In all his years with Santos, Pele scored more goals against Corinthians than any other club.
The explanation – he took the field, glanced at the mass ranks of opposing supporters and concluded that unless he did something special Corinthians’ fans would win the game for their team.
It is a huge club, often chaotic, usually dramatic, where everything happens on a scale as vast as the sprawling metropolis of Sao Paulo. Having to wait 53 years to win the Copa Libertadores is a typical Corinthians tale.
All its local rivals had managed it first. And now, at last, after the customary doses of sweat and sacrifice, the biggest club from the biggest city in South America has got its hands on the continent’s premier club trophy.
Before the two legged final against Argentina’s Boca Juniors, Corinthians director Luis Paulo Rosenberg talked of a promise he had made some 20 years ago. The night the club finally won the Libertadores he would buy a bottle of the local moonshine, down it on his own and spend the night drunk in the gutter.
I have yet to confirm whether or not he kept his word after Corinthians’ 3-1 aggregate triumph. Even so, there is no shortage of good stories in the club’s long awaited Libertadores triumph.
My last column was about Romarinho, the mystery man who in the first leg of the final in Buenos Aires emerged from the bench to score a vital equaliser with his first touch of the entire campaign – and nearly his only touch, since he was not used in the second leg.
Corinthians had no need to unleash Romarinho in Sao Paulo because striker Emerson won the game and the title for it with two well taken second half goals.
He, too, is a walking story. Emerson is not his real name, for a start. It is part of a false identity that he used at the start of his career in order to knock three years off his age. He played for Brazil at Under-20 level when he was really over 20. He represented the Qatar national team when he was not eligible to do so. He spent much of his career in Japan and the Middle East, and after returning to Brazil has won three consecutive league titles with three different clubs – Flamengo, Fluminense and Corinthians.
Even here there is controversy. Fluminense threw him out with the allegation – which he denies – that he was singing the Flamengo hymn on the team bus. Trouble marks Emerson tighter than the Boca Juniors centre backs were able to.
The little bit of devil in his football is surely connected to the little bit of devil in his personality. So often a player expresses himself through his approach to the game – and part of the extraordinary appeal of football derives from the fact that, as well as all shapes and sizes, the game also has room for a diversity of temperaments.
After Corinthians had won the Libertadores Emerson grabbed the headlines, and rightly so. Those two goals in the second leg of the final made him the club’s top scorer in the campaign, with five.
In the first leg he set up Romarinho’s equaliser with a delightful turn and pass. The key goal in the semi final against previous champion Santos was also his, cutting in from the left and curling his shot into the far top corner. He was sent off later in that game. In the second leg of the final he was caught biting Boca defender Matias Caruzzo – and when it really mattered, he gave Corinthians its cutting edge.
But plenty of players – even this year – have scored five or more goals in the Libertadores. The unprecedented part of Corinthians’ campaign was its defensive record – unbeaten after 14 games, just four goals conceded.
Of course, as is always the case with defending, this is a collective achievement. Corinthians is a team that works hard to get men behind the ball, blocking space and making itself difficult to play through.
But one man can be singled out for special praise, Roma-bound centre back Leandro Castan.
Time and time again, Castan averted danger to his own goal with important blocks, towering headers, well timed tackles or merely shepherding opposing strikers down a blind alley. He is one of those centre backs who goes about his business with such quiet efficiency that it takes time to realise just how good he is.
In this he is the opposite of Emerson, whose unpredictable talent is always likely to make him high profile.
Together, steady Eddie Leandro Castan and explosive Emerson provided the key ingredients in Corinthians’ historic Libertadores triumph. One supplied order, giving a platform for the other’s inspiration. It reminds us of one of football’s fundamental truths – that the glory is both individual and collective. That the art of building a team lies in finding a successful blend of diverse skills and temperaments.
Since winning the Libertadores, that blend has already changed for Corinthians. Peruvian centre forward Paolo Guerrero has been signed from Hamburg. This may not have made anything like the same media impact as Clarence Seedorf joining Botafogo or Diego Forlan swapping Inter Milan for Internacional of Porto Alegre. But in a way it is the most significant of the three. Guerrero is no veteran in search of a tropical adventure to wind down his career. At 28 he is at the height of his considerable powers, and his addition clearly strengthens the Corinthians squad.
Meanwhile, though, Leandro Castan has crossed the Atlantic in the other direction, bound for Italy. His loss poses the question – will the winning blend still be there for Corinthians?
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