For many fans of football from Europe, the Club World Cup is an afterthought. It’s a frustrating hindrance in the middle of the season which no one cares about. For fans of sides in South America, it’s a completely different story. The Club World Cup is their only opportunity to test themselves against a continent that continually sucks away all of its top talents before they can reach their full potential. Therefore, it’s very hard for any side from South America to ever win the title of ‘champions of the world’. 

Since the tournament’s inception in 2000, only four sides outside of Europe have ever won the trophy. One of the sides is Corinthians from São Paulo, Brazil. Here’s how they shocked the world in 2012 to pick up their second title.

In order to qualify for the Club World Cup, teams from South America must win the Copa Libertadores, a long and unforgiving tournament which is hard to win. High altitudes and massive travel distances come into play alongside a gruelling domestic season and state championships for Brazillian sides. If a Brazilian side is lucky enough to make it to the Club World Cup final, they’re looking at playing upwards of 60 games in their season. 

Corinthians had a strong team though for the 2012 edition of the Libertadores. After being relegated for the first time in the club’s history in 2007, Corinthians had been rebuilt. Current Brazil manager, Tite had taken the reigns in 2010 for the second time and had turned the club around into champions of Brazil. Corinthians clinched the Brazilian title in 2011 for the first time in six years but the Libertadores was something that had always evaded them. 

Despite being one of Brazil’s largest clubs in one of South America’s biggest cities, Corinthians had never won South America’s showpiece. A cruel semi-final exit in 2000 to crosstown rivals Palmeiras was the furthest Timão had ever reached in the tournament. Corinthians had been haunted by the fact that all of their rivals had managed to win the Libertadores except them. Palmeiras, Santos and São Paulo all managed to lift the trophy, But Corinthians? Nothing. Nada. 

But 2012 would be different. Early worries in the group stages after a last-minute goal against Venezuela’s Deportivo Táchira was needed to snatch a draw were soon dashed as Corinthians finished top of their group, unbeaten, with only two goals conceded. 

Tite had gone for a defensive approach to getting results, laying out his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Cássio sat in between the sticks. Fabio Santos and Alessandro played as the full-backs with Leandro Castán and Chicão in between them. Ralf played just in front as an anchorman with the slightly more attacking Paulinho in a double pivot. Danilo, Alex and Jorge Henrique played as the three ahead as attacking midfielders with Emerson (who ended up declaring for the Qatar national team after spending two years with Al-Sadd) as the lone striker.                                  

Corinthians’ strong work ethic that they used to grind and sweat results out in an organised shape matched the attitude of the people from the large working-class communities in São Paulo that used football as an escapism from a hard, working life. 

Timão’s opponents in the Round of 16 would be Emelec of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Emelec had managed to make it out of a tough group, finishing ahead of Flamengo of Brazil and Olympia of Paraguay. An Olympic gold medalist with Argentina and journeyman, Luciano Figueroa had been at the forefront of a team that were throwing up a few surprises. Corinthians’ pass into the quarter-final was not a foregone conclusion. 

The first leg was to be played at Emelec’s Estadio George Capwell – named after its American founder who started the club after going to Ecuador to supervise his electric company in 1945.

Corinthians found it hard to switch on and succumbed to a disappointing 0-0 draw after they were frustrated by Emelec. Although Corinthians had a strong defence, goals were not easy to come by. Emerson was playing on his own but he wasn’t a recognised striker. There wasn’t one and that was a problem. Liedson who would’ve been playing in that role was out with an injury and so Corinthians struggled for goals.

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A 0-0 draw was still a good result in the grand scheme of things 3,700 miles from Sao Paulo, Corinthians just had to make sure they won at home at the Pacaembú Stadium to see themselves through.

A good start was needed and that is exactly what Corinthians got mixed in with some good fortune. A mix up inside the Emelec box on six minutes gave Fabio Santos a tap in to make it one-nil to Corinthians. 

Halfway through the second half, the tie was settled after Paulinho headed in a free-kick from Chicão to make it two. There was no coming back from Emelec and Alex added a third five minutes from time, to seal the win. 

It would be fellow Brazilians Vasco da Gama of Rio de Janeiro, that would stand in the way between Corinthians and the semi-finals.

Vasco were the side that Corinthians fought off to pick up the Brasileirão title in 2011, finishing only two points above Gigante da Colina in a tightly fought contest throughout the season. Corinthians were slight favourites going into the tie after Vasco’s key centre-back, Dede was ruled out with an injury. It would be a tight affair either way as the only way Vasco could stop Corinthians was to sit back as Ralf and Paulinho would overrun whoever Vasco put in midfield due to the sheer and vigorous nature of the double pivot. 

The first game of the tie at Vasco’s Estádio São Januário in Rio was very similar to Corinthians’ first match in Ecuador. It was a 0-0 stalemate. Dede’s absence proved that Vasco could still keep a clean sheet without him and for Corinthians, it was the ideal result to take back to the Pacaembú. As long as they followed the same plan as they did against Emelec, they would be through. 

Tite stuck to his conservative plan but the game was different from the first leg, Vasco were on top and there were big chances for both sides. Two big chances in the second half were squandered by Vasco. Diego Souza managed to drag wide a shot, one on one with Cássio and then Nílton hit the bar with a free header from a corner. 

Corinthians fought back and 13 minutes from time, Emerson scuffed a shot from inside the box onto the post.  

Then three minutes from time, Corinthians had teed themselves up with a big chance to win the game from a corner. Alex swung in the ball and found an unmarked Paulinho just outside the six-yard box. Paulinho threw himself at the ball and found the bottom right-hand corner of the goal. There was no way back for Vasco. Corinthians frustrated them for the last few minutes of the game and edged themselves into the semi-final after holding their nerve over the two-legs.

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Fierce inner-city rivals Santos would be the only team now that could stop Timão from reaching their first Libertadores final. This would be Corinthians’ toughest challenge yet. Young winger Neymar had been causing headaches all season for defenders across South America. Although there was some other talent in the Santos side such as Ganso and Elano, Neymar was their attack. If Corinthians could stop him like Vélez Sarsfield did in the previous round by not letting him have any space on the ball, they’d be alright. 

Once again like all of their other ties, Corinthians would be playing the first leg away again at Santos’ Urbano Caldeira, Altitude and travel distance were not an excuse anymore, Corinthians couldn’t afford to rely on a 0-0 draw to see themselves into the second leg. Santos’ quality would punish them for it. 

Corinthians started the night as the stronger side and were rewarded with the pressure they applied in front of the intimidating Santos Torcidas Jovem ultras. Paulinho carried the ball forward after receiving it from Alex just inside the Santos half. Paulinho sprayed the ball out to  Emerson just inside the corner of the box. Emerson took one touch with his right to set the angle for the shot and curled the ball into the top corner, 0-1 Corinthians. 

Corinthians now had a stronghold on the game and as long as they could stop Neymar, they’d take a vital away goal to the Pacaembú. Neymar was double marked by Ralf and Paulinho out of the game and now the emphasis was all on keeping the score 0-1. Santos threw everything at the game but it was to no avail. Cássio was managing to keep out everything that was being thrown at him. 

Santos had two massive chances to equalise in the last 15 minutes. The first was a low cross fired in from Alan Kardec towards Neymar, who was centimetres away from reaching the ball but agonisingly couldn’t stretch out far enough to tap it into the empty net. The second was a corner that fell to centre-back Juan, on the half volley who’s attempt was kept out by Cássio reaching across all of his goal to keep the shot out at full stretch. 

For all of Santos’ firepower that they had going forward, they couldn’t get past the strong defence that Tite had assembled that had only conceded two goals throughout the whole tournament. The second leg at the Pacaembú would prove as to whether Corinthians could manage Neymar et al for another 90 minutes. So far they had managed to achieve another clean sheet and had set themselves up in a good position with a one-goal lead to reach their first-ever final at the expense of their rivals that loved to rub into their faces at every opportunity. 

However, things didn’t go to plan. Thirty-five minutes in, Neymar gave Santos the lead to silence the loud Fiel, Corinthians faithful. If Corinthians couldn’t find a goal, which could’ve been quite likely considering they still weren’t playing with an out and out striker, extra time would be needed to separate the two sides. 

Corinthians weren’t going to have their Sueño Libertador ruined by Santos. It couldn’t happen. They weren’t going to and made it 1-1 three minutes into the second half through Danilo. Alex found him with a free kick on the edge of the Santos box and Danilo finessed the ball in after being found in acres of space inside the unmarked six-yard box. 

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For just under an hour Corinthians had to do what they did best, defend. Once again, Santos threw everything at Corinthians knowing a goal would see them through. And once again, Corinthians survived the avalanche. Another resolute and compact performance was enough to send Timão into their first-ever Libertadores final. 

Corinthians’ opponents in the final would be another heavyweight of South American football, Boca Juniors from Buenos Aires. Boca were going for their seventh Libertadores alongside a 30th league title. 

Boca played a similar defensive style of football to Corinthians, conceding only seven goals up to this stage in the Libertadores. Led in midfield by 34-year-old Juan Roman Riquelme, Boca were hoping Corinthians would slip up at their intimidating La Bombonera ground in the first leg and succumb to the myth of teams being beaten by the atmosphere there. 

Both teams would have to change their style of play. Corinthians couldn’t sit back and be compact as Boca also played the same way. One of these sides would have to eventually give into the other in this two-legged, continental game of chess.