Tom Hennigan writes: Full disclosure first. The Reuters Brazil football correspondent Andrew Downie is a friend and colleague and I read early drafts of several chapters from his recently published biography Doctor Sócrates: Footballer, philosopher, legend. Thankfully the final text suffered no harm as a result.
Therefore as a partial blogger I’ll leave to one side the book’s many achievements and instead just discuss how rare a bird it is. Despite being the world’s fifth most populous nation, Brazil remains on the periphery of our global vision, a reality reflected by the relative dearth of biographies ‑ a genre which seems to pile up ever higher in our bookshops ‑ about Brazilians aimed at the general reader and published in English.
It is not that such books do not exist. But they are few in number and often too academic to capture a wide readership. This is a pity, because the biography of a compelling subject can serve as a more attractive and intimate introduction to a country for the casual reader than a weighty volume that seeks to make sense of it all in one go, something which seems to particularly afflict Brazil, a fact which itself hints that it is still viewed as terra incognita by many publishers. (The best example of this “way in” for me remains Peter Robb’s peerless A Death in Brazil.)
As Downie’s new Sócrates book shows, biography can come at a country from an angle, rather than through full frontal assault. It is first and foremost a football book about an extraordinarily elegant exponent of the beautiful game who captained a team that failed to win the World Cup in 1982 and in doing so became something far rarer than a mere world champion achieving instead mythic status as a member of the greatest team never to win the tournament. (Anyone who doubts this status should check out the YouTube reel of the fifteen glorious goals they scored in five games.)
But Sócrates is well-chosen as a subject because he belongs to one of those few categories in which Brazil stimulates some global interest ‑ football ‑ but is arguably more important for what he did off the field than on it. As a result the football reader might be drawn to the book by memories of the effortless cool of Sócrates and his team-mates thirty-five years ago in Spain but in reading about his life will get a fine introduction to the ferment that gripped Brazil in the 1980s without ever feeling they are stuck in a thesis on the institutional death rattle of a mid-20th century Latin American dictatorship.
From a certain, censorious, point of view, the life of Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira was something of a failure. Dead in 2011 at just fifty-seven as a result of alcoholism, his career on the field, for all its elegance, is more famous for what he did not win ‑ the ’82 and ’86 World Cups ‑ than what he did, which amounted to little more than three São Paulo state championships with Corinthians. He was never a Brazilian national champion, nor did he grace the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the European Cup. His solitary year in Europe, with Serie A side Fiorentina, was an unmitigated failure, as was his subsequent career as an ageing pro, coach and later commentator. He piled up ex-wives, former lovers, estranged friends.
But much of this sorry (unless reckless boozing is your thing) tale took place in the shadow of his greatness, which was secured within five years as a result of what he said and did off the field in the early 1980s.
Not that he wasn’t great on it, a beautifully languid conductor with an exquisite range of passing (though probably not the greatest Brazilian of his generation: this was arguably Zico, Sócrates’s friend and team-mate in the ’82 and ’86 World Cups, who with Flamengo won several Brazilian national titles, the Copa Libertadores and orchestrated the 3-0 destruction of European champions Liverpool in the 1981 Intercontinental Cup). But Sócrates used his fame as a craque, his position as the captain of the national side and leader of the most popular team in South America’s biggest city to do something unheralded. He spoke up for democracy at a time when a grim authoritarian military regime was running Brazil.
At the time this was a minority pursuit in a country that was part conservative, part cowed ‑ and unheard of from a football player. In part Sócrates did so because unlike most players he was from the middle class, well-educated and a qualified medical doctor by the time he rocked up at Corinthians. A confirmed bohemian with a love of late-night debates around bar tables covered in empty beer bottles ‑ as he once told an interviewer “I smoke, I drink and I think” ‑ he chafed against the restrictions of Brazil’s football world, to this day one of the darker corners of the country’s conservative soul.
To combat it he helped instigate the Corinthians Democracy movement of the early 1980s in which real workplace democracy was installed in a major football club, where all decisions were put to a ballot in which everyone, from club director to boot-man, had just one vote. It was a precarious, short-lived experiment whose tangible achievements pale alongside the impact such a radical departure within a high-profile institution made at a time when the country was struggling to emerge from the long night of dictatorship. As Corinthians fanatic and Brazil’s first working class president Lula would later put it for ordinary people with little interest in politics “seeing players putting democratic ideas into practice showed how important that fight was”.
Sócrates had himself been politicised by others, most importantly the dean of Brazilian sports journalists Juca Kfouri a former left-wing militant. But he quickly realised that as a high-profile footballer he could have a far greater reach than a journalist, union leader or academic when spreading the word about democracy.
For many poorer Brazilians, whether from apathy or well-founded fear, politics was something to be avoided. But they were obsessed with football and Sócrates would start interviews talking about upcoming fixtures but quickly veer off into the need for social justice, rights for residents of favelas, better primary medical care and an expanded network of trade schools. A sporting superstar, he could help this message reach portions of the population that were denied it by a reactionary mass media industry that was largely beholden to the generals.
Several of his team-mates were wary of his proselyting, knowing it would antagonise the regime. A perfect illustration of just how different the times then were in Brazil came in November 1982 when the Corinthians players lined up for a local derby with the words “Dia 15 Vote” ‑ Vote on the 15th ‑ on their shirts. It was a message for people to participate in state elections. Though the poll had been called by the military regime and the players only asked for people to take part in it ‑ a call that came without any recommendation about how to vote ‑ in the Brazil of 1982 even this simple civic gesture was seen as subversive by the powers that be and the players were warned not to repeat it.
It was in these ways, lighting matches in the darkness, that Sócrates played his part in Brazil’s troubled democratic transition. His story is a football story but to read about his role is also to drop in on a society in transition and witness the birth of an era that now seems to be drowning to death in a sea of corruption scandals three decades on.
It is perhaps understandable that football, so identified with Brazil, has provided a rare opportunity to open a window onto this vibrant, hopeful, chaotic time and place through Downie’s book. If only there were more such biographies in English, and not necessarily all about footballers, waiting for readers stimulated by his Sócrates read to find out more about the people who make up this endlessly complex, contradictory place called Brazil.