Why Corinthians are dreaming of glory in Japan

(Getty)

(Getty)

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.

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!

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 continenteevery 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.

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.

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.

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.

Read why James Young feels that Corinthians are dreaming of glory in Japan

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