Soccer Great's Death Shines Light on Brazil's Soul: Dom Phillips

a | A

Soccer in Brazil often feels like a matter of life and death. Never more so than on Dec. 4, when the Corinthians team faced their bitter rivals Palmeiras in the last game of the Brazilian Championship at Sao Paulo’s Pacaembu stadium.

Known as the "Team of the People" to their army of 30 million fans, Corinthians needed either a draw or a victory to clinch the championship. Palmeiras would have done anything to stop them.

The game was also dominated by one particular life and death -- that of Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira. Socrates, a brilliant and iconic player for both Corinthians and the Brazilian national team, died that morning, at 57, following an infection. He had long been a heavy drinker and smoker.

It all made for a day weighted with emotion and history.

The celebrated sports journalist and broadcaster Juca Kfouri, a Corinthians fan and close friend of "the Skinny One," as Socrates was known, summed up the mood before the game with a poem on his blog:

Ah, if I could make the time stop.
Ah, if I could make the Skinny One come back.
Ah, if I could make this Sunday start again.
Ah, I who can't do anything but rhyme without creating,
I really can, and can only, cry.
Cry without stopping.

Kfouri added a plea:

“On the social networks, a call for anyone who goes to Pacaembu: During the minute of silence, everyone, including Palmeiras fans, raise your arm and close your fist, as the Skinny One used to do.”

Just as Kfouri had requested, during a minute’s silence before the match, the entire stadium stood and made the clenched-fist, raised-arm salute that the bearded former captain had made famous.

Writer Daniel Romeu, on the website of the soccer magazine Lance, suggested that the homage helped:

The minute of silence and homage, with raised arms to Socrates, eternal Corinthians idol who died on Sunday, motivated the 11 warriors who rose without delay to the Pacaembu field, knowing that the glory depended on themselves alone.

"Doctor" Socrates -- he was a qualified medical doctor -- captained Brazil’s 1982 World Cup team, widely regarded as one of the most talented in the history of soccer, even though the "beautiful game" they played didn't win them the tournament.

But he wasn't just a charismatic and elegant player. He was also a pivotal force in the Democracia Corintiana -- or Corinthians Democracy -- period of the early 1980s, during which the team was run as a democracy, with players, president and staff getting one vote each on all club decisions. Coming in the final years of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the Corinthian Democracy movement assumed an importance way beyond the field, as the news site Terra explained.

“With such a big influence off the soccer field, the former player became a symbol of the fight against the military regime,” the article said. Players even wore pro-democracy slogans on their shirts, the site added, like “I want to vote for president."

Socrates himself, in a crackly old video that the news site UOL published on Dec. 4, explained the connections between Corinthians and politics better than anyone:

Corinthians is much more than a soccer club. Corinthians is a religion, it is a great nation. But much more than this. Corinthians is a voice, it is a force, it is the form of expression that its population has. In a country in which the weakest politically, socially and economically never have a voice, in this case, they do.

Remembrances of Socrates provided some respite amid the noise and gladiatorial tension of this year's championship game. Cheers greeted a huge banner bearing a drawing of his face, looking more like a 1960s guerilla icon than a soccer player, that floated over the pitch under a bunch of helium balloons.

It seemed to help: In a tense and scrappy game that at one point broke into an all-out brawl, Corinthians battled to a 0-0 draw and won the Brazilian championship -- their first since 2005, and the fifth in their 101-year history.

“Corinthian nation, you can celebrate!” declared Lance magazine.

Even ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a Corinthians fan and friend of Socrates, was moved to comment. A note signed by Lula and his family, published in the Folha de Sao Paulo, read:

Doctor Socrates was a star on the field and a great friend. He was an example of citizenship, intelligence and political awareness, as well as being an immense talent as a soccer professional. The generous contribution of Socrates to Corinthians, soccer and Brazilian society will never be forgotten.

Socrates's death marks a transition for Corinthians. The club is famous for its big-name players, including former World Cup champion Ronaldo and former Italian-league star Adriano, both recently signed at the tail end of their careers. Adriano was injured all year and only played twice as a substitute. Corinthians, said the news weekly Veja, had won without him -- with a team of "workmen," not stars.

“An international football star on the bench, a team of ‘workers’ on the pitch -- these were the marks of the Corinthians” in 2011, said the magazine.

Perhaps it was an emblematic moment for the country more broadly. Strong economically, ever more important politically, Brazil is increasingly welcomed on the international stage as an equal player, rather than an exotically talented, if unreliable, tropical star performer. It may be less glamorous, but in today’s crisis-ridden, free-market world, it’s winning, not stylish play, that counts.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author of this story:
Dominic Phillips at DOMINIC.PHILLIPS@BNPPARIBAS.COM

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net