Football: Hard times for working-class heroes

A tough challenge awaits Brazil's champions.

CORINTHIANS LAUNCH their bid to win the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions' League, for the first time on Friday. But, less than two months after winning the Brazilian Championship, clouds are gathering and it is financial problems that are taking their toll.

Corinthians were Pele's favourite victim; 49 of his goals came against the most popular team from the city of Sao Paulo. "I had nothing against Corinthians," Pele says. "It was just that I had to silence those incredible fans - and do it quickly. I knew that those supporters would win the game for Corinthians."

A tour by the famous English amateur club inspired the creation of Corinthians in 1910. But right from the start there was nothing casual about playing for or supporting the Timdo (Big Team). The club's fans are known as the Fiel (Faithful) and are the most devoted in Brazil. Their values are those of the factory workers who formed the club and needed a whipround to buy the first ball. Stars don't always get an easy ride - Rivelino, one of the great players in the club's history, was hounded out in the mid-Seventies after a barren run.

The Fiel's strongest affection is reserved for the honest trier who loves his shirt with the same passion as the supporters. "Corinthians are a symbol of the people who never make it," wrote a Sao Paulo cardinal. "They are a humble people who suffer all kinds of disappointments and at times feel defeated. But they know they have to get up and start again."

Last year held less suffering than usual. Under the new Brazil coach Vanderley Luxemburgo, Corinthians won the Brazilian Championship with a team who brought some interesting variations to a tactically stagnant league. It was indigenous football but there were some imported touches.

Their defence was built around the impeccable Paraguayan centre-back Gamarra, and in central midfield, where Brazil's clubs have recently fielded two markers, Luxemburgo chose all-rounders. The Colombian Freddy Rincon played some of the best football of his career, and alongside him Vampeta was, in Pele's eyes, the best player in the championship.

Luxemburgo was enchanted with the World Cup performances of Holland, and in particular the versatility of Philip Cocu. So both with Corinthians and with Brazil, Luxemburgo gave a key role to Vampeta, the young midfielder who developed his game alongside Cocu at PSV Eindhoven. Vampeta recently caused a storm in the macho world of Brazilian football by posing nude for a gay magazine. The surprise was that he can make money from his looks - his nickname derives from his unorthodox appearance in his youth, mixing vampire (vam-pira) with the devil (cap-eta). These days he catches the eye with the bite of his tackling and cunning of his passes.

In front of their splendid midfield, Corinthians decided against a traditional strike pairing, instead using one forward largely as a decoy, while the real danger came from behind. Most opponents never found an answer to the problems posed by the gifted Edilson and Marcelinho running from deep.

But as they launch their Libertadores campaign, Corinthians have reason to ponder the fact that other South American teams can be more tactically sophisticated than the Brazilians. They played poorly in the Copa Mercosur, disputed by 20 of the continent's leading clubs. It was a tournament that Luxemburgo was desperate to do well in - he had just been appointed Brazil coach and was anxious to establish his international credentials. But the team's campaign was a disaster, including a home defeat by Olimpia of Paraguay, who they meet again in the Libertadores.

"The foreign teams were good at denying us space. They tied us up and hit us on the break," said Osvaldo de Oliveira, the former assistant who has taken over as club coach, now that Luxemburgo is working only with the national team. They are looking for a penalty area specialist but their efforts have been hindered by the club's financial crisis. Corinthians are pounds 5m in debt and have yet to pay the players all of their bonuses for winning the championship.

There has been some unrest in the dressing-room. Edilson, thought to be owed around pounds 400,000, had to be persuaded to take the field in a recent game. The Fiel were not amused. The players were accused of being mercenaries, and in a series of pitch invasions supporters scattered bank notes. It has not been easy for Oliveira to take his first steps as coach. Calm and studious, he was an excellent No 2 to the hot tempered Luxemburgo. But his lack of name leaves him vulnerable, and the vultures are gathering.

Corinthians used the Rio-Sao Paulo tournament earlier this month as a warm-up. Their main players were still on holiday when the series began, and lacked match sharpness on their return. With no time to train, the team lost their first four games, and Oliveira had to field endless questions about a possible resignation. A draw and a win in the final two games eased the pressure - but only for a while. "I feel like Bill Clinton," said Oliveira on his promotion, "only without the intern."

Nevertheless, only a flying start in the Copa Libertadores will save this likeable man from impeachment.

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