Non-league football is unaccustomed to much support. With the all-encompassing power of the Premier League captivating fans far and wide, and top-level football from all over the globe available at just the click of a button, it is hard for clubs lower down the footballing pyramid to have a reach beyond the town in which they are based. For one outfit, however, it is a different story.
Corinthian Casuals ply their trade in the English eighth tier. Matchdays are like most at this level: their 2000 capacity stadium receives no more than 300 people on average per game, and beyond the immediate local community, there is little interest. That is until you see the small group of Brazilian fans stood on one of the terraces.
The likelihood is that they have come from Sao Paulo, and that they are supporters of Corinthians Paulista, one of Brazil’s biggest clubs. The reason they are here is due to the historical link between the two. In Brazil, at least, Corinthian Casuals may be the most important club in the world. To fully appreciate their importance, it is best to start from the beginning, during the early days of football.
Corinthian Football Club was founded in 1882, 19 years after the birth of the English Football Association. Back then, football was still an amateur sport, and the non-professional status was very much taken to heart by Corinthian FC. Other than the exception made for the Sheriff of London Charity Shield (which they won three times between 1898 and 1904) they played no part in competitive football. This was not because they were unable to compete – they beat 1884 FA Cup winners Blackburn Rovers 8-1, and inflicted an 11-3 defeat on Manchester United in 1904, which remains the latter’s heaviest loss – but rather that they felt professionalism was unsportsmanlike. Founder N. Lane Jackson wanted the club to be a “standard bearer for the amateur game”. When Corinthian players made up the whole England of the England squads that faced Wales in 1894 and 1895 – a feat that has not been repeated since – his dream had become reality.
The club also gave birth to the belief that the game should be played by gentlemen and, as such, with gentlemanly conduct. This has since become known as the Corinthian spirit. For example, whenever they gave away a penalty, they would allow their opponents to score unchallenged. They maintained that it would be unsportsmanlike to attempt to deny a goalscoring opportunity when an error had clearly been made.
One of their players was a man named Charles Miller. Born in Sao Paulo, he was sent to Banister Court school in Southampton as a young boy where he learnt to play football and cricket. Showing promise, he was soon approached by the Corinthians and played for them in 1892. In 1894, he would be on the opposite side, as his Hampshire XI succumbed 6-3. This was to be his last game in the United Kingdom before he returned to Brazil and, so impressed were they by Miller, the Corinthians gave him two footballs to take with him. Once returned, Miller formed a club in his hometown and was also instrumental in the foundation of the Liga Paulista, the first Brazilian football league. To this day, he is known as the “father of Brazilian football”.
Back in England, the professionalisation of football had begun. This was met by staunch resistance from the Corinthians, who continued to believe that sport should remain amateur. Many clubs joined the Football Association and began playing in the fledgeling league system and, as such, the Corinthians found it hard to find opponents. They also pledged their allegiance to the Amateur Football Alliance, which led to them being banned from playing top-level opposition at home. They had no choice but to play on foreign shores.
From 1907 to 1914, the Corinthians played 72 matches abroad. In 1910, they toured Brazil and, thanks to their connections with Charles Miller, they visited Sao Paulo after their first stop in Rio De Janeiro. They first played Associação Atlética das Palmeiras, winning 2-0, before beating Paulistano 5-0 a few days later.
The latter of the two may just be the most important game they would ever play. The Corinthians had captured the imagination of Brazilians fans, with the locals enthralled by their skill and ability. Joaquim Ambrose, Anthony Pereira, Rafael Perrone, Anselmo Correia and Carlos Silva were no different. After watching the Corinthians, the five railway workers were inspired, convinced that they should set up their own side.
After the final game of the tour, which saw another heavy Corinthians win, Ambrose and co. spoke to Miller about their new team. When asked, Miller suggested they should name it after the English side that inspired them. And so, Sporte Club Corinthians Paulista was born.
They are now one of the most successful clubs not only in Brazil but in South America as a whole. They are seven-time Campeonato Brasileiro winners and have also lifted the Copa Libertadores. In 2000 and 2012, they clinched the Club World Cup, beating Vasco and Chelsea in the final respectively. With 30 million fans, they are also the most supported club in the country.
Unfortunately, this is in stark contrast to the fortunes of the original Corinthians. Whilst on their way to Brazil for a second tour in 1914, Great Britain declared war against Germany. The footballers heard the news whilst halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. As patriots and gentlemen, they made the return trip home as soon as they docked, so that they could fight for the cause. During World War I, many lost their lives.
Corinthians continued to play following the end of the conflict, but they were unable to hit the heights of their former glories. The professional game was by now in full swing. At the highest level, the Corinthians had been left behind. In 1939, they merged with another local amateur club and became the Corinthian-Casuals.
Since then, they have played in the lower divisions, all whilst maintaining their 100% amateur status. Even at Isthmian League level, that makes them an exception. They are the only club that does not pay any of their staff, playing or otherwise, and they are the highest ranked club to do so.
This, of course, brings on its own difficulties. With no funding, every year is a struggle to survive. In 2014-15, there were worries it could be their last ever season.
And yet, despite their failing fortunes, the Brazilian fans continued to make the pilgrimage to Tolworth to see them play. For them, the Casuals are their footballing fathers. Without the Corinthians, their own side would not exist. Understandably, as shown in the BT Sport documentary Brothers in Football, visiting King George’s field can be an emotional experience.
Inevitably, those connections filtered through to the players. This led to a very special moment orchestrated by former Corinthian Casuals player Jamie Byatt. Following one of his goals for the club, he revealed a Corinthians Paulista shirt underneath his playing top. The footage was filmed, and thanks to the power of the internet, it went viral in Brazil. They have since garnered an astounding social media following for a non-league side, with over 17,000 Twitter followers and 140,000 Facebook likes.
In 2014, Corinthians moved into their eponymously named new stadium. On fan website www.meutimai.com, a poll asked supporters who they would like to see their club face in a friendly match to commemorate the new stadium. The options were Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, former Champions League winners Chelsea, and Corinthian Casuals. The Casuals won, garnering 61% of the vote. And so, just like their ancestors over 100 years before, they were off to Brazil.
In front of 26,000 fans – considerably more than the usual few hundred – the two Corinthians faced off on 25.01.2015. Surprisingly, it took 78 minutes for the more illustrious Brazilians to break the deadlock. In the end, they would win 3-0, but this match wasn’t really about the football. This was about the celebration of two football clubs bounded by history, about celebrating a friendship founded in sport. When Byatt swapped shirt with counterpart Danilo, becoming the first ever Corinthian Casual to play for Paulista, many were reduced to tears.
The tour as a whole was a huge success for the Tolworth-based outfit. Mobbed by fans as soon as the landed in Sao Paulo, their appearances on national television enabled them to attract several much-needed sponsors. In just 30 minutes after one televised interview, they received 17 offers. This funding has allowed the club to survive.
Since then, the Casuals have continued to play at the same level, even earning promotion to the Isthmian League Premier Division last season, whilst Corinthians Paulista have won two Brazilian Championships and reached a domestic cup final. On the field, they continue to compete in two different stratospheres, with expectations that exist worlds apart. Off the pitch, however, there is a bond that has stood the test the time. The original Corinthians may well be long gone, but their legacy lives on, both at home and on the other side of the world.