There is a sense of disbelief when you consider how Corinthians were relegated to the B division. What happened to this proud club? The first club founded by the working masses and the most successful of the Paulista clubs. Corinthians were the countervail to the dominant upper crust British soccer culture of yore, were in the forefront of the movement that rebelled against the autocratic military regimes of the 70s, and saw its lifelong supporter, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva aka Lula, elected as the president of Brazil. The club with its estimated 30 million supporters comprise the electoral base of the Workers Party. Socrates, the wondrous midfielder who captained the 1986 Brazil team and the most iconic Corinthian player once said about his club, "they are not a team with supporters, but supporters with a team".
Socrates and team mates Wladimir and Walter Casagrande formed Corinthians Democracy, a players movement within the club that rebelled against the suffocating paternalistic culture prevalent in Brazilian soccer which dictated not only how they played but how they lived their lives. A phenomenon Alex Bellos calls concentrecao or loosely translated "bring together the troops", a microcosm of the authoritarian nature of the military regimes that subjugated the citizenry. The movement was a democratic exercise where players voted on simple daily tasks that affected them like when to take lunch or what time to turn in. 'We decided everything by consensus,' says Sócrates.
But it was not just simple decisions that made Corinthians Democracy a byword in Brazilian soccer history, it was its political role in actively bringing down the military dictatorship. Players voted to wear shirts with 'Vote on the Fifteenth' written on them and bringing huge "Democracia" banners to the pitch. As a sports icon Socrates was very aware that players like him could play a seminal role in arousing the masses to direct action. A very well read man (he was also a medical doctor), Socrates used anarcho-syndicalistic principles which first organized workers rights in the latter part of the nineteenth century. He says thus.
"The process that we went through (Corinthians Democracy) was extremely rich. We were working in a really popular environment ... and we managed to develop a form of action that generated a series of polemics ... in relation to the structure of employers and employees.
In 1982 and 1983, Corinthians won the Paulista championship beating Sao Paulo. During those years, the last military dictator Jose Figueirado, declared that he was committed to opening up Brazil to democracy but government hardliners responded with a series of bombings. Figueirado's failure to bring the guilty to justice coupled with rising inflation, stagnating wages, and increasing debt led to the public's determination to see the end of military rule. In 1984 in an impressive display, millions of Brazilians took to the streets in all the major cities demanding a direct vote (diretas já! ) in the choice of the next president. In 1985, military rule finally ended with Jose Sarney, a civilian and a former ally of Figueirado coming to power. During those tumultuous last years, Lula, as one of the leaders of the Workers Party was at the forefront of the diretas ja! movement, imprisoned for organizing massive workers strikes protesting the pitiful wages.
So when in 2002 Lula finally became the president, millions of working class Brazilians rejoiced to see one of their own elected. The former shoeshine boy was one of them. In addition, he was a Corinthians supporter, who liked nothing better than relaxing with his friends and colleagues playing the beautiful game. Ironically, in soccer mad Brazil, Lula is an exception, a leader, the first in three decades with a genuine love for the game. So it was befitting that his first Presidential act was to take on the cartolas, the corrupt club establishments. Bellos explains
"The sport is run by a network of unaccountable, largely corrupt figures known as cartolas, or "top hats", who have become obscenely wealthy while the domestic football scene is broke and demoralised. The public plundering of football is a constant and very visible reminder of the country's failings." Joao Havelange, the former CBF and FIFA president is one of the major beneficiaries of this system.
In 1998, following the embarrassing defeat of the Brazilian team to France in the World Cup final, a series of investigations into the dealings of the cartolas was launched. A temporary law was passed which demanded greater financial accountability. With Lula in power the fire and brimstone Law of Moralisation in Sport became permanent. In place too was a bill of rights for soccer fans. The bill contained an important statute which mandated that the CBF (the Brazilian FA) would hold at least one national competition in which "teams know before it begins how many games they will play and who their opponents will be." As banal as it appears to be, this statute addressed the hitherto arbitrary nature of the Brazilian domestic league. The cartolas in cahoots with the military dictators used the league to serve their narrow economic and political ends by changing relegation rules every season to keep favoured teams on top.
Lula was quick to realize that all through Brazil's democratization, the cartolas themselves had not reformed, and with these populist measures, used the public dissatisfaction with these cartolas to cement his place in the heart of the ordinary soccer fan. In Brazil where soccer is life itself, Garrastazu Medici, the military dictator, used the euphoria surrounding the 1970s World Cup win, to push the most repressive of measures.
Of course, the CBF and their acolytes, the cartolas fought back immediately announcing a suspension of the league. But Corinthians, on whose board Lula sits as a lifetime director, supported his reform measures. With Corinthians and Lula standing firm, the threat collapsed within 48 hours and the league resumed its matches. The cartolas were defeated and their pernicious influence on the game shaken. The last authoritarian structure in Brazil was given notice by Lula and the Corinthians.
Thus it is in this prism, that the MSI and Corinthian association should be viewed. A Faustian bargain that virtually cedes all financial control to MSI in exchange for some high priced players. A very nebulous relationship which has already led to arrest warrants issued by a Brazilian judge for Kia Joorabchian and Boris Berezovsky, former partners of MSI on money laundering charges. Former Corinthian president Alberto Dualib resigned after it was discovered that he was the recipient of huge MSI payouts. In the two years since winning the 2005 Brasiliero title, Corinthians had morphed into a MSI money laundering front and the promised Galacticos that would put a stranglehold on the title, never arrived as MSI's assets were frozen. Less than a fortnight ago, Corinthians were relegated as they drew Gremio.
Fans went into shock. "It was the saddest day in my life," Corinthians fan Joao Paulo Tonidandel told the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. "It (relegation) made me even sadder than when my mother died."
Relegation was the end of a "chronicle of a tragedy foretold," Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil's most respected sports analysts and an ardent Corinthians fan, said in his column in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. He blamed Dualib and the board of directors for giving the club away to unscrupulous operators.
So where was Lula in all of this as his club now struggles with relegation and financial debt estimated at $56 million? Surely, Lula with his worker class background, a champion of workers rights, a lifelong activist against entrenched power structures, would have disavowed this arrangement. But it is no secret that the new Lula is the IMFs best friend, a neo-liberal champion, with his overriding priority being free market programs and the flight of international capital into Brazil, ostensibly to alleviate poverty. He was elected on a platform which promised land reform, eradicating illiteracy, promoting health, creating jobs, and building houses which he has largely neglected.
It would be a fair to conclude that Lula's neo-liberal policies must have encouraged the Corinthians board to throw in their lot with MSI and to welcome foreign private investment into improving the club and attracting players like Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. For a while it worked even though the board knew this arrangement was a double edged sword. MSI could not keep their hands of the till. And a club that once fought the authoritarianism of military rule and supported transparency in soccer was left clutching at straws.