It was just another Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. Yet for some reason, the traffic was bumper to bumper on the interstate and hordes of people were walking around town decked out in black and white.

It was not until the following day, 5 December 1976, that the uninitiated finally realised what was going on, as around 70,000 Corinthians fans descended on the Maracana for the Brazilian championship play-off semi-final against Fluminense.

Not even petrol rationing or the fact the game was being televised live could dissuade the Timão faithful from making the 400 km journey from Sao Paulo, a mass pilgrimage that would become known as A Invasão Corintiana (The Corinthian Invasion), one of the most remarkable events in the history of Brazilian football.

Some 36 years and six days on from that show of force, the club's followers were on the move in their thousands once again, making light of the even greater distance separating Sao Paulo from the Toyota Stadium to cheer their heroes to victory over Al-Ahly on Wednesday, in the first semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012. 

“It’s the biggest support in the world,” Corinthians fan Alex de Andrade told “There’s nothing like it. Let me put it this way: every team has their fans but our fans are a team.”

The 33-year-old from Sao Paulo had planned to go on holiday with friends to Cancun and Canada in July. As he explained though, the night his beloved team won the Libertadores those plans went out of the window: “I cancelled the lot. It’s Corinthians for me.”

The devotion and dedication of the fans did not go unnoticed by the players, among them centre-half Paulo Andre: “It’s fantastic. We guessed it might be like this, but you just can’t explain what it means to feel this and see it with your own eyes. It’s amazing what these fanatics do for the team, and I’m sure even more of them will come for the final.”

The tradition goes on
As the defender went on to say, impressive as their display was, it was no real surprise to see so many Corinthians fans partying in the stands at the Toyota. All the indications were that they would be turning up in numbers, with many of them on hand to greet the team on their arrival in Japan and to cheer them on at their subsequent training sessions.

After all, as they showed back in 1976, the Alvinegra diehards think nothing of travelling long distances to support their team. On that legendary, rainswept day at the Maracana their side forced a 1-1 draw with Flu before getting through to the final on penalties.

Waiting for them there were Internacional, who denied them their first title in 22 years, a trophy drought that would nevertheless be broken the following year when the Sao Paulo state championship was secured. 

It’s the biggest support in the world.

Corinthians fans Alex de Andrade

Writing in O Globo, the celebrated journalist Nelson Rodrigues described what Rio de Janeiro witnessed on that December weekend: “The match kicked off the day before, when the faithful took the city by storm. The Timão fans partied the whole night long on the Leme, Copacabana, Leblon and Ipanema. They came in droves. A tourist with a notebook would have been tempted to write: ‘Rio is an occupied city’.”

Over three and a half decades on, it is the turn of Toyota City to feel the black and white force. “There are more people than I thought there would be, a lot more,” commented Alex. “Everywhere you go you see Corinthians supporters.”

A sacrifice worth making
For some fans, the journey to see the team has been a short one. Situated a mere 15 minutes from the Toyota Stadium, the Homi Danchi residential development is home to a large Brazilian community, the Timão-supporting members of which have been excitedly planning to welcome their compatriots for many months. 

The majority have travelled many miles to be here, though, among them the 21-year-old Mateus Fernandes from Sao Paulo and his brother Murilo, two years his junior. The two siblings study in Santa Catarina and have made the long trip at the most important time of the academic year.

“It’s exam week at university and we’ve decided to miss them and do the lot in the second sitting in February,” said Mateus. The two students have parental approval too, with their father Francisco making a late decision to join them. 

“We’re going to be the champions,” he said. “We decided to come about two or three weeks ago. I’d been thinking about it since the Libertadores final. I wasn’t sure about it at all and it seemed very expensive, but one morning I just came out and said: ‘You want to know something? We’re going (laughs). We’d been planning to go to Las Vegas, but we decided to come here instead.”

The next stop for this “gang of fanatics”, as they like to call themselves, is Yokohama, the venue for Sunday’s FIFA Club World Cup final. The match comes 12 years after the team’s appearance in the final of the inaugural FIFA Club World Cup, against Vasco da Gama in Rio.

The 73,000 crowd that day contained 30,000 Corinthians fans, some way down on the 1976 show of strength but a sizeable number all the same. They saw their team win the trophy too, on penalties, after the game ended goalless in normal time. 

The worshippers on the latest Timão pilgrimage will be hoping Corinthians can get the job done in 90 minutes. Yet, having come so far, they will not mind one bit if it takes a little longer.