“Corinthians is a social phenomenon that should be studied in depth”
– Menotti Del Picchia
You won’t find Itaquera on any postcards. This is not the Brazil that appears in travel brochures and Hollywood films. The neighbourhood, buried deep within the eastern districts of the sprawling mass that is Sao Paulo, is a primarily residential, working class neighbourhood. The last Eastern stop on the City’s red metro line, travelling to the area gives the sense of going through an endless mass of humanity, stretching beyond the horizon in every direction. Apartment buildings, ranging from the humble to glittering new developments, loom over the metro, looking down upon streets of low-rise housing and densely packed favelas.
Hundreds of thousands of people make this journey everyday, going from their homes in the east to the centre of the city, Brazil’s economic heart. Sao Paulo has the largest GDP of any city in the southern hemisphere, making it a magnet for those from other parts of Brazil and beyond looking for work. Many of them end up here, in the East Zone. The area has a reputation around the city for being poor and, some Paulistanos will tell you, dangerous.
But for these perceptions, which many residents will dismiss as outdated prejudice, Itaquera possesses grand importance in one aspect of Brazilian culture; football. The area is home, as many here will proudly tell you, to Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, one of the world’s most well supported and successful clubs.
The location of Corinthians’ stadium, the Arena Corinthians, built for the 2014 World Cup, in an area like Itaquera is a fitting one for a team that calls itself ‘o time do povo’ (the team of the people). Part of the team’s mythology, in which it’s fans take such fierce pride, is that it rose up out of and continues to represent the working classes of this gigantic city.
Founded in 1910 by five railway workers, Corinthians takes it’s name from the famed British amateur touring team that visited Brazil in the same year. But beyond the name, there was little similarity between a team of Edwardian English gentleman determined to demonstrate the civilising values of amateur sport and a team largely composed of and supported by Sao Paulo’s workers. However, Brazilian clubs take great pride in their histories and Corinthians have welcomed their English namesakes, Corinthians-Casuals, based in Kingston Upon Thames back for exhibition games in 1988 and 2015.
Corinthians can boast many titles over the years; 6 Brazilian league titles, a Copa Libertadores and a 1-0 win over Chelsea in 2012 that saw them gain their second Fifa Club World Cup title. But for all this success, it’s the team’s identity that seems to be most prized by supporters.
“Corinthians isn’t a team that has fans, it’s fans that have a team”
– Artur Dos Santos Saldanha
The ‘Fiel’ (faithful), as Corinthians’ supporters refer to themselves, reportedly number around 30 million. How exactly this is calculated is never really clarified (was there a census?) but it’s widely accepted in Brazil that only Flamengo, the red and black giant from Rio which claims a fanbase of 40 million, is bigger.
Of course, in football, trophies mean fans, but for a club of it’s size, most of Corinthians’ silverware is relatively recent. The team did not win a national league or cup title until 1990. Instead, it was the loyalty of the fans throughout history that was celebrated at least as much as the on field performance of the team.
One of the most revered episodes of this past was the Invasao Corintiana (Corinthians Invasion). Drawn against the Rio team Fluminense in the Semi-finals for the 1976 league title, Corinthians took more than 70,000 fans along the coast to watch the tie, taking over the Maracana. Rio’s most hallowed football ground was turned into a sea of black and white. Corinthians won on penalties, before being beaten in the final. The event has become a symbol, almost a holy memory for the fiel. The loss in the final and even the win over Fluminense seem to matter less than the journey of the fans and the scenes they created inside the Maracana.
“Never before had a crowd invaded another state with such euphoria…Rio was an occupied city”
-Nelson Rodriguez, the day after the Corinthians invasion
Years later, as Corinthians prepared to play Chelsea in 2012 in Japan for the Club World Cup, the event was self consciously recreated by a new generation wanting to demonstrate their loyalty.
The Club World Cup is an irrelevance in Europe, an annoyance for managers who have to fly their teams out to play on the other side of the world for a game even their own supporters probably don’t care about. But in South America it’s a chance to see how you measure up to the best.
Tens of thousands of Corinthians fans arrived in Brazil before the game, much to the bemusement of the world’s media. ‘Craziest fans in the world?’ asked CNN. Their loyalty was rewarded by a victory over Chelsea, a victory some took as a sign of South American clubs increasing ability to compete with their European rivals. This may have been a little premature, the victory more testament to Tite’s (Then Corintians’ coach, now managing Brazil) tactics than a seismic shift in footballing power, but it has already made it’s way into Corinthians folklore.
“Corinthians is like a nation, a religion … people are borrowing money from banks, from relatives to come here. They are quitting their jobs, selling their bikes, their cars, even their fridges. It’s true.”
– Corinthians fan interviewed by CNN before the Club World Cup Final
This fanaticism inevitably comes with a dark side. In 2014, with the team in terrible form, fans broke into the training facilities to try and attack playing staff. Alexandre Pato was so distressed by the incident, he immediately requested a move away from the club. Clashes with opposition fans are hardly unknown. During this season’s game against Flamengo at the Maracana, Corinthians fans attacked a police officer, beating him with his own truncheon, before rushing the fence in an attempt to reach Flamengo supporters. The situation was only controlled with the use of pepper spray.
Crowd trouble is not a problem exclusive to Corinthians or Brazil though, and the fervent support that surrounds the club remains something to behold. Nor is the energy that surrounds the club solely channelled into support or violence. The supporters groups occasionally mount political protests, challenging government policy and unfurling banners with political messages. The link between Corinthians and politics is most famously embodied, by the “Corinthians Democracy” of the 1980. During this time, while the country was still under a military dictatorship, the team led by the legendary midfielder Socrates, implemented a democratic system at the club and wore pro-democracy slogans on their shirts. The effect of the movement, journalist Juca Kfouri told the New Yorker magazine, was dramatic: “(Corinthians democracy) changed the whole image of the club, and the perception of the fans toward it, for the rest of history, till this day.”
Today, Corinthians are seemingly in a difficult period. This season they finished 7th, while their bitter rivals Palmeiras won their first title for 22 years. The architect of much of their recent success, Tite, has been given the task of restoring the pride of the national team. Meanwhile, Brazilian football in general has to contend with an ongoing economic crisis and low crowds.
Whatever issues lie ahead, however, will be unlikely to disturb the break the bonds between the club and it’s fans. Football’s real appeal, the reason why it can command the passions of millions, is it’s ability to transcend itself. Football teams come to symbolise much more than the 11 men on the pitch. The club, it’s colours, it’s badge and history become an embodiment of the community it represents. Few clubs around the world understand this like Corinthians. Regardless of the performance on the pitch or who wears the shirt this season, the soul of the club lies with those in the stands.