Corinthian spirit

wsc300 The Brazilian title has just been won by a popular club who are also extending their influence behind the scenes. Robert Shaw reports

Corinthians clinched their fifth Brazilian national championship on a day when one of their former stars departed. Prior to the start of the final day’s fixture against Palmeiras on December 4, the Corinthians team paid homage to Socrates, who died in a São Paulo hospital earlier that day, by clenching fists in his trademark salute. It was a poignant moment for Corintianos but less so for club president Andres Sanchez whose recent stewardship had been slated by the player known as Magrão (the big thin one).

The following evening a SporTV camera mischievously focused on the fixed smile and tepid applause from Sanchez as the audience at Brazil’s footballing awards show paid another tribute to Socrates. A central figure in the Corinthians Democracy movement in the early 1980s, Socrates helped to promote the revival of direct elections and the ending of Brazil’s post-1964 military dictatorship. More recently he opposed the club’s current directors over the construction of a new stadium.

By winning the title, Corinthians, reckoned to be São Paulo’s most popular club and second to only Flamengo nationally, held off a determined challenged from Vasco da Gama, who finished two points behind. The success was built around a solid defence and combative midfielders such as Paulinho and Ralf. Goals were at a premium, though, with seven clubs outscoring the champions over the 38-game season. One of the loudest cheers for a Corinthians victory would have come from the offices of Rede Globo, Brazil’s principal TV network which owns the rights to the championship. Big ratings generally depend on the success of Flamengo and Corinthians.

However, Corinthians’ success with a rather prosaic approach has happened at a time of growing introspection about the quality of the domestic game in Brazil. The  feeling was magnified when Santos were dismantled 4-0 by Barcelona in the recent World Club Cup final Japan. A wave of end-of-year navel gazing saw Brazilians fretting that Barcelona had usurped them as exponents of futebol arte.

The striker Emerson scored important goals for Corinthians in the closing weeks of the season, but his nomadic career – he has won three consecutive nationals titles with different clubs – means he is unlikely to become the sort of fan idol the club’s marketing department is looking for. The recent failed effort to land Carlos Tevez, a goalscoring favourite from Corinthians’ 2005 title-winning side, was part of the club’s continuing quest to become a Brazilian Real Madrid. Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo also featured in the squad until a disastrous elimination from the Copa Libertadores hastened their departure early in 2011. The club’s continuing failure in the Libertadores is especially painful as their three main local rivals, Palmeiras, Santos and São Paulo, have all won it over the years.

Corinthians’ recent history has been turbulent. The national title in 2005 was followed by a humiliating relegation two years later. Alberto Dualib, a former president, was brought down for mishandling club funds linked to the Media Sports Investment deal from 2004, which saw the group effectively take over the running of Corinthians’ football department. While it paved the way for signings such as Tevez, the agreement ended in acrimony three years later. As the stars headed for the exit, MSI funding was blocked in Brazil as part of an investigation into alleged money laundering.

Off the field, Corinthians’ relationship with the the Brazilian federation (CBF) has become unhealthily close. The club’s former coach Mano Menezes left to take over the national team while their proposed new stadium was being fast-tracked as the venue for the opening game of the 2014 World Cup. The news that Andres Sanchez was to be the new technical director of the national team fuelled the commonly held belief that the CBF were very keen to see Corinthians win the title.

CBF president Ricardo Teixeira is under international pressure over his part in the corruption case involving FIFA’s former marketing partners ISL and has been criticised in Brazil and abroad for his handling of the 2014 World Cup preparations. His courtship of Sanchez, an ally of Brazil’s hugely popular ex-president Lula, was seen as an attempt to attach himself to someone with major political influence. Teixeira has sought to use the popularity of Ronaldo, now acting as an ambassador for Corinthians, as a lightning rod by appointing him to the Local
Organising Committee for 2014.

While Corinthians celebrate their latest title, there is a feeling the path charted by the current directors means the club is losing touch with a history and spirit personified by the late, great Doctor Socrates.

From WSC 300 February 2012