Soccer Club Mirrors Brazilians’ Rising Fortunes

This city’s Itaquera working-class district reflects Brazil’s rise as an emerging economic power: New cars roam the streets, shoppers pack into malls, and construction cranes are ubiquitous.

But the pride of Itaquera is a giant soccer stadium under construction that will become the first home in more than a decade for Corinthians Paulista, a soccer club known for its modest roots. In a few short years, the team has gone from rags to riches, a symbol of the growing clout of Brazil’s long-neglected lower to middle classes, the millions of Brazilians who are reshaping the country with newfound purchasing power.

Five years ago, the now 102-year-old club was broke and relegated to the second division of the Brazilian league. Having outgrown its old home in 1999, the club would rent other stadiums for home games. Fans from rival clubs would taunt Corinthians fans, saying they, like their homeless team, probably lived under a bridge.

Today, Corinthians has 35 million fans, Nike Inc. as a sponsor and is Brazil’s wealthiest soccer club, worth about $500 million—among the world’s top 10 most valuable soccer teams, according to New York-based consulting firm BDO.

In January, the Corinthians became the first Brazilian club to hire a young star player back to the country from the European leagues, signing Brazilian AC Milan striker Alexandre Rodrigues da Silva, known as Alexandre Pato, for almost $20 million. Brazil has long exported some of the world’s best soccer talent to top leagues in Europe.

The signing came a month after another milestone for the club: Beating England’s Chelsea to win the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan, as tens of thousands of Brazilians cheered them from the stands.

At the game’s end, Corinthians Coach Adenor Leonardo Bacchi stood in the field with a banner over his head reading, “The Favela is Here!” in reference to Brazil’s slums.

Club officials say they overhauled the team’s business strategy to ride the growing spending power of its fan base, opening 110 stores selling official merchandise from baby pacifiers to lingerie bearing the club’s logo, and issuing a new jersey each year. They also created a loyalty program to help sell out game tickets.

That massive infusion of cash from die-hard fans has helped the team buy better players and fund its new stadium, which is subsidized by the local government because it will be used as a World Cup venue in 2014.

But there is a clear macroeconomic link as well. Between 1999 and 2009, more than 30 million people entered the middle class in Brazil, defined by officials as making $507 to $2,030 a month in household income.

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