Over 60,000 fans crammed into the Arena de Sao Paulo, the home of Brazilian giants Corinthians Paulista, for a huge FIFA World Cup™ game on 19 June 2014. Uruguay forward Luis Suarez’s double all-but eliminated England from the tournament. For Englishman Chris Watney, watching the game almost 6,000 miles away in his native country, the game held its own significance, and would set the wheels in motion for another match of cultural and historical importance, involving a team playing in the eighth tier of English football.
“Lots of Corinthians fans went to watch [England-Uruguay] as neutrals but wore replica Corinthian-Casuals shirts to the match,” Watney recalled. “I was at home, watching the game and I tried to find our pink and brown shirts in the crowd instead. Sure enough, there they were. The next day we got inundated with photos of people at the game, supporting us, wearing the Corinthian-Casuals shirt. That day, the head of marketing at Corinthians phoned me. That’s when it all starting getting serious. Six months later, we were out there.”
The Brazilian giants were formed in 1910 after the original Corinthian FC, an English amateur side who toured the world in the early parts of the 20th century, inspired five blue-collar Sao Paulo workers to found Sport Club Corinthians Paulista. Corinthian FC merged with Casuals FC in 1939, but their heritage remains, and Corinthian-Casuals enjoy a feted status in Sao Paulo as a result.
We raised over 5 tonnes of food for the favelas. Around 4,000 people came along to watch us train.
The English side, who are currently four promotions away from the lowest professional league in England, travelled to Sao Paulo in January, and stepped out in front of 30,000 fanatical Brazilians for a game against their local namesakes, to mark 100 years since an ill-fated Corinthian FC tour to Brazil. A planned match in 1914 was cancelled due to the outbreak of World War One as the players arrived in Brazil. A number of the English club’s squad died in the conflict. Watney, who joined the club in 1999, is making a documentary about the shared history of the clubs, and helped organise the trip to Brazil.
“An online poll was taken, from a fan website out there,” Watney said. “They asked ‘Who do you want to see open the new stadium: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea or Corinthian-Casuals?’ and we won the vote by 61 per cent. It was at that point that we thought there was real fan interest [in a game between the teams].”
The match itself came after a quite remarkable week in Sao Paulo. On their travels, the original Corinthian FC became famous for their charity work, as well as their attitude to Fair Play. Watney wanted to revive that charitable spirit, and Corinthian-Casuals spent a week visiting local children’s hospitals, favelas, and holding an open training session for members of the local community.
“We opened up our training session for the fans to come for free as long as they brought 1kg of food,” Watney said. “We raised over 5 tonnes of food for the favelas. Around 4,000 people came along to watch us train. Those moments were the most memorable really, even more so than the match. For the guys to walk into a cancer hospital with kids and actually make a difference, it was great. We got the hospital 500 tickets for the families, staff and patients to come to the match.
“There was a kid called Vanderson, who I met in September when I went out [to prepare for the match]. He’d been run over and the injuries caused a form of spinal cancer. I gave him a Corinthian-Casuals shirt, we signed it and some Corinthians Paulista legends were there, who signed it too. When we went back, we asked what had happened to him. He’d auctioned off the shirt and the money raised paid for all his treatment. He came along to the match in a wheelchair. We were completely blown away.”
The game of their lives
After an emotional roller-coaster of a week, and that open training session the day before, the players began to mentally prepare for the game itself. Five-time Brazilian champions, and twice FIFA Club World Cup winners Corinthians Paulista were the opposition, in their final warm-up match before their Copa Libertadores campaign got underway. What hope for the English amateurs?
“On the day of the match we went to the training complex where we spent some social time with the players of Corinthians Paulista,” Watney said. “I actually had to go and brief the Corinthians Paulista players about the significance of the match. I walked in, they were all sat around, and they were watching a slideshow of Corinthian-Casuals, our tactics and players. It was a really serious atmosphere in there. It was their last friendly before the [Copa Libertadores] qualifier and there was quite a lot of pressure on them.”
On the way to the match, Corinthian-Casuals, who play in front of hundreds at their home ground King George’s Field in Tolworth, were given a police escort in the Corinthians team coach. Before the game kicked off, the widow of Socrates, a Corinthians legend who played for both sides in a match between the clubs in 1988, handed out headbands – similar to those worn by her late husband.
“We wore them with the Corinthians players and walked out interlinked as a show of unity,” Watney recalled. “Vanderson came in in his wheelchair to thank us all. Then we got briefed about what to do with regards to the national anthems. For us, when you walk out at [our ground] in Tolworth, you just walk out and play a game of football. We walked out and the national anthems began.”
Any pre-match nerves for the Corinthian-Casuals players seemed to contribute to a steely defensive effort. A team that included a painter and decorator, a shop assistant and a policeman held their Brazilian counterparts at 0-0 for 78 minutes.
“It was impossible not to be up for it,” Watney said of the 30,000 fans and the atmosphere. “It definitely brought out the best in all of them, and they all played the game of their lives. Our goalkeeper Danny Bracken, a PE teacher, played phenomenally well. The defence in front of him were fantastic. We did slightly park the bus!”
What I really hope to do is remind the world of our impact and our legacy and try to do more of these sort of things in the future.
Millions tuned in on television to watch the historic game, and they witnessed a special moment for star striker (and builder) Jamie Byatt, who is something of a cult figure in Sao Paulo after an image of him celebrating a goal by revealing the Corinthians Paulista badge on a shirt underneath his Corinthian-Casuals jersey went viral in Brazil.
“When we went over they suggested he play for Corinthians Paulista for five minutes,” Watney said. “He’s basically been around the club since he was a baby. He was blown away by what happened in Brazil. He turned down quite good money to stay at the club this year just to get to Brazil. He got the honour of playing for five minutes for Corinthians Paulista, and he nearly scored!”
The Casuals succumbed to a 3-0 defeat after conceding the first goal 12 minutes from time. The players flew back to reality the day after and won their first home game upon their return 1-0 against Faversham Town in front of 123 supporters.
“Since coming home [the squad have] been desperately asking to go back,” Watney said. “There is an opportunity to do so. The British Consulate really want us to come over again. We’ve done well since coming home. I think definitely there are a lot of blues, wishing they were back. It was a real 15 minutes of fame.”
With work on the documentary well underway, Watney hopes to spread the positive legacy of the original Corinthians; that football can be a positive force, to raise funds for the underprivileged and bring happiness to communities around the world.
“What I really hope to do is, through the film, and hopefully through the tour, remind the world of our impact and our legacy and try to do more of these sort of things in the future,” Watney said. “I hope it’ll be a kick-start to something a bit more frequent and maybe even get Corinthians Paulista to come to England.”
Those ambitious plans remain in the pipeline, and one thing is certain: the original Corinthian spirit of charity, Fair Play and adventure remains alive and well in Brazil, and in Tolworth.