Robert Shaw finds Corinthians reeling after the loss of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano

Crisis at Corinthians is a relative term, but the upheaval at the São Paulo club this season has been staggering even by their standards. The MSI-driven transfer of Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano to West Ham triggered renewed difficulties and the hangover from a title win in 2005 has lasted all year. From being carefree, high-scoring table-toppers, the club are now scrambling to avoid relegation. In 2005 they scored 87 goals in 42 games; after 31 outings in this year’s national championship, they had netted only 28 times.

The task of replacing the Argentina duo was handled risibly by club president Alberto Dualib, who spent several weeks in London supposedly getting tough with the club’s owners, MSI. Journeyman midfielder Magrão and veteran striker Amoroso hardly seemed a fair swap. In fact, Dualib seemed more taken with his acquisition of model vehicles based on London buses and taxis.

Team harmony has suffered, as authoritarian coach Emerson Leão had a string of clashes with his squad. Players were banned from giving interviews, so they tried to communicate by other means, with a scrawled note addressed to the press stuck to a tree at the training ground claiming that there was no revolt against Leão.

There had been an unpromising opening to the MSI-Corinthians partnership in 2005, when a players’ revolt forced out coach Daniel Passarella, but the team went on to win their fourth national title with Tévez as the pivotal figure. Tévez was also voted Brazil’s best footballer. Kids started to copy his alice-banded hairstyle, while the popular TV comedy team Casetta & Planeta mercilessly parodied Tévez’s unfathomable Portuguese.

Formed in 1910 after watching the English club Corinthians play on tour, São Paulo’s most popular club have a fanbase of around 20 million in Brazil – part of the pull for MSI. But the tie-up with the mysterious investment company has never impressed pundits, whose fears about the way the club are being financed were borne out in October when the federal police requested that Dualib and other club personnel answer questions about the partnership. Although the club have spent heavily in the transfer market, little investment has been made in the youth team or the crumbling Pacaembu stadium, which would be expected to feature among the 12 grounds needed to host the 2014 World Cup.

The reality is that debt-saddled Brazilian clubs simply can’t afford to buy star players – native or foreign – without the assistance of wealthy benefactors. The $34 million (£18m) shelled out on Mascherano and Tévez could have bought several entire club squads.

While Tévez pinpointed concerns for his family’s safety as the reason for his departure, the breaking point was perhaps May’s disastrous home Copa Libertadores quarter-final against River Plate in the Pacaembu. Enraged home fans tried to trash the stadium as their side went down 3-1 in front of Kia Joorabchian and guests Roman Abramovich and José Mourinho. Corinthians are yet to win a Libertadores, while city rivals São Paulo have been continental champions three times.

Tévez and Mascherano had always appeared destined to leave after the World Cup, but the break-up was absurdly messy. Mascherano was reduced to talking himself into a red card in his last game, in a farcical attempt to win a club-versus-country dispute. Leão had ruled that neither Mascherano nor Tévez would be available for Argentina’s shop-window friendly against Brazil in London since, according to the manager, the friendly fell outside those slots which FIFA determine as compulsory release dates. Moreover, Leão argued the match at the Emirates Stadium was less important than a relegation fight.

Mascherano deliberately argued with the referee against Gremio on August 27 in order to get a suspension which he hoped would persuade an exasperated Corinthians to let him play in London – he would be banned, after all. In the end events, in the form of West Ham’s interest, ran ahead of the amateur escapology in São Paulo. But, as with the coach’s earlier removal of the captain’s armband from Tévez – Leão argued if he could not understand Tévez’s garbled Portuguese in the dressing room how could players be expected to on the pitch – it all looked like part of a badly hatched plot. Like West Ham, Corinthians look like they may just pull away from relegation but for both clubs involvement with the mysterious MSI has been little more than a series of disruptions.

From WSC 238 December 2006. What was happening this month

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