Sócrates and Brazilian Democracy

Andrew Downie

In November 1982, Brazil held its first direct multiparty elections since the 1964 coup. A month before the vote, the captain of the national football team wrote a four-page spread in Placar, the country’s bestselling football magazine, in which he articulated his proposals for jobs, housing, health, education and food security. These are issues that ordinary people worry about, Sócrates said, and if addressed properly will ensure a better life for all. ‘But we will only achieve this when everyone has full and total freedom to speak, to learn, to participate, to choose and above all to protest,’ he wrote. ‘That’s what living with dignity is all about.’

An erudite smoker and drinker as well as a qualified doctor, Sócrates was one of the leaders of Corinthians Democracy, a movement that gave players at the São Paulo club the right to vote on issues that affected their game, whether it was which new left back to sign or how long to train the day before a match. The movement was an explicit challenge to authoritarian rule, and helped explain the concepts of democracy and free speech to people who had grown up knowing little of either.

On Sunday, 28 October, Brazilians will vote in a run-off ballot which seems certain to sweep the far-right presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, to power. A former army captain who unabashedly wants Brazil to be more like it was in the 1970s, Bolsonaro has won massive support with his vague promises to halt moral decay, protect Brazil from Communist bogeymen and crack down on crime (last year in Brazil there were on average 175 murders a day). He holds unapologetically violent, homophobic, misogynist and racist views, and has promised to open up the Amazon rainforest to mining firms.

His campaign, a celebration of ignorance, machismo and lies, has already led to the election of senators, deputies and governors who support his reductive world view. The candidates who have jumped on the Bolsonaro bandwagon include myriad soldiers and military police officers, as well as a boorish former porn actor, a middle-aged YouTube conspiracy theorist and a former judge who posed beside party colleagues after they destroyed a street sign put up to commemorate the assassination of a queer, black city councilwoman in Rio.

Some of Bolsonaro’s biggest fans are footballers. In the weeks leading up to the first round of voting earlier this month, the former Barcelona legends Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, Tottenham’s winger Lucas Moura, and Jadson and Roger, who play for Corinthians, were among those expressing their support.

Brazil built much of its soft power on the open way it played football. Pelé, Zico, Ronaldo and dozens of others who wore the yellow shirt were ambassadors to generations who knew little else about the world’s fifth most populous nation. And now Ronaldinho, a man who quite literally played the game with a smile on his face, is cosying up to the scowling Bolsonaro.

The footballers’ stance illustrates how the Brazilian game has become more insular since Sócrates convinced both club and country to pay more attention to politics. Players now earn more in a month than their parents earn in a lifetime, but they can’t see how supporting a man who has threatened to ‘cleanse’ the country of his opponents and vowed to give police the right to shoot on sight might disproportionately affect the communities in which they grew up.

Sócrates was born into an upwardly mobile middle-class family but was aware of his privileged position. As a boy he travelled to his first away games on the back of a flatbed truck with team mates who couldn’t afford to eat breakfast. When he wrote his piece for Placar in 1982, he spent weeks researching the issues so he could transmit them to fans in the clearest way possible.

None of the players backing Bolsonaro has given a coherent reason for their support beyond a love of God and country, and a desire, as Ronaldinho put it, for ‘peace, security and someone who can give us back our happiness’. ‘Stick it to the bandits!’ Felipe Melo shouted. ‘Bolsonaro them!’

Sócrates died in 2011, contrarian but progressive to the last. He would have been horrified at his compatriots’ looming own goal.


  • 28 October 2018 at 9:29am
    disneyatemydaughter says:
    The ghost of Paulo Freire haunts today's election. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed explains, with beautiful empathy, why Brazilians 'know little' of 'the concepts of democracy and free speech' - “They call themselves ignorant and say the ‘professor’ is the one who has the knowledge and to whom they should listen.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, p. 37.)

    The connection between the powerlessness of the poor and their passivity in education - hence passivity in political life - is as significant in Britain today.

  • 31 October 2018 at 12:17pm
    Rory Allen says:
    Anyone thinking that Britain is any better than Brazil in this regard should note the respect paid to Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg on account of their Oxford education. The fact that Johnson at least appears to be innumerate does not register. And the contradiction between right wing scorn of "liberal elites" led by the Sun and Mail and the elite status of Johnson and Rees Mogg does not register either. As Johnson might say, "Quem Iuppiter vult perdere, dementat prius."

  • 7 November 2018 at 9:27am
    joepraxis says:
    Remove the silver objects from Boris Johnson’s various orifices and he’d be lucky to get a job as a binman. It’s indicative of the state of England, in both senses. The fool becomes the king. Polonius must be spinning in his grave. At least he can have a laugh with poor Yorick