The Beautiful Game in the Time of Tyranny

What a Brazilian football player who taught a nation how to fight dictatorship can teach us in the Age of Trump.

The road to commercialized, amoral hell is paved with good intentions.
In the weeks following the American presidential election last November, journalists asked a range of prominent figures in professional sports for their views on Donald Trump. Implicit in this exercise is an assumption that athletes, by dint of their celebrity and their responsibilities as role-models, have something pertinent to say about politics.

Some, like the San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, have spoken out forcefully against what they see as a grave threat to American democracy and civil rights. The captain of the United States national soccer team Michael Bradley, declared himself “embarrassed” by Donald Trump’s “xenophobic, misogynistic and narcissistic rhetoric”. When the US and Mexico played a World-Cup qualifier several days after Trump’s election, the two teams posed together for the ritual pre-match team photo in what was widely seen as a rebuke of Trump’s plan to build a wall between the two countries. Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco Giants, who last season knelt during the pre-game singing of the national anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, represents the most forceful -- and controversial -- example, hailed as courageous by some, decried by others as unpatriotic, condemned even for inappropriately injecting politics into an arena imagined as apolitical. (See Colin Kaepernick and the Perils of Patriotism as Fandom by Chadwick Jenkins.)

Sport, of course, has never been a stranger to politics. Hitler organized the 1936 Berlin Olympics to celebrate Aryan racial supremacy. The football league tables of former eastern bloc countries are today filled with teams whose names -- from Spartak Moscow to Energie Cottbus -- are the lyrical inheritance of regimes that used sport to celebrate the proletariat. The rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona maps historic conflicts over Catalonia’s separatist aspirations. The fan violence that erupted at a Dynamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade match in 1990 served as one of the triggers that launched the civil war in Yugoslavia. These are all examples of states using sport to narrate their ideologies, or of communities assigning political valence to particular teams. Muhammed Ali’s refusal to be drafted and fight in Vietnam, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists, heads bowed, on the 200 meter sprint podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, are rare cases of individual athletes seizing on their sport as a platform for political expression.

As the authoritarian-populist firestorm gains strength around the globe, forcing the world of professional sport to make difficult choices, it could do worse than meditate the example of an athlete who died almost five years to the day before Trump’s election, and whose trajectory tested possibilities for political action and invested his sport with new aesthetic, social, and political meaning.

* * *

Early Sunday, 4 December 2011, Sócrates Brasilerio Sampaio de Sousa Viera de Oliveira died in a Saõ Paolo hospital of complications from an intestinal infection at the age of 57. The Brazilian midfielder ranks as one of the greatest and most beloved players in the game’s history, and the news sent the football world into mourning.

It's part of the character of modern sports that the death of a great athlete provides occasion for hagiography. Journalists, commentators and fans alike join together to remember -- and to communicate solemnly to those who were too young to have followed the dead athlete’s career -- that this was someone worth remembering. Considered collectively, the litany of deceased heroes endows each sport with a history, gives it density and texture, and legitimates it, as if to say that because it has a history, this sport is more than simply a game. The very way most people speak and write about sports history -- as a recitation of sports greats, of victories and losses, of records broken and athletic deeds accomplished -- conveys a simple message: the athletes of the past were great, some were greater than others, those who practice the sport today are perpetuating a great tradition, and what a glorious, timeless sport this is.

Broadcasters’ hyperbole and the flood of athletes’ biographies that narrate triumph over adversity, the extraordinary character of their accomplishments, and their exemplarity for aspiring sportspeople, all aim at peopling each particular sport’s pantheon. These ingredients work together to create a modern mythology of sport, founded on the notion that athletic activities convey important life lessons and carry a larger meaning. Saturated in sentiment and heroic narrative, which conveniently erases the often brutal social, economic and political realities of professional sport, a great deal of this is insufferable, maudlin stuff.

But it would be a mistake to place Sócrates in that same Pantheon. To those who saw him play, followed his career, and admired the man, his passing represented more than the death of yet another sports hero. Sócrates may not be the experts’ choice for greatest player of all time, but he, in testing its cultural, social, and even political possibilities, defined its golden age more than anyone else. Football for him was not a mere game, animated by a utilitarian calculus of victory and defeat. Instead, it was an aesthetic practice of a high order, one that aimed to delight, inspire, and even edify. With Sócrates died not just a gifted player, but an ethical model, who preached and practiced the conviction that professional athletes bear serious social and political responsibilities, and who showed that football could in fact be something more than a sport.

Sócrates’ path to football glory was as unlikely as his career unique. Born in the town of Belem in northern Brazil, he grew up in a middle-class family of civil servants. Surrounded by books and raised by parents deeply committed to education (when naming Sócrates and his two brothers Sóstenes and Sófocles, his father turned to his personal library for inspiration), Sócrates pursued advanced university studies, ultimately earning a doctorate in medicine. Even after beginning to play for his first professional club, Botafogo in Ribeirão Preto where his family had moved when he was two, Sócrates insisted on continuing his studies and medical residency. He refused to train full-time with his club or to play for the Brazilian national team until he had completed his degree.

At six-foot-four, skinny and long-limbed, Sócrates brought an altogether unlikely physique to the pitch, although any impression of ungainliness evaporated as soon as his tall frame began to move. Elegant in his carriage, he covered space and touched the ball with grace. He was one of the most complete midfielders in history, who could protect the ball, dribble, pass, create, and score. A consummately skilled, perfectly two-footed player who was also good with his head, his technique was nothing short of astounding: he could direct distant passes and score from long range with devastating effect. He was a master of what in French is called “cleaning up the ball” -- the ability, when receiving a badly-timed or misfired pass, to use one’s ball-handling skills, patience, and vision in order to allow one’s team to reorganize, before passing the ball to a teammate in a strong attacking position.

The tall Brazilian was the antithesis of the great Argentinian playmakers, Diego Maradona and his heir Lionel Messi, both pocket-sized players who conjugate their low centers of gravity, explosive speed, and exceptional dribbling skills to blow by opponents with sudden changes in direction, the ball seemingly glued to their feet. Sócrates played at a slower pace, his head up, constantly on the lookout for teammates, open space, or breakdowns in opposing teams’ defensive shape. He shook off players defending him with neither velocity nor power, but with his ability to anticipate, control the ball in unexpected ways, and move into spaces at the very instant they opened up. He was a profoundly relational, even altruistic player, who always made his teammates better.

Above all, he displayed wondrous creativity, ever ready to place his technique in the service of the beaux gestes, with hook turns, no-look passes, and seemingly impossible long-range blasts on goal. His trademark was the blind back-heeled pass. In the feet of lesser players, such low-percentage show-boating ignites irate tirades from coaches. But with Sócrates’ uncanny vision and technique, the weapon seemed to add an extra dimension to the pitch, a new axis to the wondrously variable geometry connecting him to his teammates in attacking phases of play. Pelé said that Sócrates played better backwards than most players do forwards. His only real weakness was that shared by his generation of Brazilians: rigorous defending was simply not part of the Socratic method.

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Sócrates had style, too. With his unruly dark hair and beard, the Bjorn Borg-like hairband, the intense gaze, the raised clenched right fist with which he celebrated his goals recalling the Black Power salute, Sócrates represents one of the most powerful and enduring images of football in the '80s.

Though Sócrates began his professional career with Botafogo SP, where he played between 1974 and 1978, it's with Corinthians that he is most closely associated. The most popular club in the São Paulo megalopolis, carried by a passionately devoted supporter base and closely tied to Paulista working-class identity, the Time de Povo (the “People’s Club”) offered a perfect stage upon which Sócrates could perform. There, between 1978 and 1984, Sócrates scored a remarkable 172 goals in 297 matches, and led his club to three São Paulo state championships.

Sócrates also captained one the most distinguished Brazilian national teams in history. Between 1979 and 1986, he earned 60 caps and scored 22 goals, playing alongside an exceptionally talented generation that included fellow midfielders Zico and Falcão. They had the good fortune to play under Telê Santana, a coach whose temperament and conception of football made it possible for their creative mayonnaise to take. The pilot of the great 1982 and 1986 national teams, Santana championed what Brazilians call o jogo bonito (“the beautiful game”), a term that had pretty much ceased to hold any relation to the realities of high-level soccer by the time Nike appropriated it for its 2006 World Cup advertisement campaign. With Santana, described by one Brazilian journalist as “the last romantic technician of Brazilian football -- of a beautiful football, a football of goals, oriented to the attack, football-art”, Sócrates had found his football soul mate.

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