Marcos Nunes swigs from his badly concealed bottle of red wine on a chilly street corner in the Japanese city of Nagoya before deciding the question was something between a joke and an insult.
“Why have we come here?” he asks tetchily before offering his bottle, sloppily wrapped in a blue plastic bag. He is wearing a black and white football shirt.Corinthians is like a nation, a religion … people are borrowing money from banks, from relatives to come here. They are quitting their jobs, selling their bikes, their cars, even their fridges. It’s true.”
Sports fans are no strangers to sacrifice in the name of the teams they love and for the fans of Brazilian champions Corinthians no sacrifice is big enough. But forsaking the ability to chill your food is another level entirely.
The current South American champions are in Japan for the FIFA Club World Cup, an annual tournament that brings together all six continental champions, including Chelsea, the English winners of this year’s European Champions League.
But unlike the other teams, who have brought a few thousand at most, 30,000 Corinthians fans had turned up in Nagoya, bathing the city in black and white, to watch their semifinal clash against the African champions Al-Ahly of Egypt.
“It is natural for us to travel to watch Corinthians,” explains Nunes, who unlike his compatriots, has booked his trip as a vacation.
“My boss knows I’m here. But even if he didn’t we’d still be here … If we have to go to Japan OK. If we have to go to Chelsea to play at Stamford Bridge, OK. We’ll be 30,000 there.”
The Club World Cup is little loved by European teams; seen as no more than a mid-season annoyance given the travel involved. But in the rest of the world the tournament is taken very seriously indeed.
An incredible 15,000 fans turned up at the airport just to see the team off. More than 200,000 Brazilians live in Japan and the Japanese government issued record numbers of visas to Brazilians for the tournament, a sign not just of Brazil’s well-known soccer passion, but also its growing global economic and political might.
Brazil will host the next World Cup and the next Olympic Games too. The effect of both can already be felt.
“We were in the second division five years ago,” explains Carlos Eduardo Martins, one of several thousand noisy Corinthians fans singing songs on the Nagoya Metro on the way to the match, much to the puzzlement and amusement of the Japanese commuters. He had taken a 25-hour flight via Istanbul to be here.
“The government has given us a stadium, which opens in 2013. The first game of the World Cup will be played there. They sold a lot of advertising on the shirts, we get money from television network Globo for the TV so Corinthians is rising up.
The prodigal son returns
But equally as important was the return of Brazil’s prodigal son.
In 2009 Ronaldo returned to Brazil and played for Corinthians. Brazil had always been a net exporter of footballing talent. So much so that FIFA had to change its rules on national team eligibility to prevent countries around the world filling their squads with naturalized Brazilians.
But when the big names started returning home — the likes of Robinho, Ronaldinho and Elano — on wages comparable to those in Europe, it sent a message to the rest of the world that Brazil, and Brazilian football, was changing.
“After he [Ronaldo] came, the club rose a lot,” agrees Martins. “Young people started supporting us, even people from other teams. They were supporting Corinthians and Ronaldo. It was a beautiful story for everybody.”
Second time lucky
This isn’t the first time that Corinthians has appeared in the Club World Cup.
They won the inaugural tournament in 2000 as hosts. But this is the first year they have appeared as South American champions after winning the Copa Libertadores for the first time.
The club’s roots can be found thousands of miles away from its native Sao Paulo in a small amateur football club. In 1910 the English club Corinthians traveled to Brazil on a tour to bring football to the masses. The game, and the name, stuck.
“Many teams form Brazil want to win this Cup so it is very important for us,” says Martins. “The team is for the poor people. They are crazy for the team and follow the Corinthians all around the world.”
Sure enough, the Toyota Stadium in Nagoya is covered in the club’s colors. A huge Union flag — a reminder of the club’s British roots, bastardized in black and white — flies behind one of the goals.
The match is like a home game for Corinthians, who win 1-0 thanks to Paulo Guerrero’s goal. However, it’s not the best performance with Al-Ahly dominating the second half.
“We were dominating the game in the first half and this was because of the supporters. We had to respond to them,” Corinthians coach Tite admitted after the match.
“Thanks to the supporters we were able to show our style.”
Corinthians’ 12th man proved to be the difference.
“The Europeans don’t give the Club World Cup much attention. We are the 12th player for the team and go anywhere they go,” said Tony, a native of Sao Paulo, who had only made the relatively short 11-hour trip from London. He didn’t have to sell his own fridge either.
“We will definitely win it, Chelsea will go down,” he said of Sunday’s final, where once again there will thousands of Corinthians fans in the stands.
“We want to win big and win over the champions of Europe.”