On Wednesday, Brazil’s Corinthians will begin their bid to become world champions for a second time. However, the glamour and fierce competitiveness of a FIFA Club World Cup could hardly be any further removed from the club that inspired the name of the Paulista giants.
It was after watching a match involving Corinthian Football Club, an English side touring Brazil, that five blue-collar workers from the Sao Paulo Railway decided upon forming a team “of the people, by the people and for the people". And while the London outfit won all six of their Brazilian exhibition matches, the adopting of their name in homage was down to more than their sporting prowess.
Indeed, what made the original Cortinthians so extraordinary was not the success they enjoyed in football, but the way in which they played the game. For their founders and their players, amateur ideals, gentlemanly conduct and fair play were of far greater consequence than the result. And yet, while the phrase ‘Corinthian spirit’ remains oft-used in English when discussing sportsmanship, the club itself has become somewhat forgotten – a pity when one considers its values.
Penalties, professionalism rejected
So principled, in fact, was Corinthians’ ethos that some of the club’s practices now seem comical, and belonging to a bygone age. If, for example, their opponents lost a player to injury or dismissal, they would immediately and voluntarily remove one of their own men from the fray to retain a fair and level playing field. Even more amazing was their steadfast refusal to score from penalty kicks, which they would tap back to the opposition goalkeeper, content in the belief that no-one would ever attempt to gain an unfair advantage by deliberately fouling an opponent. Penalties, in Corinthians’ view, were ‘ungentlemanly’.
There was also no question of arguing with the referee at a club that stuck steadfastly to a strict moral code. One of its founders, NL ‘Pa’ Jackson, wrote in his autobiography that a footballer should be someone who “has learned to control his anger, to be considerate to his fellow men, to take no mean advantage, to resent as dishonour the very suspicion of trickery, and to bear aloft a cheerful countenance under disappointment.”
Jackson’s abhorrence of dishonesty and ill discipline was matched only by his opposition to professionalism. Indeed, Corinthians initially refused to join The Football League or to compete in the FA Cup, and it was in 1923 – over 40 years after their foundation – that they agreed to “depart from their usual rules and to take part in a contest which did not have charity as its primary object" by entering the latter event.
Had they been involved in these elite competitions, it is likely that Corinthians would have swept the board. Evidence of that is their 8-1 win over Blackburn Rovers shortly after the Lancashire outfit’s victory in the 1884 FA Cup final, and a 10–3 thrashing of the Bury team that had put six unanswered goals past Derby County in the 1903 decider. Their first tangible success came when they beat Aston Villa, then English champions, in the charitable Sheriff of London Shield in 1900. Four years later, they hammered Manchester United 11-3, a scoreline which remains the Red Devils’ heaviest-ever defeat.
Though they professed to prize fair play over winning, Corinthians invariably combined the two – and this was also key to the club’s establishment in 1882. Jackson was at that time assistant secretary of the Football Association, and it was his concern at the results of England’s national team that led him to form a club team.
“Corinthians were founded mainly because Jackson and some of his contemporaries were utterly despondent at England’s performances against Scotland in the ten years after the first international game in 1872,” historian Dr Dil Porter, of De Montford University, explained in a BBC documentary. “Scotland were completely dominant in those games, and Jackson thought the reason for this was that the Scottish team was largely made up of players from the same amateur club, Queens Park. He thought if he could bring together the best English gentlemen amateur footballers together in a club side so they could play together more frequently, like Queens Park, they would stand a much better chance in games against Scotland.”
England did indeed improve, and over 100 Corinthians players went on to earn senior caps. In one particular match away to Wales in 1894, the entire Three Lions team was made up of players from the London club, and they returned home with a 5-1 win. Corinthians’ association with the national team lasted all the way until in 1937, in fact, when Bernard Joy became the last amateur to be capped by England.
Just two years later, however, the club in its original form disappeared when it amalgamated with the Casuals to form Corinthian-Casuals Football Club. What followed was a steady descent down the divisions, and a consequent fading from public view. These days, Corinthian-Casuals compete in the Isthmian League, a minor regional league for clubs from London and the south-east of England. And though the club retains its amateur status, practices such as deliberately missing penalties and ‘sending off’ its own players have long since been abandoned.
They may not be quite as fiercely principled as they once were, and they are unlikely to rival their Brazilian namesakes in competing for the big prizes any time soon. Nonetheless, Corinthians remain the ultimate example of values to which many in football still hold dear.