There is a club in the eighth tier of English football, playing in front of a few hundred supporters each week, who claim to possess the highest social media following of any amateur sports team in the world.
That may or may not be true.
But, then again, Corinthian FC are a very special team with a very special story.
Most of it was created long before the television age, let alone the digital and social era.
Their modern day shirts may be a gaudy clash of pink and brown but their story plays out in grainy black and white.
Yet they are re-telling it to another generation via digital.
Right now, Corinthian Casuals have 147,000 followers on Facebook, enough for a middle ranking team in The Championship. An incredible statistic.
And, more incredible still, 142,000 of those are in Brazil.
We need to go back to the 19th century to explain why.
Corinthian FC were formed by the Football Association in 1882 as a way to bring top players together regularly in the hope of improving an England side who, dash it all, had started losing to Scotland.
From the start, the new side represented the “amateur gentleman” ethos. They only played friendlies and respected the game with a passion. If awarded to them, penalties were deliberately missed. If they conceded a spot kick the keeper would stand aside. The referee enforced the laws of the game, they enforced the laws of a Gentleman. It was a higher calling altogether.
In those early years, they twice provided 11 players in the England team, a feat that has never been repeated. They inflicted the worst ever defeat on Manchester United, an 11-3 rout. It is still in the record books.
However, their principles brought them into conflict with the Football Association so they were barred from the possibility of competition in the rapidly developing FA Cup or League.
They became evangelists for the game, taking it around the world for the first time. They started off in South Africa but went to every Continent. They beat New York 18-0 and a fledging Real Madrid liked their pristine white shirts so much that they copied them. And, most significantly, a 1910 trip inspired the formation of the now mighty Corinthians in Sao Paulo, the extra S was a miscommunication.
One of their team invented the word “soccer”, an abbreviation of the association football and an alternative to rugby football, or rugger. They are the only club to have an official coat of arms instead of a badge.
Financial strife meant they merged with Casuals FC in mid-1939 and became Corinthian Casuals. It was agreed the Corinthians’ white shirts would be used for friendlies and Casuals pink and brown for competitive games.
As the professional game took hold of the English psyche, this strictly amateur team perhaps looked more and more like a relic of a bygone era or, even worse, a regular non-League club. They were now a different team, even penalties were contested.
However the Corinthian part of Corinthian Casuals has never been forgotten and, in 2015, they flew to Brazil to take on their namesakes in front of 50,000 fans. It is the third such trip, during a previous outing Socrates had ended up in pink and brown. This one was to complete the aborted excursion of 1914 when, while sailing over, First World War broke out. On hearing the news, the gentlemen did their duty, turned around and went back. No club would lose more players in the service of their country during that conflict.
The tour last year finally fulfilled those fixtures. A documentary recounting the trip will debut at Cannes later this year. They found the Brazilian connection intact. It has already been bringing a curious Corinthians fan or two to leafy Surbiton every other game. But they did not expect to find counterfeit pink and brown shirts being sold by street vendors.
Despite their size and place in the football pyramid, Corinthians Causals possess something major right holders are looking for – a differentiation narrative and a means of internationalisation. Big clubs are looking for a unique “brand” and method to monetise. Digital/social, mostly overseas, is the vehicle.
You really should not use the B word when talking about an organisation as sacred as Corinthian FC. But, given that the club needs funds, let’s pull it out. Unique history is part of the marketing message.
That's why Sheffield FC, the world’s first football team, have 42,000 fans on Facebook and 13,000 on Twitter. Not bad for a team in Northern Premier League Division One South, the eighth tier of English football.
However, they do not possess a developed international story.
Meanwhile, St Pauli are the 11th most followed team in Germany, sitting just above Mainz, who are in the Europa League. Of course, their culture is not congruent with monetisation via social media. But their “brand” (sorry about that) is strong enough to withstand only two seasons in the German top flight since the turn of the century.
The beauty of digital is that the story can take new levels with a new cadence. And it does not matter if you are in Surrey or Sao Paulo.
The 2015 tour grew their Facebook following from 10,000 to the current level. An agency based in South America is taking up the reigns soon and the film hopes to give them another injection of interest.
Goal graphics are already posted in Portuguese and, going forward, there will be translated articles and social posts.
They may average 120 fans for home games but their opportunities are limitless because the story has power, depth and social resonance.
Meanwhile, the cost of production on digital and social continues to plummet and cutting-edge skills are possessed by those just entering the labour market.
A tiny club with no money but a great story can reach the world and continue to spread its message. Especially one so worthy.
In many ways, the “Corinthian” spirit is the forerunner of Uefa’s Respect campaign. The merged club is now a competitive non-League club like any other but it retains its roots. The website still declares its primary aim to be promoting, “fair play and sportsmanship, to play competitive football at the highest level possible whilst remaining strictly amateur and retaining the ideals of the Corinthian and the Casuals Football Clubs.”
It has never been more important to promote such principles.
And digital is bringing them to a new audience.
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