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.

Indentured Players

According to Sócrates, “At the start, we wanted to change our working conditions; then the politics of sports in our country; and finally, politics as such.”
What did Santana’s vision of “the beautiful game” actually look like on the pitch? Rather than impose a formal system in which, say, one or more of his midfielders were restricted to defensive duties or assigned to mark specific opposing players, the coach gave his midfield players complete liberty to position themselves and mount attacks as they saw fit. Sócrates’ role was playmaker. Loosely anchored to the center of the midfield, he was charged with orchestrating attacks, setting the pace, distributing balls, and -- in keeping with the freedom of movement Santana afforded his players -- making runs towards the opposing goal.

This was samba football. Play was not lightning fast and attacks could be slow to unfold, but players were in constant motion, the geometry of their shifting positions unfolding in mesmerizing patterns on the pitch, put to rhythm by the unceasing beat of Brazilian supporters’ samba bands in the stands. Everyone on the side played with impressive technical skill, intelligence, and collective purpose. Their fluid attacks were the fruit of spontaneity and creativity rather than rigorous tactical organization. More than tools for mounting effective attacks, their astounding controls, dribbles, passes, and strikes were expressions of on-field creativity for its own sake, and communicated sheer fun. The players celebrated their goals with a few graceful dance steps and joy in their faces. They love what they do -- and you can’t help but love them, and what they are doing, too. One can only imagine how proud Brazilians were to send such a team to the 1982 World Cup -- so splendid, and so certain of winning. This was the first World Cup that I could follow with any real understanding, and it was terribly hard not to wish I was Brazilian just to be able to share fully in the ecstasy.

Brazil’s third goal in the 3-1 win that sent defending champions Argentina home from the 1982 World Cup is a perfect illustration. In one motion, Sócrates picks Maradona’s pocket deep in Brazilian territory and backheels a precisely trained pass to Falcão. With three touches Falcão carries the ball across the midfield line as the striker Eder follows him up the left side. Passing the ball to Eder, Falcão immediately makes a run forward towards the left flank. Eder one-touches it ahead to Falcao, who one-touches it back to Eder. With an Argentinian player closing in, Eder prudently cycles the ball laterally to the left back Júnior who has advanced into the midfield. Júnior finds Zico and immediately sets off forward. Zico controls the ball with one touch while following Júnior’s deep run toward the Argentine goal with his eyes. With his second touch, Zico threads a perfectly-timed diagonal pass between Argentina’s two central defenders to a Júnior in full sprint, who one-touches it past the Argentinian keeper into goal. Júnior just has time to trace a few samba steps before being swept up by his happy teammates. Trademark Brazil.

Five Brazilian players -- nearly half the team -- touch the ball. Each player with the ball immediately looks for an available partner to pass to. The players without the ball are in perpetual motion, seeking open space and offering solutions to their teammate with the ball. Brazil’s ever-evolving positioning leaves the Argentinian side looking slow, static, and a pass behind play. For every successful pass, there are also at least two other open teammates in excellent passing position. Everyone works together to keep play advancing forward. And, it must be said, Júnior’s foray far forward of his defensive zone betrays the team’s venal (or was it mortal?) sin to neglect defensive assignments. Everyone plays simply, with as few dribbles as possible (three out of seven passes are one-touches), privileging the short pass over long balls or lengthy runs with the ball. No one hogs the ball, no one engages in extraneous virtuosic displays. When football is played this well, it looks easy, obvious, self-evident.

The terrible truth about the great '80s Brazil teams, of course, is that none ever won an international title. At the 1982 World Cup, Sócrates’ irresistible squad danced its way to the second round, only to be felled by a cruelly efficient Italian side that knew its defensive scales cold. Brazil’s confrontation with Italy was but the latest in a long series of clashes between two diametrically opposed styles of play, a kind of philosophical disputation in an ongoing disagreement over how football should be played.

In the '60s, when Brazilian football had already become synonymous with beautiful play, Italian players were being schooled in the peninsula’s patented catenaccio (“lock”), a tactical system that emphasized defense, surrendering possession to the opposing team, and mounting lightning-fast counterattacks upon recovery of the ball. When Pelé’s Brazil blew out Italy’s catenaccio 4-1 in the 1970 World Cup final, Brazilian commentators viewed the win as a victory of futebol arte over futebol de resultado (“art soccer” over “outcome soccer”), of aestheticism over pragmatism, of “poetry” over “prose”. The 1982 game was a return match of sorts, pitting Santana’s jogo bonito against the catenaccio’s newest avatar. An inspired Brazil played true to form.

Sócrates scored Brazil’s first goal, controlling a Brazilian throw-in inside their own half, dribbling up field, and after a beautiful give-and-go with Zico, sliding a pinpoint shot past Italy’s best player, keeper Dino Zoff, at an impossibly tight angle. (Sócrates even scored the equalizer in extra time which would have sent Brazil through to the semifinals, but which was rightfully ruled offside). Italy played the entire game inside its defensive tortoise-shell, steely resisting attack after attack. This time, however, prose defeated poetry. Paolo Rossi, the Italian striker coming off a two-year suspension for match-fixing who scored a hat-trick to seal Italy’s 3-2 victory, entitled his autobiography Ho fatto piangere il Brasile -- I made Brazil cry. But it wasn’t just Brazilians who bawled. The great English footballer Bobby Charlton, who was calling the match for BBC, had tears in his eyes at the final whistle.

Sócrates and his teammates were well aware that they were carrying the banner for a particular philosophy of football. “Is that why you have come all this way? To discover whether it is more important to win or to play beautiful football?” Sócrates asked a British interviewer. “Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.” The game, in his eyes, was just that: a game, or rather, an aesthetic exercise, whose purpose was to bring pleasure. One can only imagine the tantrums professional coaches today would throw if their players held forth in this vein.

Sócrates broke with the mores of top-flight football in other ways, as well. He didn’t use an agent. He left Brazil for Italy to play for Fiorentina in an era when few players crossed oceans to compete in foreign leagues. While in Florence, he audited university courses in political science. His taste for tactical freedom, cigarettes, and drink proved incompatible with the rigorous defensive systems and training regimens of the Serie A, and he only spent a year there (1984-85). His coach at Fiorentina called him “A loveable nuisance.” One of his teammates recalled, “it’s true he liked a beer and talking politics”. As Sócrates himself put it, “I am an anti-athlete. You have to take me as I am.”

* * *

Before his Italian interlude, however, Sócrates would, as one of the organizers of the “Corinthians Democracy” movement, play a key role in a crucial turning-point in modern Brazilian history. In 1982, Adilson Monteiro Alves, a 35-year-old sociologist, was elected president of the Corinthians club on a reform platform. Subscribing to his progressive views, Sócrates had threatened to retire from professional football if Alves was defeated in the election. With Alves’ blessing, and under the leadership of Sócrates and his teammates Walter Casagrande, Wladimir, and Zé Maria, the team launched a campaign to improve the difficult conditions in which professional players plied their trade in Brazil at the time. Players were locked into a contract system that kept them poorly paid and indentured to their clubs, which were in turn kept under the tight grip of corrupt and well-connected presidents. This was not a protest organized by spoiled millionaire athletes holding out for yet more cash. As Sócrates explained, “Ninety percent of players live in inhuman conditions. Seventy percent earn less than minimum wage.”

Corinthians’ players took charge of all team matters, agreeing to manage them collectively based on utopian socialist principles. Gate, television, and sponsoring revenues were shared with the club’s employees. All details of team life -- mealtimes, training, tactical organization, choice of coaches, and player transfers -- were voted on by players. At once symbolic and playful, they voted to allow beer in the locker-room. Sócrates described the movement’s goals in 1983: “I’m struggling for freedom, for respect, for ample and unrestricted discussions, for a professional democratization ... and all of this as a football player, preserving the lucid and pleasurable nature of this activity.” It remains an admirable credo for workers’ rights in any workplace.

The military dictatorship’s tight control of Brazil’s national sport -- in 1979-80, the Brazilian federation was run by Heleno de Barros Nunes, an admiral and high-ranking official in the ruling ARENA party -- made the players’ next step a logical, if also courageous, one: to transform Corinthians Democracy into a political movement opposed to the generals. According to Sócrates, “At the start, we wanted to change our working conditions; then the politics of sports in our country; and finally, politics as such.” They mobilized their jerseys as weapons against the dictatorship. During the run-up to the 15 November 1982 elections for federal deputies and senators, state governors, and municipal councils -- the first elections since the 1964 coup that brought the generals to power -- the players printed “Dia 15, vote” (“On the day of the 15th, vote”) on the backs of their jerseys.

Their choice of coach was as much a political statement and an experiment in collective workplace management as it was a tactical option: teammate Zé Maria, an emblematic Corinthians player who wore their colors from 1970 to 1983 and who had played on Brazil’s 1970 World Cup champion team, had also just won office as São Paulo municipal councillor in the 1982 balloting. During the 1983 São Paulo state championship, they again lent their jerseys to the political struggle, this time printing “Democracia Corinthiana”. At the championship finals against Paulista rival São Paulo FC, the team entered the pitch carrying a banner emblazoned with “Ganhar ou perder mas sempre com democracia” (“Win or lose, but always with democracy”). They won 1-0, capturing the championship for the second straight year. The goal scorer? Sócrates, who for once found himself on the receiving-end of a back-heeled pass.

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