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