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Brazil's Legendary Soccer-Playing Socialist Medical Doctor

Unlike many of the great Brazilian players, Sócrates, who didn't become a professional until age 24, remained an outspoken political voice up until his death three years ago.
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Sócrates. (Photo: Public Domain)

Sócrates. (Photo: Public Domain)

Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira was the captain of Brazil’s 1982 World Cup squad, a team that did not finish first but whose players’ style was so beloved that they are remembered with more affection, arguably, than any of the country’s many World Cup victors. The masterful midfielder died from an intestinal infection at 57, but not before leaving a legacy that showcases the immensely powerful political echo of the sport in Brazil’s history. Sócrates was a rare athlete whose outsized personality and effervescent humanity transcended the game. His interests, talents, and achievements were, frankly, staggering. He was a medical doctor, a musician, an author, a news columnist, a political activist, and a TV pundit. And somewhere in all of this, he managed not only to lead what may have been the most artful team ever to grace the pitch, but also, using his pulpit as a soccer star, to fearlessly challenge the military dictatorship that had ruled Brazil for decades.

Alongside the 1982 Brazilian midfield of Zico, Falcao, Cerezo, and Éder, Sócrates exhibited a combination of technical prowess, deadly goal-scoring ability, and blissful creativity that has never been matched. If ever the uninhibited joy of play has merged seamlessly with raw competitive dominance, it was in the squad that Sócrates led to the World Cup semifinals in Spain. Sócrates approached soccer with the same intensity and lack of restraint he brought to every aspect of his life. He drank, he smoked, and—perhaps most daringly—he played without shin guards. His impetuosity as a player and a person was embodied in his signature move on the field: the blind heel pass. Sócrates became a full-time professional player almost as an afterthought, signing with Corinthians at the relatively advanced age of 24. And unlike so many of his fellow players, let alone top-level professional athletes, he refused to check his politics at the door.

Unlike the great Pelé, Sócrates never made financial or political peace with Brazil’s dictatorship. In fact, with his medical expertise, his flowing hair and full beard, and his politics of political resistance, he had less in common with Pelé than with Che Guevara. That is not hyperbole. Sócrates may be the only professional athlete ever to have organized a socialist cell among his fellow players. He helped to build Corinthians, a club team from São Paulo, on a radical political foundation. Under his leadership, cheering for Corinthians or even wearing their colors became a focal point for national discontent with Brazil’s military dictatorship.

The military had ruled Brazil since 1964, when it overthrew left-wing president João Goulart. Throughout the 1970s, it had used soccer as a way to showcase national pride. By the early 1980s, as the dictatorship was beginning to strain under the weight of mass repression and economic stagnation, Sócrates and his teammate Wladimir were not only playing for Corinthians, but turning their team into the time do povo—the “people’s team”—to demonstrate the power of democracy. With the blessing of club president Waldemar Pires, the players established a democratic process to govern all team decisions. As Sócrates explained, “Everyone at the club had the same right to vote—the person who looked after the kit and the club president, all their votes had the same weight.” The players decided what time they would eat lunch, challenged strict rules that locked players in their hotel rooms for up to 48 hours before a match, and printed political slogans on their uniforms.

In this way, one of South America’s most popular teams became a beacon of hope not just to Brazilians but across a continent then stuffed to the rafters with U.S.-backed dictators. In a country where a wrong word could have authorities knocking at your door, Sócrates was as bold as those national colors. On his way to 297 appearances and 172 goals for Corinthians, he was one of the most popular figures in the country and thus nearly unassailable, even by the military rulers. As he put it: “I’m struggling for freedom, for respect for human beings, for equality, for ample and unrestricted discussions, for a professional democratization of unforeseen limits, and all of this as a soccer player, preserving the ludicrous, and the joyous and pleasurable nature of this activity.”

The tragedy of Sócrates’s death in 2011 lies both in his age—just 57—and in its timing. As the World Cup and Olympics thunder toward Brazil, his would have been a critical voice against the way these international sporting carnivals run roughshod over local communities for the benefit of the elite. When asked by the Guardian earlier in 2011 if the coming World Cup would help the poor of Brazil, Sócrates replied, “There will be lots of public money disappearing into people’s pockets. Stadiums will be built and they will stay there for the rest of their lives without anyone using them. It’s all about money. What we need to do is keep up public pressure for improvements in infrastructure, transport, sewerage, but I reckon it will be difficult.” But Sócrates, true to form in this interview, didn’t confine his commentary to soccer: “What needs to change here is the focus on development. We need to prioritise the human being. Sadly, in the globalised world, people don’t think about individuals as much as they think about money, the economy, etc.”

In another interview near the end of his life, he tried to analyze why the sport in Brazil had made the journey from joy to fear; from a uniquely Brazilian rhythm to the more regimented style that has begun to redefine the sport.He began with the big picture, then worked his way down. He started by discussing the death of public space. “We’ve become an urban country,” he said. “Before, there were no limits for playing—you could play on the streets or wherever. Now it’s difficult to find space.” The price for this—and this will sound very familiar to basketball fans in the United States—is that the game does not develop organically or through improvisation, but instead through highly structured league play from the youngest ages. As Sócrates put it, if you are playing the sport in a serious way and have any kind of athletic gifts, you will be “involved some kind of standardization.” He also spoke about how even the most innocent-looking soccer contests have been regimented: “The barefooted tykes kicking footballs on Rio’s beaches are not doing so at liberty—they are members of escolinhas, Beach Soccer training clubs.... In São Paulo, children do not learn to play on patches of common land—because there is no common land any
more.... The freedom that let Brazilians reinvent the game decades agois long gone.” He then put a stunning exclamation point on the project:

For many years soccer has been played in different styles, expressions of the personality of each people, and the preservation of that diversity is more necessary today than ever before. These are days of obligatory uniformity in soccer and everything else. Never has the world been so unequal in the opportunities it offers and so equalizing in the habits it imposes: in this end of the century world, whoever doesn’t die of hunger dies of boredom.... Soccer is now mass-produced, and it comes out colder than a freezer and as merciless as a meat-grinder. It’s a soccer for robots.

These days, if you want to find creativity in Brazilian soccer, you’d be much better off looking at an area of Brazil’s soccer world that has actually benefited from segregation and neglect—because no one has regimented its players with lessons about how they have to play. These are the women of Brazil.

This post is adapted from Brazil's Dance With the Devil: The World Cup the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy, which is available now.