BY JOSHUA LAW
Sport and politics. Those words sit together about as comfortably as Barcelona and a rainy Tuesday night in the Potteries.
Unless you’re an Indian or Pakistani upper-order batsman then your chances of stepping out of the bright lights of professional sport and into the world of democratic politics are probably pretty slim. The thought of professional sportsmen or sportswomen (particularly footballers) becoming politicians is one that most Brits react to with a healthy dose of derision.
There are exceptions of course. We’ve had Lord Coe. Manny Pacquiao and Vitali Klitschko have both moved successfully from the boxing ring into the political one. George Weah even ran for president of Liberia. Most of these cases, though, engender the thought that careerism and self-promotion are (in varying degrees) mixed with the true desire to help people.
Rarely does the democratic will of the people find its shining symbol in the form of a current or former athlete, or a sports club truly embodying a coherent political movement.
Corinthians Paulista is not, however, your average sports club. The current champions of the Brasileirão are known in Brazil as ‘the team of the people’, and for good reason.
In the early 1980s Brazil was coming to the end of two decades of a brutal military dictatorship, where dissidents, including the recently suspended president Dilma Rousseff, were routinely arrested, tortured or disappeared. There was growing discontent with the political status quo and a tanking economy.
In the midst of this a quiet revolution was taking place in the east of the great metropolis of São Paulo. Corinthians’ club counsellors were set to elect a new president. Up until that point the football club’s presidents had been, to use a popular Brazilian expression, ‘flour from the same bag’.
Though the presidents were elected by the counsellors, who were in turn elected by club members, it was far from a democratic process. The positions were usually given to wealthy businessmen who had made substantial contributions to the club and, in all probability, the counsellors’ own retirement funds.
It was common for club presidents to use their influence to forge alliances in the judiciary, the military and, of course, the government. Laudo Natel, once president of São Paulo FC even managed to skilfully manoeuvre his way from the football club presidency into two terms as governor of São Paulo state.
This time though things would be different. Waldemar Pires and the sociologist Adílson Montero Alves were running for president and vice-president on a Democracy ticket. Their campaign was openly supported by several players, including left-back Wladimir, young centre-forward Casagrande, and the captain, star and spiritual leader of the team Sócrates, who had threatened to retire if Pires was not chosen. Fortunately for the Corinthians faithful Pires was duly put in place as president with Alves as his vice and Sócrates did not need to hang up his boots.
Pires followed through on his promises. The club was transformed; every decision taken from then on was taken by the collective. The starting 11, tactics, and even when to stop the team coach for a toilet break would go to a vote. Everybody had a say, from the players to the coach, the physios to the cleaners. The significance of this arrangement in a country ruled by the military that had not seen free elections in almost 20 years was lost neither on the people nor the authorities.
The movement became known as ‘Corinthians Democracy’ and the club became a beacon of hope for those who fought against the repressive regime. The players would play with the words Democracia Corinthiana emblazoned on the back of their shirts, and in 1982 they wore a shirt encouraging people to vote in the gubernatorial elections in São Paulo, the first open elections since the military took power in 1964.
The movement came to a head before the final of the São Paulo state championship in 1983 when the players walked on the pitch led by Sócrates, fists raised in a symbol of defiance and solidarity, carrying a banner that read ‘win or lose, but always with democracy’.
The next year Sócrates was due to move to Italy to ply his trade with Fiorentina in Serie A. Again tying his football career to politics he stated that he would stay at Corinthians if direct presidential elections were called. A transition government was put in place in 1985 but direct elections weren’t called until 1989 and Sócrates left. Corinthians Democracy, though, had already made an indelible mark on the club and the country.
Brazil is again going through times of political turmoil and Sport Club Corinthians Paulista is once again lending its name to a democratic movement that is revolting against the current order. This time, however, the movement has emerged from within Corinthians’ torcidas organizadas, or organised fan-clubs.
The club’s torcidas are being politicised by the corruption scandal that has ravaged Brazilian politics and football, and the recent coup against democratically elected president Dilma Rousseff. At games, banners have been unfurled, and fists raised, protesting the disappearance of state government funds that should have been used to buy food for school children; these children have at best received sub-standard nutrition and some nothing at all.
The day after one such protest the headquarters of the club’s biggest torcida - Gaviões da Fiel - was raided in a joint operation between the military and civil police. Tens were arrested, faces held to the floor whilst dogs and riot police went through the building. No reason was given for the raid.
Further banners have been held up in Corinthians’ stadium accusing Brazil’s biggest media network, Globo, of orchestrating the coup against Rousseff and holding Brazilian football hostage. On one recent occasion the game was being televised live on Globo and the referee was forced by television producers to put a halt to proceedings until the players had gone over to the terraces and convinced fans to take it down.
In light of the state of Brazilian politics and the increasing politicisation of fans, a new political party has been created from within the club’s fan-base. Named the Corinthians National Party, the creators see it as a continuation of what began in the 1980s. In an interview, the president of the party stated, “Corinthians Democracy inspired us. We see the creation [of the Corinthians National Party] as the consolidation of a process that started more than 30 years ago.”
The party has recently been recognised by the São Paulo Electoral Court after collecting 24,710 signatures from people who intend to vote for the party, if it is approved to run in elections; comfortably more than the 21,262 (or 0.1% of the electorate) that is required for recognition.
They have also been recognised by the state electoral courts in Amapá and Rio Grande do Norte. This recognition is, however, just the first step on a long road and does not allow them to enter elections just yet.
Their next aim is to receive recognition in six more states and collect the 484,169 signatures (or 0.5% of the electorate in the last congressional elections) needed nationwide to put their name on the ballot papers. The party say they have already made considerable progress on this front and have more than 200,000 supporters registered across Brazil.
The directorate say they are not a party exclusively for Corinthians’ fans but are trying to bring politics to the people through football and the fervent passion it inspires in Brazil. According to the directors, “football is a tool for awakening political consciousness with unlimited potential”. In this football nation, they are probably right.
Another claim is that they are a party without ‘isms’, inspired neither by socialism nor neoliberalism, communism nor evangelism. They shun the left-right ideas of traditional politics and say that people can only be attracted to politics if it is presented on a simple issue-by-issue basis, rather than viewing everything through the rose-tinted spectacles of ideology.
The main policy areas that they seek to address, though, are the social issues traditionally associated with the left. They say they are against discrimination and social division of any kind, and their explicit priorities are the environment, health, and in particular, education and sport. They see sport as a vehicle for the promotion of values such as commitment, respect and dedication that are essential for the rebuilding of a country on its knees.
The media reaction to the party’s creation has not been overwhelmingly positive and the Corinthians’ club directorate and president have rejected any connection with the party. They called the use of the name of the club in the creation of a political party “opportunistic”.
The club president, Roberto de Andrade, even went as far as to deny the importance of Corinthians Democracy to the history of the club and the country. “It was an act of the athletes... It was treated as an extraordinary act, but we do not understand it like that. It brought very little benefit to the club”.
Supporters were incensed by this statement and it is illustrative of the disconnect between the fans and those who control the club, something that can be seen at clubs across the country.
The party has also faced rejection on the grounds that there are already enough political parties in Brazil. There are currently 32 parties registered with the Supreme Electoral Court in Brasília; by comparison the UK has 39. However, of these 32, 29 are currently represented in the Federal Congress. This leads to a complex system of alliances and coalitions that serves to obscure and exacerbate the endemic corruption in Brazilian politics.
Of these 29 parties, though, only one has no links to the Lava-Jato corruption investigation that grips the country. This in itself seems to be reason enough for the creation of a new politics in Brazil and any new politics will surely involve multiple new parties staking their claim to represent the people.
If the party can attract previously disenfranchised people from the poorest sections of Brazilian society into politics then surely it cannot be a bad thing. Corinthians Paulista have an estimated 30 million fans across Brazil, most of whom come from the working-classes, giving it reach far beyond any traditional political party. Perhaps it is out of fear of what this movement could become that the Brazilian media (most of which supported the military dictatorship until its bitter end) has reacted in the way it has.
On their site the National Corinthians Party uses Bill Shankly’s most famous quote as a rallying cry for the people, as a cry for football to reach out and achieve something as yet unseen. Maybe, given time, they can prove Shankly right.