World champions in 2012, Corinthians have failed to build on success and face years of austerity
This is the final post in a four-part series previewing the 2015 Brazilian football season. The first in the series, covering Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here; the second, looking forward to a promising year for Palmeiras, can be found here and the third, detailing Santos’ financial crisis, can be found here..
In December 2012, Corinthians defeated European champions Chelsea by one goal to nil to win the Club World Cup in Yokohama, Japan. The triumph was the crowning achievement of a marvellous year for São Paulo’s largest club, who had become South American champions for the first time after beating Boca Juniors in an ultra-tense Copa Libertadores final in July. However, becoming champions of the world was just phase one of the Corinthians master plan.
Weeks after Corinthians’ win in Japan, British professional services firm Deloitte released their annual Football Money League report. Corinthians’ revenue of €94.1m saw them reach 31st place, an all-time high for South American clubs. With their brand-new stadium close to completion, the plan was to consolidate their position as the biggest club on the continent and break into the world’s top 20.
The following year, the project appeared to be well on track, with the club jumping seven places in the ranking and becoming the 24th richest club in world football, ahead of the likes of Benfica, Newcastle United and Ajax.
A lot can change in the space of 12 months, however, and with the bursting of Brazilian football’s financial bubble accompanied by underwhelming on-pitch performances, the name Corinthians is nowhere to be seen in this year’s Money League study. As it turned out, the second phase of the Corinthians master plan was far tougher to execute than the first.
In early 2013, in an attempt to flex their financial muscles and show the world what they were capable of, Corinthians prepared a sizable investment to sign AC Milan forward Alexandre Pato. Outbidding clubs in Europe, Corinthians repatriated the 22-year-old, with the €15m transfer fee still standing as the highest paid by any Brazilian club.
Although the club seemed to solve Pato’s chronic injury problems that hampered his career at Milan, his on-pitch performances were not nearly as impressive as Corinthians had hoped. He made 57 appearances for the club in 2013, scoring 17 goals, five of those coming in state championship matches. Despite showing some flashes of quality, Pato was regularly criticised by the Corinthians fans for a perceived lack of effort and commitment to the club’s success. Their patience with the forward completely expired after he missed a crucial penalty in a cup shootout against Grêmio, having attempted a Panenka that went harmlessly into the arms of opposing goalkeeper Dida.
In February 2014, one year after his record-breaking transfer, Pato was loaned to rivals São Paulo, in a deal that sees Corinthians pay 50% of his R$ 800k monthly salary.
Besides the disastrous Pato investment, Corinthians had many other reasons to lament their fortunes in 2013. Their march towards retaining the Copa Libertadores title veered off course in their first group match, an away trip to Bolivia to play San José, a game that ended in tragedy. Only five minutes into the first half, one of the home supporters, 14-year-old Kevin Beltrán, was struck in the eye and fatally wounded by a flare released by a member of Corinthians’ travelling support.
Corinthians coach Tite, a father of two, was visibly shaken by the events, putting the situation into perspective by affirming he would exchange the world championship they had won the year before for Kevin’s life.
Although the punishment handed to the club was remarkably lenient (they were forced to play their three home group matches behind closed doors, a decision later overturned after appeal), the incident did appear to have an effect on the squad. They advanced from their group, but faced Boca Juniors in the round of 16 and were eliminated.
They were equally disappointing in the national championship, quickly becoming known for their uninspiring football and results that read like lines of binary code. The consensus was that the team had gone stale: they had played the same system without variation for a long period of time and became starved of creativity.
Corinthians finished the 2013 season in 10th place, missing out on qualification for the Copa Libertadores. The club chose not to extend Tite’s contract as head coach, and the man who led them to South American and World titles left at the end of the season, tipped for the Brazilian national team job after the 2014 World Cup.
His replacement was an old acquaintance of the Corinthians faithful having managed the club between 2008 and 2010: former Brazil boss Mano Menezes. Born in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, Menezes belongs to the escola gaúcha of Brazilian coaches (as does Tite), giving priority to defensive solidity and physicality over flair and creativity.
Menezes did not do a terrible job, largely reproducing Tite’s tactical system with some new faces in the squad, but fans demanded more from the team, unhappy with their ultra-conservative approach in away matches. Corinthians finished 4th in the Brazilian championship, qualifying them for this year’s Copa Libertadores. Despite the reasonable return in his first season back, revolt from radical factions of the club’s supporters and behind-the-scenes power plays led to the sacking of Mano Menezes. Tite, still a free agent since his dismissal the year before, was subsequently brought back to lead the team in 2015.
Corinthians did have some embarrassing results in 2014, but they primarily came off the field. In 2013, even with the disastrous investment in Alexandre Pato and poor performances on the pitch, the club managed to close the year with a slim profit of R$ 1m. In contrast, though balance sheets have yet to be released for 2014, Corinthians are expected to announce a loss of around R$ 90m for the year.
The deficit is largely due to the club’s new stadium, which opened in the middle of last year. The Arena Corinthians, despite being the pride and joy of the fans, has left the club with debt of around R$ 750m (£190m). Money from gate receipts (usually a significant source of income for the club) is all going towards repaying the stadium debt. Corinthians have yet to negotiate a naming rights contract for the stadium, which will be discounted from the R$ 750m, but their short-term future remains bleak. Their wage bill has increased 40% in relation to last season and the club is already behind on image rights payments to players and departed coach Mano Menezes.
Their transfer budget for this year has been set at a modest R$ 10m (£2.5m), with that figure relying at least R$ 38m of income from selling players. To put this into perspective, Peruvian forward Paolo Guerrero, arguably the club’s most important player and whose contract expires in June, is currently demanding a signing-on fee of R$ 18m to renew his deal at the club, almost double the budget Corinthians have set out for the entire year.
Not only is Guerrero the club’s principal goal threat, he is also the central figure in Tite’s vision for Corinthians in 2015. Though they seem unable to afford him, losing such a quality player could be disastrous to their chances on the pitch.
After being scandalously overlooked for the national team job after the embarrassment of the 2014 World Cup, Tite spent his period of unemployment travelling, studying the game and speaking with peers. The biggest influence on his current coaching philosophy comes from the time he spent in Spain, visiting Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti.
Wanting to learn more about the 4-1-4-1 system employed at the Bernabéu, Tite went along to matches and training sessions, trying to gather as much information as he could to implement the same style in his next job. The principal virtue of Ancelotti’s Real Madrid team, superbly examined by Michael Cox, is their ability to successfully marry the two most effective philosophies in modern football: possession and counterattacking. It is this mixture that Tite wants to bring to Corinthians.
In the words of Michael Cox, Real Madrid’s attacking unit consists of “three midfield playmakers, two brilliant counterattackers and a hard-working, selfless number nine”. The midfield trio allow the team to establish control of possession, while their wide attackers exploit any space left by their opponents on transitions.
Such a complete attacking force would be too difficult to recreate in Brazilian domestic football, but with some alterations to the standard 2-2 block midfield setup in Brazil, Tite has brought his side somewhat closer to the Real Madrid model. Renato Augusto, for example, usually regarded as an out-and-out attacking midfielder, has been brought back into central midfield, along with Elias and Ralf. For their wide attackers, Tite has proposed playing a playmaker on the right (one of Nicolás Lodeiro, Danilo or Jadson) with a deep option on the left (Emerson, Malcom or Mendoza). Paolo Guerrero leads the line, getting on the end of any service coming his way, while also helping to create space for forward runs from midfield.
It will be interesting to see whether they can achieve the balance between possession and counterattack, pre-season performances indicate that it will be difficult. Against Bayer Leverkusen, Corinthians surrendered possession to their German opponents, mainly threatening from set-pieces, and in last week’s friendly against English non-league outfit Corinthian Casuals, they had the ball but lacked the guile and incisiveness to get behind a part-time defence.
Either way, instant success is unlikely. Though he has some of his old squad, Tite is a coach that requires time to make a team his own. The question is, will he be allowed that time? Since 2012, Corinthians is a completely different organisation, with loftier expectations and even less patience. Tite, partly responsible for the world and continental honours, was not given the chance to rebuild the team in 2013. Mano Menezes, with a proud history in his first spell as coach, was not even allowed to settle at the club before he was sacked. With what are sure to be some tricky and austere years ahead for Corinthians, Tite has to be prepared for much unjust criticism if results do not come along right away.