The majestic footballer Socrates fought tirelessly for the restoration of democracy during Brazil’s dictatorship and helped pioneer a radical experiment in democratisation at his club, Corinthians.

Six years ago, on 4 December 2011, the wonderful footballer Socrates died. Besides being a player defined by talent on the pitch, he would also go down in history for his actions away from it as a tireless fighter for democracy during Brazil’s dictatorship. Not only that, he worked with friends and teammates (Zenon, Wladimir and Casagrande, among others, who were part of the Corinthians Paulista team) to promote democratisation in all social spaces, such as football. This gave rise to the so-called ‘Corinthians Democracy’, a short experiment of direct and horizontal democracy that established equal conditions for everyone at the club: footballers, directors, coaches, assistants, drivers and so on. Decisions were discussed in meetings where all participants had equal right to a voice and a vote. The reason for this was that democracy was not only something to be demanded, but also practiced, and it would remain incomplete unless established as firmly in political structures as in society’s closest confines.

Everything was therefore a matter of debate and deliberation: from what was eaten to whether to hold meetings before each match or the players’ style of passing. Each footballer was free to be at the club or to leave: ‘nobody owns anyone else’ and ‘nobody will be forced to do anything’. Players’ demands and proposals began to be considered and, probably facilitated by a technical body willing to open discussion spaces within the team, the practice soon extended throughout the club. It even set a democratic precedent, both then and today, when the players chose their coach, as well as his replacement after he failed to get good results. In little time, certain players and organised fan groups began to influence the internal politics of the club and its relationship with external political institutions.

However, Socrates and the other members of Corinthians Democracy understood that, in an authoritarian context, a democratic ‘island’was unthinkable. If we consider the context, their greatest impact was as a bastion of anti-dictatorial propaganda and a space for subversion. And, of course, this ‘democratic’ team belonged to the anti-dictatorial social struggle in a country as football-crazy as it was violated. They broke the prejudice of the football player as absorbed by his work inside the stadium, faced external and internal opposition within their own club and joined calls for direct elections (the famous ‘Diretas Já’ [Direct Elections Now]campaign of 1984-1985), mobilising to demand the restitution of universal voting rights, the election of the President of the Republic through such methods and the recovery of democratic freedoms stolen by the dictatorial regime that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1984. Corinthians thereby managed to challenge the dictatorship on and off the pitch, as social movements flooded the streets of major Brazilian cities (as was happening in Argentina and Chile) and the democratisation movement grew in strength.

There is another non-minor detail. This was also a high level team which won the Paulista championship in 1982 and 1983. Prior to the 1983 final, the Corinthians players took to the field with a banner that would travel the world bearing the legend ‘Win or lose, but always with Democracy’. The phrase became popular with good reason: ‘Being champion is a detail’ and ‘Win or lose, but always with democracy’ were slogans that reflected the process undertaken by Corinthians and to which Socrates contributed his share. It was a powerful message that emphasised what was at stake lasted longer than 90 minutes and was more than a football game. Socrates himself made this clear by stating ‘political victories are more important than football victories. It’s more than sports’.

Translation by Alborada

This article was originally published in Resumen. Read the original Spanish-language version here.