What Would Socrates Do?

Brazil’s heroic midfielder from the 1980s had a political conscience that’s needed today

You have to wonder what Socrates, the legendary socially-conscious Brazilian midfielder, would have made of what is happening in Brazil. Soccer and socioeconomic issues defined his personality and his career. Were he still alive, he would no doubt be helping us contextualize the craziness of this World Cup.

They don’t make Brazilian players, or athletes in general, like Socrates these days. This Seleçao team follows the lead of coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who, when the team bus was surrounded by striking school teachers last month, dismissed the issue and said the problems of his country are not his concern. Not yet, anyway.

Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira was not one to avoid big issues. His refusal to back down from the powerful and his willingness to lead symbolize Brazil’s path to democracy.

Without people like him, the protests and social activism that have surrounded the World Cup are difficult to imagine. They certainly had no place in the Brazil of some 30 years ago. Back then, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship and dissent was dealt with severely. Today, high-profile public protests and work stoppages are everyday events.

It all seemed to coalesce around the time of last year’s Confederations Cup. A transportation rate hike in São Paulo coincided with massive, ongoing investments being made in stadiums and World Cup preparations, triggering violent clashes with law enforcement.

But Brazil’s protest roots run deeper. The origins can be traced to the 1960s, but dissenters began to make serious headway in the early 1980s. Soccer played an influential role in the movement, with stadiums providing a stage for dissenters.

Socrates In MexicoSocrates became the most visible proponent of what would become known as Democracia Corinthiana, which proposed equal voting rights for all involved in the team, from the equipment manager to the president.

The protesters were shown the way by Sao Paulo’s biggest club, Sport Club Corinthians. Four players—Walter Casagrande, Socrates, Wladimir, and Zenon—got things started by demanding a say in the affairs of the club.

Socrates became the most visible proponent of what would become known as Democracia Corinthiana, which proposed equal voting rights for all involved in the team, from the equipment manager to the president. And, yes, all decisions—including the menu for pre-game meals—would be put to a vote, as in a true democracy.

At first, the Corinthians players wanted to be free from the concentração, which required them to spend nights before games holed up with teammates. This may have had as much to do with a desire to spend time with the opposite sex as with any sort of adherence to political ideals. In any case, it was the first step on the road to full-blown free agency, enabling players to pursue lucrative contracts in Europe.

Democracia Corinthiana policy appeared to be paying off as the team won the Sao Paulo championship in 1982, with the word Democracia embroidered on the back of the team jerseys in place of a sponsor. This was a genuine expression of what the masses wanted, the most visible sign that the country was breaking away from its dictatorial shackles.

By 1985, Casagrande had moved to São Paulo and Socrates, who had also earned a medical degree while playing for Corinthians, to Fiorentina in Italy. Democracia Corinthiana slowly lost momentum and blended into Diretas Ja (Rights Now), the movement that included Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, an ardent Corinthians supporter and leader of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party). In 2003, Lula would ride populist sentiment all the way to Brasilia, becoming Brazil’s president, and he would be followed by Dilma Rousseff, another product of the movement.

Now Rousseff and others in power are confronting a conundrum. The democratic principles they fought for—the very right to protest—are ingrained in the social fabric of Brazil. And there is no difficulty finding reasons for discontent—corruption and excessive spending manifested in the construction of what many people will believe will become white elephant stadiums.

Brazil’s leaders and FIFA are hoping the Seleçao will be successful and thus divert the passion of the protesters—the World Cup as opiate for the masses.

Socrates died three years ago, at the age of 57. He doubtless would not agree with Scolari’s policy of avoiding the important issues of the day, but would instead have served as a bridge between the people and their team.