Sócrates was Benjamin Franklin with immaculate close control and a penchant for all-nighters and headbands. It would be beyond ready acceptance if it were the life of a fictional anti-hero, but reality says that the man existed and did all these things and then died way too soon because he couldn’t and wouldn’t take care of himself. It doesn’t make sense, and so we seek to find a unifying logic in it, though it may be the pursuit of a fiction.

It is rare that a person can look around, say ‘this is stupid’, and bends the environment itself to one’s will out of an urge to create something better. It requires talent, imagination, and willpower in unison, a combination Sócrates harnessed at various points to diverse ends. Most humans are lucky to strike upon this once or twice in a lifetime. Moreover, such a drive is usually focused toward a singular goal, and such single-minded fanaticism is endemic in modern athletics. His life was a series of answers to question both profound and inconsequential, in football and medicine and philosophy and politics and whatever else was on his mind at a given moment. He was rare, and we have a clear idea of his importance. But why did he see and pursue what others could not conceive?

It is fitting that some of the best insights into Sócrates’ mindset are found in a discussion with an artist. Daniel Devlin’s In Conversation with Sócrates is presented without artifice, and yet the end product feels like a spiritual exercise masquerading as an interview. It begins, as many such endeavours do, with a consecration of sorts. Drink of this Stella & take of these Marlboros.  Bottle in hand, a crafty one lodged in the nook between the forefinger and middle finger: nothing feels more like a conduit to social ease than this. We are all judging each other, but it’s cool. This is what happens when you get grown-up and awkward. Broad parameters are set, and we lapse into ritual as a means of finding communion with one another. Working artist and international sporting icon alike partake in a means of finding common ground in share humanity.

It’s a beautiful, democratic solution to a universal problem, one in keeping Sócrates’ image as a radical egalitarian. Democracy—democracia—is a word found in almost every source material on the man, thirty-five years of articles, his own writings, films, documentaries and YouTube clips. “One characteristic of football is its expression of democracy,” he says in Conversation as he nurses a beer. “I see football as art. Today most people see football as a competition, a confrontation, a war between two polar opposites. But, to start with, it is a great form of art.” The theme of free expression for all in football is alien to contemporary notions of tactical discipline. Yet even now, the greatest moments are often spontaneous creations of individual creativity. Sócrates, though an intellectual, understood this at an instinctual level and sought to champion this ideal at no little personal cost.

Thirty years have passed since he formed (with, among others, teammates Wladimir, Zenon and Casagrande, as well as director of football Adilson Monteiro Alves) Democracia Corinthiana. The stultifying constraints of the Brazilian football bureaucracy in the early 1980s were a direct replication of the social restrictions the Brazilian government placed upon its citizens. In order to put their vision of expressive football into use, these men had to carve out a space for civil society within Corinthians itself. Sócrates demurred in a documentary released just days after his death, Ser Campeão é Detalhe¸ noting “we never had, say, the feeling that we could start a revolution.”  (NB: the author’s Portuguese is rudimentary, but the literal translation is To Be Champion is Detail, perhaps better rendered in English as Being Champion is a Detail) Though Sócrates seemed to have been a direct man not given to dissembling, this particular claim fails to stand up to scrutiny. Humility and the truth, while not enemies, stumble over one another at times.

The Brazilian government had eased away from the harsh authoritarianism that plagued Latin America as a whole during this era, but direct democracy remained nothing more than a possibility. Putting “Corinthians Democracy” on their kits and taking to the pitch with banners and headbands encouraging people to vote was naked subversion and a bold statement of first principles. Sócrates was more direct at the time when asked about his expectations than he would be in later years: “I’m struggling for freedom, for respect for human beings, for ample and unrestricted discussions, for a professional democratization of unforeseen limits, and all this as a football player, preserving the ludic, and the joyous and pleasurable nature of this activity.” They were not about to become desaparecidos—as was possible in Argentina and Chile at the time, and in Brazil a decade earlier—but the pressure to conform was material, and no one had more to lose than Sócrates. He was the captain, the spokesman, the sole representative of the national team on Corinthians, and perhaps the most respected athlete in Brazil until Ayrton Senna emerged. Why were he and his teammates willing to risk so much?

These players, though from divergent backgrounds and possessing distinct personalities, shared a basic passion for expression. When one watches highlights of those Corinthians teams, the languid brilliance of the 1982 Brazil squad that has won so much deserved praise immediately springs to mind. Zico, Tostão, and Junior were exchanged for Zenon, Wladimir, and Casagrande, and sumptuous football with an emphasis on individual autonomy within a (very) loosely defined team structure was the result. They “only” won state championships, falling short in the newly-minted national competition, but that was incidental. Their impact on Brazilian society and football was real and lasting, in no little part because of the vision that Sócrates possessed on and off the pitch. He summed up this outlook as follows:

“It’s not victory that matters, it’s not success that matters, it’s not beauty that matters. It’s content that matters. It’s the context in which one is in relation to this art. In reality, those who seek only victory seek conformity. Those who seek art are doing it for themselves and to show the world who they are.”

World Cups and Campeonatos Brasileiros seem petty in comparison to the pursuit of something so profound and basic. Aesthetics and politics, while not easy allies in the best of times, share a common feature: they are at their best when access to creation and expression are unfettered, and at their most feeble when such avenues are restricted. Sócrates’ great victory was to understand this and apply it to everything around him, even at deep personal cost. When one considers his relative lack of trophies for a player of his stature, it easy to think of his statement that “winning is nothing” as a defence mechanism. In reality, he was just keeping things in perspective. Obrigado, Sócrates.

Works Cited

Goldblatt, David. The Ball is Round. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006, p. 633.

Ser Campeão é Detalhe. “Ser Campeão é Detalhe: Democracia Corinthina – Oficial.” English subtitles. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNyRGt95cWw&list=UUmKhH3-nVvXtNGp8JmGWWXg&index=0&feature=plcp

Susak Press. “In Conversation With Sócrates.” Last modified September 23, 2011. https://vimeo.com/19025556