The Kindling of a Flame
The former Brazil captain Socrates talks about why footballers have a political responsibility
"Do you want a beer? They have the coldest draught beer in Brazil here.”
Those were the first words the Brazil legend Sócrates said as I met him in his favourite bar, Pinguím, in his hometown of Ribeirão Preto in São Paulo state. He had greeted me with a bear hug and spoke openly about his career and his political and footballing beliefs and convictions. He must have talked for over four hours.
Sócrates passed away in December 2011 and it was the drink that caught up with him in the end. By his own admission he drank heavily. I had interviewed him twice previously for two documentaries I had made — the first time, he was two hours late (sleeping off a hangover) and the second time, he was already under the influence. But he never became a George Best-like figure. He was not a shambolic drunk. He was a bon vivant, a larger than life figure with a lifetime of tales to tell. Forthright in his views, passionate, opinionated and humorous. Always humorous.
Sócrates will of course be best remembered as the captain and figurehead of Brazil’s 1982 World Cup team. With his beard, mop of curly hair, smoking habit and languidly graceful presence on the ball, he became an instant cult hero. A doctor who played better backwards than most players did going forwards according to Pelé, there was no better embodiment of Brazil’s beautiful game.
But it was at his São Paulo based club, Corinthians, where he made his biggest impact. In 1981 and at a time of military dictatorship within Brazil he led a movement called Democracia Corintiana (Corinthian Democracy), a radical plan to democratise an entire football club and transform Brazilian society through football. In his beloved Brazil, Sócrates became a symbol of democracy when there was none. In short, he was a revolutionary. This was my final interview with him — we were back in the bar and he was back to talking about what he loved most: a combination of football, philosophy and politics.
Have you always been such a free thinker?
I’ll tell you a bit about my old man. My father. My father didn’t study — he couldn’t, up there in the north-east of Brazil — but he learnt everything he knew there. His study was free. He ate books up. So when I was born it was as if I was born into a library, among so many complex social theories that exist in this country. It’s a country with huge potential in every way but a country that doesn’t properly educate its people. I think I was born with this spirit — the spirit of reflection and of questioning things, especially in regard to social issues.
When you were a player you used to remove the sports supplement in the newspaper when you offered it to a teammate to read. Did you not believe in your profession?
No, that wasn’t the case at all. I did that to encourage those around me to read. Brazilian footballers tend just to read the sports section. I’d buy the paper, take out the sports pages and leave the rest for one of my colleagues to read. I was trying to highlight the fact that the most important news wasn’t to be found in the sports supplement — it was important to read about politics, the economy and other related affairs. So I did it to try and get people to read about other things.
So you had nothing against sports news?
No, although I would never read it anyway. When I played I never once read the sports news.
Now I read it. When I played I would never read it because I think it can only interfere with the job you’re paid to do. Positive or negative criticism will affect you one way or another so I preferred not to pay any attention to it. If someone speaks highly of you then you might start to believe them! I preferred not to know! [laughs]
You have often said a footballer has great power but lacks the education to use it properly. Could you expand on this? What power do you actually think a player has?
A footballer has a lot of power. It’s the only job in which the employee has more power than the boss. He has the masses in his hand and the capability to mobilise them. But he has to realise that he has this power and use it wisely when there is a social cause to fight for.
One of man’s main objectives since the dawn of time has been to acquire political power so that he can have an effect upon the community in which he lives. There are various ways of gaining political power but all of them lead to the same result — political power generates popularity and popularity generates political power. Footballers have this popularity and so they have incredible political power because the media hangs on their every word. How far-reaching their message is then depends on their status as a player and how popular their team is. But it’s an incredible thing to possess, not to mention the fact that they have great economic power — at least the better players do.
Do you think Brazilian footballers have much economic power?
Certainly in relation to my era. The riches on offer here are far greater than they were 20 or 30 years ago. The change might not have been so dramatic in Europe as it has been in Brazil and players still don’t earn as much as they should due to a lack of organisation and administration, but at least it is better than it was. The chances of becoming rich by playing football are far greater these days. And wealth gives you independence, political power and the freedom to manage your own life. The only thing they lack is education. Education, knowledge and information.
What can a player do with all that power?
Transform society. During my time as a player I was able to transform society. I was an active participant in the democratisation process of my country because I was famous and popular. And so I used my political power to change society. All you need is a social conscience, a political understanding and a desire to fight. The only problem is that most players don’t have that level of education and so they don’t live their lives in that way despite all the power that they have.
But surely most players prefer to look out for themselves?
It depends on how actively they want to get involved. People can be apathetic.
Do you think players have a responsibility to look beyond themselves?
I think they have a social responsibility, especially in a country like ours that is lacking in so much. Footballers can be the spokespeople of their communities — you can be like an MP without a seat. They just have to realise that they can change the society in which they live. That’s my vision.
But there is often a ‘code of silence’ among Brazilian players. They rarely speak out for fear of punishment...
We have a society that is politically unaware. That’s one of our biggest problems alongside this lack of education. And that’s due to a couple of the regimes we have had over the past century. We have had two dictatorships that have taken up nearly 50 years of that time and so you’re eventually left with a generation who lack the same sense of political awareness. In truth, that relates to all of society and sport is a part of that — possibly the most visible part of society.
Can you tell me a little about your plans to ensure players can only turn professional on finishing their secondary education?
That’s one of my hopes and I’m fighting for it in Congress. The way I see it, a footballer is a national figure — he’s someone who is incredibly well known and listened to even more than the president of Brazil. He’s the ultimate symbol of status and success. And especially for those less well off, he’s a life objective — he is where thousands want to be. So if this guy has got to where he is with the bare minimum in terms of education and knowledge then he’s encouraging future generations to aspire to the very same thing. And then what happens? Well, we’re creating generations of kids who are more and more uneducated and uncultured. They’re already poor, they’re fucked, so why would they worry about studying? Their idols never studied so why will they do any different?
So I’m trying to use football as a means to get the next generations properly educated. If you want to become a footballer then you’ll have to study. And even if they don’t turn professional — and only a minority ever do — everyone will still at least have the basics of an education behind them. We can’t escape the fact that football is the only hope for a lot of kids. And so they need educating. This way you’re encouraging kids to study.
What’s your part in that process? What are you doing to promote the change?
It’s the government’s job really. I just want to just convince politicians that it’s important. I want to get an argument out there that I think very few people — if anyone — have really considered. It’s crucial that we don’t just look at football as an entity in itself but as a part of society. And a footballer must be treated as part of society so they need a better education.
What’s the probability of anything happening?
It’s about getting it talked about among the right people. And that’s not easy.
How did Corinthian Democracy begin?
I’m in love with democracy. I don’t think there is any man-made regime that is more coherent or makes more sense. For example, in your family most issues concern each and every person. Then you can discuss those issues — everyone participates — and you then choose the best course of action as a majority decision. That’s what democracy is all about. I was always in love with that and always fought for that. But for that to happen in any society or any community then someone somewhere has to relinquish some power. No one can have more power than anyone else and so everyone has to have a certain degree of humility. That’s my vision, the fight I’ve undertaken all my life and somehow it became ingrained in me. It was a personal battle. I fought for things that were relevant to my daily life and my job.
I wanted an active participation and not simply to suffer the consequences of my job because in reality I was just a worker who enjoyed an interesting opportunity completely to alter the structure of an entire football club. There was a crisis at the club, we’d had a poor season and a new president came in. But the players began to enjoy more open and progressive talks with those who ran the club. So as captain, I came up with this solution to take the club forward — “let’s put together a democratic regime within the club where we all decide what is good for everyone.” And then what do you create with that? Responsibility. Everything that involved the group was decided by vote. Simple things such as what time we trained, what time we travelled to away games, where we would stay... everything was voted for. It was a bit like Mr Chips, the school teacher. Even new signings were put to the vote. We chose those who we thought most suited to the new Corinthians way of life. And it was the majority vote that always won so everyone’s vote had the same weight. A club director had the same input as the reserve goalkeeper. The kitman or masseur were just as much a part of the structure of the club as me, captain of Brazil. And that gave an incredible level of participation for everyone, independent of their status within the team.
There is an incredible amount of competition within a football team. Your first priority is to play and then your next priority is to stand out from your team-mates. That makes for a very competitive environment. But by getting everyone to participate in a collective process we reduced that level of competition and results improved because we had an incredible group spirit without any individualism. And that’s when Corinthian Democracy was born.
Did everyone accept the new regime or was there any resistance?
At the beginning a lot of people worried about having their say and offering their opinion for fear of reprisals. In that era, the government had always come down heavily on anyone who spoke out against it. Football wasn’t any different and so that’s what people were used to. But over time, the players gradually became more outspoken and courageous with their opinions. There were some people who were against the whole thing but I suppose that’s only natural for those who had never been involved in or seen anything like it. They had never voted after all or seen a society where the majority had the say. But if someone didn’t want to participate then that was his problem. It’s like anyone who doesn’t vote — fair enough, but from now on you can’t complain if things don’t go your way because you didn’t participate in the whole process when you had the chance and so didn’t have your say.
Are you proud of what you achieved with Corinthian Democracy?
I look back on it with enormous pride and pleasure. I’ve never lived through anything so beautiful and so fantastic. It was the realisation of a specific moment in time we all lived through — when Brazil had a military dictatorship. Through popular culture — in this case football — we were carrying out a perfect democracy in a country that was being ruled by an unbelievably right-wing military dictatorship. We were, without any shadow of a doubt, bringing the issue of democracy into the collective conscience because we were popular figures at a popular club — Corinthians. Conservative forces within society tried to destroy the movement but at the same time more progressive elements in society came to help defend the movement and even improve it. It was a social process using football as its base and it was way ahead of its time. I can’t even imagine when something similar will occur again like that. It’s impossible just to imagine it, as football is a very conservative, reactionary sport. But for all those who lived it, it was something incredible.
Were there a lot of people who wanted to disrupt the movement?
Of course. The conservative forces within football were obviously benefitting from the status quo that the dictatorship allowed. So they didn’t want us there. We were a ‘bad example’. But that micro-society we formed at Corinthians wanted to do something different and we did it. That’s what interested us. To be honest we survived a long time. As it was an ideological fight there was a lot of pressure against us. We lived in a very different country to the one we live in today. The conservative powers had a lot more power than they do today and we hung on in there despite the immense pressure being difficult to bear at times. But the institutions that wanted to transform society supported us. In fact, we grew alongside [the future president] Lula’s Workers’ Party. We generated their first financial resources. We put on a concert at the club, a game of football, a barbecue all to raise funds for Lula’s very first campaign.
Corinthian Democracy worked because you had a successful team. But does an average professional have the same power as a top-class player?
That’s an important point. Some people acquire enough political power to transform society. But the majority don’t. But that’s the same in any community — some people stand out at what they do and others don’t. The ones who don’t have no power. How could they?
So it all depends on talent?
Yes. It depends on talent but also the will to fight for something. If they have the power but don’t want to use it then it’s all pointless, really.
Do you think it’s possible for someone to play professionally and study at university?
It’s all a question of priorities. Brazilian football is extremely conservative — it does everything to prevent the individual from a decent education because if that’s the case then you’re only going to be a nuisance once you’re successful. No boss likes to have anyone intelligent underneath them — someone who knows their rights. So the system is there to try to keep everyone in their place. But if the player really prioritises his education then he can manage both. That’s ultimately his right as a citizen. But the powers that be try to leave a player without an education — to make sure that the guy has no awareness of the power that he actually has.
The movement became more and more political in attempting to overthrow the dictatorship and re-establish democracy in Brazil. It ultimately failed following the non-approval of a vote guaranteeing presidential elections.
Did you not feel that when you left to play in Italy in 1984 that you were abandoning something that you had started?
I was devastated. Absolutely devastated. Because fighting for something is part of life. You have various fights in life of varying importance. You start one and then you want to win another. We had fought for two years for democratic elections to take place in choosing the president of our republic. Just by taking the argument to the streets we were able to mobilise over a million citizens to attend a rally at Anhangabau in São Paulo. There were maybe 1.5 million people there. It was madness.
But the act went to Congress and it wasn’t approved. They castrated the movement and it destroyed me. I said during those last polls that if they passed the amendment I wouldn’t leave the country. As it wasn’t passed I thought I should stick to my word and leave.
Did you truly believe that Congress would pass it?
I cried when I heard the result. I believed in popular movements. But ultimately it was the government who would decide one way or another. But I guess everything was just delayed for a few more years — the dictatorship fell not long afterwards. A transitional power took over but at least it wasn’t a military regime anymore.
Why did Corinthian Democracy end?
I think my exit was the main factor as I was the most articulate of the group. I fought the hardest and I was the one who communicated our ideas to the public and to the press. When I went to Italy there was a lack of leadership at Corinthians. Another thing — they brought in 10 new players when I left so the atmosphere within the club changed. The group of people changed. So the movement had a different perspective and different aims.
So was it a football club trying to change a country?
It wasn’t just a club trying to change things. I think we reflected society’s needs at the time. The club was more like a catalyst to get certain issues and arguments out in the open. So that’s what we did. But we weren’t an isolated group of people trying to make a change. There were lots of us trying to transform Brazil. What we had that other groups didn’t have was the ability to get the message heard. We had far more strength and power than an isolated individual because Corinthians was a popular club playing the most popular sport in the country. And so we became representatives or spokespeople for the masses.
Do you think football remains extremely conservative today?
Absolutely. Nothing has changed. Football has a tumour that has devoured everything.
Do you think Corinthian Democracy could happen again?
It would depend on our society and how far people wanted to go. That sort of thing can’t happen anywhere or at any time. You have to have a series of factors determinant to a place and a period of time. Democracy in Ancient Greece only happened in that one particular place at that one particular time. It all depends on a variety of factors. A revolutionary process always starts with the capacity of an individual or group of people who say, “Let’s do something different here, even if everything seems fine.” You have to wait for or create the suitable conditions for that process to occur.
Is there any class prejudice in Brazilian football?
No. Brazilian society is certainly prejudiced, especially from an economic viewpoint — it’s not by chance that poor people in Brazil tend to be black — but you have a lot less economic and racial prejudice in sport. In fact, playing sport offers you a far more profound and well-rounded view of the realities facing our country because people of every class and race rub shoulders together and in that aspect sport is a very democratic pastime. When I was a kid playing for Botafogo-SP, I played alongside this other boy who couldn’t even afford to eat. So there I was doing my little courses and studying medicine and this kid couldn’t even eat. I went to his house and I understood the reality in which he lived.
This is what happens here: up to about 30 or 40 years ago Brazilian footballers learnt their trade in the streets. It was something for those who lived on the margins of society. And because it wasn’t for the elite then the middle classes never really concerned themselves with it — certainly not playing scouting young talent. So the less well-off did well and it was a chance to have some sort of professional success in life. When the sport began to grow and became more commercial and so generated more money, the middle classes who ran the clubs became interested in the playing side of things. They saw football as a legitimate profession and joined the competition for places. But the middle class is a very easy class to read. As far as I’m concerned, they have less footballing ability but all the economic power. They run the clubs and always have done.
Their political power then made it more difficult for poor people to get the same chances they used to have. They had the talent and of course that talent was still well valued — just a few more doors became closed to them. It’s a lot harder today to get into a club than it was 40 years ago because people of other classes are now competing for places and they often have more opportunities or recourses to obtain those places.
What do you think of institutions set up by ex-footballers to help their communities and educate through football?
They’re great but ultimately that’s the role of the government. Those institutions only exist because the government hasn’t taken on its responsibilities. I dream of the day no one has to do that. That’s the ideal.
Is it true that you ran as an ‘anti-candidate’ in the Brazilian Football Federation elections in 2001?
Yes. I only ran as an ‘anti-candidate’ to get people talking really... to open up debate. What is this federation like? It’s like a dictatorship. No one gets to join in — just them. They are the only ones who can have their say and they do what they want. No one can mess with them. So I just wanted to get a debate going and to try and change things at the top and get more people involved. No footballers are involved in the federation and yet theoretically they are the ones who should have most interest.
Did you never think of working for a federation like Michel Platini at Uefa?
My views are exactly the opposite. I want to change things. I don’t value power. Being in power is easy. Transforming a society is something else. But I don’t really see much hope of me working in football in Brazil. It’s what I know best and it’s my passion and there’s no way I can work outside of sport with my CV. But then how can an ex-international footballer who is also a doctor and administrator be left out of the party?
You allegedly received an offer from Colonel Gaddafi to sponsor your candidature towards the presidency of Brazil...
I saw that as a joke by Gaddafi. Maybe that’s something I would consider one day but it’s not something I’d like to do. I’ve been a political secretary here [in Riberão Preto] but I’ve never run for anything properly. It’s never even entered my mind to be honest. It’s a lot of hard work to sort out the little things! I like the bigger picture — national politics. But to get there you have to jump through a series of hoops and do a lot of different things that I don’t particularly like.
What do you make of the Brazil’s progress towards hosting the 2014 World Cup?
They’ll pay a big price — a very big price. A lot of people will get rich. Not Brazilian football, not the clubs, not the players and definitely not the fans. But there will be people getting rich. They’re building new stadiums — when we already have a lot — but they’re building them anyway and they will never be used again. One of the host cities, Cuiabá, has got a project to build a stadium for about 60,000 people. If you took all the fans who attend games from all the clubs in the state (not just the city) you could fill the stadium just one-and-a-half times in a year. So they’re building a stadium that no one will ever go to! The same thing will happen in Manaus and in Natal too, and even in São Paulo. They don’t want to use the Morumbi [São Paulo’s stadium]. They want to build a new stadium because someone’s going to earn a lot of money out of that. As if that was the most important thing. Football’s just a game on grass — who cares about the rest? Who cares about it? Who wants to build a stadium for 60,000 people that most people will watch on TV? And Brazilians won’t be at the grounds — they won’t have the money to afford tickets. You won’t have 60,000 people watching Nigeria, Cameroon, the US or Italy even. Only the Brazilian national team will attract that amount of people.
Can Brazil win?
Brazil only play to win. They can always win it but who knows if they will or not? But a World Cup isn’t something the best team wins. It’s more of a circus. You play seven games in a month! It’s not a league championship. It doesn’t mean anything winning it — what’s important is being the best on the right day at the right time. I’d like to see an international league championship. That would be great. A tournament over four years — home and away. It would be great. Brazil v Italy in the Maracanã and then three months later Italy v Brazil in the San Siro or the Olimpico. If it was like that, Argentina would have won in ’94, Brazil in ’82, Holland in ’74, Hungary in ’54… and it values good football. You shouldn’t be world champions because of one game. Look at France in 2002 — they lost in the first round because they lost Zidane through injury. Once they lost Zidane they didn’t have a team. Two or three months before the World Cup though, they were the best team in the world. Make it a league championship and in a month Zidane would recover and France could win the title. It values the product and the spectacle — which is all that’s good about football. Otherwise one player gets injured and it’s all over. There’s no fun in that. It’s good for business that way. World Cups are good at making money for a few people.