»Running with the Hawks« – Sócrates and the most violent supporters in Brazil

For a year, Corinthians’ supporters Gaviões da Fiel, the Faithful Hawks, have been preparing for carnival in São Paulo. They’ve chosen a theme for the parade, composed a samba and decorated their carnival floats with the supporters’ club’s main symbol – a hawk with an angry glare. In order to get over the previous year’s fiasco, when the Hawks’ samba school ended up in ninth place, they’ve contracted one of Rio’s best carnavalescos. He has decided how the carnival floats should be decorated, the carnival costumes the participants will be dressed in, and how few clothes the dancers will wear. Thousands of supporters have also been busy in the carpentry workshop, the kitchen, the dance studio, the planning meetings and everywhere else, pouring their souls into their work to make this evening as colourful as possible.

When the Hawks’ carnival procession, which consists of over three thousand dancers and a samba orchestra with three hundred drummers, bangs its way into the parade arena, Sambódromo do Amhembi, thousands of corinthianos roar their enthusiasm. Once again, the Hawks show that they, with 96,000 paying members, are far and away Brazil’s biggest, strongest and wildest supporters’ club. Although they’re banned, rockets and flares have been smuggled in and let off all over the stands.

‘Bando de loucos! Bando de loucos!’, crazy gang, crazy gang, the fans yell, jumping around the concrete terraces in time to the beat.

The chanting and the smoke make the samba party feel just as much like a derby at Pacaembu as a carnival. For a few minutes I catch only brief glimpses of the enormous golden hawk which is leading the parade, looking ready for battle with its mechanical wings.

High up on the last float, in front of yet another golden hawk with a gaping beak, comes the surprise. The two-metre-tall star goalkeeper Cássio waves to the audience. It was his calm confidence that secured Corinthians’ win over the club’s counterpart in Argentina, Boca Juniors, enabling them to take home the 2012 Copa Libertadores. It was also Cássio who stopped Champions League winners Chelsea scoring when Corinthians beat them in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. This evening he’s wearing the black shirt of the Hawks’ members, and is celebrating his club’s official crowning as the best football team in the world.

Beside Cássio dances an older man with grey, slicked back hair. The man is wearing a cream suit, white shirt, black tie and black sunglasses. He doesn’t look as if he has much to do with either football or samba. He looks more like a tropical version of the Blues Brothers. Although I can still only see him from a distance, I realise it must be Washington Olivetto, Brazil’s most successful advertising gurus who has won a total of 53 Cannes Lions at the international advertising festival there.

Olivetto is one of Corinthians’ most famous supporters and it is he who built up the club’s best-known brand: the revolutionary football movement Democracia Corinthiana. This year, it is Olivetto and his advertising world that are the Hawks’ carnival theme.

In addition to providing one of São Paulo’s most spectacular carnival parades every year, the Hawks also arrange training for teenagers, pay for trips to away matches for poorer fans and hold a free samba party every Saturday in their enormous club building. Many people are impressed by the Hawks’ unity and see the supporters’ club as a contributing factor to Brazil managing to cut its ties with the generals’ military dictatorship in the 1980s. At the same time, there are those who hate the Hawks, whose history is shot through with violence. In 2012, two Palmeiras supporters died after a fight at a derby, and, in the aftermath of this carnival, a fourteen-year-old Bolivian died when Corinthians fans fired a flare into the home stands during an away match in Bolivia.

I’ve spoken to police who feel that the Hawks’ operations have created a city within a city, a mafia that operates outside the law. Others think the Hawks’ history is a heart-warming tale of marginalised people creating something together. Corinthians’ supporters’ union is neither black nor white, winner nor loser, heaven nor hell. It’s everything at once.

Olivetto’s golden float rolls through the sambadrome and one of the world’s foremost advertising men sings along to the chorus.

‘I am a Hawk. We’re really crazy. This is true love.’


Corinthians are one of the few clubs who have managed to combine Brazil’s two biggest passions – samba and football. The club was also the first to be established by working class people. In 1910, two painters, a cobbler, a truck driver and a construction worker met and founded Sport Club Corinthians Paulista. They took their name from the London team Corinthians Football Club, who had recently been on tour in Brazil.

The club’s intention was to be close to the people and only have working class players. Only four years after it was founded, the club demonstrated that it also had something the upper class clubs lacked – genuine motivation. Corinthians won their first title in the Campeonato Paulista and soon became São Paulo’s most popular club. In 1918, the club – which, for the first few years had been playing home matches on a patch of waste ground – built its own stadium, with the help of its fans. There, the team went almost unbeaten for a decade, until the stands became too small. At the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s, Corinthians won the Campeonato Paulista four times out of five, and could draw over 70,000 spectators to the publicly owned stadium, Pacaembu, despite the fact that it only held 42,000.

In the mid-1950s, when São Paulo replaced Rio as Brazil’s largest city, the competition increased and Corinthians stopped winning titles. The club started to lose top spot and was increasingly poorly managed. When Brazil became a military dictatorship in 1964, the cracks widened further as Corinthians’ president sympathised with the dictatorship and joined the generals’ party.

With the World Cup victory in Mexico in 1970, football was transformed into an instrument of propaganda for the regime, and when João Havelange became FIFA’s new president he was replaced as chairman of the Brazilian football association by an army captain. The other posts in the association were taken by majors, admirals and lieutenants – the only civilian team managers who travelled to the 1974 World Cup in West Germany were the manager, Mário Zagallo, and the fitness coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira. The military propaganda machine wrote sambas and slogans. A sticker, featuring a motif of Pelé’s bicycle kick, bore the motto: ‘Brasil, ame-o ou deixe-o!’ Brazil, love it or leave it!

In order to stop the workers’ movement attracting large crowds to the annual 1 May demonstrations, the military regime followed Franco’s lead in Spain: they forced the football association to organise derbies in all the major cities. In Porto Alegro, arch rivals Grêmio and Internacional played; in Rio, Flamengo and Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco. In Belo Horizonte, Cruzeiro played Atlético; in Salvador, Bahia faced Vitória; in Recife, Sport were pitched against Naútico; and in São Paulo, Corinthians played Palmeiras and São Paulo FC played Santos. Instead of demanding employment, freedom and fraternity on 1 May, the supporters heckled each other. Opposition to the dictatorship was broken down and the generals’ held on to power.

At Corinthians, a group of young, educated and radical fans met in secret to discuss the running of Brazil in general and Corinthians in particular. In 1969, they formed the supporters’ club Gaviões da Fiel, which came to be a thorn in the side of the club management and the military dictatorship.

However, there was one challenge the conservative club management and the radical Hawks could agree upon: lifting a cup once more. Corinthians hadn’t won a single major title since 1954. It wasn’t until the 1977 Campeonato Paulista that the club had a team to reckon with. Corinthians reached the final, and when midfielder Basílio put an end to Corinthians’ 23 year-long dry spell with a goal that made it 1-0, one of Rádio Globo’s most famous commentators broke down. Osmar Santos was so excited that he ignored the censors and unleashed an uninterrupted 282-word tirade in which he squared up to the dictatorship and urged fans to take to the streets: ‘Today is truly the day of the people. The day we can sing and be happy. The day we can go out with our guitars raised high. Today, more than ever, it’s the day of the people. The people’s party. Basílio! With just one small step. Basílio! Thirty-seven minutes into the second half. Life’s sweet mystery . . . this Corinthians . . . inexplicable Corinthians, who find joy in the depths of the people’s soul . . .’

The win gave Corinthians the money and self-confidence to sign a promising player from a club in the interior of São Paulo state. The midfielder had been nurtured in a club that called itself Botafogo-SP, though it had nothing to do with its namesake in Rio. The player’s name also had a famous origin. His parents had borrowed it from the Greek philosopher Socrates and added Brasileiro as a surname, so he became ‘the Brazilian Socrates’. In 1979, the new star made sure that Corinthians became Paulista champions once more.

The Hawks’ supporters’ club grew and the club management lost ground. Since the beginning of the 1970s, the mining magnate Vicente Matheus had been Corinthians’ director, dribbling his way around the club’s regulations by regularly stepping down to the post of vice-president, while continuing his authoritarian leadership of the club. Just before the 1981 election, the Hawks grew tired of his manipulation and discussed proposals for a revolution with board member Waldemar Pires. The plan was to have Pires elected as the mining magnate’s puppet – but when the election was over refuse to give way to Matheus. The coup was successful, and Matheus went crazy when he realised that the new president wasn’t going to let him direct the club from his vice-presidential post. The new situation led the club’s director of football to resign, asking his radical son, a thirty-four-year-old anthropologist, to take over.

One evening in late 1981, the new director of football was sitting with his intellectual friends in a bar in São Paulo when he caught sight of Brazil’s most celebrated advertising director. Washington Olivetto had been awarded his first Golden Lion at Cannes in 1974, and was already a rich super-celeb in the town. Everyone knew he was also a corinthiano through and through. The director of football got straight to the point. He asked whether Olivetto wanted to be the club’s head of marketing. Olivetto declined politely, explaining that he had his hands full with his ad agency. After a few beers, he said: ‘OK, I’ll do it, but on two conditions. I work for you evenings and weekends. And I don’t want to be paid.’

Washington Olivetto’s ad agency is situated on Rua Loefgreen, in the fashionable district of Moema in São Paulo. Previously, McCann-Erickson, one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies, had their offices here, but in 2010 Olivetto’s legendary agency W/Brasil merged with then, creating W/McCann.

Olivetto’s desk stands at the end of an open-plan office where almost a hundred advertising creatives sit hunched in front of large, thin screens. There’s no glass wall between the boss and his employees. Everything Olivetto says can be snapped up by passers-by. That’s how he wants things: a creative, transparent environment. Even though it’s before noon Olivetto clutches a drink while he discusses an upcoming campaign with an Art Director. He’s half an hour late as he takes me by the hand, empties his glass and orders two espressos. His eyes shine as he casts his mind back and tells me about his unpaid job as Corinthians’ head of marketing.

‘The first thing I did was take out a full-page advertisement in the daily papers. The headline read: “Send an idea to Washington. We hear he’s in need of one.” In the picture in, I’m scratching my head in front of a typewriter. The message was that everyone should send in any ideas that would help the club.’

The new signals from the leadership inspired Sócrates and the other players to challenge the tradition which essentially gave the club ownership of the players. After almost thirty years of authoritarian management at Corinthians, and almost twenty years of dictatorship in Brazil, the players longed for democracy. Sócrates wanted the players to be able to take part in decisions in all areas that related to them: transfers, first team selection, departure times for away matches and means of transport. The new president liked the initiative and convinced the coach. Universidade de São Paulo also got whisked up by the winds of change, and invited Corinthians’ director of football, head of marketing and Sócrates to give a talk about their plans to democratise the previously authoritarian club.

Juca Kfouri, then editor-in-chief of Brazil’s biggest football magazine Placar, chaired the session. He asked if the club was in the process of introducing some kind of ‘Corinthian democracy’.

‘When I heard him say “Corinthian democracy”, I noted down the phrase straight away. Us ad guys are always on the hunt for slogans. Those two words captured everything we were trying to do,’ says Olivetto.

The Brazilian football association had recently given the green light for adverts on club strips, and Olivetto had an idea. He asked a colleague at his advertising agency to make a logo for ‘Democracia Corinthiana’.

‘I told him it had to be both political and pop.’
The result was better than he’d anticipated. ‘Democracia’ was written in large, blocky letters, with ‘Corinthiana’ in a loopy Coca-Cola style. To remind people of the actions of the dictatorship, his colleague had splashed blood all over the logo.

When the players ran on to the pitch with the new logo across their backs, they looked like eleven living posters, protesting against the dictatorship. The military went crazy. Lieutenant Bastos, who was on the board of the Brazilian football association, called in Corinthians’ president and told him the printing of political messages on club strips was prohibited. Olivetto was forced to remove the logo.

Despite this setback, the internal struggle for democracy continued undiminished. One thing the players wanted to change was match preparation. Before most home games, the players were summoned to a hotel more than a day in advance, with no visits or excursion allowed. They were all supposed to have turned off their lights by 10 p.m. Such routines, inspired by military discipline, applied to the majority of Brazilian clubs.

‘It was moral law, plain and simple,’ Washington says. ‘They wanted to stop the players going out and partying the day before the match. But it didn’t work. You can’t keep horny twenty-year-olds locked up. The players sneaked out and bribed the receptionists when they came back.’

Sócrates told the club managers that the players wanted to have a vote on whether the early match gatherings should be stopped or not. Everyone, from the club director and the coach, to the players and kitman, got one vote. Unsurprisingly, Corinthians became the first club in Brazil to ditch the arrangement. Instead, the team would meet at the clubhouse a few hours before the start of a match.

Early on, Sócrates became the natural leader and spokesman for the Corinthians players, partly because he belonged to the fraction of Brazilian football players who had a university degree to his name when he became a professional: he had studied at a medical school during his time at Botafogo-SP. Sócrates stuck out on the pitch, too. He was tall, over six foot three, thin as a rake, and wore size six shoes. He tripped about like a ballerina on the pitch, and rarely indulged in complicated dribbling, preferring to make use of what may be the most elegant, effective backheel in the history of football.

Sócrates debuted in A Seleção as a 21, and was made captain three years later, when the 1982 World Cup in Spain came around. The new manager Telê Santana wanted him to lead Brazil’s fight for restitution; the team had missed out on a place in the 1978 final as a result of Peru’s 0-6 loss against the host nation Argentina, a match which, in Brazil, had always been viewed as rigged, with good reason. Sócrates had an incredibly talented band of team-mates at his side, among them Zico, Júnior and Leandro from Flamengo, the best club in Brazil at that time. Other big names were Éder and Toninho Cerezo from Atlético Mineiro and Roma’s intelligent midfielder Falcão, the only foreign-based player in the squad.

If ‘the Beautiful Team’ from the World Cup in Mexico in 1970 was a strikers’ team – Pelé, Tostão, Rivelino and Jairzinho all wore number ten for their respective clubs – then Telê Santana’s Brazil side was the midfielders’ team. Sócrates, Zico, Falcão and Éder were all attaching midfielders for their clubs.

During the first match against the Soviet Union in Seville, the crowd was curious about ‘Quadrado Mágico’, the Magic Square, as the attacking midfielders were called in Brazil. The first thing that became apparent, however, was that another part of the team wasn’t working: the keeper Peres let in an easy shot from thirty yards. It wasn’t until the second half that the members of the Magic Square started to find one another. The players shot thundering long-range piledrivers, dribbled and danced in ever-wilder jigs around the Soviet Union penalty area. These dazzling technical feats, along with the constantly surprising positional changes, had the tans cheering. There was something about the team’s kits, too: they wore simple, bright yellow t-shirts with a dark green crew neck, and the shorts were pale blue, tight and short. When Sócrates weaved his way across the pitch with his bushy hair and lush beard, he looked like a sporty Che Guevara.

In the 77’ minute, the Brazilian captain picked up the ball just outside the Soviet penalty area, and worked his way to the right until he found his angle. The shot was hard, high and unstoppable. Sócrates had scored his country’s first goal in the World Cup, and stood in front of the Brazilian stand. He raised his right arm in the air and clenched his fist like a member of the Black Panthers. The goal celebration, which he always made at Corinthians, also worked in Spain, which was starting to recover from Franco’s dictatorship. In the closing minutes, Brazil increased the pressure, and the right-back Leandro, who set up most attacking maker, found Falcão with a pass across the edge of the penalty area. The Soviet defenders rushed out, and the keeper waited for the shot. But instead, Falcão let the ball run through his legs and on to Éder, who ploughed in a left-footer, giving the goalkeeper Dassajev no chance at all and settling the match.

Brazil scored another eight goals in two group round matches, but still ended up in the trickiest of four final-round groups. Brazil were to meet Italy and reigning world champions Argentina, with only the group winners going through to the semi-final.

With nine days to go until the match against Argentina in Barcelona, there was plenty of time for expectations to flourish back in Brazil. Telê Santana’s system struck a chord with the Brazilian people, and made the ’82 team one of the most popular of all time. The attacking game was unpredictable and surprising. It was also beautiful to watch, but hard to mark – the opponents didn’t know who out of Sócrates, Zico, Falcão or Éder would make a break for goal. The atmosphere at home was hardly dampened by the fact that Júnior, Flamengo’s popular left-bach, lent his voice to the World Cup song, called ‘Voa Canarinho’, Fly Canary, after the national team’s nickname. All Brazil sang along to the chorus: ‘Fly canary, fly! Show me what I already know!’

The only thing that worried Telê Santana ahead of the match against Argentina was Diego Maradona, who had scored two goals against Hungary in the group round. In order to put a stop to Boca Juniors’ twenty-two-year-old, Santana chose the defensive Batista as back-up. Batista would replace Zico if Maradona became too difficult to handle. Eleven minutes in, Éder had a free-kick. He took a lang run-up, and the ball took off at 183 kilometres an hour. The Argentinian keeper managed to steer the projectile on to the crossbar, but the ball bounced down and up into the air again. Zico, following up, knocked it in to make it 1-0. The Brazilian reporters dubbed the shot ‘Edercets’, after the Exocet missiles that had been fired at British ships during the Falklands War, which had ended just one day before the World Cup began.

In the second half, Brazil made it 2-0 and then 3-0, and the world champions were humiliated just as their country had been after the Falklands War. Maradona couldn’t control himself: he jumped up with his studs out and kicked Batista, who had just replaced Zico, in the stomach. The referee took out his red card and Maradona’s first World Cup was over. For the Canaries, on the other hand, they needed only a draw against Italy to secure their place in the semi-finals.

‘Brasil perto do título’, Brazil close to the title, screamed the front page of the country’s biggest paper at the time, Jornal do Brasil. The fact that the Magic Square had danced around their opponents wasn’t the only thing behind the optimism; Italy’s national side was the worst in years. In the group stage, Italy managed no more than a draw against Poland, Peru and Cameroon, and got through by the skin of their teeth. The Italian star Paolo Rossi was also out of shape, after a two-year ban for his part in a match-fixing scandal.

Still, Rossi made it 1-0 with a header five minutes into the match against Brazil. Seven minutes later, Zico passed to Sócrates, who dribbled into the penalty area and shot at goal. The ball went between Zoff’s outstretched legs and the left post. Brazil were back on track. In the 25’ minute, Brazil played the ball out of their own half, and midfielder Toninho Cerezo switched the play across to the other wing. It was a lazy pass, and was snapped up by Rossi, who ran unmarked towards the goal. 2-1.

The mood among the Brazilians on the pitch and in front of their TV sets grew tense. Italy’s manager had studied Santana’s system and figured out how to throw the Magic Square out of kilter. In the 68’ minute Roma’s Falcão finally equalised. Brazil were back in the semi-final. What happened next has been analysed as many times as Ghiggia’s goal in the World Cup final at the Maracanã in 1950. Toninho Cerezo headed out a ball which the linesman mistakenly judged to be over the goal line. The subsequent corner flew in towards the centre where one of Italy’s players managed a shot which bounced off a Brazilian defender. The ball fell to Rossi a metre from the goal. Hat-trick.

Dribble and shoot as they might, Brazil just couldn’t get an equaliser. Italy, who had been gasping for air throughout the tournament, had woken up at just the right moment. One of the world’s best ever teams got knocked out 3-2, but when the press conference at the Sarriá stadium in Barcelona was over, and Telê Santana had explained how ‘fate played a trick on us today’, the international press stood up and applauded.

The 1982 World Cup meant two things for Brazil’s government. The players in that much loved team became even greater heroes and role models than before. And the generals could no longer pacify the population with yet another World Cup title. Criticism of the military regime grew, and Sócrates continued to lead the democratisation of Corinthians. In the autumn, the regime gave in to the pressure and promised to hold an election in the Senate on 15 November 1982 – the first free election in over twenty years. The problem was that the electorate didn’t trust the military regime not to persecute the opposition. Many Brazilians were unsure whether they should dare to vote; they feared their name might be registred.

Despite the fact that the generals had previously stopped Corinthians mixing football and politics, Washington Olivetto came up with a new slogan. At a match in the Campeonato Paulista four days before polling day, the players ran on to the pitch with ‘Dia 15 Vote’, Vote on the 15th, printed across their backs. It wasn’t political propaganda. It was public information service. There was nothing the military could do. A month later, Corinthians became Paulista winners again, beating the generals’ favourite team, São Paulo FC, 3-1.

Washington Olivetto adjusts his Blues Brothers glasses.
‘It was incredibly important for us to win. Democracy came to be associated with winning. Everyone wanted a piece of us. When Flamengo played us in São Paulo, Zico rang after the match and asked whether they could come and have dinner with us.’

The president of Corinthians was re-elected for another term, and when it was time to sign a new coach the club management asked the players who they wanted. Zé Maria, a former centre-back who’d played for Corinthians for thirteen years, got the most votes. He accepted. The Hawks, who’d given their full support to the democratisation process, also thought the choice of coach was excellent, and Corinthians consolidated their position as Brazil’s second biggest club after Flamengo.

‘There was nothing that couldn’t be done,’ says Washington Olivetto.

At the end of 1983, Corinthians won the Campeonato Paulista once more, and for the first time in over thirty years the working class club had taken home the championship two years in a row. The lessons of Democracia Corinthiana spread like wildfire through Brazil, sowing the seeds of Latin America’s biggest ever democratic movement, Diretas Já, Direct elections now. It wasn’t enough for senators to be elected in a free election; Diretas Já wanted Congress to pass a proposal for a free presidential election. To begin with, a few hundred people gathered in squares around the country to demonstrate, but, soon, the movement was organising demonstrations with several hundred thousand participants.

On 10 April 1984, more than a million demonstrators filled Avenida Presidente Vargas in Rio, and, six days later, almost one and a half million people gathered in central São Paulo. To increase the pressure, Sócrates threatened to accept an invitation from Italian club Fiorentina unless Congress voted in favour of a free presidential election.

One of the foremost leaders of Diretas Já was the union leader Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, who, several years earlier, had founded the workers’ party Partido dos Trabalhadores. He had been imprisoned for starting a strike at Scania’s HGV factory in São Paulo in 1979, and was also a corinthiano through and through. At the biggest demonstration in the history of Brazil, Sócrates walked up on stage beside Lula da Silva, and gave a speech to the masses. The following week, 298 of the 366 congressmen voted in favour of the proposal to hold a free presidential election: Brazil was to be a democracy once more.

But the generals refused to acknowledge the resolution. Sócrates was so angry he kept his promise: after six years, 172 goals and 297 matches, he left Corinthians and moved to Italy to play for Fiorentina.

‘We were completely deflated. Everything we’d fought for was lost. It was really sad,’ says Washington Olivetto, who resigned as the club’s head of marketing. Democracia Corinthiana was dissolved, and Vicente Matheus became club president once more.

But things had been set in motion. At the beginning of 1985, the generals gave up and announced their intention to appoint a civilian president. This historical shift coincided with Washington Olivetto’s colleague in Rio, Roberto Medina, convincing some of the world’s biggest rock bands to play in an area of reclaimed swampland outside Rio. It was one of the first times an international rock festival had been organised in South America, and almost a million South Americans flocked to Rock in Rio to see artists such as AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Queen, Rod Stewart, Yes and Whitesnake. On the fifth day of the festival, 15 January 1985, Congress decided that the former governor of the state of Minas Gerais, Tancredo Neves, would be Brazil’s first civilian president in twenty-one years. That night, AC/DC played. It was a historic concert that came to mark the transition from dictatorship to democracy. During the last song, ‘For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)’, two cannons were unveiled and fired a twenty-one-gun salute, to the delight of the crowd. Rock in Rio became South America’s Woodstock, a happy ending to the democratic revolution started by Sócrates and Corinthians.

Washington Olivetto nods contentedly to himself.

‘It felt a bit like “mission accomplished”.’


Corinthians’ home, Parque São Jorge, is named after the patron saint, St George, and lies in the centre of São Paulo, with restaurants, bars, banks, hairdressers’, a library, a gym, a swimming pool, a chapel, a 400-square-metre club store and the old Alfredo Schürig stadium, where the first-team once trained. On the fifth floor of the complex, the new club president, Mário Gobbi, has his office. He is part of a new generation of leaders who oversaw another revolution in 2007, kicking out the businessman Alberto Dualib, who at that point had been directing the club for more than a decade. Today, Corinthians are a democratic club once more, making their accounts available online.

Gobbi, a police commissioner by day, is a large man with a double chin, who is fond of holding his guest’s gaze. In the photo on the wall behind his desk, he is running, besuited, across a football pitch, yelling like a madman with outstretched arms. The picture was taken after the final whistle against Chelsea in Yokohama in December 2012. For the second time, Corinthians had won the most prized title in Brazilian football – they had beaten the Champions League winners in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup.

When I tell him that title isn’t so highly prized in Europe, the police commissioner gets angry.

‘Aha, the title’s not valued? That’s odd. Then why did the Chelsea players start kicking our boys’ legs in the second half, desperately chasing an equaliser? To me it seemed like they valued the title pretty highly,’ Gobbi says, fixing his eyes on me.

The difference in the level of interest in the Club World Cup was, however, evident in the stands. A few hundred wealthy Chelsea supporters had travelled to Japan to see their team try to take a title they’d never had a shot at before. In contrast, almost 30,000 relatively poor corinthianos had gone halfway round the world to support their club in Yokohama.

‘It was like being on the streets at home in São Paulo,’ Gobbi says. ‘You could hear Portuguese everywhere you went. There were more of us there than there are A Seleção fans at the World Cup.’

The invasion was made easier by the special relationship that São Paulo has with Japan. At the start of the twentieth century, when slavery was abolished, Japanese immigrants replaced the african slaves at the coffee plantations across the state of São Paulo. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese left famine in their own country to ensure that the proliferating coffee houses in Europe would continue to be supplied with coffee beans. This migration has meant that there are now over a million people of Japanese descent in the state of São Paulo. Many of them still maintain close contact with their relatives in Japan, and many of these families welcomed Corinthians fans into their homes for the match against Chelsea.

The biggest problem was getting money for flights. Most of the club’s supporters live in the suburbs of São Paulo, and earn less than $700 a month, the bulk of which goes on food and rent. Hundreds of supporters chose to sell their cars.

‘Being a corinthiano means doing crazy things,’ says Mário Gobbi. ‘The best thing is that none of those thirty thousand people regretted it. They were present at the party of the century.’

When the fans came home, they were treated to yet another Christmas present. After almost a year of negotiations, Corinthians finally reached an agreement with AC Milan on a transfer fee for Alexandre Pato. He cost $20 million, the highest fee ever paid in Brazilian football, and that bit of business also set another record: never before had an in-demand Brazilian player been so young when he returned home. Pato was 23.

Pato is famous for his speed and technique, but also for his injuries. Another problem is that he isn’t the type of player the Hawks appreciate. Typically, a Corinthians star player is a defensive midfielder who rarely scores a goal, but who never loses the ball, and if he does, always hunts it down. He’s also loyal to the club and isn’t ashamed of the Hawks and their vulgarity. Pato doesn’t really fit that profile. He dresses fashionably, dates Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi’s daughter and doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. In his last months at Milan, he was so disliked by the other players that they refused to pass to him during matches. The reason was that Pato had related dressing-room gossip to his girlfriend, who in turn had told her dad.

In order to avoid winding up the Hawks, who in 2011 had forced the returning player Roberto Carlos to leave the club and flee the country after he was blamed for a defeat in the Libertadores, the club director decided on a modest welcome ceremony. When Ronaldo was presented in 2008, Parque São Jorge was filled with tens of thousands of corinthianos welcoming the star. When Pato came home, they used the clubhouse’s press room.

‘What’s wrong with that? How were our other acquisitions presented? In the press room! So Pato should be presented there, too. At Corinthians there’s no special treatment,’ Mário Gobbi says.

The president intends Corinthians to become Brazil’s biggest club. In financial terms, the club has already succeeded. In 2003, Corinthians had a turnover equivalent to $25 million. Ten years on, the club makes almost $150 million a year. Corinthians has become Brazil’s most solvent club because it has started, just like Santos, to think long-term, and has succeeded in breaking a cultural habit.

Previously, it was entirely conceivable that a major Brazilian club would get through four coaches in a season. As soon as the leadership weren’t satisfied with results, the coach was fired. But in the last five years Corinthians have had only two coaches. Mano Menezes was signed in 2007 to pull the club out of the second division, and, when he became Brazil manager after the 2010 World Cup, Tite took over. The management of the club has been similarly professionalised. Club presidents used to be charismatic men who were drawn to football for the fame. Now many of the country’s biggest clubs are run by competent administrators. A bank director, Luis Alvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro, runs Santos, a forty-four- year-old investment banker oversees Palmeiras, and another bank director has taken over Flamengo. The time when the football bigwigs, the so-called cartolas, ran clubs as their personal companies appears to be over.

‘Has Brazilian football matured?’ I ask.

‘It depends what you mean by matured,’ says Gobbi. ‘We could be even better. Brazil is living in a new age now. You can’t win big titles if you think short-term. What’s needed is a good youth programme, well-ordered finances and stable leadership. You don’t get to be a club’s financial manager by being the president’s cousin. You get to be a club’s financial manager because you’re good at finance. Football and vanity don’t belong together.’

I ask Gobbi what he thinks of the combination of violence and football. The police have accused Corinthians’ club management of covering up or brushing off the violent crimes the Hawks have been responsible for. The club management has always denied this. Commissioner Gobbi does, too.

In contrast, Corinthians’ biggest rivals, Palmeiras, have taken a tough approach to their violent supporters’ club Mancha Verde, the Green Blot. When a glass thrown by a supporter struck the goalkeeper’s head in a confrontation after a defeat in the Libertadores, their club president denounced Mancha Verde. He wants the ‘vandals’ to stop going to matches.

On the way out of Gobbi’s office, I tell him I’m thinking of joining the Hawks’ outing to an away match the following day. Corinthians will face Sócrates’ original club Botafogo-SP, and I ask Gobbi it he thinks it’s a stupid idea: the club’s press agent has advised me against going. The club president shakes his head.

‘No, no! Of course you should go! They’re not as dangerous as people think. See it as a cultural experience. I’m sure you’ll have something to write about in any case.’

The Hawks’ clubhouse is in rundown Bom Retiro, where Corinthians’ first stadium was built in 1918. The neighbourhood is known for being the first stop for all the immigrants who’ve made São Paulo the biggest city in the southern hemisphere. In the 1930s the Italians lived here, in the 1960s it was the Koreans, today it’s the Bolivians. Most have no residence permits and work illegally for Brazilian textile manufacturers who have set up illegal sweatshops in basements and backyards.

When the taxi pulls into the cul-de-sac the Hawks have taken over and made their own, some women are in the middle of it setting up food stalls ahead of tonight’s samba training. There’s a smell of barbecued ham, coriander and deep fat frying. All eyes are immediately upon me.

According to the police, there are links between the Hawks and PCC, Brazil’s biggest and most violent crime syndicate. PCC handles the sale of cocaine and marijuana in the metropolis, and has grown so big that a few years ago they were able to shut down South America’s biggest city for two days, by setting fire to police station, the metro and buses. At the end of 2012, violence flared up once again and PCC killed 94 police officer in less than 24 hours. I smile warmly at the ladies on the food stalls, and cast my eye over the façades of the houses behind them. Have PCC graffitied their tag here?

At the end of the cul-de-sac stands the hangar that serves as the samba school’s rehearsal hall. A gigantic silvery hawk has been painted on the wall. On the other wall are the words: ‘LEALDADE, HUMILDADE, PROCEDIMENTO’, loyalty, humility, conduct. A few sambistas are stacking drums in front of the stage, others are filling fridges with beer, a man heaps coals on the barbecues. Under the steps, a shrine to St George has been set up. A candle burns in front of a picture of the Christian saint slaying the dragon. This is where the Hawks pray before matches.

I climb the steps in the hangar to ask the Hawks’ president if there is any room on one of the buses going to the away match tomorrow. His secretary, who works barefoot, takes a drag on her cigarette and directs me to the supporters’ shop by the entrance to the hangar. I’m to speak to ‘Alemão’, the German. He’s the one who organises the away match outings.

Alemão is white, has a shaved head and looks like your average European skinhead.

‘Sure, you’re welcome to join us. The buses leave at one o’clock,’ he says.

The next day, I arrive at the Hawks’ hangar at 1 p.m. A dozen Hawks are hanging out in the supporters’ shop, and Alemão tells me there won’t be the usual six buses today. It’s a Wednesday and the match is being played in Ribeirão Preto, 300 kilometres north of São Paulo. Due to the traffic jams, it will take at least five hours to drive to the match, which doesn’t start until 10 p.m. It’s unlikely that anyone will be home again before 5 a.m. That means only people who neither work, study nor look after their children are able to go.

‘Just the die-hards today,’ grins Alemão.

In order to neutralise the effect of my presence, I speak to a few of the Hawks before the bus arrives. Many have eyebrow piercings, tattoos on their faces and black hoodies. One guy has a brace holding his smashed front teeth in place. When I go into the hangar’s toilets I meet one of the die-hards in the doorway.

‘Gringo,’ he sneers.

The only guy who doesn’t fit the mould is a chubby high school student with rosy cheeks. He looks more likely to be the victim of bullying than a hooligan.

Two hours after the appointed hour, everyone has arrived. The bus, which looks like a tour bus someone’s bought at a scrapyard, is parked outside the back of the hangar, blocking one of the lanes of São Paulo’s major expressway. None of the drivers behind dare to honk their horns; instead they wait patiently for the next lane to become free so they can drive around the bus as it is being loaded up with banners, rockets and Hawks.

I introduce myself to the driver and sit down in the seat behind the front row. In front of me sits Lourdes, an eighty-year-old black woman who goes to every away match. She’s called ‘Tia’, Aunty, by the Hawks, and is treated with the greatest respect. The only other female passenger is a 16 year-old, middle-class blonde girl in a black dress featuring skulls and crossbones motif. Beside her sits one of the leaders. He is glaring at me. I feel the need to disarm the situation.

‘Hi, I’m Henrique, the reporter from Sweden. I had a chat with Alemão yesterday about me traveling with you. I’m writing a book about Brazilian football and really want to include you in it. After you beat Chelsea everyone in Europe wants to know who you are.’

My flattery isn’t working.

‘Alemão doesn’t decide things here. If you want to come with us, you ask me, our vice-president or our president. OK? Where did you say you were from again?

‘Sweden, Ibrahimović-land.’

That doesn’t work either. Milan, PSG and the Swedish team are outside these guys’ radar.

‘OK,’ he answers after a few seconds’ consideration. ‘But no filming or photographs.’

Silence. Then he continues:

‘Do you like powder, Brazilian powder?’

I hesitate. If I reply that I don’t like cocaine I might not be allowed to come along. If I say I like it, he might rip open a bag. I decide to pretend to be worldlier than I am.

‘Brazilian powder is great, but Bolivian is better.’

‘Hear that, boys?! We have a reporter who likes powder. Bolivian powder. Is there anyone who has a bit of Brazilian for him?’

I sense I’m on the wrong track, and try to navigate back to football.

‘This evening’s going to be Pato’s first game. That’s pretty exciting.’

The Hawk gives me an icy stare.

‘And Brazilian pussy. What do you think of Brazilian pussy?’

The sixteen-year-old beside him smiles nervously, while more Hawks gather in the gangway. I know I have to act, otherwise I’ll end up as the bus’s whipping boy, or worse, all the way to Ribeirão Preto.

‘Brazilian beaver’s good, but Swedish isn’t all that bad either,’ I reply with a pasted-on smile.

My idiotic comment makes the Hawks’ eyes light up. Despite the fact that Brazilian beauty is praised all over the world, a blonde with blue eyes is still seen as the best trophy a Brazilian man can win. The mood lightens and the guys ask if I can ‘send over a few Swedish girls’ to them.

‘They’ll all be here for the 2014 World Cup. Swedish girls love to party,’ I say.

The Hawks’ imaginations are running wild, and I lean back in the tatty seat.

On the way out of the megacity, the bus stops at a petrol station to wait for yet another Hawk. The president has been held up, and the vice-president is replacing him. Half the bus gets off to buy sweets. The other half spark up their joints. They don’t stop passing the joints from seat to seat when a police car pulls into the petrol station to fill up. They don’t even shut the windows; they just let the marijuana smoke mix with the smell of petrol outside. The Hawks know that the police are afraid to get involved, for fear that the PCC will retaliate.

In the end, the vice president shows up. He is bulky, black and has a kindly smile. He doesn’t mention the fact that we’ve been waiting an hour for him. To avoid conflict, I tell him straight away why I’m on the bus.

‘No worries. You’re welcome,’ he replies.

I start by interviewing the guy sitting behind me. Gonzales is 32, and was born in one of the city’s many suburbs after his family moved there in the mid-1970s. He went through the initiation ceremony all members have to partake in three years ago. He makes a paltry living respraying cars, working on construction sites and odd-jobbing. One of his forearms bears the tattoo ‘TEREZA’ in large letters. That’s his daughter. On the other arm it says ‘ANA BEATRIZE’. That’s his wife. Gonzalez answers my questions, but all he really wants to talk about is girls and cocaine. Sócrates doesn’t appear to interest him in the least, and he barely seems aware that the club’s $20 million investment is going to start his first match tonight.

On the other side of the gangway, a guy sits on the roof of the toilet. He has a tattoo across his eyebrow, and a lip piercing. A scar runs along his left cheek from the corner of his mouth to his ear; it looks like a halter. I ask if he knows why the hawk became the supporters’ club symbol. He doesn’t seem to understand the question and I try once more.

‘I mean, why was the hawk chosen? Why wasn’t it some other animal? A tiger, a lion, or something else? Was it because the hawk has a keen eye, dives from high up and catches snakes?’

Instead of answering me, the guy turns to the leader who is sitting at the front with the sixteen-year-old girl.

‘Boss, this gringo says we eat snakes.’

The leader turns around and looks at him.

‘What did you say?’

‘The gringo says we eat snakes.’

The leader catches my eye and takes a toke on the joint. He tries to look angry.

‘Sorry, it came out wrong,’ I say, ‘I was asking why you were called the Hawks, and wondered if it was because you are strong and kill snakes and so on. I didn’t say you ate snakes.’

‘Are you stupid, or what? Hawks don’t eat snakes,’ he says, blowing out the smoke.

I put down my notepad and look out of the window. It’s started to rain. The bus still hasn’t made it out of the megalopolis, and everything looks grey and dreary. On the periphery of São Paulo, there’s no samba, sun or sand. This place is dominated by concrete, queues and chaos. I try to catch the leader’s eye again to see if he’s calmed down. He has.

A while later, he pours himself a vodka Red Bull in a cut-down plastic bottle and asks if I know who ‘Nem’ in Rio is. I nod and tell him I bumped into his right-hand man – ‘Coelho’, the Rabbit – in Rocinha, Brazil’s biggest favela, a year ago. The boss seems impressed:

‘Nem’s my friend. He’s invited me to Rio several times.’

Nem is one of Brazil’s most infamous drug lords, and leader of the crime syndicate Amigos dos Amigos, Friends of Friends, who control several of Rio’s favelas. When I wrote a story about the clean-up of the Rocinha favela a few years ago, I met ‘the Rabbit’ in one of the alleyways. He was out with his dog, walking completely undisturbed on the streets, not far away from the cafés where the police come for coffee.

The boss asks which other favelas I’ve been to, and I tell him I’ve visited a couple of dozen others, including Vila Cruzeiro, the former Brazil striker Adriano’s deadly favela. The leader holds out his hand. It feels like I’ve finally got approval, and can sit back and relax.

I fell asleep and wakes up an hour later. The gang at the back of the bus are drumming up a samba, and the driver’s cab has been turned into a bar. Three Hawks are sitting on the dashboard beside the driver, hotboxing a joint. Two others are refilling the cut-down plastic bottles with vodka and energy drink, and in the gangway a guy is distributing cocaine from a test tube. When he gets to me I decline politely. He takes it as an insult.

‘Hey, it’s my shout, yeah!’

‘I know, but I’m working. Save it for the match.’

The guy racks up a line for himself in the crack between his thumb and index finger and snorts it.

‘Go on, give me your hand,’ he says.

‘I don’t want any,’ I say.

‘Did you hear that? The Gringo doesn’t want any powder!’

The samba section at the back takes up the phrase and starts up a new samba.

’Gringo doesn’t want any powder. Gringo doesn’t want any powder. Gringo doesn’t want . . .’

I try to smile, but am not really sure how to deal with the situation. The boss rolls a joint, lights it and passes it to me.

‘Don’t you want a bit of green at least?’

I know that if I decline this as well they’ll lampoon me as the most boring reporter they’ve ever met. I take two deep tokes and pass the joint on. No one wants it. I pass it over to the boss.

‘No, no, that’s yours,’ he says.

I look at the joint. It’s ten centimetres long. If I smoke it all I can forget finishing my story.

‘Doesn’t anyone want any?’ I ask, stretching the joint across the gangway.

No one takes it.

I take a third draw and feel the rush spreading through my body. I start to relax and think that I should probably write this chapter some other time. There’ll be another match, another day, I can go along to. The journalist in me is stronger. I pass the joint over to the boss, who smokes the rest himself.

One of the younger guys, who’s previously stayed in the background, taps me on the shoulder.

‘Gringo, repeat after me: “I am a boiola.”’

His pupils are enormous.

‘Gringo, Gringo, repeat after me: “I am a boiola.”’

I know very well what ‘boiola’ means, and don’t intend to answer him. Instead I feel it’s time to react, or I’ll be the bus’s whipping boy again.

‘Sorry, but I know very well what boiola means. It means gay. In Swedish we say bög. Can you say that? Böööög!!!

The wasted guy backs off.

‘Oops, the Gringo’s getting mad,’ he says.

‘OK, now I’ve had enough. My name isn’t Gringo. I’m called Henrique and I’ve lived in Rio for ten years. I speak fluent Portuguese, have travelled round Brazil more than most of you and I’m married to a Brazilian. My daughter was born in Rio and now I’m here to write a chapter on Democracia Corinthiana. Could you just RESPECT THAT?’

Silence descends on the bus. No one knows how to react. Should they knock me out or leave me be? Their eyes turn to the boss, who nods curtly and asks the Hawks who’ve been hanging out in the gangway to go back to their seats. I turn towards the window and am lulled back to sleep by the marijuana smoke.

When I wake, darkness has fallen. Ribeirão Preto, with 620,000 inhabitants, is twinkling in the valley below us. This is the heart of the agricultural industry that has made Brazil one of the world’s biggest food exporters. Every year, Ribeirão Preto holds the world’s second largest agricultural fair, Agrishow, which has helped to give the city the country’s eighth highest GDP per capita. Aside from rising prices on the world market, the thing that delights residents most is the fact that it was with their club, Botafogo-SP, that Sócrates started his career.

The Hawks’ bus turns into the road that leads to the stadium, and I wonder how the members are going to get in: has the club management put aside tickets to be collected at the gates, or are they going to buy them outside?

Ten years ago, a standing ticket in the stadiums of São Paulo state cost around $3. It wasn’t a big deal for guys from the suburbs to take a train into town and go to a match. Now the cheapest ticket in the Campeonato Paulista costs around $30. Admittedly, the minimum wage has more than tripled during that time, but it’s still not enough.

A number of the clubs have raised prices out of pure greed, others have been more calculating. They want to limit the number of young supporters at their stadiums in order to do what Europe has done: tempt wealthy families and businessmen to the football. Clubs hand out free tickets to their most established supporters’ organisations, so as not to lose that all-important atmosphere, with fans singing, jumping around and waving banners. The problem is that some clubs give only a hundred or so tickets. That doesn’t go far. For the Hawks, with 96,000 members, not even a thousand tickets a match would help much. What’s more, for this match the hosts have exploited the fact that Brazil’s second biggest club are visiting; Sócrates’ club has raised the price of a standing ticket to almost $40.

‘We’ll sort the tickets out when we arrive,’ the boss says.

I wonder how they’ll go about it – do the Hawks have some kind of fund to buy tickets for their most loyal members?

Suddenly, a few Hawks shout at the driver to slow down and open the central door. I catch sight of a family, all dressed in Botafogo-SP’s red, white and black kit, in the middle of unpacking their car, before three Hawks jump out of the moving bus. They punch the dad and the son, and jump back in through the central door. A battle cry fills the bus. The traffic gets busier, and the sides of the road are lined with corinthianos who’ve left their cars parked down the road. Everyone apart from the Hawks walks the last kilometre the stadium. It’s obvious it’s going to feel like an away match for the home team. Two-thirds of the 26,000 fans who got tickets to this match are wearing Corinthians shirts.

In the midst of the flow of people stands a cambista, a black market vendor, in a blue wig and a clown suit. He is trying to earn money from tonight’s sold-out match. The bus driver catches sight of him, opens the bus doors and shrieks:

Cambista on my left!’

Three Hawks jump out of the bus, catch up with the old guy and hold him down, while two other Hawks fish for tickets in his pockets. Another battle cry goes up. A little further on there’s another man selling tickets. Eight Hawks run out and form a tight ring around the man. The vendor gives up and voluntarily gives his tickets to the Hawks.

‘How many’ve we got now?’ asks the boss.

‘Twenty to go,’ replies the guy with the bashed-in teeth.

The chubby high-school kid with rosy cheeks, who seemed like a prime bullying target when he boarded the bus in São Paulo, volunteers to lead the next raid. He stands on the bottom step of the bus, waiting for the signal. Half a minute later the driver shouts from behind the wheel:

Cambista on my right!’

The high-school kid jumps out, kicks the guy to the floor, steals his tickets and holds a bunch of them up towards the bus’s windows. The Hawks cheer. Now they only need ten more tickets to get everyone into the game.

Shocked by the Hawks’ raids, I tap eighty-year-old Lourdes on the shoulder.

‘Do they always do this?’

She smiles.

‘Yes, the tickets have got so expensive. No one feels sorry for those black market guys anyway.’

Further on, a man is holding tickets in the air, shouting ‘Ingressos! Ingressos!’ Tickets! Tickets! What he doesn’t know is that his salesman’s voice is a siren call for the Hawks, who dive down on him with frightening precision and take the last tickets. In less than a quarter of an hour, the Hawks have got hold of fifty tickets, and, with that, saved themselves over $2,000.

Five hundred metres from the stadium, police have set up a barricade of two jeeps with flashing blue lights. The Hawks’ vice-president gets out of the bus and demands permission to drive the last stretch up to the stadium to drop off the biggest of the banners, which is almost thirty metres long and is unfurled when Corinthians score a goal. The police officers shake their heads determinedly. The vice-president tries to convince them, but is instead informed that the Hawks are to be searched before they can enter the stadium. The fear the PCC arouse in São Paulo counts for nothing here. The vice-president selects ten Hawks, who form a chain and march the banner up towards the stadium. The rest of us follow behind at a more leisurely pace.

When an old popcorn vendor spots the clump of Hawks approaching, he tries to escape with his stand. He doesn’t make it. The Hawk who was offering me cocaine in the bus catches up and stops the stand. Desperately, the man cries that the popcorn costs a dollar a bag, but the Hawk doesn’t even look at him as he serves up popcorn for the whole gang. When the vice-president comes up I think: ‘Right, you bastards, now he’s going to come and ask that guy to give the bags back.’ Instead, he goes up to the old man, takes a bag of popcorn and asks for salt. The drugs, the violence, the attitude towards women . . . for some reason this is the moment I decide I’ve had enough. The people who sell popcorn in Brazil are among the poorest in society. You don’t steal from them.

For the last stretch of the slope I walk with Lourdes. Her hips are worn out by physical labour, and she supports herself against me. When we get to the top, I pull her away from the crush and put her behind a tree as protection from the thousands of supporters who are pushing from behind. The Hawk with the scar across his cheek, who couldn’t explain why they were called the Hawks, comes over and asks how Tia is.

‘I’m fine,’ she replies, and gets a ticket from him.

My journey with the Hawks has come to an end; I intend to watch the match from the press box. I give Lourdes a hug.

‘Don’t be angry with them. They just wanted to test you. They’re nice boys really,’ she says.

A quarter of an hour later, the rain starts to bucket down. Everyone queuing gets soaked to the skin. I’ve managed to make it into the stadium, which is in a terrible condition. Rainwater forms puddles on the stairwells. It isn’t until I get to the top that I realise there is no press box. The press seats are housed in a concrete booth, where five TV cameras on tripods take up almost all the space. Two of them are going to be following Pato. The other three will be showing the match to several million viewers.

When Pato runs on to the pitch, the Hawks jump around in the packed standing-room like a punk gang at a concert, despite the fact that none of them came here to see him. Pato works the pitch and plays well. Twice in the first half he comes close to scoring. But then nothing much happens. In the second half, the home team’s defenders have him in lock-down, and in the 70’ minute he’s subbed. Corinthians continue to have possession almost all the time, and yet it’s still Botafogo-SP who come closest to taking the lead. With ten minutes remaining, the Hawks can no longer wait for a goal and unfurl their enormous banner over the sea of people. It is shaped like a shirt with an aggressive hawk on the front. Then the Hawks let off the rockets they have smuggled in. But it doesn’t help. One of the Campeonato Paulista’s smallest clubs has claimed a point from the world champions.

The next day I wake up in central Ribeirão Preto and thank myself for paying for a clean, pleasant hotel instead of travelling back to São Paulo with a gang of hungover, bitter, damp Hawks. I enjoy a long breakfast before asking reception to order me a taxi. The rain has passed and the sun is peeping out. We drive through a middle class area of detached houses, where the walls around have grown taller as economic prosperity has increased. The taxi driver drops me off at a cemetery on the edge of town. I look for the administration building, and approach the lady at the desk.

‘I was thinking of visiting Sócrates. Doutor Sócrates. Do you know where he’s buried?’

The lady types the Greek philosopher’s name into the computer and looks thoughtful. She turns to her boss.

‘It says “Dr Sócrates Brasileiro” here. Was that really his name?’

‘Yes, Brasileiro was his surname,’ her boss replies.

The cemetery is like an enormous park. Several thousand graves are lined up in a considered but complicated geometric system. Sócrates lies buried in block H, row 27, grave 1,126.

In his last interview, with the Englishman David Tryhorn, Sócrates told him how proud he was of his time with Democracia Corinthiana.

‘It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever been part of. We set up our own little democracy in the middle of a far-right military dictatorship. There’s no doubt that we, as popular role models, in a football club for the people, contributed to the spread of democratic ideas. We were close to the fledgling workers’ party, and collected money for Lula’s first electoral campaign. And twenty years later, he became president.’

Sócrates thought football was reactionary by nature; now more than ever, and that managers and players ought to engage with social issues. He felt that the recent decline of Brazilian football could be explained by the fact that the middle and upper classes had taken control of the kind of football clubs were playing, putting a stranglehold on working-class talent. But he still thought there was something fundamentally positive about football: ‘when I played in the youth team at Botafogo-SP, I was at the home of a team-mate who couldn’t afford to eat, while I was studying to be a doctor. It made me think and I realised that football brings classes and races together. In that way it’s a very democratic pastime.’

As I walk towards Sócrates’ grave, images from the Hawks’ sizzling carnival show combine with those of the people beaten up during the bus journey. I think of the supporters who sold their cars to go to Japan and what their families thought about it. I also think about the video Washington Olivetto showed me before we parted. Sócrates filmed it for the advertising company’s 2011 Christmas party; Olivetto wanted him to send a message about creativity to the employees. The video was made just after Sócrates was discharged from hospital, where he was being treated for internal bleeding. His scarred face hung slack, his eyes were bloodshot and his hair greasy. You could see that alcohol abuse had taken its toll on him. Still, his eyes were sharp as he looked into the camera and said: ‘Life isn’t black and white, winning or losing. Life is like a rainbow. A combination of colours. Creativity is the same. It’s about inventing, showing something new that’s never been done before.’

A month later, Sócrates was in hospital again. He’d had a dodgy beef stroganoff at a restaurant and thrown up. The doctors diagnosed food poisoning and said it would pass in a few days. But Sócrates’ health was so poor that his body couldn’t handle a simple gastric infection. Despite being moved to one of the world’s best hospitals, the Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo, he died three days later.

The headstone is no bigger than anyone else’s. It measures only forty by fifty centimetres. Sócrates was democratic even in death. I lay my hand on the stone and give thanks for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, the first two I ever followed. Someone has put a vase of fresh ox-eye daisies on his grave. It’s tipped over in the rain. I right it and notice a bird sitting on a branch nearby. I watch it, and have a spontaneous sense that Sócrates was no hawk. He was a strange bird, with skinny legs. His democratic revolution claimed no victims. His only weapons were his bandana, on which he wrote his slogans, and his unusually small feet.

On the way out of the graveyard, I stop to talk to the gardeners. Most of them are corinthianos, and tend to argue about whose turn it is to trim the bushes that grow around Sócrates’ stone. I ask whether many people come to visit the legendary footballer.

‘Someone comes more or less every day. Lots of foreigners, actually. Last week we had two Italians here,’ says one of the men.

The other gardener snorts. He can’t understand why Italians come. It was they who put paid to the World Cup victory ’82 the Magic Square so deserved.



This is Chapter 5 from Jogo Bonito: Pelé, Neymar and Brazil’s Beautiful Game

Translation: Nichola Smalley



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