Sunday, 12 December 2010

There is a proper time for mourning and then that time passes and things move on. For Santa Cruz the NHS grief counsellor was the Copa Pernambuco, a juniors competiton but one in which the weighty, at least for this level, elenco tricolor was deployed in full. Santa lifted the cup fairly comfortably, though let a 3-1 lead slip in the final game against Sport to the disappointment of most of the 6,000 who turned up. Still a trophy is a trophy, even if the shouts of tri-campeão which echoed around Arruda were a little hollow.

There were good things to come out of the campaign – teenage midfielder Natan is a shiny talent who should dazzle in 2011, if Santa can hang on to him. After his heroics in 2009’s Serie D the returning Juninho did not disappoint, and strapping striker Gilberto showed that he could be a force in the Campeonato Pernambuco which starts in January.

After the game this blog felt briefly hopeful for a while before remembering the team in question is Santa Cruz. On the positive side salaries (both players and staff) have been paid. On the negative side all non-youth product players were released last week in order to pay them. So it´s goodbye to Goiano and Osmar (with thanks for their almost sterling work this year), Sidrailson, and perhaps most unfortunately, the aforementioned Juninho, who asked for a salary twice above what Santa were offering to stay for 2011. The big cloud marked Doom and Gloom hovers over Arruda again.

Though maybe not. Bizarrely for such an impoverished footballing region Pernambuco has never put much faith in its kids, preferring to import more expensive mid to lower level talent from the backwaters of the Carioca or Paulista leagues. The thinking at Santa under (so far) likeable (or at least not loathable) coach Zé Teodoro is to bring in a few higher profile players and fill the rest of the spots with youngsters.

It makes financial sense – 11 players earning R$15,000 a month adds up to a higher wage bill than three players earning R$25,000 and eight earning R$3,000. It might even make footballing sense, if the top earners pull their weight and the kids fulfill their potential.

The first of the big (and it´s all relative) earners to arrive was Thiago Mathias, one of this blog’s favourite Santa players of the last four or five years. A dominant, occasionally elegant centre half, his return from Ipatinga, where he had been on strike following a spat with the directors, was a coup.

Though even Thiago pales into insignificance, profile wise, compared to the return of another prodigal son, the never knowingly humble Little Charlie Bullet, better known in these parts as Carlinhos Bala.

Bala is the self proclaimed rei (king) de Pernambuco, winning the title in 2005 with Santa and in 2007 and 2008 with Sport, and starring for Nautico in 2009 and 2010. He is small, fast, aggressive and knows where the goal is. He is also as representative of his supporters as any 1980s Norn Iron unionist MP ever was – dark, skinny and with something of the cola (glue) sniffing street kid about him. No stranger to controversy, he has at some time or another managed to alienate the supporters of all three Recife teams – particularly rubro-negros (during the 2006 Pernambuco when playing for Santa he made obscene gestures at the Sport supporters and was sent off) and alvi-rubros (he repeated the trick in 2008 when playing for Sport – this time imitating a crying child as Nautico lost the classico). Last year he disabused the folclorico Santa hero Brasão of the notion that he was Recife’s big shot, crowning himself the king.

But such shenigans are common enough in Brazilian football and football fans have short memories. At this level Bala is a great talent (though he has failed to shine when playing outside Pernambuco) and gives Santa ‘s hopes for 2011 a tremendous lift. Things seem better already.

But wait. A literary interlude is required. The writer BS Johnson was a great believer in writing the truth and believed that all fiction is a lie, even going so far as to put the brakes on his novel Alberto Angelo after 161 pages and write OH FUCK ALL THIS LYING, before going on to explain that everyone knew the fictional story up to now had been a blatant sham and the central character was obviously the author and so on and so on.

So as the preceding was written on Thursday night when Bala’s agent said he was “a phone call away from signing with Santa” and as it’s now Sunday and the phone call never came, FUCK ALL THIS LYING here too. Charlie will be rubro-negro next year and not tricolor and as he himself said it was all a jogo de marketing. Such, often, is modern football.

After a few days of playing everyone else off against each other – Santa offered R$32,000 a month, Sport offered R$40,000, Bala’s agent said he was leaning towards Santa, Sport upped their offer to R$50,000 plus win bonuses - the shady deal was done at the Ilha Do Retiro. Fair enough on one level – it’s hard to imagine why Bala would choose Serie D over Serie B, not fair at all on another – he clearly knew what he was doing in manipulating the two teams against each other.

And not for the first time Santa are left with not much more than a handful of dust. Reinforcements are arriving, among them volante Marcus Vinicius (ex America-MG), meia Diego Biro (son of pantomime Brazilain footballing hero Biro Biro), zagueiro Thiago Ribeiro (ex – Chapocoense), lateral esquerdo Alexandre Silva and lateral direito Bruno Leite. No-one has ever heard of any of them, but then that’s life in the trenches of Serie D.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

It is a thankless task, everybody knows. And it is more thankless at Santa Cruz than anywhere else. At Santa Cruz everything is more difficult.

Home games, which should of course be the easiest part, are gruelling enough. Getting to Arruda is easy enough. I can take the Boa Vista – Alto Santa Terezinha or the Boa Vista – Beberibe bus from just outside my house. And it’s nice enough outside the ground before the game too, with thousands of people congregated around the beer stands, singing songs and eating bean soup and chicken and bacon grilled on the barbecue ranges. The fetid canal that runs along the side of the ground is merely an eyesore, though it gives off a powerful whiff when the wind blows the wrong way.

You put it off and you put it off because the beer is cold and the sun is warm and also you know what’s coming. But when it gets to half past three there’s no putting it off any longer. It doesn’t make any real difference whether you are going on the arquibancada (the cheap seats) or up in geral (the even cheaper seats). The queue for both is the same and it is enormous, and the only police are down at the gate pushing everyone belatedly into line. Up here at the back of the queue, then, it’s pretty much a free for all – most days the line in front of you will magically grow by a few thousand people by the time you get to the gate.

As you go past the police you lift your shirt to show you don’t have a gun tucked into your waistband and then you go through the turnstiles where often a pushing and shoving match will have broken out because someone has tried to get in without a ticket. If you are arquibancada you are almost in your spot but if you are geral you will have to climb your way up a narrow staircase (maybe three or four people across) along with perhaps ten thousand other people, all of whom are in a terrific hurry to get to their places and watch the game. On big games I have seen women faint and children carried out and I have only survived myself by putting both my feet and my hands against the side wall and pushing back against the crush.

Then when going through the entrance that connects the tunnel that runs underneath the stands with the terracing above it is a good idea to put your hands in your pockets as many young recifense entrepeneurs see the crush and the crowd as an opportunity to replenish their stocks of wallets and cell phones.

But then you are through the gate and onto the rim of the huge concrete bowl with the big green brightly glowing space of the pitch below, and the favelas and the high rises lit up if it is a night game beyond that and the grey sea beyond that again, and the only thing you have to worry about is the foul flooded toilets at half time and the same crush again on the way out.

Oh and on your way home you might get robbed if there is an arrastão by one of the gangs of teenagers from Ibura or maybe Santo Amaro who call themselves Inferno Coral but are not really. And the bus you take on the way home – particularly if it is the Rio Doce / CDU that goes through Peixinhos and Complexo Salgadinho might get stoned by boys from Jovem Sport or just boys who have nothing really to do. You might if you are unlucky get to your stop with all the windows busted out and people bleeding next to you.

But if all this and no other bad things happen then you might look back and say it was one of the best days of your life.

Away games are difficult in a different way – they are different because you will have to travel six or seven or even seventeen hours to get to where you are going and then the same again on the way back. Unless you are rich enough to afford plane tickets or a car that is good enough to drive that far across cracked and dusty roads you will go by bus, and the bus will break down at least once. Sometimes it will break down more than once, and sometimes it will break down permanently and you will have to wait for three or four hours in a sugar cane field in the middle of the night until another bus can be found.

Probably Santa will lose and you will spend the entire six or seven or seventeen hours of the return journey wishing you were back at home in Norn Iron with your mammy and that she was just coming through the door now with a mug of Ovaltine and some chocolate fingers.

Then there is a fresher hell even than this which is to become a socio, which is a system whereby you give money to Santa and receive absolutely nothing in return. Or not absolutely nothing – you get half price entry and a nice plastic card to carry around, only if you´re a student or a teacher you get half price entry anyway and in any case you have to pay for the nice plastic card.

You do it because you want to help, but when you try and pay your montly subscription on the internet it doesn’t work and the ticket office is not open after games and often if you drive up to Arruda during the week it will be closed too, and you can’t pay by credit or debit card, all of which makes giving money to Santa Cruz while expecting nothing in return more difficult than it probably should be.

This is all a round about way of saying that on Thursday 28th October Santa Cruz will elect a new president, and that president will be either Sergio Murilo (who is the opposition candidate) or Antonio Luiz Neto (who is the candidate of outgoing president Fernando Bezerra Coelho and who is rather oddly campaigning on a “continuity” ticket).

This blog supports Sergio Murilo, not just because Fernando Bezerra Coelho has proven himself to be a marvellous politician but an utterly incompetent football director during his time at Santa, bringing the Seleção to Arruda while leaving Santa hopelessly marooned in Serie D and uncompetitive in the Campeonato Pernambucano.

More importantly, Murilo is the only candidate who seems to be concerned about Santa owing three months wages to its players and seven months wages to its other employees, including ticket office and laundry room workers and cleaners. The players can go hang, as far as I See A Darkness is concerned, because few of them can really say they’ve earned their cash, but to not pay minimum salary workers their paltry earnings for seven months is a far greater shame upon the name of Santa Cruz Futebol Clube than playing in Serie D will ever be.

NB: The Sergio Murilo pictured is not, obviously, the same Sergio Murilo mentioned in this piece, perhaps unfortunately, but the picture proved irresistible.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Brasão, Tutti, Menezes, Jackson, Leandro Cardoso, Paulo César, Gilberto Matuto – the flickering heroes and villains of Santa’s disastrous Serie D campaign are gone now, their memories as hazy as Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the phantom baseball players who came creeping in from the corn in Field of Dreams.

It is the strangest of diasporas. Santa have no proper football left to play this year and therefore no crowds and therefore no money, but with wages still to be paid on contracts that run until December or beyond. Renegotiation is a swift process –the day after the defeat to Guarany de Sobral the players are back at Arruda haggling over their exit deals, in return for which they allow their contracts to be cancelled and Santa freed from further obligation.

And then the players are off to points east, west, south and north. Brasão, who has moved to Vitória de Setúbal in Portugal, seems to have struck shiniest gold, switching running around like a headless chicken against Potiguar in the Estádio Leonardo Nogueira, or the Nogueirão, for running around like a headless chicken against Benfica in the Stadium of Light. It is an odd career highpoint for Brasão, whose CV until now has included stints in India, South Korea, Fluminense (Bahia) and Atlético Goianiense.

It is a sad moment too for I See A Darkness, for it looks now as though Ivan Fíel Da Silva will not be back at Arruda any time soon. For all his faults (referring to himself constantly in the third person, a penchant for De Jong-esque chest high kung fu tackles, not scoring very many goals) Brasão’s short time at Santa was nothing if not memorable – from his awesome debut against Sete De Setembro (scored one, created three, and thumped two against the bar) to his thrilling late double in the clássico against Nautico, without forgetting his constant chest thumping, Hulk impressions and tearful eulogies to Santa’s baying support. He will be missed, which is not something that can be said for many of ex-tricolor alumni over the last few years.

Many have gone in job lots – Tutti, Matuto and Osmar all found the triple-strength lure of playing for ex-Santa coaching prodigy Dado (Doogie Howser) Cavalcanti, Natal´s beaches, and the biggest cashew tree in the world irresistable and upped sticks for América, currently battling against relegation from Serie B. Far from ageless veteran Jackson, reportedly a major influence on the career of Garrincha when the latter was a youngster, couldn’t bear to be left out of all the fun and signed for city rivals ABC.

The lure of charque and dobradinha is strong – Dedé is another who has decided to stay in the nordeste. He will play for Icasa (Ceara), the team who battered Santa twice in a week back in 2008 and practically condemned O Mais Querido to the bottom division. Joelson has headed for Nautico, which shows that maybe Santa aren´t quite as far behind their Recife rivals as they might have thought.

It is an odd time of year for hundreds of players linked to teams eliminated from Serie C and D. These divisions become knock-outs in October, leaving players from the losing teams with time (if not a lot of money) on their hands until the state championships start in January. Their own impoverished teams rarely want them to hang around – it´s hard to pay wages with no gate receipts. And so they cast themselves into the footballing winds, usually being forced, rather than choosing, to take the road less travelled.

As for Santa, at the moment the future is youth, in the shape of unpolished diamonds Natan, Everton Senna and Renatinho. A few hangers-on still hang on – centre-back Sidrailson, who hardly played after coming back from China in mid-season, the permanently injured Léo, skittish midfielder Elvis, and Osmar, sent back from Natal with his tail between his legs after falling foul of transfer regulations that prohibit a player from playing for three clubs in the one season. Add to that the signing of Juninho Silva, who dazzled during Santa’s other disastrous Serie D campaign in 2009, and there are at least a few breadcrumbs scattered around an otherwise entirely bare cupboard.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

My heart – I thought it stopped, writes Amy Hemple in In A Tub, and sometime around 5.30pm on Sunday I knew what she meant. 5.30pm is important because it was about then that Guarany scored their second goal and everyone knew that the game was up and Santa were out of Serie D again, and not out of Serie D in a good way.

It started in a bad way – at about 11am on Saturday I crashed my car at the junction of Avenida Mascarenhas De Moraes and Rua Antonio Falcão, near the airport. It was mostly but not entirely my fault – the nose of the car was sticking out just a little bit when it was front-end scraped by a passing juggernaut. And then when I left the house at about 4pm the first thing I heard was, over the radio waves, the unspeakable Sport taking the lead against Guaratinguetá down in São Paulo. Perhaps I should have known.

In the absence of any real tragedy – the kind caused by the contracting of a terminal illness, the death of a loved one, the springing of a leak in the toe of a favourite shoe – the death of a football team comes as close as anything else to plunging us (at least those of us who care about football) into grief and mourning.

And why shouldn´t it? Football, or even sport in general, apes the great trick of life so very well, the one where we tell ourselves it´ll be so great when. It´ll be so great when I get promoted. It´ll be so great when I move into the new apartment. It´ll be so great when I shag Sharon Blenkinsop.

It´ll be so great when Santa win on Sunday, because then they´ll play at home again in the next round, and there will be another 55,000 people at Arruda, and what a day we´ll have, and we´ll be on the national news again, and then we´ll win that game, and after a few more rounds we´ll be out of pissing Serie D forever, and back playing (almost) proper teams in (almost) proper stadiums.

The only problem with it’ll be so great when is how we feel when we know when will not now come. Football dangles the carrot just as life does, and while we should probably be a bit smarter about it, and realise that footballing baubles and trinkets are even more transparently meaningless than promotions or apartments or Sharon Blenkinsop and her earthy charms, we aren´t, and that we fall for all of it is what makes life so very good when it´s good, and obviously, so very bad when it´s bad.

For Santa Cruz, now, it is very very bad, surely in fact worse than it has ever been for any middle to big sized football team anywhere in the world. The team are effectively bankrupt and next year will begin their third year in Serie D of the Brazilian Championship. Their season is over now in September (it has lasted eight games) and as there is no money to pay wages all the players will be released and a new team will be jumbled together in December in time for the Pernambuco state championship. The manager has already gone and Fernando Bezerra Coelho, el presidente, (once Santa´s Barack Obama, now more like Conrad´s Mr Verloc - he had an air of having wallowed fully dressed all day on an unmade bed) has said he will bring forward elections, as it’s time for a new broom (no we can´t is a good early bet for winning campaign slogan). Serie D itself is an Alcatraz of a competition from which there seems no possible escape. In short Santa have just been eliminated from competitive football for the year, have no money, players, manager or president, and not even that much realistic hope that things will be any better next year.

All this is very hard to understand or accept for anyone who cares about Santa Cruz Futebol Clube. While financial inequalities make it very difficult for teams from the norte or nordeste of Brazil to become powerhouses on a national level Santa are still a big enough name nationally – until recently consistently either a Serie A or top half of Serie B side – and famous for their huge support (as regular readers will know almost 55,000 turned up for Santa´s last home game, and the team have the highest average crowds anywhere in the country this year). On a regional level they are either the best or the second best supported club in the geographical three quarters of Brazil that lie north of Belo Horizonte (Bahia are their only real rivals).

But by 6pm on Sunday it was all over and I was standing by the side of the bus drinking one beer after another very fast and smoking cigarettes just as fast and staring at the long dirty grass around my feet and not thinking of anything at all apart from how awful everything was.

We had driven over a thousand kilometres to get here – here being Sobral, a mid-sized industrial town three hundred kilometres or so west of Fortaleza where on a spring (to the extent spring exists in the nordeste) Sunday like this the temperature tops out at about forty degrees in the shade. It had taken 17 hours. Now we will drive over a thousand kilometres and 17 hours back again. We left on Saturday tea-time and we will get back on Monday morning and all we have done in the meantime is sit on a bus and then watch a very bad game of football. Our team, which of course is Santa, has lost the game, horribly and miserably.

Really the damage was done the week before at Arruda when Santa, rampant at the time, let Guarany score a silly third goal in a 4-3 tricolor victory. This was then compounded by 30 year veteran coach Givanildo Oliveira commtting tactical errors best described as several years less mature than infantile – deciding to play for the draw with three centre halves and a six man midfield and only fly-weight forward Joelson up front. As a result Santa did not have a shot on goal and Guarany had about fifteen, of which they scored two.

Now all around me there are people – men – stumbling about and looking lost. Some of them are kicking things, some are swearing angrily. Some of them are very large and very black and wearing Inferno Coral t-shirts, which make them the kind of people from which most respectable Brazilians would run screaming in terror, and some of these men are weeping silently and without any sign of stopping.

What makes things worse is that this exact same thing has happened for the last two years – in 2008 it was at home against Campinense, when Santa were eliminated from Serie C (and subsequently relegated to Serie D). Campinense equalised in the last minute. Last year it was at home against CSA, when another draw eliminated* O Mais Querido from the bottom division. And now it is happening again this year, and no-one can really believe it.

Then it is time to get back on the bus. There is some fighting between the police and some of the people and a prone Inferno member is slung on a flatbed truck and rushed to hospital. There are flashing red police lights everywhere. And then finally we are clear of Sobral, and only a thousand miles (more romantic than kilometres) from home, and the last word on Santa can only go to Roger Angell, by way of AE Housman – the laurels all are cut, the year draws in the day, and we´ll to Arruda no more.

As for this blog – like Santa, it will keep on going, trying to get better, trying to escape from the Serie D of blogs, hoping that one day things will improve, not even that much, just a little.

* For those fortunate enough not to know much about such things, Serie D is structured like the World Cup – starting with group stages and moving on to knockout rounds. As such, and unlike most domestic league divisions, it is all too possible to be “eliminated”.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Narrow home victories in two leg knockout ties are the footballing equivalent of getting stuck with a 16 in blackjack. You'll never win by sticking pat, but overdo it and your goose is cooked. This is the fresh hell facing Santa Cruz after their epic 4-3 win over Guarany de Sobral on Sunday. The game was the stuff of legend though it would be the kind of legend that would have the Keystone Kops rather than Achilles battling the Trojan hordes. Nearly 55,000 at Arruda were stunned into silence when Guarany went two up inside twenty minutes, languid Tricolor centre half Leandro Cardoso taking it upon himself to score not one but two own goals. Things turned ugly in the stands and I See A Darkness had no option but to berate his fellow supporters for their boos and curses - not always a good idea in a city with the highest murder rate in Brazil.

But it was all smiles twelve minutes later, by which time Santa had scored three - the first from Joelson, the second by Alysson, the third an own goal. More fun in the second half as toothless crone Jackson (ex-Seleçao back in the days when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony) thumped in a fourth. Two goals should be enough away from home, ran the thinking, so obviously life had to be made more difficult. Sleepy defending gave Guarany a third, and now things are balanced just about evenly.

The pre-match baiting started after immediately the game. Brazilian footballing barbarism makes Ferguson-Wenger spats look like two tremulous spinsters passing the sugar at a temperance tea party. It´ll be 40 degrees in Sobral, crowed one of the Trojans, your little Santa are going to melt!

A few days later came stronger stuff still from blowhard Guarany president Luiz Turquato. Santa aren´t even a team! Weak as piss! They could hardly win in front of their own fans, imagine what they´ll be like in our cauldron when it hits 50 degrees! They´re dead!

Santa players and staff have maintained a dignified silence which is something of a rarity in the northeast of Brazil. Almost dignified - midfield bulldog Goiano has responded in a style best described as Alan MacDonald Post Wembley 85.

Only three days and 1,000 kms to go. I See A Darkness knows that he shouldn´t go, because who the hell goes from Recife to Sobral in the north of Ceará for a football match, and there are dogs, relationships, jobs to be maintained. But really, honestly, truly - how can he not go?

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A week like any other at Santa only at the same time a week not like any other. Léo, the team´s most complete player, who last year stirred the loins of Botafogo and, surreally, CSKA Moscow, is injured and gone for the year. Brasão, to the relief of absolutely no-one, has declared himself “not jealous” of the three new arrivals from points south, Alexandro, Paulinho Pedalada, and Alysson. President Lula says he doesn´t understand why Santa are in Serie D, to which 40,000 or so tricolores might reply that it´s time he came to Arruda and took in a game, for then he would understand all too clearly. The club website announces with some kind of pride that wages have been paid on time this month. A players’ representative, with worrying humility, thanks the directors. And, most thrillingly of all, by close of business on Saturday Santa sell close on 40,000 tickets for today´s game against Guarany de Sobral from Ceará.

These are real ticket sales – Santa´s miraculous crowds (an average of 37,000 per game) in the same division last year were boosted by the government todos com a nota scheme, which gave out free tickets to anyone who could produce r$100 of shopping receipts. This was meant to provide a boost to the needier elements of Recife society, as well as giving a helping hand to the city´s football clubs, not to mention functioning as a type of tax inspection. But the tickets usually ended up in the hands of the touts who would sell them on for three or four reais.

This year the tickets have been replaced by electronic swipe cards and on-line registration, and as many Santa Cruz supporters are unfamiliar with the intricacies of modern technology take up has been slow. Less than 5,000 have registered, which means almost all the tickets sold for today´s game are legitimate sales, costing fifteen or twenty reais. More remarkable still is that they´ve been purchased in advance, for recifenses are not always slavish followers of forward planning.

And now it is Sunday and in a few hours the streets around Arruda – the ones that run alongside the stinking canal and the ones on the other side of the ground that are boxy and probably a little more sinister – will be thronged with thousands of men and women and boys and girls, and it is impossble now not to think of Roger Angell and his chronicling of the heaving masses that swelled the Polo Grounds in New York back in 1962 to watch the Amazin´ Mets –

Even before we arrived it was clear neither the city subway system nor the Mets themselves had really believed we were coming. By game time there were standees three-deep behind the lower deck stands, sitting-standees peering through the rafters from the ramps behind the upper deck, and the opportunist standees perched on telephone booths and linng the runways behind the bleachers. The shouts, the cheers, and the deep, steady roar made by 56,000-odd fans in excited conversation were comical and astonishing; just by coming out in such ridiculous numbers, we had heightened our own occasion, building a considerable phenomenon out of the attention and passion each of us had brought along for the games and for the players we were to see.

The Mets were terrble then and Santa are terrible now, but of course none of that matters, because the Mets (at least those Mets) and the Polo Grounds are long gone, and as for Santa, all the other teams in their division are terrible too, and Santa just might be less terrible than the others.

What does matter, again, always, is the crowd. The devotion and delusion shown by tricolores today and over the last three years has been more impressive than that of the Mets´ Go-Shouters – the Mets were a new team in those days, and without history, whereas Santa have a semi-glorious past to live up to, and the miseries of the current side might be taken as an afront to such past and used as an excuse to turn one’s back. Put shortly – there is more reason to be angry.

But that has not happened, and like Mr Angell says the prescence of the crowd creates its own phenomenon. Nautico won on Friday, and Sport, who seem to be gathering steam, won yesterday, filling the city with tootling car horns for a few hours. This Santa fan felt briefly vexed, before putting things in perspective – how trivial and foolish are such things as football results and wins and losses, for what matters, again, always, is the crowd.

It is the crowd that will thrill today, the size of it, that so many people want to watch a club that so little deserves their love but that gets it anyway. It is this that has always drawn me to football – how the game represents communities, cities, countries, in a way that lonely, self-adulating sports such as tennis and athletics do not.

Fifty or sixty thousand people will come to Arruda today and when they look around the stadium they will be amazed and be proud, and they will be proud of what they are part of, because they, one by one, have contributed to it, and very many of them are people who have difficult lives and do not often have much to feel proud of.

Note: Video clip of Arruda before the game can be found below - see link entitled The feeding of the 55,000 - no loaves or fishes, plenty of cachaça and charque

Monday, 30 August 2010

All week Recife is astir with the news that Carlinhos Bala will be coming back to Santa. Bala was the original Brasão. Gapped of tooth and car-washed of hair, he made the average Santa fan look as dapper as Pierce Brosnan on his wedding night - no easy claim, as anyone who has ever been to Arruda will know. It was Bala who blazed his way through defences in Santa´s Pernambucano Championship win in 2005 (their last) which was also the same year O Mais Querido were promoted to Serie A (also their last).

He was then sold to Cruzeiro where he achieved slightly less than nothing, before coming back to Recife with Sport. He won two Pernambucanos at the Ilha Do Retiro, as well as the Copa Do Brasil in 2008, the first national trophy to come to the nordeste in 20 years. When his contract ran out in 2009 he jumped ship to Nautico, where he again became a fan favourite (playing for all of Recife´s three teams in four years did not seem to count against him).

But Little Charlie´s big gob got the best of him again this year when he lambasted Nautico, his manager and the directors for late salary payments. He was sacked for indiscipline and packed off to Atlético Goianiense - Serie A, but really about as much fun as playing naked tag team chess with John Terry, Faustão and Eamon Holmes.

So of course if Santa called he´d be back to Recife like a shot, wouldn´t he? So every tricolor in the city seemed to think. Never mind that Santa are playing in Serie D, and that the season could be over after as little as two more games. Never mind that Santa like paying wages on time like Iranians like weapons inspections. Never mind that Atlético Goianiense are struggling for survival in Serie A and would probably like to hold onto Bala, or would at least expect Santa to pay some kind of transfer fee for him (unlikely given that the club accountant recently stated that surplus income of any kind coming into Arruda will be immediately directed to pay off the r$30 million debt with the general worker´s union).

Meetings and press conferences were excitedly called - club directors declared themselves confident that the move would go ahead. The justification for all this optimism was that some people at Santa had a few mates at Atlético, and, well, why not?

Though it didn´t of course work out, and Carlinhos isn´t coming, and neither are Marcelo Ramos, Juninho or Rosembrik, or any of the other flyweight greats* of Santa´s recent past. In the end Atlético politely pointed out that he was their player and they didn´t want him to go and he didn´t seem to want to leave, and even if he did they would quite like Santa to pay r$250,000 for him, and everyone knows Santa haven´t got that kind of money, or indeed any money at all.

So instead here come Alexandro and Alysson and Paulinho Pedalada (Little Paulie The Dribbler, if you will) none of whom anyone has ever really heard of, but it´s Serie D, so people can´t expect much better.

Finally, who else but Brasão to put things in happily Nietzschian perspective. Who is Carlinhos Bala? Who is Brasão? Only the Lord is bigger than Santa Cruz. Actually it´s a tough call, the Lord or Santa, at least in Recife - work started this week on the Eu Quero 60,000 campaign, which refers to the stated goal of packing Arruda with 60,000 demented souls this coming Sunday for the Serie D second round game against Guarany from Ceará. In these godless times would even JC pull in that many on a rainy Sunday in Recife, especially if he was struggling in the lower depths of the Brazilian Championship?

* Hard on Marcelo - he is one of the leading all-time top scorers still playing, and won the Libertdores with Cruzeiro in 1997. But he´s 37.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

It has long been the view of this writer that suffering is good for the soul and makes one a finer and more rounded person. This would certainly be true in terms of suffering in a footballing context. Where is the space for the emotional growth of the Chelsea or Manchester United fan, his plump bottom nestling comfortably in his ergonomically sculpted flexo-plastic seat, politely applauding his team´s nth victory of the season and not troubling himself unduly over their handful of defeats, because he knows they´ll probably win next week?

This is a convenient argument of course because heartbreak and suffering seems to be rather a common leitmotif amongst teams to which I am drawn (most particularly Santa) and so straws must be clutched at and there must be some way of defending the loss of so much time and money (I hesitate to say the waste) following such doomed adventurers.

This is particularly true when it comes to away games. After many years and many long trips to watch many heavy defeats there is always a vague prescient feeling before setting off – so much money and time! The whole Sunday lost and you have to work tomorrow! Exhaustion, frustration, and thumping defeat! Don´t do it! You can still change your mind! But the voice is never listened to because if it was it would have been listened to already and the decision to go would never have been made and tickets would never have been bought.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it can be very good indeed, as it was on Sunday. Bus breakdowns and four hours of earsplitting forró notwithstanding*, this was the day on which all Santa´s dread and doom faded away, at least temporarily. 5,000 or more tricolores from Recife rolled four hours through the sugar cane plantations and floodlands of southern Pernambuco to see it and once inside it was duelling banjos as the raucous blue and white CSA hordes on one side battled it out with the invading tricolor army on the other. There were 15,000 in the neat little stadium and it did not feel like Serie D.

For once Santa did not disappoint. After a patchy start Jackson, Leo and Dedé began bossing the midfield. Jackson seemed to be trying to prove something - he had been booed off the pitch in Santa´s last game and had spent the last week dodging newspaper suggestions that perhaps at his advanced years dominoes might be a better way to spend his Sunday afternoons than football. Paulo Cesar, the skittishly nervous left back brought in from Santa Helena in Goias at the beginning of Serie D, suddenly became swashbuckling and threw himself happily into challenge after challenge.

But as always Santa were missing chances. The folclorico Brasão spent most of the game running around without the ball and shouting. Brasão puts one most in mind of the 80s comic strip where a man´s head is home to a gang of thirty or so little people who operate various switches and levers to make said man function and have meetings and arguments and power struggles which affect our hero´s day to day life. Sometimes the cool, calm professional athelete team are in control of Brasão´s head, sometimes it is the rag-tag shouty bug-eyed lunatic team. Either way, confusion reigns, most of the time.

Then Santa scored. Jackson crossed from the left and Joelson threw himself forward and his head hit the ball with the strength of an angry man walloping a punching bag and it was 1-0. That was fine until CSA equalised with a goal by aging local hero Catanha, who had been sacked by the club in pre-season for indiscipline then reinstated when they realised they couldn´t much do without him.

It was still fine though because after last week´s victory Santa only needed a draw, and anyway Confiança (who needed to win to eliminate Santa) were drawing against whipping boys Potiguar. The sun began to set and the game dwindled away – Santa were in charge but no-one was really trying that hard.

Then the stadium announcer bellowed out that Confiança were winning 3-0**, which meant a goal by CSA would eliminate O Mais Querido. Both teams redoubled their efforts. The Inferno drums beat out, everyone sang the lyrically excellent ooooh-oooooooh-ooooooh-ooooooh-Santa! without stopping, and in the last minute Paulo Cesar skipped into the box and was brought down. Brasão smacked in the penalty and the final whistle blew.

Predictiable pandimonium in the stands, and the team complied, running the length of the pitch and throwing their shirts into the throng. A minor pitch invasion ensued and Brasão led a victorious lap of honour. The celebration was worthy of the Libertadores even if the occasion was not – Santa´s achievement was to qualify for the second phase of Serie D. Which if nothing else might prove the vague point that was made at the start of all this – that the lower you sink, the more you value life´s small triumphs.

*More details of this journey can be found at

** They weren´t – it was hometown mischief making. The final score was Confiança 2-0 Potiguar, which would only have been enough for the sergipanos if Santa had lost by two goals.

Friday, 20 August 2010

This is really the wrong day to start. It is the wrong day because on Sunday Santa beat Potiguar, from Mossoro in Rio Grande Do Norte, 2-0 (see previous article). So if you start reading today you will think that it is normal for Santa to win their home games, that Santa are pretty much like any other football club, that there really isn´t much that is interesting to write about Santa. But before Sunday Santa hadn´t won a home game in the Brasileirão (the Brazilian national championship) in two years, during which time the team were relegated from Serie C to Serie D. During the same period, an average of about 30,000 people per game turned up at Arruda to watch Santa lose.

Of course it´s not that unusual – there are plenty of big teams with big support who have struggled terribly and ended up in the lower divisions of their respective leagues where they find themselves playing teams that have their dressing rooms in portakabins and are sponsored by the town mini-cab firm.

But perhaps Santa feels worse because everything around the club feels worse. Peter Robb wrote that the nordeste of Brazil is the largest gathering of poor people in the Americas, to which I would add that Arruda on match days is the largest gathering of poor people in the nordeste. People beg outside the ground to be able to afford the very cheap tickets and there are lots of young boys inside with no shirts and no sandals. The great crumbling bulk of the stadium rises up like the spaceship in Close Encounters of The Third Kind out of a sea of favelas. The club are R$70 million in debt and cannot often pay players wages. Last year they were sued by a group of former players for millions of reais in unpaid salary and were ordered to sell off the floodlight towers and team bus.

Four years ago Santa were playing in Serie A against Flamengo, São Paulo, Internaçional and the rest. On one memorable Sunday they beat a Corinthians team featuring Tevez and Mascherano 1-0 at a rambunctious Arruda, part of a run of four consecutive victories. But then they were relegated and then they were relegated again and then they were relegated again and now they have spent two years in Serie D and it doesn´t seem like they will ever get out, unless it is by shutting the doors one last time and admitting that it was fun while it lasted but well, everything good comes to an end. As Tom Zé puts it sadness has no end, but happiness ends all too quickly.


I suppose this story started in Albania. After all the first time I felt it – that now familiar helpless, sinking feeling – I was watching Linfield vs 17 Nentori in a European Cup first round game at Windsor Park, Belfast. It was the 29th September, 1982. Linfield had lost the first leg 1-0 the previous week in Tirana, but would surely win the second leg comfortably. After all – Albania? Where the hell was Albania? Somewhere east of France, I knew that much.

My father, who was a policeman, took me. We didn´t pay – my father punched the other peeler on the gate chummily on the arm, grinning and saying let us in there handsome. He was well known, my father. The policeman didn´t look very happy to see him. But he let us in anyway.

I´d never been to a football match. I was ten and it was very cold and everybody smelt of cigarettes and booze. I think I probably started wanting to go home around the ten minute mark. I would have been well advised – 17 Nentori scored after 28 minutes, pretty much killing the tie – the Blues would need three*.

When the goal went in my father – who didn´t much like Linfield – jumped up from his seat and cheered. Shower of shite, he shouted, or words to that effect, come on the wee Albanians! This was of course in the middle of the Northern Ireland Troubles and also around the peak of the British football hooligan years. A few people near us made threatening noises and a big man with a red face stood up and came towards us. My father told him to sit down or he´d break his legs. The man sat down. I felt the now familiar helpless, sinking feeling. Linfield were losing and my father was going to kill somebody. Things looked bad.

Twenty eight years later, I know now that it was only the start of things.

* They got two, right near the end. I don´t remember if we stayed to see it or not. Ten years or so later, of course, UEFA would change the rules and create the European Champions League, allowing four and five teams from the bigger leagues to qualify and making the champions of smaller countries play half a dozen preliminary games before making it to the first round. Teams like Linfield or 17 Nentori would never play in the Champions League proper.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Night falls on Recife in a soft blaze of burgundy and ochre and once again Santa Cruz are staring into the abyss. The team have not won a home game in national competition in over two years and they are drawing now with Potiguar, a team from Mossoro in Rio Grande Do Norte. When Santa played in Mossoro earlier this year the game was delayed for twenty five minutes because someone had supposedly stolen electric cable from one of the floodlight towers, though no-one really believed the story and assumed that Potiguar did not have enough money to buy the cable in the first place.

Potiguar have not won a game in this year´s Serie D. Santa have won one and if they do not win today they will be eliminated from the competition because their main rivals, Confianca from the state of Sergipe, are winning against CSA, who have already qualified for the next phase. Serie D is structured like the World Cup though it is not like the World Cup in any other way other than that both are competitions that involve football.

There are about thirty minutes left and it is goaless and I make my way up to the very top of the big concrete bowl of Arruda and I look out over the city. From here I can see far away in the darkness the lights of Olinda up on the hill and also the docks and further out ships strung out along the horizon. Below me there are 30,000 people crammed into the lower deck of the stadium and all of them are screaming and staring up at the sky and crossing themselves and covering their eyes because they cannot believe that it is going to end like this again. I watch the ambulance crews racing round the perimeter of the stadium pulling out people for whom it has all become too much. In a spell of about three minutes I count six. The wind is swirling round the stadium and carries flurries of ticker tape back and forth above the players´ heads. The banners of Santa´s torcida organizada, the Inferno Coral, are hung upside down in protest at the team´s incompetence.

I have lived in Recife for three years and I have been watching football matches for twenty eight years and I have never felt so much desperation and so much love and so much hate for a football team in the one place. This is Santa's second year in Serie D and no-one can bear the thought of a third. The team have already missed a penalty and a hundred or so other chances and things are desperate so I risk a quick glance up at the sickle shaped moon and in that moment Elvis crosses from the left and Joelson heads home and the place explodes with a great gust of joy and relief.

Then comes the remarkable news that Confianca are first drawing and then losing to CSA. Towards the end Santa score another and two Potiguar players are sent off. After the second goal and then at the end the great gust of emotion comes again and then all of us, exhausted, head off to drink and talk and remember the game. Santa meanwhile have not achieved anything much except win at home against poorer opposition but perhaps that is achievement in itself.

Now they need only a draw against CSA in the last group game to qualify for the second round and after that they will need to survive four more rounds of knockout games and then they will be promoted to Serie C, which again is not much but is a lot better than Serie D which is probably the most awful and terrible and dispiriting and impoverished football competition in the world.