Socrates Biographer Explains Why He Matters

In the fourth episode of Series 2 of Broadway to Brazil, we explored the remarkable moment in 1988 when Brazilian legend Sócrates donned the chocolate and pink of Corinthian-Casuals for 17 minutes in a vets friendly. To help explain why this was so momentous, Jarek Zaba spoke to Andrew Downie, author of a biography on Sócrates, and Dilva Bandeira, a passionate Corinthians Paulista supporter from São Paulo.

OK, it’s true. Corinthian-Casuals are not the only side in the non-league pyramid who can lay a claim to the great Sócrates donning their colours. West Yorkshire’s Garforth Town can also point to the 12 minutes they got from the big man in 2004 against Tadcaster Albion in the Northern Counties East Division One.  

Nonetheless it’s fair to say his Casuals appearance in 1988 came with a bit more romance. Aside from the fact we got five more minutes from a much younger model (Sócrates was 34 in ’88 and still playing for Santos), his appearance in chocolate and pink was a symbol of the enduring bonds of sport and friendship between two great institutions of world football. 

But to really understand why it was such a big deal for Sócrates to line up alongside a group of Spartan League amateurs, it helps to appreciate just what he means to Corinthians fans and Brazilians more widely. 

“The big thing that makes Sócrates stand out is that he was so much more than a footballer,” said Andrew Downie, author of Doctor Socrates, the first full biography of the player. “He was a political activist during a time when Brazil was suffering under a dictatorship. Sócrates stood up and made his point of view known. He was a voice for people who didn’t really have a voice and that was a hugely important thing.”

Of course Sócrates would never have had the platform for activism without his remarkable footballing talent. Considering the impact he would come to have on the game, it is hard to believe he had to be persuaded to choose the game over a career in medicine, having gained a medical degree whilst still playing. Among those to convince was his father, who told him: “You can be a doctor after you’ve finished playing; you can’t do it the other way around.” 

Medicine’s loss was football’s gain as he went on to captain Brazil and Corinthians, enshrining his legend as one of the world’s most exciting flair players along the way. Andrew Downie described his appearance as that of a ‘long languorous stick insect’, but one with a remarkable talent. 

“He played quite an undefined role – it was very difficult to see whether he was a striker or a midfielder,” he added. “He went from holding midfielder to striker, but mainly he was in that creative hole between midfield and attack because he could both create chances and take chances.” 

“But the real thing that made him stand out was his back heels. He had this amazing way of using every part of his foot that I don’t think I’ve ever seen any player do before or since. It was the inside of the foot. It was the toe. It was volleyed backheels. No one used the backheel as productively and as interestingly as him.” 

Unsurprisingly such antics proved popular with the Brazilian public. Downie said: “The fans loved it because it was different and spectacular. And it was a show. You go to football to see players put on a show and Sócrates had fans gasping and wowing and laughing.” 

This wild yet charming element to his personality endured beyond football. Off the pitch, Sócrates was not exactly a model pro, remembered for his love of drinking, cigarettes and partying as much as his contempt for training. But players would cover for their guitar playing bohemian teammate because of what he brought to the side. “Other players would let him get away with it because they knew that he would be the difference between them winning and them losing,” Downie said. “They were quite okay with him taking it not all together seriously – as long as they kept winning, everybody was happy.” 

Internationally Sócrates is most widely known as captain of the 1982 Brazil World Cup team, perhaps the greatest team not to win the trophy. But at home he came to symbolise so much more, particularly at Corinthians Paulista. 

Andrew Downie states that few, if any, players are more revered by Corinthians fans than Sócrates. “Not only because of the part he played on the field,” he says. “But because of the image he created for the club off it. Corinthians are known as O Time do Povo, the people’s team. And Sócrates stood up for working class positions. He said: ‘I am the voice of the impoverished’ and that was hugely important for Corinthians fans.” 

His status as an activist was heightened further with the development of ‘Corinthians Democracy’ from 1981 onwards. Working alongside a progressive young director at the club, Sócrates and other senior players implemented a system that saw all key decisions put to a vote – whether figuring out who to sign at left back or deciding whether to stop the bus for a toilet break after an away game. In Downie’s words, Corinthians Democracy was ‘the most revolutionary player power movement that football has ever seen.’ 

“A lot of Brazilians did not know what democracy was because it had been taken from them in 1964,” he said. “Corinthians Democracy was huge because they were going out and telling people: ‘we vote and this is how it works.’ People didn’t listen to the president when the president went to a summit. But they listened to the captain of the Brazil team when he went to the World Cup. Sócrates had a voice and he made sure he was going to use it for good.”

Speak to Brazilians, and Corinthians Paulista fans in particular, and the significance of this movement has not been forgotten. Dilva Bandeira has been a dye-in-the-wool Corinthians supporter for over 30 years and comes from a family obsessed with the club – to the extent they set up a family ‘court’ to prosecute Dilva’s niece for daring to date a Palmeiras fan. (I was informed the defendant lost the case on account of her legal representation knowing very little about football). 

Although Sócrates was just before her time, Dilva knows all too well the importance of him as a political symbol. “Brazil was going through a hard time with politics where people’s opinions didn’t matter,” she said. “Sócrates wanted to show people that everyone is important. Corinthians Democracy meant that everyone’s opinion mattered. Even if you were just there to do massages, he wanted to hear what you had to say.”

She adds: “He wasn’t there just to play. He was there to create a culture. We have to follow it and we need to respect him for what he brought to us, what he brought to football.”

And for 17 minutes, what he brought to the Corinthian-Casuals. 

Listen to ‘Socrates in Chocolate and Pink’, S2EP4 of Broadway to Brazil, on the player below, on our Podcasts page, or on all podcast apps.