To say that the story of Corinthian-Casuals is one of the great untold tales of English football is something of an understatement.
This is a team who (among a staggering list of accolades and achievements) once provided every player in the England side, beat Manchester United by a record 11-3 scoreline, inspired Real Madrid to wear white, and played a huge part in the formation of one of South America’s biggest sides – all while remaining strictly amateur.
Yet just a few hundred people watch the Casuals each week at their stadium in Tolworth, Surrey, and only the most ardent of football supporters are aware of the club’s fascinating history and influence on the beautiful game.
It’s an extraordinary tapestry of events, and Chris Watney is an extraordinary man trying to tell it to the wider world. A filmmaker and former footballer who made over 200 appearances for the Isthmian League side, he has spent the best part of five years attempting to reconnect the club with its history in the most unlikely of ways – by taking the team to play Brazilian giants SC Corinthians Paulista in São Paulo, while making a documentary that chronicles the story.
This is a tale that requires some context and Watney was more than happy to provide it, as he spoke to Football Whispers ahead of the terrestrial TV debut of his film ‘Brothers in Football’.
“In 1894 and 1895 the England team were entirely represented by the Corinthians (one half of Corinthian-Casuals, who merged with the Casuals in 1939) and we were the only club to do that,” he explains.
“But then when professionalism came into football it was decided that amateurs could no longer play the professional teams, which meant we essentially lacked a reason to be and didn’t really have any fixtures anymore.
“So we became a touring team and went about spreading the game all around the world. We became the first ever club to tour outside of England and left Europe to visit South Africa in 1897. Then between 1897 and 1914, we toured everywhere in the world really; we went around Europe, to all of North America, and then in 1910 we went to Brazil.”
The Corinthians had already been instrumental in bringing football to Brazil over a decade earlier – despite never having set foot in South America at the time – after half-Brazilian winger Charles Miller made a guest appearance for the club in the late 1890s.
“After the game, the Corinthians discovered that Miller was going back to Brazil to join his father,” Watney recalls.
“His father ran a railway works in São Paulo, and he went back there with two footballs gifted to him by the Corinthians. It was with those balls that he introduced football to South America and to Brazil.”
The story doesn’t end there though. Miller hadn’t forgotten about his time with the Corinthians and got wind of their visit to Brazil in 1910, inviting them to play São Paulo Athletic Club (commonly known as SPAC) – the team that he had created upon his return to South America.
“The Corinthians went to São Paulo and inspired five railway workers who were watching them playing SPAC,” Watney continues.
“They decided that they wanted to start their own football team and Charles Miller suggested that they name it Corinthians, after the Englishmen who inspired them. So they called it SC Corinthians Paulista, and now over 100 years later they’re the greatest team in Brazil!”
The club had attempted to rekindle their links with Corinthians Paulista in the past, with some degree of success. In 1988 Corinthian-Casuals took on an all-star ‘legends’ team that included iconic national team stars Sócrates (who played for both sides during the match) and Rivellino, before returning in 2001 to play Corinthians Paulista’s Under-21 team.
But Watney – who was a part of the 2001 tour – wanted to go one better, and began arranging a trip to Brazil that would eclipse all those that had come before.
“Until we went back in 2015 I thought the previous visit was unbelievable, it was the most incredible thing I’d ever done,” he said.
“But I did also feel it was a huge missed opportunity, because I could see the fanbase, I could see the potential and what we could do. So I said ‘I’m going to get the first team playing the first team, we’re going to play the opening game at Corinthians’ new stadium, and I’m going to tell the story’. The first teams had never played each other before, and I was adamant that we were going to do something that hadn’t yet been done.
“I’d returned to the club as a player in 2013, but I said that I don’t only want to play, I want to do this too. So I quickly ended up in charge of all the social media, the marketing and the Brazilian connections, to try and make it happen.
“I had a meeting with the senior staff at the club to pitch the idea to them, and they very honestly said ‘Chris, this sounds brilliant, but you’ve got to know that we can’t do a thing to help you.’ They didn’t even have a phone number for Corinthians Paulista, they had nothing!”
It may sound like an impossible task, but Watney was blessed with one stroke of good fortune – a Brazilian brother-in-law who could help try and contact the South American giants in Portuguese.
“We called a number that I had found for Corinthians Paulista and we got through to the marketing team, to the guy who was head of marketing,” he explains.
“So we were like, ‘amazing, we’re in!’ But then every day for six months we basically just got hung up on – they really didn’t want to know! Eventually we got through though, and a new marketing manager was in charge. It turned out that the previous incumbent had been on his way out, and didn’t have any interest in a long term project like this. The new guy – Alexandre – was brilliant, and the whole thing picked up from there.”
Corinthians Paulista were keen to build a business relationship with their English counterparts. They had noticed a number of Brazilian fans at the 2014 World Cup match between England and Uruguay wearing pink and brown Corinthian-Casuals kits, and had identified a potential opportunity.
“They suggested that maybe there was a trade, that there could be a market for Corinthian-Casuals shirts in Brazil. Then a match against them would make sense,” Watney reveals.
“So I said to our chairman, let me start a clothing company to make Corinthian-Casuals shirts, and through selling those shirts we’ll be able to get to Brazil. So that’s what we did. We started a company called Casuals 39 who made in-house kit and merchandise, and we sold it in Brazil. We sold enough to pay for the start of the film production and the beginning of the tour.
“Then we did a deal with Corinthians Paulista where we officially sold Corinthian-Casuals gear on their website, and if you go to their club shop you’ll find that merchandise on sale. When we first went to Brazil to set it up we found all these fakes for sale in São Paulo – it was unbelievable, and it helped us realised that there was a market there. It’s bonkers really, we were thinking ‘hang on, you’d struggle to sell a shirt in Tolworth, let alone 6000 miles away!’
“We ended up having to do a day trip to Rio de Janeiro with our lawyer, to shut down a company who were making these fakes!”
Thinking outside the box was a key part of getting such an unlikely match off the ground, and that sense of innovation continued in the build up to Corinthian-Casuals’ South American odyssey. Generating interest in the tour was vital, so Watney took inspiration from the world of professional wrestling in his search for publicity.
“I used to love WWF wrestling as a kid,” he explains, slightly sheepishly.
“I’ve always just been really enamoured by Vince McMahon (CEO of WWE, formally WWF) and his ability to make a multi-billion pound entertainment industry out of something that’s fake. It’s just marketing, really clever marketing, and I realised that he always had to have a star – whether it was Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin or The Rock.
“He had to have a poster boy, where even people who didn’t know about wrestling knew that name. I thought that we had to have a poster boy too. It’s one thing to know Corinthian-Casuals, but if you know a player then you really feel like you know more about that club.
“So I set about trying to make Jamie Byatt my Hulk Hogan. He was our striker, he had been at the club for about 10 years and he was a bit of a local hero with our small fanbase. We went from having 4000 fans on Facebook to around 150,000 in about six months, and it was completely based around Jamie Byatt being my Hulk Hogan, because I put him on everything!
“We bought him a Corinthians Paulista T-shirt and it took us about three games to get a photo of him celebrating a goal with it. But eventually we got a really good one, posted it on Facebook, and it got picked up by the Brazilian newspapers to become front page news. He became an absolute cult hero over there, and when he went to Brazil it was crazy for him – they were all chanting his name and it was absolutely bonkers, it was just an amazing story.”
The fever surrounding Byatt gives a glimpse into the intensity and pandemonium that met the Corinthian-Casuals team when they finally made it to São Paulo in January 2015. The side took on Corinthians Paulista in front of 30,000 fans at the newly built Arena Corinthians, but in many ways it was the events away from the stadium that left a lasting impression on the team.
“We had a schedule for the week, where the players would wake up at seven in the morning and we had their day until about midnight planned out,” Watney said.
“It was unbelievable what they guys took away from the trip. I was consciously aware that we could do something really positive there, and when the Corinthians went abroad at the start of the 20th century they were the first club to use their celebrity status for charitable good – like raising money for children’s hospitals. I didn’t want to be too ‘cap in hand’ because Corinthians Paulista are a working class club. We may have a leaky boardroom, but we’re from London and we’re comfortable.
“I knew we couldn’t turn up and ‘take, take, take’ so we organised a few charitable things, which were amazing. We went to a hospital, to a children’s cancer ward, and gave out Corinthian-Casuals shirts to the children and their families. It was so emotional.
“The players weren’t really aware of everything we were going to do with them, and they’re just amateur footballers; plumbers, teachers, or whatever – they can’t really do anything to help with a child’s suffering in England. Whereas in Brazil they were able to put smiles on the children’s faces, pose for pictures and just break up their day a bit. We managed to get 500 tickets to the match too, for the children, their parents, the doctors and the nurses, which was fantastic.”
But the most extraordinary moment was yet to come.
“I’d been over to São Paulo the previous September and had visited a football school for street kids in the favelas (Brazilian shantytowns),” Watney continues.
“There was one child lying on a bed watching the game in the club’s pavilion, but he was unable to get out and take part. I asked what had happened, and it turned out that his parents were drug addicts, he’d been run over in the street and the accident had caused a tumour in his back. It was awful stuff, he couldn’t walk, and I felt useless. So I signed a Corinthian-Casuals shirt, gave it to him, and he was delighted.
“We went back to the school when the team went to Brazil, and I asked what had happened to that boy. It’s an amazing story. They said they auctioned off that shirt and it paid for his hospital treatment, and that he was going to come to the match against Corinthians Paulista to say thank you. I was thinking ‘that’s ridiculous, in Tolworth if you auctioned off one of our shirts you might not be able to buy a pack of Nurofen, let alone hospital treatment!’
“On the matchday we were there in the changing room and the kid came in. His leg and his back were in plaster but he was able to take a few steps. He was about 12 years old and he made a speech thanking the team for what they’d done for him. We were all crying and we were all so touched. It was stuff like that which was beyond any of our imaginations, in terms of what a positive force we could be in Brazil. That was the stuff that really will touch me forevermore.”
It wasn’t all serious business though, as Watney went on to explain.
“Corinthians Paulista’s massive ultras fan group is called the Gaviões, and we went to a warehouse where they put on a party for us. It was just chaos! It was like the most mental street party, but in a warehouse and until three in the morning.
“We spoke to some of the ultras that day, and they said ‘we’re all from the Favelas, you’ve got to do something to help us’. So we decided to put on a training session, where fans could come and watch as long as they brought a kilogram of food that could be given to the Favelas. When we turned up there were 6000 fans watching us train at the stadium, and they brought six tonnes of food. We loaded up a truck with things like pasta and rice, which got taken round the favelas to families in need.
“The noise of those 6000 fans… they were all at one end of the ground, and the players went down there to take photos and sign autographs. It was extraordinary.”
If that was a shock to the system, then playing one of South America’s premier sides in front of a six-figure crowd was a career defining moment for a team of lower league amateurs.
Corinthian-Casuals were (perhaps as expected) defeated 3-0 by their professional opposition, but this was an occasion and an experience that transcended any result or scoreline.
“We went out for the warm up – there were 30,000 people there and you could spot Corinthian-Casuals shirts within the crowd. It was unbelievable,” Watney beams.
“They played the national anthems before the game, and you could see our pictures on the big screen and our names coming up on the graphics. You’re just thinking ‘this is ludicrous’! It was our 15 minutes of fame, it was our 15 minutes of everyone wanting our autographs and our pictures.
“After the match we were doing laps of honour for maybe 20 minutes, signing every shirt and having selfies taken. Two national TV stations even televised the game in Brazil. It was amazing, absolutely amazing.”
‘Brothers in Football’ airs on ITV1 on 21 November.