Corinthians low in spirit
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - When British investment firm Media Sports Investments (MSI) moved to buy Corinthians at the end of 2004, the club was in the middle of a typically Brazilian crisis.
Within months of taking over, MSI had paid unheard of sums for a Brazilian football team in signing big name players from Europe and South America. They spent £4.5m to bring Champions League Winner Carlos Alberto back from Porto, £8.5m to sign Javier Mascherno from River Plate and shelled out a South American record fee of £12m to steal Argentine Carlos Tevez from under the noses of top Spanish, Italian and German sides.
Less than a year later, Corinthians were crowned league champions.
Today, those glory days seem a world away. The club has been split apart by infantile pettiness of their directors, the arrogant pettiness of their new manager and the stupid pettiness of their fans.
Corinthians lie third bottom of the league, with just 23 points from 21 games. Their two best players, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, opted to leave the club not for the glamour of Chelsea or Real Madrid, but for West Ham United.
Amazingly enough, it could still get worse for Corinthians. Not only are they in real danger of going down, the turbulence could mark the beginning of the end to MSI's partnership with the club.
No one could blame MSI boss Kia Joorabchian if he cut his losses and headed back to London. The Iranian-born Brit made a valiant effort to professionalise the club and has been vilified for it by sections of the fans, and more importantly, by the faction led by Corinthians' long-standing president Alberto Dualib.
Dualib is a Corintiano through and through and his credentials as a fan are not in doubt. But his behaviour in the pathetic feud with Joorabchian, whom he has undermined at every opportunity, has helped tear the club apart.
Never was that more evident than in the club's recent hiring of Leao as manager. With Joorabchian in London following the death of his father, Dualib hired Leao, the authoritarian former Brazil coach. Leao made it clear during his first few days in the job that his loyalties were with Dualib, not MSI or Joorabchian, comments that only served to inflame the rift between the two factions.
Leao then made matters worse by immediately questioning the Argentine contingent and stripping Tevez of the captaincy. Adding insult to injury, he said the former Boca Juniors star couldn't lead the team because none of the Brazilian players could understand him.
While it is true that Tevez made little attempts to learn Portuguese, his commitment to the club was not in doubt, as 20 goals in 29 league games and the Brazilian Player of the Year award showed. Handled the right way he would have been a vital part of the squad fighting to avoid the drop.
Why Leao would deliberately alienate the club's best player right in the middle of a relegation dogfight only he knows - although many fans at the myriad clubs he has stamped through believe he puts himself before the team.
But then Corinthians' fans are hardly in a position to judge.
What can you say about fans who confuse passion with madness and who not infrequently invade the pitch to berate players for making mistakes or attack them during their off time?
What can you say about fans who one week lauded Tevez as the saviour and then booed him the next simply because he dared answer his critics?
What can you say about fans, 38 percent of whom said in a poll that the best thing about the transfer window was seeing the back of the Argentines?
Thanks to MSI, the club struck Brazilian football's biggest ever sponsorship deal with Samsung, their attendances more than doubled, TV audiences rose by almost a third and the interest they generated helped push up gate receipts in the Paulista State Championship by more than 500 percent in one year.
Questions still surround the deal and the firm and fans deserve to know the names of the mystery backers who are putting money into their club. MSI should come clean and reveal more about their investors and their somewhat murky dealings.
But if MSI leaves Corinthians will be back at square one, accumulating debt, without its own stadium and needing to sell players to survive. There will be no more players of Tevez calibre arriving at the Parque Sao Jorge. As if to elucidate just how poorly Brazilian clubs are run, a report issued this week by Brazilian auditors Casal showed that of the 17 First Division clubs studied, only one made a profit without selling players.
Moreover, the failure of the MSI-Corinthians dealt would mark the third such time in a decade that a major investment firm has put money into Corinthians and walked away before the deal was due to end. Surely no one else would risk offering Corinthians money any time in the forseeable future.
None of this matters any more to Tevez and Mascherano. But it should matter to Corinthians. The fans, the directors and MSI should get together and work things out for the good of the club. Before it is too late. If it's not too late already…