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.