“I Am An Anti-Athlete”: A Tribute to the Bold and Defiant Activism of Brazilian Soccer Icon Socrates

Getty Images

Some players are more than mere athletes, and some teams are more than a collection of jocks. There are some who assume a cultural and historical significance that transcends running and kicking and heading, and that is more important than simply winning and losing. There are few examples of this better than Socrates and the Brazil sides of the 1982 and 1986 World Cups.

The 1982 team of Falcão, Zico, Eder, and Junior has been richly documented, its place in history defined by the glorious elegance of its failure. The legacy of Socrates, however, was bigger than sporting success or failure. Hundreds of players have won the World Cup – but there has only ever been one Socrates.

According to Brazil’s leading soccer journalist Juca Kfouri, even if Socrates wasn’t the best player his club or country ever had, “he was certainly the most unique.”

There weren’t many players, for example, who qualified as a medical doctor during their early years as a professional athlete, as Socrates did when he played for São Paulo state side Botafogo. Nor were there many players who wrote newspaper columns on politics and economics, or cited Che Guevara, John Lennon, and Fidel Castro as their heroes.

More significant than any of this in the life of Socrates, however, was his political and social activism.

Those things, coupled with a style of play that, with his flowing beard and his socks rolled down around his ankles, appeared louche but could be deceptively dynamic, would have been enough to create a mysterious air around Socrates, as would his incessant smoking and heavy drinking.

“They don’t want me to drink, smoke, or think? Well, I drink, smoke, and think,” he said once. More significant than any of this in the life of Socrates, however, was arguably his political and social activism.

“In 1964, there was a military coup [in Brazil],” he said in an interview in 2010. “I was 10 and remember my father burning his book on the Bolsheviks. That started my interest in politics. The football came by accident. I was a child of the dictatorship. I always had my eyes turned to the social injustices in the country and I had colleagues who had to hide and run away.”

His passion for interacting with the world around him would never leave Socrates. At the beginning of the 1980s, he was one of the founders of the Democracia Corinthiana movement, when, in the midst of Brazil’s military dictatorship, a group of players established a democratic voting system to make decisions, both big and small, within their club.

“Win or lose, but always with democracy.”

Democracia Corinthiana both reflected and encouraged the wider struggle for democracy in Brazilian society at the time, with Socrates again at the forefront. Players took to the pitch with slogans such as “Democracia” or “Dia 15 Vote” (“Vote on the 15th”) written on their shirts, the latter urging people to participate in upcoming gubernatorial elections.

In 1983, Corinthians took the field for the Campeonato Paulista state final against local rivals São Paulo. They were carrying a banner emblazoned with the message: “Win or Lose, But Always with Democracy.” Socrates would score in both legs of the final as his side lifted the trophy.

“There’s no doubt that that was the richest period of my life, which made me what I am today, whether as a human being, or an activist, or whatever else I am. I learnt everything then,” he later said about the era.

The energy behind Democracia Corinthiana soon dissipated, however, as the team’s form dipped in 1984 and 1985. At the same time, Socrates received an offer to play for Italian club Fiorentina. Now deeply involved in the Diretas Ja democracy movement, he announced at a rally in São Paulo that if a proposed constitutional amendment establishing direct elections in Brazil was passed, he would remain in the country.

The energy behind Democracia Corinthiana soon dissipated.

The Brazilian congress rejected the proposed amendment, however, and Socrates left for an often unhappy year abroad.

“I was in Florence for a year with Fiorentina and sometimes I didn’t want to train, but to hang out with friends, party, or have a smoke. There’s more to life than football,” he reflected.

He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo by the time the 1986 World Cup rolled around, still eager to make his opinions heard.

Before Brazil’s opening game against Spain, the tournament organizers mistakenly played a song called the Hino da Bandeira (the “Anthem of the Flag”) instead of the Brazilian national anthem. In television footage from the time, Socrates can be seen shaking his head vigorously, before leading the players into their traditional team photo pose in an act of rejection.

“I am an anti-athlete.”

That day, and throughout the tournament, he would wear his traditional white headband, bearing a different message at each game. Against Spain, the message read “Mexico, sigue en pie” (“Mexico is still standing”), in support of the host nation, where thousands had recently lost their lives in an earthquake. At other games there were messages such as “Amor, No Terror” (“Love, Not Terror”) and “La gente necesita justicia” (“People Need Justice”). Socrates would eventually be buried wearing the trademark white headband.

Today’s players may run faster and kick harder than the often languid Socrates, and Brazil has won the World Cup playing uglier soccer than his team of 1982. Yet few footballers have managed to capture the beauty, tragedy, and hope of not just the game they play, but also the world around them, like he has.

“I am an anti-athlete,” he once said. “I cannot deny myself certain lapses from the strict regime of a sportsman. You have to take me as I am.”