Imagine that major league baseball had been so poorly managed that its team owners had to sell their best players to the Mexican or Japanese leagues just to stay solvent. Welcome to Brazil. In the home of the world champions--a good bet to defend their title in Germany--where the beautiful game is part of the nation's soul, the professional league is a money-losing shambles, with poorly paid players performing in mostly empty arenas. Except for one team. In São Paulo, at Pacaembu Stadium, 35,000 fans are on their feet, pounding samba drums. Legions of shirtless young men are cheering, "Corinthians, my life! Corinthians, my past! Corinthians, my true love!" Above them in the director's box sits the unlikeliest of futebol moguls, and the man who made it his goal to save their team, if not their league: Kia Joorabchian, 33, a suave, Iranian-born Brit.
Corinthians is neither his past nor, frankly, his true love. Yet since he took control in January 2005, attendance has tripled and promotional cash is pouring in. Joorabchian and his London-based Media Sports Investment (MSI) group have spent more than $40 million on new players.
The investment has already paid off with a trophy: Corinthians won Brazil's professional-soccer-league championship for the first time in six years. But Joorabchian's strategy has produced more than a trophy. He may well have established a new business model that could rescue pro soccer in Brazil, the cradle of superstars like Pelé and Ronaldinho--which has been sinking under corruption, violence, archaic management and a hemorrhaging of talent to Europe and Asia. "You pick a company because you believe it's undervalued," Joorabchian told TIME. "We believe Brazilian football as a whole is undervalued."
Joorabchian's entry into the Brazilian game was, to kick a metaphor around, out of left field. An investment banker and former car salesman, he arrived in Brazil from Britain in 2004 seeking to buy a media outlet. But after watching Corinthians, he decided sports was a better bet. The team was desperate for a benefactor. Despite a fan base of some 24 million, the club attracted fewer than 10,000 people at most games, was more than $20 million in debt and had a revenue stream one-tenth of the $300 million that English powerhouse Manchester United rakes in annually. As for the rest of the Brazilian league, only six of Brazil's top 24 clubs are even profitable. The only way Brazilian clubs have made money lately is to sell bankable stars overseas--849 of them since 2004 alone. Skilled athletes are one of Brazil's leading exports.
Still, Brazilian heads turned when Joorabchian signed a 10-year deal giving MSI control--and 51% of the profit. Joorabchian spent $14 million to bring three top players back to Brazil. Then he lured star Argentine forward Carlos Tevez for a South American record $22.6 million.