Tim Vickery Column: How Corinthians' stadium change may challenge their identity clash with São Paulo

It was fitting that the final league game to take place at Pacaembu before the formal hand over was against Flamengo - Action Images
A football club is not primarily defined by the titles it has won, or even the great players who have worn its colours.

More important than that is the question of identity – the people (and the ideas) that are being represented.  This happens in a very territorial context – the congregation of the faithful in a determined space.  So when a team moves stadium, the consequence must inevitably include a slight change of identity.

A clear example is that of Arsenal in London.  The club of Arsene Wenger is emphatically not the one I recall from 20 years ago, when I still lived in the city.  Then, Arsenal stood for dull solidity and gritty reliability.  The fans went to the stadium singing the names of the full backs and celebrating 1-0 wins.

Where once they seemed quite provincial, now the club are a glamorous cosmopolitan outfit with aspirations of style, a representative of the world city that surrounds them.  As ticket prices have risen, so the fan base has become more upmarket.  And much of this change of identity has been given an extra push by the move to a new stadium; the impressive, historical but somewhat pokey Highbury giving way to the airier, more open and modern setting of the Emirates.  In geographical terms, though, they have hardly moved far – just a short hop from Highbury to Ashburton Grove.

What, then, might be the consequences of the move of Sao Paulo giants Corinthians from Pacaembu to their new arena in Itaquera?  The move from the centre to the east of the city will surely have some effect on the identity of the club.  Some fans might not follow the team across town.  Others, from the area surrounding the new stadium, will surely be attracted.

Perhaps it was fitting that the final league game to take place at Pacaembu before the formal hand over was against Flamengo, the mass team of Rio visiting its Sao Paulo counterpart – although the difference is that Corinthians, founded by factory workers, were born with the popular touch, whereas Flamengo cunningly bolted it on to their identity in the 1930s.

But both indicate the comparatively small part that city geography plays in Brazilian club identities – certainly when compared with London.  Arsenal and Tottenham are, above all, North London teams – hence the controversy when Arsenal crossed the river and ‘invaded’ Tottenham’s territory just over a century ago.  West Ham are defiantly East London.  Crystal Palace are South, and so on.

In Brazil big club identities have usually been based more on class lines, or on those of immigrant backgrounds (Palmeiras of the Italian community, Portuguesa of the Portuguese).  This is even stronger in Rio than in Sao Paulo, because in the former capital the big clubs have all used the Maracana stadium – though Vasco da Gama have retained some of their North Zone identity by having their own Sao Januario stadium.

In Sao Paulo the big municipal stadium is Pacaembu.  Other clubs have used it – Santos play there with some frequency when they want to bring a game into the state capital.  But the stadium is most identified with Corinthians.  For decades the ‘big team’ had dreams of building their own ground.  Projects were unveiled and quickly forgotten.  It hardly seemed to matter.  Pacaembu was an appropriate home – close to the centre of the city, easily accessible, it re-enforced the idea of Corinthians as being the foremost representative of the city, with a following from all social classes and immigrant groups that make up the sprawling metropolis of Sao Paulo.

Might this change with the move out east?  The dynamic of history has already brought about something of a change on the identity of one of Corinthians’ big local rivals, Sao Paulo FC.  They have always been associated with the city’s elite, the movers and shakers in a busy, practical, business capital.  Typical of the club’s cool rationality and long term planning was the decision to construct their own stadium, in the Morumbi district, inaugurated in 1960 and completed a decade later.

In keeping with the club’s historical identity, Morumbi is one of the plushest neighbourhoods in the city.  But over recent years, especially with the success of the wonderful early 90s side, the profile of Sao Paulo fans has changed.  Along with the old elite, they also have a huge following in the poor neighbourhoods on the periphery of the city.  And with Morumbi situated to the west of the city, and Corinthians’ new home way out east in Itaquera,  might that mean that the future fault line and identity clash of these two giant clubs will have much more to do with geography than anything else?  One thing is certain; there will be changes.

 

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