25 October 2018


Whilst Plato described his master, the Greek philosopher Sócrates, as someone who was hugely pessimistic about democracy, millennia later, his Brazilian namesake staked his career and life on it.


In 1962, a Military Dictatorship seized power in Brazil with the aim of restoring financial and economic order, ridding the country of any communist elements and amending the constitution allowing them temporary authority to remove democratically-elected officials from office. Many opposed the regime, but it was a then 10-year-old, named Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, who would later have a large impact on opposing this dictatorship.


During a coup d’état, Sócrates witnessed his father destroy many works of his beloved book collection in fear of reprisal from the military dictatorship’s censorship. "In 1964, I saw my father tear up many books, because of the coup d'état. I thought that was absurd, because the library was the thing he liked best. That was when I felt that something was not right. But I only understood well much later, in college."


Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, known simply as Sócrates, was a Brazilian attacking midfielder. Born in February, 1954 in Belém do Pará, he and his family moved to Sao Paulo in 1960. Sócrates began playing professional football for Botofogo-SP in 1974 before transferring to Corinthians in 1978, the club at which he spent most of his career. During his time as a professional footballer in Brazil, Sócrates achieved a bachelor’s degree in medicine from the Faculdade de Medicina de Ribeirão Preto, a rare achievement for a footballer in those days, particularly in Brazil. His medical degree and his political awareness soon earned him the nickname “Doctor Sócrates”, or simply “The Doctor”.


Football in Brazil was being organised in an authoritarian manner, with players not trusted to behave and therefore made to endure ‘concentração’, a period of enforced confinement in the team hotel 48 hours before kick-off. During his time with Corinthians, Sócrates co-founded the “Corinthians Democracy movement”, in order to challenge the club’s management. They began to vote on every decision, no matter how trivial, with all votes equal, whether coming from the board of directors or the kit man. The Corinthians Democracy movement also began to protest with, at the time, innovative methods. Corinthians were the first club to use advertising slogans on their shirts and the team began printing political slogans on their jerseys such as “Democracia”, even adding the image of a splash of blood for effect.


The vast majority of Brazilians supported the movement and the Corinthians Democracy movement was recognised as largely responsible for raising the political awareness of the Brazilian people. The movement tried to turn the people in favour of direct presidential elections, encouraging Brazilians to vote, with “DIA 15 VOTE” printed on the back of their shirts. They knew that the more people they convinced to vote, the more they could harm the dictatorship, however Corinthians didn’t urge people to vote for someone in particular, just to vote.


Corinthians were having a good season on the pitch and the fact that the players were fantastic footballers aided their cause, with each win and goal gaining media coverage, therefore also spreading the messages on their shirts. Seeing the Corinthian players stand up, refusing the dictatorship, inspired the nation and the dictatorship lost in all major parts of the country; Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and more. The self-management style revolutionised by Corinthians was prosperous; they won the Sao Paulo (Paulista) Championship in 1982 and 1983, a big deal at the time, especially as they had not managed to win the tournament for 30 years.  When Corinthians won the Paulista in 1983 against powerful rivals Sao Paulo, the players took a huge banner on to the pitch that read: “Ganhar ou perder mas sempre com democracia (Win or lose but always with democracy)”, a reference to the diminishing strength of the military dictatorship.


In April 1984, Sócrates even spoke at a ‘Direct Elections Now’ political rally in front of two million people. There he hinged his impending transfer, on the outcome of a constitutional amendment; stating that if direct presidential elections weren’t accepted by the regime, he would go and play in Italy. This selfless act cemented Sócrates’ political legacy in Brazil. When the amendment of the Direct Elections Now campaign was overturned by congress, Sócrates kept his word and left for Florence, playing there for a season before returning back to his homeland of Brazil the following year.


Sócrates passed away on the day the Corinthians won the championship against Palmeiras in December, 2011. It matched a professed desire of his, having previously stated his wish: "to die on a Sunday when Corinthians win a trophy". A minute’s silence was held pre-match and everyone in the stadium had their fists raised in memory of the defiant “Doctor”. Corinthian’s democracy concerned football, but not only football. It embodied the dream of every Brazilian; of removing the dictatorship and seeing the return to universal suffrage. The togetherness of the Corinthians, brought a freshness to Brazilian football. A much-repeated saying in the country claims that: ”You can not like football in Brazil, but if you don’t understand the importance of football in Brazil, then you cannot understand Brazil”. People realised that the beautiful game could convey important messages, which was hugely important as information was suppressed in Brazil at that time…but who could suppress football? 



This article appeared in FOOTBALL4GOOD Magazine Issue 8/October 2018. Read more football for good stories here

This site uses cookies to improve your online experience. By proceeding, you confirm that you agree with our Cookies Statement and Privacy Policy.
Ok to continue