Sócrates and Democracia Corinthiana
"Footballers can be real prime ministers without the chair, but they just need to understand that they have social responsibility and the power to change the society in which they live." - Sócrates
Football tends to be the most popular sport in the world. Millions of people around the world cheer for their favourite team from the stands or swoon in front of the TV screens during the broadcasts. The impact of such a sport is so great that it was once the cornerstone of the Corinthian's Democracy (Democracia Corinthiana) - a plan that originally sought to democratise a single football club but later attempted to use football as a tool to reform an entire country under a military dictatorship.
A new approach
The phenomenon covered the period between 1982 and 1984 and affected the Brazilian club Corinthians. After a disappointing season, the club decided to make a change following the appointment of Adilson Monteiro Alves as the new technical director instead of Vicente Matheus. Alves felt that one of the reasons for the failure was a lack of dialogue between management and the team. Having listened to the opinion of the players and other club employees, in particular the politically conscious captain and team leader Sócrates, the technical director decided to change the strict hierarchical pyramid towards equality.
Important issues were now decided by a vote. Players and staff became involved in the decision-making process that affected the team. This did not only concern the organisation of the game, training or transfers, but also, for example, covered the issues of recruitment and income distribution.
As Sócrates said: "We chose by simple majority and everyone's vote was absolutely equal to any other vote. A club director meant as much as a reserve goalkeeper. The administrator or masseur was as much a part of the team as me, the captain of the Brazilian national team. And this gave us an incredible shared sense of complicity, of the independence of everyone within a single team."
This approach has paid off. The result of this policy has been an improvement in team atmosphere, which is also reflected in the sports results. Already in 1982 and 1983, the club had become the state champion of Sao Paulo, whilst also managing to eliminate debts and make a net profit of $3 million. However, it was the political changes that were the main outcomes.
More than a club
At the time, Brazil was ruled by the military, which came to power in a coup d'état in 1964. Meanwhile, the population had no opportunity to vote for another government, as there was no direct presidential election, and presidents were elected by the parliament, choosing the highest-ranking officers. In this context, the political appeals of the football club had a resonance - Corinthians was the first club to start using their shirts for political messages. Slogans of a political nature began to appear on their shirts, such as "Direct (elections) now" (Diretas-já) or "I want to vote for the president" (Eu quero votar para presidente).
With each game, the club received more and more media coverage. A particularly memorable one was the club's victory in the 1983 Sao Paulo championship, after which the players carried a huge banner onto the pitch which proclaimed: " Win or lose, but always with democracy" (Ganhar ou perder mas semper com democracia). Corinthians' actions went beyond football by inspiring the nation to get directly involved in the political life of their country.
An overwhelming majority of Brazilians supported the movement, and the Corinthians Democracy movement was largely responsible for raising the political awareness of the Brazilian people. It is worth noting that club did not urge people to vote for anyone in particular, but just to vote in general.
For two years, the people of Brazil fought for the right to elect the president of the republic by themselves. The movement managed to mobilise more than one and a half million people from Anhangabão to São Paulo, with Sócrates even being able to deliver a "Direct Elections Now" speech to two million people at a political demonstration in 1984.
However, a legislative initiative seeking an immediate restoration of direct popular elections failed. Despite strong popular support and rallies across the country, the proposal failed to win the necessary votes to amend the constitution. A disappointed Sócrates, who had promised to leave the country should the amendment fail to pass, stood by his word and went to play football in Italy.
Triumph and influence
Nevertheless, one year later, the situation changed. Under the strain of economic hardship, the Brazilian military resigned from the government. A new president was appointed and the electoral system was further reformed. Sócrates came back to Brazil - now playing for Flamengo. At the same time, Corinthians was no more what it used to be: supporters of the movement lost the club's presidential election. Paradoxically, the democracy triumphed in the country whilst it came to an end at the club.
Sócrates died on 4 December 2011 - the day his beloved club, Corinthians, won the Brazilian championship. It matched a professed desire of his, having previously stated his wish: "to die on a Sunday when Corinthians win a trophy." A moment of silence was held before the match and numerous people in the stadium raised their fists in memory of great football player and fighter for rights, who had become a symbol of democracy in his country.
Perhaps the most important legacy of Sócrates and the Corinthians democracy is that they created a form of republic within the football club in a time when there simply had been no democracy anywhere around.
About the author
Nikita Bokserov is SDSN Youth Sustainable Development Goals Coordinator and a sport for peace and development researcher.