There is a certain stereotype of a Brazilian football club, but Corinthians have just won the title through managerial stability, defensive organisation and counter-attacking. Not bad for the fourth best team in São Paulo.
It was fast approaching midnight but, except for one tiny corner – from where a hardened gaggle of Fluminense fans had seen their side take a 0-1 lead almost two hours previously – the Arena Corinthians remained completely full.
The referee had long since put the whistle to his lips, but those dressed in black and white were going nowhere. How could they? They had just seen their beloved Corinthians turn the game on its head, winning 3-1 and thus securing the club’s seventh Brazilian title.
As the players kneeled in prayer around the centre circle, the ecstatic crowd moved to a new chant. “É quarta força! É quarta força!” they bellowed. The shouts, laced with irony, referred to those in the press who had written the team off at the start of the year, calling them São Paulo’s ‘fourth force’.
Corinthians, they said, were nowhere near as powerful as Palmeiras, the defending champions; they weren’t as stylish as Santos, runners-up in 2016; and weren’t even as strong as São Paulo FC, looking forward to a new era with club legend Rogério Ceni at the helm.
Eleven months later and here Corinthinas are, champions first of São Paulo state, and now of Brazil.
Early on, it looked as though predictions about Corinthians would prove correct. New signing Jô, born and raised in the working-class Itaquera neighbourhood that is home to their glittering arena, was not firing.
His signing, they said, was a sign of the lack of resources at the club. After all, he had not played in six months, and before that endured an unsuccessful spell in the Chinese second tier.
The pressure was also on new manager Fábio Carille. He had been promoted from within after a successful seven-year spell as assistant, seen as another sign of Corinthians’ financial shortcomings, and it did not take long for him to come under pressure.
Brazilian clubs, perhaps even more so than English ones, tend to look to tried and trusted names when appointing managers. Even then fans are quick to call for a coach’s head if he does not immediately bring positive results. Carille didn’t stand a chance.
But then came the turning point: The first derby of the year against their bitterest rivals, Palmeiras, in the state championship.
Just half an hour into the game, with the score still 0-0, Corinthians’ midfielder Gabriel was shown a red card in a case of mistaken identity. But rather than crumble, Corinthians defended for their lives and managed to keep Palmeiras at bay.
Then, moments from the end, Jô, who had just come on a substitute for Colin Kazim-Richards, was put through one-on-one with Fernando Prass.
Jô slotted it through the onrushing goalie’s legs and the Arena erupted; a rancorous combination of the injustice of the sending off and the hatred of the opposition gushing from the terraces.
It was a demonstration of Timão’s resilience and set a blueprint for the season. Ever since, Carille has stuck to the 4-4-1-1 formation and counter-attacking style that had been employed to such excellent effect on the day.
Corinthians went on to win the Paulistão, as the state championship is known, defeating Ponte Preta 4-1 over a two-legged final.
The much-maligned Jô, meanwhile, turned himself into a hero, scoring crucial goals in every big derby they played against Palmeiras, Santos and São Paulo. The fans who had booed him in February now dubbed him ‘King of Clássicos’. There were even calls for him to return to the Seleção.
The doubters, however, would not stay silent. It is all well and good winning the state championship, they said, but we’ll see what happens when Corinthians come up against illustrious opposition every week in Brazil’s Série A.
Flamengo had invested heavily; Palmeiras had called back Cuca, the manager who led them to the title in 2016; and Grêmio could count on the mercurial attacking talents of Luan and Lucas Barrios. If Corinthians were the fourth force in São Paulo state, they were at best the eighth on a national level.
But Carille stuck to his principles and Corinthians started the season spectacularly. They didn’t lose any of their first 19 games, conceding just nine goals, both records in Brazil.
The unit was so well-drilled that players could be swapped in and out with very little effect on the collective. Carille had a clear idea of his best XI, but when one or more of those players was not available, their immediate reserves came in knowing exactly what was expected of them.
When they were out of possession, Corinthians moved with such beautifully defined shape, synchronicity and symmetry that they looked like a table football team. There were no real stand-out individuals, despite Jô’s continued goal-scoring form, but a side that is so cohesive does not need any.
Next, however, came the almost-inevitable drop off in results that many had been expecting. Carille himself had said they would not be able to maintain the same level of performance over the length of the campaign.
Previously smooth edges became ragged and players who had excelled, such as Guilherme Arana and Rodriguinho, started to look bereft of confidence. Corinthians lost at home to relegation strugglers Vitória and Atlético Goianiense and away to Santos in the space of three weeks, allowing the chasing pack to gain ground.
Palmeiras were the team hottest on their heels and when Corinthians lost again to Ponte Preta on the last Sunday of October, suddenly the title was out of their hands.
Palmeiras could only draw with Cruzeiro the following day, but they went to the Arena Corinthians knowing a win would move them to within two points of their rivals, with momentum clearly in their favour. The pressure on both sides was suffocating.
On the eve of the game, Corinthians held an open training session at their stadium. 32,000 fans, clad in alvinegro attire, with flares and flags aplenty, arrived to show their support. It turned out to be exactly what the players needed to awaken them from their malaise.
The next day Corinthians blew Palmeiras away in the first half, going in 3-1 up at the break, before a second-half rearguard action saw them hold on to win 3-2. The tide had turned back in their favour.
The two following games were both won by a single goal after combative, if unspectacular, performances. In the second of those two, against Avaí, Kazim-Richards converted a 49th-minute cross to seal the win.
The London-born striker hadn’t found the net since February and fans had become impatient, but his goal triggered widespread delirium and rescued his reputation in one fell swoop.
The 3-1 win over Fluminense in the next match finally pushed them over the line, with the third of Corinthians’ three goals eliciting perhaps the loudest noise I have ever heard in a football stadium.
Corinthians are one of the few teams in Brazil to have chosen a specific model of play and stuck with it for a prolonged period.
It has brought unprecedented success. Since Menezes took over as manager in 2008 (bringing Carille with him) Corinthians have won three Paulista championships, three Brazilian titles, one Copa do Brasil, one Copa Libertadores, a Recopa Sul-Americana and a Club World Cup.
This consistency in both management and system of play, focused on defensive compactness and efficient counter attacks, goes against two of the prevailing traits of Brazilian domestic football.
Firstly, most clubs chop and change manager with alarming regularity and no regard to each individual’s methods. This results in dramatic shifts in playing style and recruitment policy, hardly conducive with long-term success.
Palmeiras and Flamengo, for example, both spent heavily this year but with no real idea of how they wanted to set up. Flamengo currently have 12 attacking midfielders disputing three spots, and Palmeiras’ most expensive signing was Colombian striker Miguel Borja, who did not fit into the manager’s vision and thus spent much of the season on the bench.
Secondly, Corinthians’ model foregoes the usual focus on the individual, on providing space for a special player who can resolve games alone, at the expense of collective lucidity. In a league that boasts fewer outstanding talents with each passing year, this approach is surely the way forward.
Whether this consistency is down to thorough, long-sighted planning, or whether it is a happy result of a series of unrelated decisions is a subject still ripe for debate.
But whatever the case may be, Corinthians are setting an example for other Brazilian clubs to follow.
By Joshua Law