Letter to the Editor, by Benjamin Parkin
Professional football wasn’t always about corporate sponsorship, big business and money. With the upcoming World Cup mired in controversy about greed and corruption, and FIFA looking ever more reactionary and out of touch with the Brazilian people, it seems wise to turn back to another tradition of Brazilian football – where footballers were political activists and social critics.
Represented by the legendary Socrates, Afonsinho and many others, these were players for whom football had to be for the people. According to them, footballers have a profound influence upon society, and, as such, a profound responsibility to use this influence constructively.
This is a marked contrast to the attitude of FIFA and their spokespeople, such as Pele, who present public protest against the corruption and waste of the World Cup preparations as irresponsible, anti-football and anti-Brazil. Pele, for one, urged Brazilians to “forget all this confusion” of protests and get behind the team.
In other words: forget, and accept, the corruption, the lies and the stealing that have been part of preparations since the beginning. Those that, for example, led the renovation of the Maracanã to cost R$1.19 billion, 69 percent higher than the original estimate; or that resulted in the former head of the CBF Ricardo Texeira’s resignation and escape to Miami.
By contrast, we can look to the likes of Socrates Brasileiro – arguably so much more than his Greek counterpart – who, as well as being one of Brazil’s most celebrated footballers, was a medical doctor, political activist, and public intellectual. While captain of São Paulo’s Cortinthians, he famously led the movement Democracia Corinthiana, a rebellion against the hierarchical management of the club.
Instead, they wanted to instill a participatory system where everyone from the directors to the cleaners voted on decisions. In the context of the Brazilian dictatorship, Democracia Corinthiana was a proxy war against the authoritarianism of the government itself – and indeed, Socrates and others soon went on to campaign in the national movement for direct elections, Direitos Já.
After his retirement, Socrates continued to maintain this dwindling link between football and politics. Soon before his death in 2011, for example, he began a plan to try to educate and re-politicise the torcidas organizadas, in an attempt to direct the energy and passion of Brazil’s most committed football fans into a sense of social responsibility and political action.
These sorts of attitudes amongst footballers seem completely alien nowadays. There seems to be no one within the world of professional football using their influence to engender thought and reflection about the role of sports in society, much less encouraging the World Cup as a forum for this sort of discussion. Indeed, the FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke somewhat gave the game away last April, with his rather clumsy remark that “less democracy is sometimes good for organizing a World Cup”.
The upcoming protests this June are being painted as a threat that needs to be prevented, but those who will be on the streets are not against football: they’re against corruption, greed, waste and dishonesty. And indeed, footballers and fans alike should stand up to the arrogance of FIFA and their cronies, helping to make the World Cup an event for the people, not corporations and big business.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.