Why Corinthians are dreaming of glory in Japan

Posted by James Young

Corinthians' Paolo GuerreroPA PhotosCorinthians' Paolo Guerrero leaps to score and book a place in the final

Queues of biblical proportions are a common sight at Brazilian airports, but this was something else entirely. The 15,000 that elbowed their way into Cumbica in Sao Paulo to wish Corinthians boa viagem a few weeks ago was either the world's biggest Secret Santa party or further evidence not only of Timao's ("The Big Team") rabid support, but also of the profound passions that the Club World Cup, often an afterthought in chillier climes, stirs in the South American soul.

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That's not all. Corinthians will be roared on in Sunday's final by at least 10,000 travelling fans, as well as a sizeable slice of Japan's community of Brazilian exiles. Not to mention their twenty five million or so supporters glued to breakfast time TV sets back home.

Given general European disregard for the competition, Chelsea fans are unlikely to be quite so giddy on Sunday morning. Hubris plays a part. Win the Champions League and you already know you're the best in the world. Why bother to prove it against clearly inferior opposition? South of the equator, meanwhile, Latin America rails against footballing neo-colonialism and yearns for the validation that victory might bring - you see? We are still relevant, after all!

The European cockiness might be understandable enough for Real Madrid. Less so, perhaps, for Chelsea, given that just a few years after the legendary Socrates was leading the Democracia Corintiana movement, the Stamford Bridge boys were getting in a tizzy about winning the Full Members Cup. And while rash predictions are the early grave of many a cocksure sportswriter, given the Premier League team's inconsistent form this season, it might not even take Corinthians' nation of millions to hold the Londoners back on Sunday. At the very least, the Brazilian side seems well positioned to make this the most even Club World Cup final for some time.

Recent history has hardly favoured South American clubs. Since Sao Paulo sneaked past Liverpool in 2005, and then Internacional shocked Barcelona in 2006, it's been slim pickings, with the trophy heading to the velho continente every time (Corinthians themselves won the first tournament in Brazil back in 2000). Only one Brazilian side has made the final in the last five years, and Santos' efforts against a swaggering Barcelona last year were disappointingly puny.

None of this should come as much of a surprise. The shiniest South American jewels have been playing their club football over the pond for decades now, and domestic competitions have effectively been reduced to feeder leagues for the European big boys. Even the richest South American sides exist in a dispiriting state of flux, with any success inevitably followed by the loss of the team's brightest stars.

But while the traffic remains largely one way, bullish (if now slowing) economic growth has allowed Brazilian clubs to mount some stiff resistance of late. Most notable has been Santos's achievement in persuading the mercurial Neymar to tarry awhile, and even old lags Diego Forlan and Clarence Seedorf have been tempted across the water for a season or two.

Now better placed to exploit their massive TV and marketing potential, Corinthians have undoubtedly benefited from the increased financial heft of the Brazilian game. But there is another reason for the club's recent success. Just under two years ago manager Tite watched as his side, in those days boasting the (late period) Al Pacino and Robert de Niro of Brazilian football, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, was humiliatingly dumped out of the Libertadores by little known Colombians Deportes Tolima.

The team bus was attacked in protest, a few days later Carlos was packing his bags for Anzhi (citing threats from supporters as a reason), and not long after that Ronaldo wandered off into the retirement sunset. Although there were a few unconfirmed sightings of Adriano in a Corinthians shirt over the next few months, the big name era at Pacaembu was over.

Paulinho of Corinthians is interviewed after the Club World Cup semi-final
GettyImagesPaulinho of Corinthians is interviewed after the Club World Cup semi-final

Freed from the shackles of the star system that often dominates Brazilian football (Corinthians' rivals for the crown of the biggest club in the country, Flamengo, have done little in recent years other than flutter their eyelashes at a succession of increasingly clapped-out superstars), the club has concentrated on that most archaic of concepts - the team.

Built around excellent volantes (defensive midfielders) Ralf and Paulinho, Corinthians were occasionally prosaic, sometimes sluggish, but never anything less than muscular and supremely organized, as first the 2011 Brasileirao and then this year's Libertadores were clinched in almost inevitable fashion.

Their bend-but-don't-break style was perhaps typified during the Libertadores run. Corinthians went through the competition unbeaten, conceding only four goals in fourteen games. And while it was not always expansive stuff (the team often played without an obvious centre-forward), it was hardly dull - thrillingly decisive late goals by the ever dangerous Paulinho (in the quarter-final against Vasco) and young substitute Romarinho (in the first leg of the final against Boca Juniors at La Bombonera) will not quickly fade from the memory.

Valuing the collective over the individual also meant that Corinthians had no Lucas or Oscar to lose after the Libertadores win. Of the team that beat Boca, only zagueiro (defender) Leandro Castan (sold to Roma) and overrated midfielder Alex (Al-Gharafa) departed. Both have been fairly seamlessly replaced by players already at the club - book-writing, strike-a-posing sometime male model Paulo Andre at the back, and chain-smoking schemer Douglas, signed earlier from Gremio, in the middle. And the financial punch meant that those coveted by overseas clubs, notably Paulinho, could be all the more easily persuaded to stay.

Corinthians even added to their squad post Libertadores, signing abrasive Peruvian striker Paulo Guerrero from Hamburg in July. He'll play up front with pacey, if eccentric, Emerson Sheik on Sunday. It is not known if the latter's pet monkey Cuta was able to obtain a visa for the trip to Japan.

None of which, of course, means that Corinthians will be feeling on top of the world come Sunday lunchtime. Holding firm against Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and co. is a much harder task than overcoming an aging Boca Juniors or a glass-jawed Santos, and while Timao perspired heavily in a narrow semi-final win over Al Ahly, Chelsea hardly broke sweat when strolling confidently to victory against Monterrey.

Even so, while recent Club World Cup finals have seen the South American champs retreat desperately into the trenches and hope for a goal on the break, this one feels more like a slugging match. And the last few years have shown that this Corinthians side can slug with the best of 'em.

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