Sao Paulo (AFP) – Walter Casagrande was the only Brazilian to come out a winner from the World Cup in Russia six months ago having conquered a four-decade drugs and booze addiction he likened to “death row”.
While the Selecao crashed out at the quarter-final stage, beaten 2-1 by Belgium, the 55-year-old commentator and former forward managed to stay sober throughout the entire tournament.
That was something he hadn’t managed to do at any previous World Cup, whether as a co-commentator for Globo TV or even as a player in Mexico 1986.
After 38 years of addiction to alcohol and cocaine, that was a major achievement for a man who admits he found retirement from playing a tough transition.
“I was already taking drugs before but once I stopped playing it became voracious,” Casagrande, a team-mate of the late great Socrates both for Corinthians and the national side, told AFP.
Socrates died in 2011 at the age of 57 after a life of alcoholism.
“Socrates drank a lot, his whole life. He died of alcoholism because he liked to drink but I’m sure it was to escape the things that hurt,” said Casagrande.
– ‘Down death row’ –
Casagrande’s main vice was drugs and four times he took an overdose of cocaine.
“I didn’t leave football, neither did Socrates, we were two people who set off down death row,” he said.
The rebellious rocker actually did touch rock bottom in 2007 following a serious car accident.
When he woke up from a coma, he was admitted to a rehabilitation clinic in Sao Paulo.
“I was hospitalized for a year, I started therapy to get right psychologically, to get my life right. I realized that when I stopped playing it left a hole that made me suffer a lot,” said Casagrande.
He retired at the age of 32 after a fulfilling career that included a seven-year stint in Europe during which time he won the European Cup — the precursor to the Champions League — with Porto in 1987.
He’s turned his life around now, but before becoming a symbol for the fight against addiction, he and Socrates were idols for the youth movement whose mass mobilization proved the death knell of Brazil’s 1964-85 dictatorship.
They were part of the Corinthians Democracy movement that was made up of Corinthians players who defied their own club bosses in setting up a system of self-management, while they also stood in the front line of street protests against the dictatorship.
Born into a working class family in Sao Paulo, Casagrande was a fan of Socrates, nine years his senior, from a young age.
He came up through Corinthians’ youth ranks to play for the first team from 1980, alongside Socrates, who had joined the club from Rio de Janeiro’s Botafogo in 1978.
The pair hit it off both on and off the pitch and would go to rock concerts together.
They also joined the 1984 million-strong protest in Sao Paulo demanding direct elections.
– ‘Worrying’ –
For Casagrande, seeing Brazil now elect a president in Jair Bolsonaro with a military background — and who has spoken admiringly about the dictatorship — is a bitter blow.
“I would never have thought it could happen because we fought for 20 years to get them out so that democracy would return to the country, to put an end to censorship, for people to live without fear,” he said.
Former army captain Bolsonaro, who served in the military during the dictatorship, has appointed several military men to his cabinet, something Casagrande describes as “worrying.”
Even so, while he opposes Bolsonaro’s conservative rhetoric, Casagrande was quick to defend Palmeiras midfielder Felipe Melo when the former Juventus player dedicated a goal to the far-right leader during the election campaign.
“Every player has the right to express himself however he likes because (modern) Brazilian players never get behind anything, they never say anything… each one takes care of himself and you get the impression that Brazilian footballers live on another planet.
“They never get involved in anything related to Brazilian society and that disappoints me.”
Having conquered his demons, Casagrande now enjoys listening to music and going to the cinema or theater, pleasures he rediscovered after liberating himself from drugs.
He hasn’t touched anything in four years but heading to Russia for a five-week tournament, far away from his psychologists was the ultimate test.
“I turned a page at the World Cup, I put an end to my drug past.”