By Daniel Edwards
"I want to die on a Sunday, and have Corinthians lift a title on the very same day."
When the doctor, poet, political activist, symbol of revolution and, of course, supremely-gifted midfielder Socrates uttered these words to the Brazilian press during an interview back in 1983, he could not have known that 28 years later his somewhat morbid wish would become reality.
Hours after the idol's tragic passing on December 4, 2011, from an intestinal infection aggravated by the cirrhosis that was his legacy from years of hard living and battling against alcoholism, emotions in the white and black half of Sao Paulo were heightened to unimagined levels when the team directed by Tite fulfilled his prophecy, securing a 0-0 draw away to bitter rivals Palmeiras which was sufficient to clinch a fifth national title for the Timao.
A rather uninspired match did not yield any goals, but Socrates' iconic raised right fist that marked all of his strikes was copied to a man in the terraces by the Corinthians faithful. Now, after what may go down as the most successful 12 months in the institution's history, the legion of supporters who have taken over Japan will be hoping for another divine intervention from their star as they prepare for a game that could see them crowned champions of the world.
Over 25,000 fans flocked to the far-east to support their team, turning Wednesday's semi-final victory over Al-Ahly into another home fixture. O Doutor's image has been immortalised on the flags, banners and t-shirts carried by members of the Fiel, an image that one can only believe would have met with the favour of the outspoken star. A lifelong admirer of Argentine revolutionary, and fellow medic, 'Che' Guevara, the appearance of a beaming fan in the crowd wearing a t-shirt depicting his former Corinthians hero in a grainy portrait instantly reminiscent of the doctor-turned-warrior, would surely have met with the approval of a man who was never content simply to let his football do the talking.
Player and fans were inextricably linked during Socrates' time in the white and black shirt, a period of great change and upheaval in Brazilian society. The politically active, organised section of the Corinthians support spoke out and demonstrated publicly against the military dictatorship that gripped the South American nation in the early 1980s, risking their right to go to games and even their freedom. Inside the dressing room, meanwhile, democracy arose between players, coaches and directors in a revolutionary system that left all decisions to the principle of 'one man, one vote'.
Socrates was one of the key instigators of the policy, as well as an outspoken critic of the dictatorship, and while it would be facile to attribute its fall merely to the actions of a football club, the Timao's efforts to show the importance of 'power to the people' raised the temperature in a Brazil that was ready for change.
"I remembered the era of Corinthians Democracy, and that of Socrates. How could I not feel the emotion?", the former Corinthians star and now reporter Walter Casagrande pondered with tears running down his face prior to the semi-final, weighed down by the presence of his old team-mate. The team itself paid its own tribute, choosing the first anniversary of his passing as the day they left Sao Paulo for Japan, accompanied by thousands of fans who bade farewell to Paulinho and Co. as well as their departed friend. Socrates missed that unforgettable night in the Pacaembu in June, when two goals from Emerson Sheik earned the Brazilians their first-ever Copa Libertadores title, but his spirit remains in the Fiel's heart and if they can overcome Chelsea, the victory will be dedicated to the bearded maestro.
Despite taking down the African champions, Corinthians will start as underdogs to the English club, who faced few problems in dispatching Monterrey on Thursday to book their own place in the final. But the feeling around the club camp is that their time is now, history is on their side. Talented youngsters such as Paulinho, Romarinho and Guilherme Andrade, as well as the more experienced Ralf, have been forced into the spotlight as a result of the team's heroics over the last 12 months, taking plaudits and gaining more than a little attention as a result of their performances.
As European institutions watch with interest it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, win or lose, Sunday's decider with Chelsea will mark the end of a group that, while falling far short of reaching the electrifying football exhibited by Socrates, Rivelino and Casagrande during that golden age of the 80s, forged themselves into one of the best teams on the South American continent.
Controversial, unkempt, mercurial, a chain-smoker with no qualms over challenging any authority, Socrates represents the antithesis to the cleaned up modern football that will be on display this Sunday in Yokohama. But for those fanatical followers of one of the most popular clubs on the planet, who have seen their side rise from the ashes of relegation to become challengers for the title of champion of the world in just four short years, if the likes of Paulinho wearing the No. 8 shirt synonymous with O Doutor can upset the odds and take down Chelsea, this latest title will belong to their absent idol just as much as it will to anyone present in the stadium.