the military dictatorship ruling Brazil with an iron fist. But I totally doubt it was fun because those guys couldn’t be themselves. Corinthians won because the team was good and they knew how to play, but there was no joy, no smile on their faces, because there was no freedom. Dictatorship inhibits fun. The Corinthian Democracy was the exact opposite: we enjoyed being together, training, playing, hanging out, taking part. There’s nothing better in life than going to work with a feeling of liberty.” And Wladimir too, adds Kfouri, “the team workhorse up till then, he became an inspired player as well. He even scored with a bicycle kick once. He really refined his game”. 

Corinthian Democracy did a lot more than reap silverware or win games; it put the play back in playing. More than that: it brought the people in the stands into the game. “In interviews Sócrates would often say to the fans: ‘You have to synch with our rhythm, not us with yours. Because when we get caught up in your frenzy, we open up at the back and give away goals. That leaves us running after the result, which is harder. So you’ve got to be patient. The goals come in their own good time.’ And the fans began to realise that Corinthians were scoring 35, maybe 40 minutes in, and it was always Sócrates or Casagrande… the players who supported the Democracy. Maybe that’s why they started loving the Corinthian Democracy and packing the stadium out game after game. They weren’t just going to watch, they were going to participate. They were there, on the pitch with the players”, says Kfouri. In a sense, Corinthians had also questioned the authoritarianism of the supporters, and their desire to dictate the rhythm of the game. 

Sócrates’ last game for Corinthians was against the Jamaican Santos at Kingston National Stadium. The Jamaican team was named after the Santos of Pelé, one of Corinthians’ fiercest rivals. Casagrande had been dropped from the squad for the trip as punishment for supposedly having aimed some barbs at coach Jorge Vieira in an interview. However, Sócrates managed to convince him to turn up for duty all the same. When Casagrande arrived at the airport he was met with a banner saying: “Safe trip Sócrates and Casagrande.” The Casagrande issue split the squad into two camps, with Vieira intent on barring him from boarding the plane and Sócrates saying he wouldn’t go unless Casagrande was allowed to travel with them. Casagrande argued that he had not received any official notification that he was off the team, something both Adilson and Waldemar Pires could confirm. In the end, Casagrande boarded the plane and the coach stayed behind.      

When the team returned from Jamaica, the Corinthians Board released a petition against Casagrande and he was expelled from the club. “As Sócrates was gone, they had to get rid of me too,” Casagrande said. “When we got back from Jamaica, I was informed that my contract had been suspended. I was barred from entering the club and forced onto unpaid leave. They wanted to drive a nail into the Democracy’s coffin. At the time, the board was stocked with Vicente Matheus’s men. They were all pro-dictatorship and totally against Corinthian Democracy. But there was nothing they could do, because we were two-time champions and played really well. The Democracy movement depended on our results on the pitch and I was the team’s main goalscorer. With Sócrates, the team maestro, leaving for Fiorentina, the Board figured that all they needed to do to undermine Adilson was get rid of me. Because with us out of the way, the results would stop coming and they’d be able to cut the legs out from under Adilson and Wladimir, the last pillars of the Democracy movement.”   

However, Adilson and Wladimir held out for another year, until 1985, when the Corinthian Democracy was all but erased from club history.  

There is no one story about how the Democracy died. Some say it was because Leão was hired by the decision of a few, which disrespected the agreement the group had about always submitting decisions that would interfere in the collective dynamic to vote. Others say Leão would gather around him those who weren't active in the movement and argue that they were excluded by the famous Sócrates, Casagrande, Adilson, and Vladimir.  Democracy of a few, they said.  However, there is also the version that says that Leão helped the DC to survive through ’83 and ’84, as, without him, the team would have failed on the pitch, costing the democracy its legitimacy off it. What can be said is that the Democracy had been suffering attacks consistently, and was finally and officially defeated at the ballot on 1 April 1985. April Fool’s Day was the day of the Military Coup of 1964.  

With Sócrates in Italy and Casagrande back after six months at São Paulo, Adilson ran for club president. The election was held in the boardroom the day after the club lost its state title to Santos and Adilson was snubbed in favour of the octogenarian Roberto Paschoa. Such was the revolt from the fans that the president-elect had to be escorted from the ground by bodyguards. “The winning ticket had to flee Parque São Jorge through the back door because the pro-Adilson fanbase invaded the ground,” said Casagrande. “The Democracy movement, no matter how successful it had been, was suffering a coup and was about to be toppled. And coups are the same everywhere, whether in politics, football, business, even among groups of friends. You can only pull one off by being dishonest." The Democracia Corinthiana was officially defeated.

The irony – or tragedy – is that the Corinthian Democracy had been officially defeated at the polls, after a “no holds barred” election that brought the old hardline administration back. Adilson said: “The next day? What now? What do we do? What about our football? What about the Democracy? In the early hours of 2 April 1985, with a police bodyguard, the new board was sworn in under protests and accusations of fraud. On the 3rd, Corinthians hosted Flamengo at Pacaembú for the national league. Carlos Alberto Torres, captain of the Brazil in 1970, was the coach. He called me up and said: ‘Beardy, bad news: some guys have just turned up here introducing themselves as the new leaders. We had a meeting and they said that the fun was over. That they were going to clean things up. They made threats. Morale has tanked. The players are all offended. Some people are even talking about not playing. Help us out here, talk to them!’ So I did. I talked to each of the guys and spoke at the prep talk. It was a complicated situation. I tried to encourage them, convince them. I spoke of the mindset we’d created together, of the worker, the artist, the citizen. I asked them to win, for Corinthians and for us all. I didn’t go with them to the game, which was hard-fought, but they brought home a draw. But from that moment on, it was all retrocession, authoritarianism, incompetence, and the dismantling of that great team.”

That same year, Congress elected Tancredo Neves, Brazil’s first post-dictatorship president. Although he was appointed by a cadre of white men who rarely left Congress, you could almost feel the breeze of impending democracy on the air, with the first civilian president in office after 20 years of strongman generals. Tragically, Tancredo would die before he could be sworn in, and he was replaced by a regional honcho named José Sarney, a conservative oligarch who had belonged to the pro-dictatorship party up until only the previous year.   

This swing to the right was mirrored at Corinthians. “When you look at Brazil today,” said Kfouri, “with the Minister for the Economy talking about restoring AI-5 [the directive that institutionalised the use of torture], the history of the Corinthian Democracy acquires an obvious importance. It’s essential that we revive this, remember this.” After all, the Corinthian Democracy was about much more than football. 

When I asked Casagrande what he had learned about himself during the Corinthian Democracy, he stopped to think. “I started to understand all the stuff swirling around inside me; why I clashed head-on with so much, why I was so rebellious, why I couldn’t accept so much of what I heard when I left home and went out into the world. Democracy taught me that what I needed was to be free. I’d been a fish out of water at school, because it was totally dictatorial back in the 70s, with the headmaster yelling that you couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that. You had to sing the national anthem at assembly every morning. It was like we were in the army. And I just couldn’t swallow that. One morning I was walking to school when I heard gunshots. I turned around and saw three men running and an Opal driving up after them, with four guys inside, shooting at them. I was very young at the time and didn’t understand what was going on, but the headlines in the paper the next day read that the police had killed three terrorists. That’s when I understood that the three runners I’d seen were revolutionaries and the guys in the car DOPS agents. Those dead men were probably just students of philosophy or sociology, and that really affected me, it filled me with such disgust. But it was all over the papers and on TV that they were terrorists gunned down in the act of attacking the regime. There was no mistaking it: anyone who disagreed with the dictatorship was branded a terrorist.”

“Democracy is so fascinating it scares the hell out of those who think differently. And those who took part in it were marked by it forever, tattooed in the skin. Democrats terrify dictators so much that the first thing they do when they seize power is draw up a blacklist.”

After our visit to the memorial, the historian Fernando took me on a tour of the club. We tried to go into the dressing room where the players used to debate and deliberate, but it was locked.

So I said goodbye to Fernando and headed for the next destination on my list: Torre’s Bar, where the players used to drink after training and talk about unemployment, the workers’ union out in the industrial belt, the students' movement at the universities, about the music scene and São Paulo’s countercultural nightlife. I sat down to have a beer in honour of those most unathletic of athletes, men who saw themselves as the antithesis of the obedient, rule-following players of their day. I couldn’t help thinking about the woman who looks after the Memorial. Fernando had introduced me to her, saying that I was there to write a piece about the Corinthian Democracy. She said it was a time of anarchy. Not like under Vicente Matheus, who ran a tight ship. It stunned me to see that even the woman entrusted with the memorial’s upkeep didn’t embrace and celebrate the democratic spirit of that soccer team.

I walked away from Parque São Jorge and couldn’t find a way to take that experience out of my brain. The contradiction kept troubling me. What is going on? How did we get to this place? What are they seeing that I’m not? This is the core of the divisiveness in our country.

The ghost of the woman still haunts me. If this lesson is to be valuable for all times, I wonder if it can be for that and for the specific moment we are facing in Brazil.

There are two angles to this story that seem very important in the current light: hatred directed against democracy and the narratives surrounding it. How history is narrated is as important as the facts themselves – even more so in a country with as short a memory as Brazil. Hatred is growing among Bolsonaro’s supporters, who constantly deny that there was a real dictatorship in Brazil or are convinced that those were better times. Or call freedom and democracy what we historically learned as authoritarianism and dictatorship.

In this context, one precious contribution the Corinthian Democracy made is that by practising democracy on the pitch, it helped draw attention to democracy as a civil right. And it did so on a national scale. As Sócrates used to say, “In a country of illiterates where people only know the language of football, we learned democracy through football. Football was teaching us democracy.” Another is about memory. In 2016, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote in favour of the president’s impeachment to Colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra (1932-2015), whom he called “the bane of Dilma Rousseff”. Ustra was the only agent of Brazil’s military dictatorship openly accused of torture by the Brazilian justice system. In fact, it was Ustra who largely institutionalised the practice in Brazil. Dilma was a former guerrilla fighter who was arrested and tortured by the military. 

In 2019, Bolsonaro, now president himself, spoke once again of her torturer as a “national hero”. On 19 April 2020, during the pandemic, he took part in an anti-democracy rally at which he addressed a crowd braying against Congress and the Supreme Court and clamouring for military intervention and a return to AI-5, which had suspended civil rights back in 1968. “Nós não queremos negociar nada. Nós queremos ação pelo Brasil.” (We don’t want to negotiate, we want action for Brazil). One day later he went so far as to say, “Eu sou a constituição.” (I am the constitution).     

Besides the truculent threats we’ve been seeing against our democratic institutions since (at least?) 2016, what else is at play when Bolsonaro says such things? He seems to be stirring up antagonism between two narratives on the Military Dictatorship: the armed forces' version and that of some left-wing groups, which attributes Brazil’s return to democracy to the heroic fight of the armed guerrillas.      

This polarisation ends up consigning to the shadows the story of a whole constellation of social movements that emerged in Brazil throughout the 70s and early 80s – the Corinthian Democracy included – and which pressured the dictatorship to adopt concrete measures that took us step by step toward redemocratisation during the period known as “Re-opening

Against the antidemocratic hatred that had reigned in Brazil for almost two decades, these social movements created experiences permeated with friendship, liberty, solidarity and political participation.  

Telling the story of these movements means understanding that the public policies of the last 50 years were not drafted in government cabinets. They were designed by the democratic participation of citizens involved in social movements. The State and Law always appear to come, and very hard won at that, after lots of pressure from civil society.  

Hardly surprisingly most of the actions taken to reduce the tragic impact of Covid-19 in the nation’s slums have come from within these communities themselves, orchestrated by people who understand that they are invisible to the state and that they need to organise themselves in order to survive. 

Unlike Bolsonaro’s hatred, these democratic practices rest upon recognition of the value of the life of the common citizen.

There will always be those eager to shove the Corinthian Democracy into the shadows, stick the ball under their arm and plod off home in a huff. Democracy requires constant creative action, where people grow through human interaction, through emotional bonds and civic sensibility. It’s a task that falls not only to those invested with some sort of remittance or power, but to the guy and girl in the street, to those willing to resist, to raise their chins high and protest. If some of those people stop believing in the rules of the game, are ignorant or excluded from it, Democracy can hardly help but watch its own death. 

On 9 May 2020, a group of Corinthians fans gathered on Paulista Avenue at the same time as a rally of Bolsonaro supporters was taking place. “As if they were just appearing out of nowhere, coming from all directions, they held a flash-mob pro-democracy rally of their own,” wrote the journalist Fernando de Morais. “The Corintianos carried a banner that read, ‘We are democracy.’ Democracy is a form of government in which the people are sovereign. It’s we the people who create democracy.”