Corinthians: football’s team of gentlemen

When it is difficult to accept football’s latest excesses think of the Corinthians, a legendary gentlemen’s team who refused to take penalties, inflicted Man Utd’s worst ever defeat and inspired a great Brazilian club.

The future King George VI kicks off for the Corinthians against Spurs in 1921.

The future King George VI kicks off for the Corinthians against Spurs in 1921.

The picture of the future king, starting the match while elegantly holding a cane and gloves, draws rather nostalgic admiration, even from a mild republican. You can’t imagine FIFA’s corrupt technocrats kicking off a match with such style. You can almost hear the BBC commentator solemnly and admiringly intoning through the sepia.

“His Majesty displays a deft touch to start the match. A Corinthian sportingly kicks the ball out to allow His Majesty to gamely leave the field of play to cheers and applause from the crowds. At least half the Corinthian team are lighting and steadying their pipes for the match. What splendid fellows! What a marvellous occasion at the Wembley Empire Stadium!”

The Corinthian spirit

The Corinthians were an amateur club founded in 1882 by N L Jackson, the assistant secretary of the FA, to try and break Scottish football dominance over England at the time. Jackson recruited gentlemen from university and aristocratic society rather than the hardened pros of the mainly northern clubs. Within four years they were supplying most of the players for the England football team.

The Corinthians refused to train, had no home ground and initially refused to enter cup competitions or contests “which did not have charity as its primary object”. When penalties were introduced in 1891, Corinthian C.B.Fry called the new law: “a standing insult to sports men to have to play under a rule which assumes that players intend to tip, hack and push opponents and to behave like cads”. They refused to take penalties and would remove their goal keeper if one was conceded on the basis that the foul would have prevented a goal anyway.

They were not just a team based on sporting values, in their heyday they were also brilliant and drew large crowds to their matches. They regularly beat the best clubs in the land, including a 11-3 thrashing of Man United in 1904 which remains the club’s worst loss. In his book, The ball is Round, David Goldblatt described the Corinthians as possessing “an aura of Olympian indifference to their own brilliance”.

The legacy of the Corinthians

The Corinthians played football around the world, impressing all with their skill and spirit.  They were said to inspire Real Madrid to play in white shirts, though this may be more legendary than historically accurate.

In 1910 locals in Sao Paulo were so impressed by them they founded what is now known as Corinthians Paulista, one of the great Brazilian clubs. In 1988 the Corinthians played Corinthians Paulista in a match billed as “a father and son reunion”. The sons won 1-0, the goal scored by the Brazilian legend Socrates who played the second half for the visitors in their famous chocolate and pink colours.

In 1930 the Corinthians beat the Swiss cup holders, Young Boys of Berne,  7-1. A local paper gushingly wrote: “The Corinthians were superior in control of the ball, trapping and passing, body control, lightening starts and speed on the run.  The tactical subtleties of the game, carried out in worthy, clean sporting and almost youthful joy, were dainties for the connoisseur.”

The ethos of the Corinthians could not survive changes in the game and society, especially with the impact of World War One. They started entering competitions, including the FA Cup in 1923 for the first time. In 1939 they amalgamated with the Casuals club and entered a long period of decline down the leagues, offset by the occasional triumph. They are now based in Tolworth, Kingston upon Thames, play in the Isthmian League Division One South and are still surviving, still an amateur club and still proud of the Corinthian Spirit.

There is one final story that sums up their spirit. Their star player, Edward Bambridge (1858 – 1935) had broken a leg and was considered highly doubtful to play for a local cup final. His team was despondent; their rivals optimistic about the win.  To everyone’s surprise Bambridge drove up in a dog-cart ready dressed for the match wearing a shin guard outside his stocking. Towards the end of a great struggle Bambridge finished one of his characteristic runs by shooting the winning goal. His colleagues, looking at the shin-guard, which showed signs of many kicks, asked how his broken leg stood the strain. Bam in his dry manner, replied: “Quite well, I wore the guard on the sound one.”

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Further information

Visit the Corinthian-Casual website for a full history, including some player profiles featuring great moustaches and tales of sporting prowess.

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8 thoughts on “Corinthians: football’s team of gentlemen

  1. Didn’t know the remarkable Mr CB Fry represented Corinthians. Perhaps his exploits in overcoming / enduring mental illness yet still becoming an
    all round sporting hero / national treasure would make an intriguing blog post themselves….

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  2. CB Fry was an extraordinary character… from Wiki:

    “Fry’s achievements on the sporting field included representing England at both cricket and football, an FA Cup Final appearance for Southampton F.C. and equalling the then-world record for the long jump. He also reputedly turned down the throne of Albania. In later life, he suffered mental health problems, but even well into his seventies he claimed he was still able to perform his party trick: leaping from a stationary position backwards onto a mantelpiece.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._B._Fry

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  3. You are both right of course – I had not made that connection. Those were the days when they effortlessly played different sports for England. It doesn’t happen now but they still could do it. The Neville players were excellent at cricket and I think were offered Lancashire contracts as they decided to join Man Utd. Gary Neville once finished 110 not out alongside Australian opener Matthew Hayden (140 not out) for a Bolton league match.

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  4. Ian Botham had a sort stint in pro football for (ahem) Scunthorpe Utd, not exactly the big time but still. A cricketing contemporary of Botham’s, Phil Neale of Worcestershire, played football for a number of teams and I think is probably the last person to have played both sports at professional level. Fry, of course, played both at *international* level. But it’s the ‘throne of Albania’ thing that really intrigues me…

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    • I agree – the throne of Albania is a very tantalising throwaway that warrants further investigation. I feel no life is complete until one has been offered a throne in faraway lands.

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