The president wins the midfield battle

Watch out Washington! Lula, Brazil's new leader, bent on social and economic reform in defiance of t

When Brazil's finance minister, Antonio Palocci, hobbled into Congress on crutches last April, he bore an injury that resulted from a brutal confrontation with a senior union leader. Tension between government and unions is common in most countries, and scores are sometimes settled with violence. In Brazil's case, however, the minister's broken ankle was sustained during a game of football at the presidential palace.

It is now a year since Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected Brazilian president. The former shoe-shine boy, economic migrant, lathe worker and militant has brought a change of style to political life in BrasIlia, and no example is more resonant than the regular matches he plays with friends, family and colleagues. In August, when Lula wanted his ministers to commemorate a victory in the battle for pension reform, he invited them for a kick-about. Lula's team beat the side captained by the fisheries minister 5-3.

To relax by playing football with friends, as Lula does, shows that he shares the simple joys of the common man - as, perhaps, the country's first working-class president should. It also authenticates his Brazilianness. When Lula kicks a ball, he is expressing his cultural identity. You would expect the leaders of the country with the most successful record in the world's most popular sport always to have been conspicuous for their love of the beautiful game. Yet Lula is a rare exception; as a grass-roots supporter of Corinthians, Sao Paulo's most popular club, he can claim to be the first genuine football fan to lead the country for 30 years.

That helps to explain the great affection he inspires in most Brazilians: he speaks their language, feels the simple passions they feel. But more importantly, football influences the content as well as the form of his administration. Lula was elected on a left-wing platform of social reforms; his priority, he said, was to end hunger. Yet the first two laws he signed as president in May both concerned football.

In Brazil, football is one of the most prominent stages on which the battle to make the country a fairer place is being fought. 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.

In 1998, this came to a head. For most countries, an appearance in the World Cup final is the stuff of dreams. For Brazil, a 3-0 defeat to France in that year's final was a national disaster. It prompted two years of congressional investigations which revealed shocking details of the behaviour of the cartolas. As a result, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula's predecessor as president, introduced temporary legislation to enforce transparency in club administration. In May, Lula ratified the measure - it became the Law of Moralisation in Sport. On the same day, he sanctioned a more ambitious and wide-ranging law: the "fans statute", a bill of rights for the football fan. Brazil's dispossessed millions are denied their rights as citizens in many areas of their lives - at least now they are allowed them as fans.

The statute contains obvious and elementary rules about safety, hygiene and ticketing. Yet it also requires the Brazilian FA (CBF) to hold at least one national competition in which the "teams know before it begins how many games they will play and who their opponents will be". While it seems faintly ridiculous for this to be a law, rather than common sense or part of the CBF's regulations, the article is actually one of the statute's most crucial.

Brazil has had a national league only since 1971 - a year after it became the first country to have won the World Cup three times. The league has changed its format every year since then as the cartolas, hand in glove with the dictators who ruled Brazil until recently, used the sport to serve their own interests. Relegation rules have been changed to keep big clubs up, and teams have been included in the league in return for political favours. In 1979, for example, the league included a preposterous 94 clubs. Moreover, in contrast to almost every other football league in the world, the Brazilian league concludes in a knock-out competition for the championship. This does not necessarily reward the best team over the season. Santos, last year's champions, were placed eighth in the league.

Under the terms of the new statute, the knock-out phase is automatically illegal. For the first time, Brazil has a league in which all teams play each other and the winner has the best combined results - just like the major European national leagues. It is as if Brazil, in order to become a first-world country, needs a first-world football championship. And now it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure it happens.

Before Lula, the last football-mad president was Garrastazu Medici, the severest dictator of the 1964-85 military regime. According to sporting lore, he demanded that Dario, his favourite striker, be called up for the 1970 World Cup squad. When Joao Saldanha, the national coach, declared that "the president looks after his ministry, but I'm in charge here", he was promptly sacked. Although the dictatorship ended and Brazil became more democratic, football management stayed the same. It is often said that the last home of authoritarian culture is football.

Fernando Collor, a youthful and little-known regional politician, was the first democratically elected president. He wasn't a real fan - he was a cartola who started his career in public life as president of his local football team. Lula lost in 1989 against Collor, and again in 1994 and 1998 against Cardoso, a sociology professor distinctly uninterested in Brazilian popular culture. Cardoso had the political nous to make Pele minister of sport; however, Pele failed in his attempts to reform the game and - in the eyes of many - was tainted goods because of his sports business interests. Lula, meanwhile, is an honorary lifetime director of Corinthians, and in February, a month after his inauguration, he was presented with a personalised club shirt at a ceremony in BrasIlia. His speeches are full of references to the team, and he is sometimes kept informed of scorelines during offi-cial functions.

In Brazil, teams tend to be divided along social lines. Lula could be nothing but a Corinthians fan. It is the only major Brazilian club founded by the working class. It is also the largest club in Sao Paulo, Brazil's most populous city and the country's industrial and financial engine. Corinthians are the team of the masses, known - because of the club's size and popular support - as the Timao, the "big team". They have the most passionate, long-suffering fans in Brazil, a reputation gained by the 23 years they once went without winning a state title, the longest barren period of any big club. The parallel is not lost on Lula's Workers Party, which endured three elections as runner-up before winning on the fourth attempt last year.

In fact, the Workers Party is a Corinthians cabal, reflecting the emergence of the party from Sao Paulo's industrial militancy. Its three hardest hitters - Lula, Jose Dirceu, the chief of staff, and Jose Genoino, the party's president - are all Corinthians fanatics. Few governments can be so dominated by the supporters of one football team.

Corinthians may just be a football club, run by cartolas as reactionary as those at any other, yet it has played a unique political role. It was at a Corinthians match, in front of 100,000 people, that a banner urging amnesty for political prisoners was shown in public for the first time. The Corinthians fan group Hawks of the Faithful was the first to organise itself politically, so as to make demands on the club's management. And in the early 1980s, in what sounds like an episode from Greek history, the player Socrates co-founded a movement called Corinthians Democracy, which aimed to end authoritarian treatment of players at the club. His battle reflected the wider struggle in society to end the dictatorship, and Socrates - himself a member of the Workers Party - became, alongside Lula, a leading figure in the push for reforms. The movement for change in football, Lula is very aware, is a microcosm of the desire for wider change.

The fans statute was a direct attack on the impunity and incompetence of the CBF and club bosses. Not surprisingly, football's cartolas fought back. Less than a week after Lula sanctioned the law, the CBF and a group of clubs announced that the Brazilian league was immediately suspended - arguing it would be impossible to comply with the statute. But Lula made it clear that the statute was non-negotiable. It was his first new law and one in which he had a personal interest. The stand-off lasted 48 hours before the CBF threat collapsed and the league resumed.

Corinthians was one of the first clubs to support the government, weakening the anti-government position of other clubs. Roque Citadini, head of football for Corinthians, joked that it could not go against its honorary lifetime director. Whether or not this was out of principle, foresight or because of a sporting allegiance to the club's number-one fan, Corinthians was pivotal to the president's victory over the cartolas.

Lula has many battles on many fronts. He is trying to reform the tax and pension system while walking a tightrope between economic prudence and delivery on social promises. But in the battle for the "democratisation" of football at least, he has already proved himself a fine midfield general.

Alex Bellos is the author of Futebol: the Brazilian way of life (Bloomsbury). www.futebolthebrazilianwayoflife.com