April 9, 2015 - Soccer is a game full of clichés and one of the oldest is that "your club chooses you; you do not choose it".* This process typically occurs in one's home country or through familial connections, including associations from "the old country" like a grandparent from Liverpool or simply an entire family supporting the same team.
In North America, we all have a European club (likely from an English-speaking country) and a local club we try to see from time to time even if we know the quality is not the same. It's our soccer. We might pick up a random jersey on holiday and half pay attention but let's be honest: the human heart only has so much room for fanatical behavior. This is what makes for such a ridiculous story, the one that happened to me in Brazil in 1999 and will haunt me, (mostly with pleasure) for life. This is the story of Fiel, my lifelong commitment to Corinthians.
Let's first paint a picture: I arrived in Brazil on the day of the Copa America final in 1999 on an overnight flight from New York. Although I would be spending 5-6 months on exchange in Sao Paulo, the first order of business for my hosts (cousins of a family my mother barely knew who, in the very Brazilian way, agreed to take me in until I found a place to live) was to shuffle me off to their beach house for two weeks. Can you imagine being picked up by people you've never met, who put you on a bus to a place you have never been, to be picked up by more people you've never met? Did I mention I didn't speak much Portuguese yet? It didn't matter! Within hours of arrival, I was juxtaposed into a very typical Brazilian Sunday scene: a house full of people celebrating the big game and on this glorious occasion, the seleção (Brazilian national team) were facing off against Uruguay in a final. And not just any seleção: this team featured Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo, Cafu and a young Ronaldo before knee problems, a group of artists that flourished in world football and far from anything seen in 2014. But for me, a young goalkeeper with hopes of playing professional still, I only wanted to know about one person: Dida, Brazil's keeper. A 3-0 win and the celebrations with perfect strangers after a sleepless night, made for the perfect manic orientation with my new home and that single, random connection that would stay with me.
(The brilliant and sometimes tragic Brazilian national team of the late 90s)
Oddly enough, nearly every person I met during my time getting to know Brazil and the language tried to convince me to support Sao Paulo FC. My host family were all São-paulinos, as well as socios or club members that pay to use the facilities and get a special type of ticket. But Dida's performance seemed to have already persuaded me to ask, "Where does he play?" His story was also quite interesting because the way it was explained to me, he was the first black goalkeeper Brazil had since the notorious 1950 final, when a man called Barbosa was famously blamed for letting Uruguay score a cheap goal. In context, Brazil is still in its adolescence when it comes to race relations so this guy was something really special! (Social class would come up often when selecting a club but we'll come back to that.)
So time went by and I continually tried to reject my early feelings for Corinthians, giving every club a chance. I watched everything to give it a fair shot, although the green of Palmeiras really turned me off and I "wasn't Italian enough" to support them. (They were also playing my childhood, "old country" team, Manchester United, in the Club World Cup Final so that didn't match.) Dida was doing his thing, as were players like Marcelinho, who danced around any opponent in those oversized 90s soccer jerseys. The soccer wasn't necessarily that special and especially when rivals played each other, it was just a series of forays into the attacking third with almost no midfield possession, especially given the nastiness of every tackle. That could be one explanation for why it took months for the real deciding factor: attending a match.
This is where supporting any soccer team gets complex. Like many growing up in North America, could I really call myself a Man United supporter before I actually attended a game for the first time in 2001? What did it mean when after moving to England, I felt a much stronger connection to Fulham than I did to Old Trafford? Even now, as a full-time coach and an avid MLS stadium visitor, I find the connections we make as supporters incredibly more thorough when physical presence is involved. Hard core supporters won't even talk to if you haven't been to a game!
So imagine the scene when in late November, my USP (University of São Paulo) friends (again, mainly upper middle class kids who supported Sao Paulo) brought me along to the Morumbi, the home of SPFC. (Both games of the two-leg semi-final had to be played there because Corinthians' state-owned facility, the Pacaembu, was in need of major restoration.) My friends pleaded with me for months up to this game: How can you support those thugs? You know their supporters are dangerous, right? You are not from the favela: you can't support Corinthians! (Social class seems to have some influence on the type of fans each club has and Corinthians had a reputation that was less than savory with my wealthy friends. To some extent, it still does.) It was all in vain. But their biggest mistake was NOT making me sit with them in the middle of all the Sao Paulo fans, giving me perfect view of how amazingly organized and passionate the bando de loucos (Corinthians supporters, a "band of crazies") were on the other side of the stadium. Their mistake was not knowing that São Dida was about to earn his sainthood.
I watched in gleeful terror as late in the game, Sao Paulo earned not one, but two penalties. Their talisman, Rai, (having returned for a few seasons after a stint with PSG in France) would obviously take both of them. Dida, in his nonchalant, straight-legged, "I don't give a ****" stance, stood their stoically staring at him. (I still use that technique for stopping penalties to this day; lulling people into complacency and a false comfort zone.) Penalty one: dives to his left and saves. Penalty two: dives to his right and saves, suffering the frustration of Rai's studs in his knees on the follow-up. Don't take my word for how incredible it was. Watch it here:
(Dida denies Sao Paulo idol Rai)
It was over for me. I had consecrated a relationship (or borderline obsession) that has carried forward over 15 years now. Even the second game, an epic battle of two goalkeepers playing near their peak (and a birds eye view of Rogerio Ceni's awesome header clearance), had no influence on my life with Corinthians. I celebrated quietly amongst my Sao Paulo loving friends (for safety reasons), uttering nothing more than a "oooooooooooh" in jest after each goal in Timao's 2-1 win. See for yourself here.
(Note: the Brazilian league was decided at the time with a first phase involving all teams, followed by the top finishers in quarter, semi and final games. Corinthians went on to win against Atletico Mineiro after my departure, their second title in two years.)
The most interesting part about this love affair is that it sticks with me despite limited access. Before GolTV came to Canada, you had to be lucky enough to live in the provinces where Globo Internacional was available, usually just Ontario. Internet coverage is dicey at best and depending on the competition, I can't even watch certain highlight videos in Canada due to somebody's ownership of the rights. (When I find out who owns Libertadores rights, I'll work on it! Until then, no games and no highlights for arguably the second best champions league in the world.) But nonetheless, I spend every morning perusing the sports pages of Brazil and am no stranger to taking an 11,000km flight for the opening game of the season, under the guise of "recruiting" of course. It's why I spent over $20 calling a Corinthiano in Europe after we won the Libertadores in 2012 and woke up without hesitation at three in the morning to watch them win the Club World Cup Final later that year. I can't explain why the connection is so much stronger than Fulham, Man United, Real Madrid or any other team I've seen live. I'd imagine it's the emotion of this special group, a love that brings more than 30 million supporters together from all social classes. At my final game at the Pacaembu in 2013 (Corinthians moved to their new Arena Corinthians after the 2014 World Cup), I hugged a perfect stranger of "questionable character" after a goal but this is not uncommon for Corinthianos. It's just in our nature to be forever Fiel (loyal or faithful without question) and despite working in the game of soccer, I find it difficult to act like a professional when I'm with my Corinthians family. To be frank, I hope that never changes. Obrigado São Dida.
*Football Clichés is a popular website turned book by Adam Hurrey, a hilarious read for anyone new to watching soccer in English.