Corinthian Football Club: the legendary 19th-century globetrotters

Corinthian Football Club: the legendary 19th-century globetrotters

In the summer of 2018, Corinthians Paulista and Corinthian-Casuals both had reason to celebrate. The former of the two clubs, the Brazilian giants, had two of their stars – Fágner and Cássio – named in their nation’s squad for the impending World Cup in Russia. The latter, the non-league side of London origin, had been promoted to the Bostik Premier League, despite losing their playoff final, in place of Thurrock who sought resignation from the division, in turn elevating them to their highest ever level of league competition.

Evidently, these two clubs exist in completely different realities, but they are inextricably linked by one important common thread: they both exist because of Corinthian Football Club.

The original Corinthian Football Club was formed in 1882, by N. L. ‘Pa’ Jackson, who was at the time the Assistant Honorary Secretary of the Football Association. The purpose of his creating the club was to help England challenge the Scotland national team, who’d revelled in a little too much glory for England’s liking, with a 6-0 loss acting as the final straw. Every Scottish international at the time played for a club named Queen’s Park so, in their infancy, Corinthian were naturally seen as their English counterpart.

Corinthian poached players from the greatest schools, who’d had the best sporting education and nutrition. Corinthian-Casuals club historian and former player Chris Watney compared their early squad to a modern-day club in terms of their stature: “This Corinthians team was physically like a Manchester United team with José Mourinho, where they’re all over six foot two — big, tall, strapping guys compared to their amateur foes.”

Though they were created to defeat the Scots, there were certain founding principles that the club always adhered to: amateurism, fair play, sportsmanship and the “Corinthian Spirit.” Watney described this Corinthian Spirit as the sense of British fair play: “It was playing with respect for the game, the opposition and how a gentleman should play the game of football.” An example of this was routinely found in the team’s refusal to actively score or save penalties as, at the time, they were awarded for an intentional foul in the box, something Corinthians didn’t believe in doing.

The club were soon achieving what they’d been created to do. Within four years of their founding there were nine Corinthians in the English national team and twice the squad was solely comprised of players who represented Corinthian Football Club, in 1894 and 1895. They also made a noteworthy impact domestically, inflicting an 11-3 defeat on Manchester United, in 1904, which remains the Red Devils’ heaviest loss to this day.

Corinthian didn’t play professionally, though, as they were a team of amateurs who believed in performing exhibition football. They toured the world, going to South America, Africa, Europe, Canada and the United States, leaving their indelible mark at each and every destination. As Watney explained: “They left a legacy in a lot of countries. In Sweden they donated a Corinthian Bowl which was the first national competition in Sweden, then in Hungary they did the same, another Corinthian Bowl was left there, and all the amateur teams in Hungary would play for that. They also inspired Real Madrid to wear white.”

Original Series  |  The Pioneers

The destination of their most significant tours were Brazil, the first of which came in 1910. Corinthian had been invited to Rio de Janeiro to face Fluminense. They also journeyed to São Paulo, after being contacted by Charles Miller, as Watney explained, “Charles Miller actually played for Corinthian. He was a young schoolboy in Southampton and Corinthian had gone to Southampton in 1892, to play against a Hampshire XI, and they only had ten men. A school teacher said, ‘why don’t you use this guy called Charles Miller?’ They did and he was the standout player from the left-wing.”

That wasn’t the end of it, as Watney continued: “The Corinthians always remembered that, so when they played him a couple of years later they gave him a present of two footballs, as they’d heard that he was going back to Brazil after his studies, because he was himself half-Brazilian. With those two footballs, gifted to him by Corinthian, it is said he introduced football to Brazil and he’s known as the father of Brazilian football.”

When contacted by Miller, while on their 1910 tour, Corinthian went over to play his side, São Paulo Athletic. Five local railway workers were so impressed by Corinthian during this game that they decided to make a team of their own, with Miller suggesting they named the club after those who had inspired them so much. They did so and Sport Club Corinthians Paulista was born; today they are one of the most successful sides in all of South America.

While Corinthians Paulista grew into a club who would win the Copa Libertadores, Club World Cup and numerous domestic titles, Corinthian Football Club’s decline began just four years later. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Corinthian were on their way to Brazil for another tour but, upon receiving news of the approaching war, they returned to fight for their country. Corinthian players were soon turned from football pioneers to military officers.

Watney, who created the film Brothers in Football, about Corinthian Football Club and their legacy, spoke of the impact this had: “In the trench warfare of the First World War, it was those guys who were entrusted with leading the charge over the front line and into No Man’s Land, and they got massacred. The club lost 107 men in total and we’re actually always discovering there’s more. At the time I did my film, we believed it was 106 and then a partner of mine, Llew Walker, discovered there was one more guy, so we’re always finding out new people. The First World War completely decimated the club.”

But not all footballers were so quick to fight. Many were so slow to react that headmasters of many top schools – where Corinthian regularly recruited their players from – developed their pupils as rugby players, rather than turning them towards football. This, alongside the impact of the war itself, made it almost impossible for Corinthian to retain their elite level.

The club had never competed in a league or cup match before the First World War. They believed that to do so would taint what they were trying to achieve and that the game wasn’t all about winning. However, they joined the FA Cup in 1923 in an attempt to inject a new lease of life into the club. They lost their inaugural tie after a second replay against Brighton & Hove Albion. There were some great ties for them in the cup, though, as Watney recalled: “There was one game against Newcastle which was the second live commentary on radio and there were about 60,000 watching.” Corinthian, despite their best efforts, never made it past the fourth round.

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The club was hit with another big blow in 1936 as their home, the Crystal Palace, which was also the national stadium of the time, was burned down, rendering them homeless. In addition to this, interest in amateur football was waning due to the rise of professionalism and there quickly grew a lack of funds behind the club.

In 1939, shortly before the beginning of World War Two, Corinthian merged with The Casuals, a club they’d been close with, and toured to Jamaica in 1937. Under their new name of Corinthian-Casuals, they decided to join the league system for the first time in their history, entering the Isthmian League. To this day, the club still abide by their founding principles, including amateurism, as they don’t pay a single member of staff.

There is also still a tremendous relationship between Corinthian-Casuals and Corinthians Paulista, as a Corinthian-Casual home game will often see at least one group of Brazilians make the trip to Tolworth. Corinthians Paulista even invited the Casuals to partake in a friendly, in 2015, following the results of a fan poll, with the South Americans also offering to sell their non-league namesakes’ shirts on their official website.

One detail that has since changed is that Corinthian-Casuals no longer wear white, as the colour was officially reserved for friendlies and tours, so the club now wear the pink and brown of The Casuals.

The story of Corinthian Football Club is one that many have now forgotten or, as is the case for far too many, have never heard of. In Watney’s words: “When you actually see the leaking portacabin roof for the board room, or the fact that there are holes through the wall of the changing room because of the cold winter last year, and the cracks on it, and the showers don’t work; it’s a non-league football club, so it’s easy to forget that you’re the team that inspired Real Madrid to wear white.”

Nonetheless, Watney insists that everyone involved with the club should be proud and that their legacy should be remembered: “I think everyone is so obsessed with top-flight football and don’t really take on board that they’re part of the club that are credited with popularising football around the world. I mean, what bigger thing could you be a part of?

“The club have got the record victory over Man United. And the first-ever black player, Andrew Watson, played for us. We’re the only club to have entirely filled the England team and did it twice. Our captain invented the word “soccer.” There’s these amazing bits of legacy, let alone the fact that we inspired Real Madrid and Corinthians Paulista.”

It remains clear to see: few clubs embodied the role of pioneers throughout the game’s nascent years quite like Corinthian Football Club.

By Danny Lewis @DannyLewis_95

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