Special Guest Blogger Tim Vickers, BBC

Former Brazilian great Ronaldo recently acquired a stake in NASL side Fort Lauderdale Strikers.  Why has he chosen to invest in the second tier of US football, rather than back at home?  Surely a more logical choice for his money would have been Sao Paulo giants Corinthians, the club where he ended his career?

The explanation is easy enough. In Brazil his investment would have little legal protection. Clubs are not run on business lines, with owners who are legally responsible. Brazil’s teams are officially non-profit social clubs, where the president is an elected position, voted for by the members.

As they warm up for the new season in the United States, Corinthians are in the midst of this electoral process.  The timing is bizarre. Most Brazilian clubs hold their elections in December, at the end of the season. But in the case of Corinthians, the big day is February 7th – in the middle of the two legs that the team will play against Once Caldas of Colombia in the qualifying round of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League.

It is a clash designed to send a shudder down the spine of the club’s fans. Four years ago, at the hands of Colombian opponents (Tolima), Corinthians suffered traumatic elimination at this stage of the competition. Unusually, they kept faith with coach Tite, and were rewarded for their patience.  Later that year they won the Brazilian league, followed in 2012, at last, by the Libertadores title and the Club World Cup to boot. It promised to be merely the start of a golden age.  

Corinthians were founded in 1910 by a group of factory workers, the growth of the club reflected the explosion of the city around them, as Sao Paulo was transformed from sleepy outpost into the continent’s concrete metropolis. Traditionally, it had been the club of the outsiders, with a working class ethic of sweat and sacrifice. The election of Lula as Brazil’s president 12 years ago changed all that. A factory worker from a trade union background, Lula was a Corinthians fanatic. Suddenly the club seemed to symbolize a new establishment.  Government funds were made available for Corinthians to achieve the decades-old dream of its own stadium, Sao Paulo’s 2014 World Cup venue out to the east of the city in Itaquera.

It was all coming together. Former president Andres Sanchez, still an influential figure, said at the time that in less than five years the financial position of the club would be the best in the world.

In hindsight, though, the quote takes on the air of the ridiculous – the unwise blagging and bluster to which Brazilian football directors are prone. The issue hanging over the current election campaign is that the club now has grave financial difficulties.

The stadium is now a worry. Can the club meet the loans for its construction? Can they make the place profitable?

More worrying to Corinthians though, is Brazil’s economic downturn. The club’s income has suffered a sharp reduction – and, in common with many other clubs in the country, it seems clear that cash was spent too freely while the good times were rolling. Easy in hindsight, but R$40 million spent on Alexandre Pato has been bad business. He was not a success and has been loaned to Sao Paulo, with Corinthians continuing to pay part of his wages.

The club is behind on payments to some of their players, and needed a R$ 2 million loan from an agent, Carlos Leite, to meet their wage bill. While Corinthians negotiate a new contract with star centre forward, Paolo Guerrero of Peru, they have broken off the attempt to sign flying winger Dudu – they cannot afford both. First choice centre back Anderson Martins was on loan from El Jaish in Qatar. He has been hurriedly recalled to the Middle East. “The economic side had an influence,” admitted Corinthians’ director of football, the former Arsenal midfielder Edu Gaspar.

It is an awkward state of affairs for Roberto de Andrade, the presidential candidate who is attempting to succeed his ally Mario Gobbi. Andrade is trying to play down the problems, but he confesses that “we’re in a difficult financial position.” This, of course, could benefit opposition candidate Paulo Garcia, who got 40% of the vote when he stood against Gobbi in 2012. Garcia’s brother Fernando loaned money to the club, and in return was awarded a percentage of the economic rights of some of the most promising youngsters, which could create an uncomfortable situation for Paulo’s chances. This could boost the hopes of Roque Citadini, an influential name from the past who threw his hat into the ring in December, or Ilmar Schiavenato, a former ally of Andrade who has broken away to run his own campaign.

It promises, then, to be a hotly disputed election. Things might be easier for the Andrade campaign if the team have chalked up a convincing victory at home to Once Caldas in the first leg of the Libertadores qualifying round on February 4th. At least here the team would seem to be in good hands – coach Tite has been brought back to work his magic once more.