Sócrates: the last great political footballer

It may be easy to criticise modern footballers for keeping quiet, especially in Brazil, where the vast majority start off poor and uneducated. The message on that first day was for his hosts, tens of thousands of whom had died or were made homeless in an earthquake nine months before. 1986 World Cup. Everything worked out today, thank God.”

Their careers, you could assume, are not really theirs; responsibility is passed on to a higher power. “No Violence,” read another. Andrew Downie is the Scottish author of Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend which was published last month by Simon and Schuster and is reviewed by Ken Early in The Irish Times this Saturday. What it didn’t do was inspire subsequent generations to get involved. God willing, I’ll be called up for the national side. It took him some time but he asked questions. “Yes to Love, No to Terror,” read one, a response to the recent US bombing of Libya. But to the contrary, footballers live in ghettos. He hugged his team mates and did a lap of honour but it wasn’t long before he was at the side of the pitch. By openly questioning the dictatorship he endangered not just his commercial deals but his personal safety. Two Brazilians leading their country on the world stage in front of capacity crowds. A trained physician – for six years he studied orthopedics and gynecology by day and ran laps by night – he was well equipped to deal with the big questions. The differences in the messages and messengers are indicative not just of Sócrates’ unique greatness but of how footballers have become more submissive and less brave. And there, as they say, the similarities end. Under his captaincy, the Corinthians players – and the kit man, trainer, physio and everyone else involved with the team – voted on everything from how long to train to whether or not to the team coach should stop for a toilet break. He, too, had a message to convey and after seeing a little girl in a tiara while flicking through Mexican TV channels, he painted slogans on a white sock, tied it around his head, and decided this was his medium. And once he worked it out, he became one of the regime’s biggest critics. Even those at smaller clubs are so mollycoddled they know little about the real world beyond the training ground and the hotel built by their team to keep them away from fans. “Mexico Stand Tall,” it read. And while his motives were not always pure – his larger aims dovetailed nicely with a desperate desire for personal freedom – he was one of the few people brave enough to speak out. In Europe Sócrates is remembered for captaining the 1982 Brazil team, one of the greatest teams never to win the World Cup, but he is better known in his homeland for his political and social activism. And a disservice to the memory of Sócrates, football’s great thinker and greatest revolutionary. Playing football is a political act and Brazilian footballers, Socrates said shortly before he died in 2011, lack the education or the desire to use their immense power

That silence is shocking in Europe but it is also felt keenly in Brazil, where Sócrates’s exemplary stance still casts a massive shadow. He has lived in Brazil for 17 years and his journalism has appeared in The Irish Times, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, Esquire and GQ among others And that I think is because of their lack of education growing up and because they have no idea of their social importance.”

Instead, today’s Brazil players hide behind religion. In the United States, American athletes have taken courageous positions in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and much else. Most importantly, and here’s where he differs most from the Neymars of the world, Sócrates was hungry for knowledge. And the shortest, the one that best summed him up, simply said “Justice.”

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“It’s a way of participating and I have to take advantage of that opportunity, right?” he explained ahead of the 3-0 win over Northern Ireland. They were not likely to harm Sócrates but one of his team mates was arrested for cocaine possession, a charge he said was trumped up and was dropped a few months later. Playing football is a political act and Brazilian footballers, Socrates said shortly before he died in 2011, lack the education or the desire to use their immense power. In doing so he introduced the concepts of democracy and freedom of speech to generations of Brazilians who knew only repression. After an early career in which he lauded the regime, endorsed the need for censorship, and most laughably, rejected any suggestions that sport should mix with politics, he arrived in São Paulo and came face to face with the realities of big, bad Brazil. Today’s footballers show no such willingness to engage, much less question the powers that be. There is a stage and there is an audience,” Sócrates said. 2016 Olympics. It is a great tragedy. “If politicians had that power they’d make hay with it. In the early 1980s he led Corinthians Democracy, the movement that gave players a say in the running of São Paulo’s biggest club. Neymar. The only voice consistently addressing questions such as immigration, human rights, and the future of Europe comes not from a player but an ex-player, Gary Lineker

In the games to come, Sócrates would send other messages written below his scruffy mane of black hair. The only voice consistently addressing questions such as immigration, human rights, and the future of Europe comes not from a player but an ex-player, Gary Lineker. Sócrates was privileged in that he was middle class and educated. Neymar, who a few months before stood in a Spanish court to defend himself on tax evasion charges, angrily swore at fans he thought had criticised him. “They have political power in their hands. A few have taken part in anti-racism campaigns, most notably after two Santos players were abused by rivals in 2014. Brazil’s military were not as brutal as those in Chile or Argentina, but they had already tortured and murdered hundreds of leftist opponents. Sócrates. As two decades of dictatorship limped to a predictably pathetic end, Sócrates aggressively took politics to the people, side-stepping questions about defenders and tactics with demands for better schools and hospitals, higher wages, and most of all, democratic elections to replace the military rulers

As two decades of dictatorship limped to a predictably pathetic end, Sócrates aggressively took politics to the people, side-stepping questions about defenders and tactics with demands for better schools and hospitals, higher wages, and most of all, democratic elections to replace the military rulers. He wanted to know what was really going on. Thirty years before, Sócrates had also worn a headband as he stood for the national anthem ahead of Brazil’s opening match at the 1986 World Cup. The Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro. Estadio Jalisco, Guadalajara. “God willing, we’ll get three points tomorrow. Both of them the biggest players of their generation, both of them with a message. And a number, including Neymar, run their own foundations and do valuable work with global charities such as Unicef. When Neymar’s penalty hit the net last August and delirious Brazilians celebrated their first Olympic gold medal in football, the Barcelona star slipped on a headband and threw himself into the celebrations. As the world staggers into its most uncertain period for more than half a century, footballers have been shamefully silent on the big issues of the day. The headband he wore as he pouted and screamed read “100 % Jesus”. But none have spoken out about events in their homeland, a nation where the president was impeached last year in a highly questionable maneuver that many likened to a coup; where more than 3,000 people are shot dead by police each year; and where the biggest corruption scandal in the nation’s history has led to the arrest of dozens of politicians and businessmen. But over here few footballers, it seems, have informed opinions, much less a concerted or united stance on the issues that concern them and their fans.