Wednesday, 28 December 2011

See A Darkness is worried about Santa Cruz.

Christmas was spent constructing a football pitch on the abandoned lot at the end of the street, after our hero, out walking Flup the idiot Pekinese on Christmas Eve, heard the voice. If you build it, he will come. True, SAD had been watching Mr Costner’s finest moment just a few hours before, but this was no trick of the imagination. SAD stood and watched the light drain from the midwestern sky for a few minutes, just to make sure. Goias. Iowa. Suddenly it all made sense. And the voice came again.

If you build it, he will come.

He, SAD knew immediately, could only be Brasão, stranded far from his tricolor roots in Feira de Santana, Bahia. So SAD set to work, knowing that if he built it, Brasão would come. And in a bit that wasn’t in the original film, SAD also knew that Brasão would not only come, he would then take SAD back with him to Recife, just before firing Santa to Campeonato Pernambucano and Serie C glory in 2012. As well, of course, as helping to repair SAD’s fractious relationship with his father.

So SAD built it. And waited. But Brasão did not come shuffling nervously out of the corn. And neither did Fumagalli. And neither did Thiago Cunha, who in fact did the opposite and disappeared into the corn. Branquinho appeared for a moment, then just as quickly stepped back into the shadows. There were rumours that Vanderson was wandering around in the middle of all the corn stalks, unable to find his way out. Luciano Henrique turned up, true enough, but by that time SAD had gone home.

Which leaves the cast of the Rogers and Hammerstein (or Garota Safada and Aviões Do Forró) musical that will be Santa Cruz 2012 looking pretty much like it did in 2011, minus Thiago Cunha and the fantasmas listed on this page a few weeks ago.

ThiagoCunhagate is as good an example as any of life in the footballing darkness, where, in case anyone was confused, Santa Cruz still dwell. Still outside the top two divisions, still excluded from the cosa nostra of Brazilian football that is the Clube Dos 13 and its TV money carve-up, still with debts of R$70 million or more (a large chunk of which is imminently payable to the Justicia Do Trabalho for non-payment of former players’ wages), still the menino pobre from Brazil’s footballing interior (or in other words, anywhere north of Belo Horizonte).

It was announced on December 14th that atacante, and specialist in weak shots to side netting or goalkeeper’s midriff, Thiago Cunha (who has previous in the world of contractual duplicity) was set to stay at Santa for 2012. All had been agreed, and oor Thiago just had to sign his contract extension. Tricolor enthusiasm was muted, though generally favourable. We’re pretty shit with him, imagine how bad we’d be without him? gushed one anel superior loyalist.

Except that on December 22nd Thiago announced that he wouldn’t be grazing on the Arruda turf next year, but instead would be strutting his dubious stuff on the greener grass of Guaratinguetá, in the interior of São Paulo.

Guaratinguetá were formed in 1988 and have been since 2004 the glove puppet of the sports management company Sony Sports. The club spent 2011 in the neighbouring city of Americana, changing their name in the process, after Guaratinguetá city council refused to stump up R$6 million to keep the team in town. Both Garça’s supporters were very upset by these events, though they will have been assuaged by the return of the club to Guaratinguetá for 2012. The club survives almost entirely on private investment and the support of their city council, whichever city it might be. 

Santa Cruz, as everybody knows, were formed in 1914 and are one of the most storied clubs of the Brazilian nordeste. In the last two years, despite playing in Serie D, the team has boasted average crowds of around 40,000.

All of which means, obviously, that Guaratingueta can afford to pay oor Thiago around three times what Santa can. Adeus, Sr Cunha, née Capixaba.

Unfortunately, ThiagoCunhagate is just the tip of the new signings iceberg. It is fair to say that Papai Noel did not bring Santa Cruz all that he was asked for. To recap:

Ex-Sport craftsman Fumagalli is wooed by the diretoria as a form of bringing back the wiry elegance that has been lacking in the tricolor midfield ever since Rosembrick lost his heart to a bottle of Guaraná. Recife B leap into the hunt at the last minute. A bidding war ensues between the two Recife big dogs. Fumagalli signs for Guarani of São Paulo.

Branquinho, who had been on loan at Sport from América PE, will provide next year’s goals. His signing is announced. I’m really chuffed to be playing for such a big team, Whitey says. Only nobody has told América. Santa have signed Branquinho without telling the team he plays for? That’s clever, snaps América president José Augusto Moreira. Contractual chaos looms.

In an attempt to make up for the Fumagalli debacle, the traditional Pernambuco proverb that states one aging ex-Sport midfielder is much the same as another is invoked. Except there are a few distinct differences between Fumagalli and Luciano Henrique, most evidently in the areas of work rate, motivation, and talent.  An airport welcoming committee and ticker tape parade up Avenida Beberibe will probably not be forthcoming.

At least Vanderson, an admirable volante who tugged opponents’ shirts across 241 games for Vitoria, saying in 2010 that he loved the club so much he’d even work there as a janitor, is rumoured to be on the way. Only this particular rumour has been doing the rounds so long that it has assumed almost mythical status. A number of Recife churches have replaced their hopeful Jesus Is Back signboards with Vanderson Signs for Santa posters.

Tricolor natives, a hot headed bunch, are restless. These directors are a bunch of clowns, scream the Twitter feeds, sack them all! Perhaps it is the news that Santa players will only return from their holidays on January 2nd, while Recife B players are already sweating under the Pernambucano sun, that has so incensed the mob.

But it is early yet. The defence of the Campeonato Pernambucano will not begin until January 15th. Vanderson may yet come. The return of 2010’s hapless hitman, Joelson, might be avoided. Maybe Papai Noel is just late. There may still be surprises in his sack.*

Though there probably won’t.

* One such surprise, in the talented shape of ex-Recife Jr striker Geílson, has just been announced, partly, though not entirely, scuppering the whinging tone of this piece.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Now that See A Darkness is a veritable internet smash hit, with over 100 followers on Tweeter, or something equally foolish, difficult decisions must be made.

What to do with such an army of disciples? Lead them into a David Koresh style mass suicide at Arruda, while Recife choque troops blast Achy Break Heart (or more appropriately, something by Naughty Wesley) from six foot high speaker stacks lined up along the canal bank?

Although thinking about it, given SAD’s secret Galoucura past, perhaps the reference should not be Koresh but Jim Jones, who spent a year in Belo Horizonte* in the sixties, and, given the way things later turned out, must almost certainly have been Atleticano.

Better by far would be to invest in a bit of brand marketing, and here too SAD has previous, thanks to his days selling his soul to something far, far worse than the devil, as legal department tea boy at a certain London based club and record label complex whose name cannot be mentioned here but who we might call Ministry of Sound. So just in time for Christmas – prepare yourself for SAD branded skimpy speedos, SAD flip-flops, SAD cachaça etc, etc. Maybe Neymar will be free for a bit of TV advertising.

Someone who was no stranger to cult fandom, or, for that matter, a bit of self-marketing, was a certain Mr Ivan Fiel Da Silva, better known in these parts as Brasão. Our hero has been in the news in Brazil this week (quite hard to find news, admittedly), having returned in a blaze of glory to the club where he made his name.

Unfortunately, anyone expecting a triumphant cry of O Glorioso Santa Cruz Do Recife at this point will be disappointed. Brasão will play not for O Mais Querido in 2012, but for Fluminense de Feira, of Bahia.

For some, such news will bring with it a sigh of relief and a mutter of thank Ana Maria Braga he’s not coming back here. For some, a gnashing of teeth at a potential answer to Santa’s chronic failings in front of goal having slipped away. For the vast majority, a shrug of the shoulders and a quick mouse click away from this page and on to something much more interesting.

But we are, after all, in the middle of Santa’s 2938 days in the wilderness (if you’re counting, and yes, SAD did, the clock started on 12/11/2006 with relegation to Serie B, and will run until a return to Serie A is clinched (possibly, but almost certainly not) on 30/11/2013).

In short, these are barren times, and heroes are thin on the ground. During his time in Recife, SAD can remember precious few. Carlinhos Paraiba, despite looking a bit like one half of Milli Vanilli, strived manfully, almost entirely single-handedly, and ultimately fruitlessly to keep Santa from falling into Serie C in 2007. Marcelo Ramos scored a bucketload of goals in the Campeonato Pernambucano in 2009. Gledson, and a year or so later, Tuti, were good, if not particularly great, goalkeepers.

That, really, is pretty much your lot. At least until this year, when a veritable George Lucas film set worth of heroes rolled onto the Arruda stage. The magnificent Gilberto. The dazzling Little Pants. Canny Weslley. Superfly Leandro Souza. Brazil’s best keeper, Thiago Cardoso.** The best thing ever to come out of Goias (and unfortunately, SAD should know), comandanteI Love You.

But this year doesn´t really count, because all the above are still here (apart from Gilberto), their legends still in the making. Hopefully, there will be more to come from all of them.

There won´t be more to come from Brasão, at least not with Santa. Looking back, maybe there wasn’t that much there in the first place. But back in 2010, for a few months at least, watching Brasão play was about as much fun as there was to be had with the lights on. Or off. Or flickering between on and off because the rickety nordeste power grid was on the verge of keeling over again.

Like a footballing Littlest Hobo, he turned up at Arruda without much fanfare. Then, and even now, players arrived, and left, Santa in their droves. The Brazilian footballing calendar is effectively made up of two seasons – in the first half of the year teams concentrate (to a greater or lesser degree) on the state championships. The national championship runs from May or June onwards. The problem is that Series C and D are structured something like the World Cup (and the similarity ends there), with just a couple of group phases, followed by knockout rounds.

As a result, and also because they were rubbish, from 2008 to 2010 Santa didn’t play more than twelve or fourteen games in the latter half of the year. And after each failed Campeonato Pernambucano, or each disappointingly early exit from Serie C or D, the players would pack their bags and head off into the sunset. A new bunch of steers would be rustled up for the following year. SAD remembers turning up for games at the start of the season with the names of that afternoon’s first team scrawled on a grubby piece of paper, peering out at the field and trying to match eleven unknown names to eleven unknown faces.

As regular readers will know and new ones will guess, most of the arrivals were of questionable quality. Brasão himself didn’t promise that much. There was a clip on Youtube of a cheeky chipped penalty for Atlético Goianiense in 2010. The usual vaguely surreal CV of the journeyman Brazilian footballer (four years at Fransa Goa in India, three clubs in one year in 2009). That was about it.

A low key debut was made as a substitute away against América in sticky Manaus in the Copa Do Brasil in February 2010. Three days later, an equally low key home bow against Sete De Setembro.

The Brasão sort of low key. Our hero`s end of game report: hit bar (twice), goals created (two), goals scored (one), over the top goal celebration resulting in yellow card (one), seven minute end of game interview proclaiming his love for Santa, the club`s fans and his new teammates (one).

That would set the scene for most of Brasão’s time at Arruda. Everything was splendidly over the top. A shot like a mule. The occasional ludicrously dangerous kidney high challenge on an unsuspecting opponent. The goal celebrations, which ranged from shirt off, muscle-flexing strongman, to waving of unfurled poster of daughter.

There were a few truly memorable performances. The clássico against Nautico/Recife Jr at Arruda in March was one. Santa had led 2-0 in the second half, courtesy of goals by Edson Miolo and Brasão (a preposterous 25 yard chip over advancing Nautico keeper Gustavo), before the jitters kicked in and Nautico scored two sloppy goals towards the end. Nigh on 40,000 tricolores sobbed into their Pitu, while at the Nautico end, a few thousand pink clad Barbie dolls were waved in wild celebration.

But cometh the hour, cometh Brasão (a quote the player himself, a great fan of referring to his exploits in the third person, would appreciate). With four minutes left, close to goal but with a defender and goalkeeper in front of him, Brasão swayed left, then faked a shot, dummied again, waited until both defender and goalkeeper were on the ground, then rolled the ball into the corner. Jackson added a fourth, and the top deck of Arruda shook under all the stamping feet. Brasão, of course, was sent off for over-celebrating his goal.    

Then there was the epic Copa Do Brasil victory over Botafogo in Rio De Janeiro on, appropriately enough, April Fool`s Day. Santa had lost the first leg 1-0 at Arruda, but played their little white socks off at the Engenhão. Léo hit a long ranger that slipped under Jefferson’s body for a 1-0 lead, before Botafogo equalised through Herrera. Brasão put Santa 2-1 up for an away goal lead. With just five minutes left, Herrera equalised again, putting Santa out and breaking tricolor hearts. Until, that was, Souza scored Santa’s winner  in injury time.

There were the never a dull moment, endearingly demented third person interviews: it’s not about Brasão. It’s about Santa Cruz. Only God is bigger than Santa Cruz. Brasão's car, parked up outside Arruda with a for sale sign stuck to it in protest at Santa`s slothful (putting it kindly) wage payment policy. The 75 tickets bought for fans for the Serie D game against Potiguar.  The fact that, for the first time in a long time, Santa had someone to get excited about. Brasão é esperanca, as one of the fans in the queue for the free tickets said, though his judgement may have been slightly coloured.

Brasão is hope.

This being Santa Cruz, however, hope springs eternal before being dashed almost immediately afterwards. With Brasão, fans were nervously optimistic that Santa would win the clássico against the hated Sport/Recife B at the Ilha De Retiro. But Santa lost 1-0, Brasão was feeble throughout, and was sent off in the second half for hacking down Eduardo Ramos.

There was the Campeonato Pernambucano semi-final exit against Nautico, when Santa failed to score a goal over two legs, and Brasão was taunted by Nautico`s Carlinhos Bala: the king of Pernambuco is Carlinhos Bala, not Brasão.

Worst of all was the defeat away at Guarany de Sobral which eliminated Santa from Serie D that year, and meant another awful year would be spent in the basement in 2011. Brasão had failed to score in the home leg, and missed the decider through injury.

After that defeat Brasão packed his bags, somehow wangling a move to Vitoria Setubal in Portugal`s Primeira Liga. There are a handful of newspaper stories on the internet about his first few months in Europe, but after that nothing, until his return to Brazil this week. With a career trajectory that reads Serie D to Primeira Liga then back to Serie D (or not even Serie D, as Flu de Feira will have to qualify via the Campeonato Baiano), SAD can’t decide whether the player has the best, or the worst, agent in the world.

In the end, as his CV will tell you, Brasão is probably not quite good enough to be a top flight footballer. Serie C or D is probably his true level. Even during his time at Santa, for every barnstorming show there would be two anonymous displays and one bloody awful one. He is a little bit too slow, and a lot too volatile, to be the player he would like to be.

But this is not a criticism. There is nothing wrong with being Brasão. He is better, after all, than thousands of other professional footballers around the globe. He continues to make a living from the game, and, without wishing to sound like a testosterone pumped high school American football coach, gives everything he`s got, almost much all the time. Sometimes, a bit too much.

And for a few months, during a period when it was not very much fun at all to be tricolor, Brasão gave a great many people something to smile about, even if only for a short while. And so SAD says, marketeering or not, thanks for the (brief) memories, and good luck for the future, Ivan Fiel Da Silva.   

* Give or take 40 years, Jones was almost a drinking buddy of SAD. According to Jaime, owner of the finest bar in Belo Horizonte (and once SAD`s local), the imaginatively titled Jaime`s in Santo Antonio, Jim Jones would drop in from time to time during his year in BH. Jaime reports that, like most suicide pacters/mass serial killers planning the death of 900 people, Jones was quite a pleasant chap who generally kept himself to himself.  

** If you can’t show your love like SAD can, even in the face of cold hard reality, then SAD feels sorry for you.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Like the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest in Field of Dreams, slowly they slip away, back into the rows of corn. There will be no festa da despedida, no cheering crowds wishing them boa sorte, no champagne bottles smashed against this prow. It is on to pastures new, if not greener, for less than valiant tricolor guerreiros Alexandre Silva, Fernando Gaúcho, Ludemar, Washington, Walter, Roma, Bruno Leite, Cleber Goiano, Ricardinho and Leandrinho.

Each represented distinct phases of 2011. Laterals Bruno Leite and Alexandre Silva arrived twelve months ago, projected to be Santa`s Roberto Carlos and Cafu, and SAD imagined the pair buccaneering up and down the wings, terrorising opposing full backs, fierce in the tackle, strong in the handshake, generous and attentive to their womenfolk in bed.

Almost. After two games Bruno Leite was replaced by the equally hapless Jackson and, apart from a stand-in appearance against Cabense in February, was never seen again. Jackson himself lasted in the first team until March, as did Alexandre, when rational thinking returned to Arruda and the two were replaced by Cleber Goiano and Renatinho.

Ricardinho and Leandrinho arrived on the same day in July. Ricardinho was a meia and Leandrinho an atacante. Or maybe Leandrinho was a meia and Ricardinho was an atacante. The plan was to add enough midfield nous and attacking spark to put the all-conquering champions of Pernambuco over the top in Serie D. Continuing the lexicographical confusion, debuts were made as substitutes against Santa Cruz (Rio Grande Do Norte), on 14th August. After that, like drinking Pitu and cerebral aneurysm, our two friends were rarely separated. Four games later it was the end of the first team line for Dastardly and Muttley.

Ludemar and Fernando Gaúcho, meanwhile, joined Larry (Kiros), Curly (Caça-Rato), Moe (Thiago Cunha) and the rest, in the ensemble comedy that was Santa’s post-Gilberto front line. In the madcap scramble for promotion from Serie D, coach Zé Teodoro adopted a score-or-you’re-out policy. This understandably proved to be a problem for our heroes, for whom, in terms of difficulty, scoring goals was on a par with reciting the Koran backwards. Ludemar and Gaúcho were each called up each three times (approximately – SAD really hasn’t the energy to check) and dropped three times.*

Affectionate joshing (truly, SAD swears, in the event that he should ever happen to bump into any of the above mentioned players) apart, there is a sad story at work here. For Serie D and to a lesser extent Serie C, particularly in the more remote regions of this footballing kingdom, is the Slough of Despond of Brazilian football, the hard knock cousin of o jogo bonito. Few of these players earn huge amounts of money. Fewer still will go on to greater things after Santa - in recent years only Gilberto (Internacional), Leo (Botafogo, briefly, now back at Santa) and Carlinhos Paraíba (São Paulo) have taken great leaps forward after Arruda.**

It is an annual event, this drifting in and drifting out of players. The short Serie D and Serie C campaigns (most tricolores these days dream not of a Libertadores final against Boca Juniors but of the simple pleasure of a 38 game, pontos corridos season), and the terrible pressure they create for a big club like Santa, mean that only the chosen few stay very long. This year, at least, Santa kept playing until December, meaning contracts could be honoured. In other years, early elimination from Serie D meant the club, with no fixtures and so no money to pay wages, has had to buy its players out, and grant them early release.

And for the supporter, how can one remember, let alone love, players who stay only for a game or two? A glance back over the teamsheets of the past brings up names that only the obsessive statistician will remember.  SAD  is not an obsessive statistician, and worse, after years of Pitu abuse, is the possessor of an at best fractious memory.

Take 2008`s Titanic-esque Serie C campaign. SAD was at the Amigão in Campina Grande for that first game against Campinense (a 2-1 defeat, no reader will be very much surprised to learn). He can remember Memo from that day, and a clutch of others, including the excellent Juninho, doughty Alexandre Oliviera, and grizzled 63 year old striker Edmundo. Even Gilberto appeared, briefly, showing what a slowly mellowing wine he turned out to be.

But Garrinchina, and Esquerdinha? Who the Marcus Valerio were they? They didn’t feature much – both were dropped a few weeks later following another slapstick defeat, this time 3-0 against Potiguar. Other than the odd spot start, neither would feature again. SAD has no recollection of either.

There are a hundred such names. Adilson, lateral during 2009`s Campeonato Pernambucano, was a great favourite of SAD, as can be seen here. Whither Adilson today? Nobody, certainly not Google, seems to know.  Midfield schemer Leandro Gobatto, who was to be the Zidane of 2009’s victorious Serie D promotion campaign, fares a little better, with his own Youtube show-reel and even a Wikipedia page. Unfortunately, neither provides any information of what happened after his year at Santa.

Can anyone remember zagueiro Daniel Horst, who played against Ypiranga in the Campeonato Pernambucano in 2009? A Daniel Horst has just rolled up at Botafogo-SP. Could it be our hero? SAD suspects it must be. There can`t be too many Daniel Horsts in the Brasileirão. Add one, then, to the list of former Santa players whose career has if not flourished then at least continued, post Arruda.

What of calamitous lateral Robinho, loaned from Atlético de Alagoinhas in Bahia for the Pernambucano in 2010? Once his time was up at Arruda (which, one suspects, might have been a few minutes into his first training session), Robinho presumably wandered the dusty roads back to Alagoinhas. After that, the trail runs cold.

No such discussion would be complete without a mention of the fabled Thomas Anderson. SAD can’t remember when Thomas first surfaced at Arruda, but knows that he has played in, and been released immediately after, every competition that Santa have contested since 2008. SAD feels confident that when this blog is in its dotage, a decade or so from now, Thomas Anderson will once more be giving interviews in the Recife press, saying that he has matured and is confident that this is the year when he really makes his mark.

Last but not least comes the great Paulo Rangel. A feared goal getter at Salgueiro in 2009, Santa signed Paulo for one solitary, make-or-break contest. Only a win against CSA at Arruda, in the last Serie D game that year, would keep Santa`s promotion chances alive. Paulo, surely, would make that win a reality. Readers will guess the rest. Santa drew 2-2, Rangel missed a boatload of chances. It would be Serie D again in 2010.

And after that? Like the ghost of Shoeless Joe, Paulo Rangel drifted away into the corn. Literally, in this case. Mr Rangel spent 2011 with Cuiabá, in Brazil’s very own Iowa, Mato Grosso.

To finish, no such baseball-referencing wafflings would be complete without a little bit of Roger Angell. How about this gem, on sporting ghosts, the difficulties proved by box score induced abbreviations, and the Robbie Burns spirit?

Not even a latter-day O. Henry would risk a conte like the true, electrifying history of a pitcher named Pete Jablonowski, who disappeared from the Yankees in 1933 after several seasons of inept relief work with various clubs. Presumably disheartened by seeing the losing pitcher listed as “J’bl’n’s’i” in the box scores of his day, he changed his name to Pete Appleton in the semi-privacy of the minors, and came back to win fourteen games for the Senators in 1936, and continue in the majors for another decade.  

* SAD shouldn`t be too harsh on Ludemar and Gaúcho – the pair ultimately scored the goals that got Santa out of Serie D. But boy, was it a struggle.

** Those bouncing up and down in their seats at the back shouting about Gledson and Thiago Mathias can pipe down. Recife Jr, Serie A or not, is nobody`s idea of progress, and neither is being relegated with Ceará.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Misery whore! So See A Darkness was once christened by this sorry individual. The gypsy was wrong, of course. SAD doesn`t love misery. Nor does he seek it out. Nor does he perform sexual favours in exchange for it (though in terms of new business opportunities it might not be such a bad idea). In fact it`s the other way around. Misery tracks down SAD like a hungry bloodhound.

Take Saturday, for example. SAD didn`t go to the Serra Dourada, in Goiania, amidst an apocalyptic rainstorm, specifically in search of misery. He went in the expectation of seeing a robust, fairly played out sporting contest between Vila Nova Sub-16 and Recife B. Were Vila Nova to win the game, so condemning Recife B to another doleful year in Serie B, why, that would merely have been a bonus.

To begin, an aside for lovers of nature. This is the time of year when that rare bird malus brancus makes its appearance in the skies above Brazilian football grounds. Before the game, Vila Nova Sub-16 were allegedly promised anything from R$3 to R$3 million by Recife B`s forlorn promotion rivals Vitoria and Bragantino, if they could manage to hold Recife B to a draw.

The very lucky few might catch a glimpse of the even rarer malus pretus. Whereas malus brancus is a friendly, good natured beast, malus pretus is a sinister, unlovable predator. SAD thinks he spotted malus pretus above the Serra Dourada on Saturday, but he can’t be sure.

Still, how else might the amateur ornithologist explain the generosity of Recife B`s directors in buying up 7,000 tickets for the game (at R$50 each, after Vila had jacked up their prices), full in the knowledge that fewer than 2,000 Recife B supporters would make the journey? The directors of already relegated Vila were no doubt most grateful. Only the worst kind of cynic would suggest that news of Recife B`s generosity (or even some of the R$350,000 itself) might have trickled down to the players and coaching staff of Vila Nova Sub-16. SAD, of course, is no such cynic.

By the time SAD takes his seat in a sodden and almost entirely empty Serra Dourada the game has already started. Like toddlers in need of burping, the Recife B fans are making a lot of noise in the rain over on one side. Around fifty Vila Nova supporters, and six tricolores (including SAD), sit in weary silence on the other.

For around 45 minutes things go really rather well indeed. The mighty Boa Esporte go 2-0 up against Duque De Caxias in Rio, claiming, temporarily at least, the last promotion spot. In the rain, Recife B struggle mightily. Vila Nova Sub-16 miss two clear chances. Enthused, SAD slaps his neighbour heartily on the back. Santa are champions of Pernambuco, free of the infernal Serie D at last, and now Recife B are blowing it all at the last hurdle – could 2011 get any better?

They sell beer inside the Serra Dourada, making it, in SAD`s book, an excellent spot for the footballing tourist. As a result, the half-time break fairly flies past. Further interval entertainment is provided by ten or twelve members of Vila Nova`s Comando Vermelho, who decide to run, or swim, all the way around the stadium to start a fight with some Recife B supporters. The police chuck some tear gas about and the ten or twelve members of Vila Nova’s Comando Vermelho run all the way back to their seats.

It is around ten minutes into the second half, with the rain coming down in thick grey sheets and the pitch almost underwater, that things start to go wrong. Recife B have improved. Vila Nova Sub-16, it is clear, will not score on this or any other day. SAD remembers the old Tom Zé song.

Tristeza não tem fim, felicidade sim. Sadness has no end, but happiness surely bloody does.

With terrible clarity the impossibility of a happy ending becomes apparent, and SAD understands not just the foolishness, but also the moral bankruptcy, of his mission. His own team is not playing here today. Worse, the result of Vila Nova Sub-16 v Recife B will not even directly affect O Mais Querido. And yet, instead of spending his Saturday sitting at home eating chocolate biscuits and watching teeth-grindingly awful Brazilian television, here SAD is, metaphorically clothed in black, spewing ill will, emitting only doom and gloom.
Secar, they call it in these parts. To cheer against a rival, to support a team that you don`t even like in the hope that someone you like even less will be vanquished. To pray for only defeat. It`s a shoddy, depressing business. And it almost never works. 

SAD has previous. For long years he secared Recife B`s better looking older sister, Man Utd. The predictable result was that Man Utd won everything in sight. In 2008 he secared Recife B in the Copa Do Brasil. The predictable result was that Recife B won the Copa Do Brasil.

With about 15 minutes left, with dreadful inevitability, Recife B score. The other side of the ground explodes. After the final whistle, the supporters of Recife B run onto the pitch. A few of them advance towards the fistful of Vila Nova fans. One of them decides that the most appropriate way to celebrate the promotion of one`s football team is to reveal one`s genitalia to an almost empty football stadium. SAD, while oddly fascinated, takes this as his cue to leave. As he slumps towards the exit, he swears never to secar again, knowing, of course, that he will secar again at the first opportunity (the Figueirense v Corinthians game the next day).

SAD walks home through the darkening night and the Book of Revelations rain with much to ponder. Does that perfect football year, when one`s team romps to glorious triumph after glorious triumph, while hated rivals are utterly and repeatedly humiliated, really exist? Is it wrong to wish ill on someone else, even a football team? What strange motivation had made SAD spend his Saturday afternoon in the rain, cheering on the reserve team of a club which had not won for 12 games and which he did not support, full in the knowledge that they had absolutely no chance of victory? Will the world record for the number of car horns beeped in an hour be broken in Recife that night? Will it ever stop raining? Why does it rain anyway? Why don`t bicycles fall over? Will Francis Begbie really make SAD watch the first three films in the Twilight saga when he gets home, as promised/threatened, in preparation for the final, castrating blow that will be a visit to the cinema the next day, to see the fourth?

The answers to the above questions and more may or may not be revealed in future editions of See A Darkness.     

Monday, 21 November 2011

The laurels all are cut, the year draws in the day, and we`ll to Arruda no more.* It is 18.38 in Goiania, 2000km from As Republicas Independentes. Santa are drawing 0-0 with Tupi as SAD writes, a result which means the not-all-that-coveted crown of Serie D Champions 2011 will very soon be heading it`s way south, to Juiz De Fora in Minas Gerais.

Around 14 minutes of the game remain. Zé Teodoro has revealed himself to be an avid reader of See A Darkness, and has gone with exciting midfield triumvirate of Bismarck, Renatinho and Weslley. Exciting midfield triumvirate of Bismarck, Renatinho and Weslley have failed miserably. Actually, this is not entirely fair - Santa have played well enough, or at least it sounds so on the radio, but the curse of incompetence in front of goal, courtesy of Messrs Cunha, Gaúcho, Kiros, Rat Hunter and Ludemar, all too common in the second half of the year, looks like it will be the team`s undoing once again.

Afternoon dwindles into night, another sweltering midwestern day fades, and Santa`s season too, gutters in the gloom. There will be no proper football now at Arruda until January, which is at least a shorter break than recent years, when the footballing calendar finished in September or October and tricolores were left to twiddle calloused thumbs for five months or more.  

Suddenly, as SAD listens idly, Tupi score one, and a few minutes later, a second. Silence falls on what had been a boisterous Arruda. SAD feels sad, but not too sad. Congratulations are due to the mineiros – though the score reflects a hard lesson for pernambucano football – teams from the sul and sudeste always end up kicking nordestino arse, even at this level.

In the end, then, after all the sound and fury, there is nothing much to do but imagine 60,000 tricolores drifting quietly out of Arruda (stumbling on the broken steps down from the anel superior, probably ending up in an unpleasant crush on the second landing), and into the night, and to remember the best of the year gone by.

Like the first home game against Ypiranga, back in January, a hard-to-recall 2-1 tricolor victory, when new friends were welcomed on to the Arruda turf: Thiago Cardoso, Weslley, Leandro Souza, Landu and Thiagos Mathias and Cunha, who would go on to great things in 2011 (yes, even Landu); Alex Silva, Bruno Leite, Laécio and Mario Lucio, who wouldn`t, and would soon be forgotten. 

That game came near the start of a six game unbeaten run that would make Santa early leaders, though reality was lurking unpleasantly near – thumping defeats against Recife Jr, away at Aflitos, and Porto, in the perennial graveyard of Caruaru, brought fears of a clássico whipping the following week against Recife B at Arruda.

That was the day that set the theme for the year – overturning expectations, grinding results out even when the overall play was frequently unlovely, and a tremendous sense of unity among journeymen (Cardoso, Weslley, and Leandro Souza), grizzled veterans (Thiago Mathias** and Jeovanio) and youngsters (Gilberto, Memo, Natan, Renatinho and Everton Sena).

SAD is too lazy to rehash the entire year here, and in any case, anyone who pays attention to all things tricolor will need no reminding – of the stirring 1-0 over São Paulo at Arruda, of the three consecutive helpings of whupass served up on Recife B, of the narrow squeak past Porto in the semis, and of that final, triumphant aggregate victory over A Coisa in front of more than 60,000 at As Republicas.

Then the tortuous trail of Serie D began  – the invasão of João Pessoa by 16,000 tricolores for that first game against Alecrim, then fifteen games of, well, excruciating pain, not to put too fine a point on it. Without Gilberto, Santa forgot how to score – mustering a feeble 17 goals in 16 games, and promotion was achieved thanks to organization, stamina, stout work in midfield and defence, and a marvelous goalkeeper.  Better, much better, will be needed in Serie C in 2012.

Maybe it is for the best that in the end things culminate in a defeat. SAD has been getting pretty cocky recently – foolishly, because as anyone who has lived in darkness knows, even though the clouds may briefly part, there are always storms lurking just over the horizon.

Defeat against Tupi will serve as a reminder, then, that nothing is guaranteed, and that for O Mais Querido, losing still comes as easily than winning – if not more so. This is as it should be, of course, in football as in life, because only in this way can we good tricolores appreciate and savour those rare victories when they come.

And really, no-one should care much about losing to Tupi. Promotion was all that mattered, and promotion is in the bag. Real darkness might descend next Saturday, as Recife B, it seems, have somehow wormed (the verb is an apt one) their way back into the Serie A promotion spots (and a plague on the houses of Vitoria and Bragantino for letting it happen). 

Which leaves SAD no option but to show up at the Serra Dourada in Goiania next Saturday, and scream his support for Vila Nova for 90 unhappy minutes. For if Recife B win, then they`re up into Serie A, and we will all walk in darkness once again…

* With apologies, once again, to AE Housman and Roger Angell.

** Unity up to a point, in Mr. Mathias`s case.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Guerreiros, Guerreiros, Guerreiros, Time De Guerreiros, is a chant that has echoed around many a Brazilian football ground in recent years. Based on the track Sorte Grande (or Big Luck), by introspective, melancholic Bahian singer Ivete Sangalo, with its hushed, haunting refrain of Poeira, Poeira, Poeira, Levantou Poeira (we sure kicked up some dust, or words to that effect), it acclaims the warrior spirit of the team in question, salutes their unconquerable spirit, praises their brave Brazilian hearts.   

Perhaps the most famous Team Of Warriors in the last few years has been 2009’s Fluminense, who were bottom of the table with only a few games left before reeling off six wins on the trot and escaping relegation on the last day of the season. A quick scan of the internet, however, reveals that the term Time De Guerreiros has, like cheap shoes, been somewhat devalued by overuse. This year’s warriors include Cruzeiro (one position above the relegation zone despite an extravagantly talented cast of players), Vasco (fair enough – coach Ricardo Gomes almost died of a stroke a couple of months ago, and last week’s stirring comeback against Universitario of Peru wasn’t too shabby), Guarani, heroically mid-table in Serie B, and Atletico Parana (even worse off than Cruzeiro). These days, it seems, winning a throw-in in the opposition half while losing to a team not much better than yourselves is enough to earn a rousing chorus of Guerreiros, Guerreiros, Guerreiros, Time De Guerreiros, from the stands.  

Santa Cruz 2011, of course, have been a Time De Guerreiros pretty much all year, and from time to time have even deserved it. On 30th March Rogerio Ceni, Lucas and the rest of the São Paulo glamour pusses rolled into Recife for a Copa Do Brasil tie. Santa’s names were less well-known but gutsier. 19 year old Everton Sena marked Lucas out of the game, Gilberto out-muscled Alex Silva and Rhodolfo, Renatinho did his smaller-faster-better routine one more time, and Rogerio Ceni lost the plot completely, charging 90 yards to scream in the referee’s face as Santa goalkeeper Thiago Cardoso lay injured on the ground. The referee sensibly sent Rogerio The Humble 90 yards back to his own goal, as cries of timinho, timinho (wee team, wee team, in the Norn Iron vernacular) rang around the ground. 

Another timinho, aka Recife B, aka Sport Club Do Recife, were chewed up and spat out three times in a row, first of all at Arruda, then at the Ilha Do Retiro, then at the Ilha again in the Campeonato Pernambucano final. All three times Santa were rank outsiders – Sport’s payroll is three or four times bigger than Santa’s, Santa are/were in Serie D, Sport have the biggest support in Recife, in the nordeste, in America Do Sul, in the world, and are rivalled on the pitch only by Barcelona and possibly Manchester City (by now SAD’s leanings towards the bluer, and better half of Manchester are hopefully common knowledge).*  All three times the results were ground out through determination, sweat, and the odd moment of genius from Wesley, Renatinho, Gilberto or Thiago Cardoso.

So far so guerreiro. But then came Serie D. Santa were no-hopers at the start of the Pernambucano, expected to finish well behind Sport, Nautico, and maybe even Salgueiro, Porto or Central. But in Serie D, suddenly, Santa were favourites, roared on by crowds 60, or even 600, times bigger than some of their rivals. And if wages at Arruda are a long way behind those at the Ilha or Aflitos, then imagine what the slim pay packets at Alecrim or Coruripe must be like.

Such pressure has weighed heavy on fragile tricolor backs, and in truth Santa have struggled mightily in Serie D. Such has been the fear of defeat (understandable, given the cruel twists and turns of Serie D’s group/knockout structure) that Santa have retreated into their collective shell. Steadfast, determined, warriors once more, even though this time the opposition has not been São Paulo or Sport but Cuiaba, Treze and Guarani.

Still, the salutes of guerreiros, guerreiros have continued. The scoreless second leg away in Alagoas against the mighty Coruripe was clearly the work of heroes, as was the stirring fight back against the all-conquering Treze in Campina Grande. SAD might even have joined in with a verse or two in Rondonopolis as the omnipotent Cuiaba were put to the sword in the Serie D semi-final. Fair enough – all three games saw Santa qualify for the next round. But really, Coruripe, Treze and Cuiaba?

The thing about being a Time De Guerreiros is that the underlying subtext is that, well, you’re not very good. Nobody calls Barcelona or Man City a Time De Guerreiros, because Barcelona or Man City don’t really need to roll their sleeves up and battle as though their lives depend on it to escape from Juiz De Fora with only a 1-0 defeat (supposedly setting things up nicely for the second leg). Being a Time De Guerreiros means a team is effectively a bunch of honest toilers, stubborn and hard working, but lacking in talent and inspiration. And when you’re being a Time De Guerreiros against teams that are probably worse off than you are, then it’s an even poorer state of affairs.

The thing is that Santa are more than a Time De Guerreiros. Thiago Cardoso is as good a goalkeeper as there is outside of Serie A. Leandro Souza is a classy zagueiro, if a bit slow. Memo has developed into a decent volante, though is a terrible fill-in fullback. Weslley has a terrific range of passing. Renatinho and Natan are as gifted as those weird 12 year old kids who pass their Oxford or Cambridge entrance exams that you sometimes see on the news.

And then there is Bismarck. Bismarck is imaginative, creative and quick. Bismarck has transformed almost every game he has played in (usually coming on as a late substitute). A midfield of Bismarck, Renatinho and Weslley would carve open most defences at this or even higher levels, and certainly that of Tupi, Santa’s opponents in the second leg of the Serie D final on Sunday. Even Thiago Cunha, Kiros and Rat-Hunter, surely, could not contrive to miss all the chances that such a midfield would create.

But Bismarck is not a guerreiro. Bismarck might give the ball away too often. Santa have come this far on Zé Teodoro’s terrific organizational skills and the aforementioned redoubtable mental and emotional characteristics. Bismarck, then, is a luxury, perhaps to be held in reserve for the more refined terrain of next year’s Serie C.

Maybe, though, the whole guerreiro thing is getting a bit tired now. It’s the last game of the season. Santa’s chance to win their first ever national championship (embarrassing as that sounds). 60,000 roaring from the stands. Jeovanio is suspended, opening up a spot in midfield. Tupi are probably not very good. Two defensive midfielders will perhaps not be completely necessary.

SAD feels the need to beseech. Come on Zé Teodoro! Guerreiros no more! On Sunday, as Santa run out 3-0 winners following a glorious display of expansive, flowing football, a new chant will be needed!

Weaklings, weaklings, weaklings, team of weaklings!        

* All of these claims, remarkably, are true. At least according to every Recife B supporter SAD has ever met. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

SAD´s Santinha away jaunt CV is not as healthy as he would like.

Exhibit 1: vs. CSA in Maceió (285km from Recife), July 2009.  A thumping 3-0 opening day victory, with goals from Juninho (saudades), Reinaldo (whatever the opposite of saudades is) and Neto Maranhão prompted misguided hopes of a quick promotion from Serie D. A quiet enough beginning off the pitch, with the only incident of note coming on the return trip: on the way through some benighted hamlet or other in Alagoas or south Pernambuco, a mischievously tossed object whizzes through the warm night air, slips silently through the window of the bus, and cracks softly against SAD’s forehead. I’m hit, I’m hit, cries SAD, reaching up and touching something wet, before realising the object was egg, not rock, and the goo is yolk, not blood.

Exhibit 2: Maceió again, in August 2010. A last minute winner from who else but Brasão saw Santa through to the second round of that year’s Serie D. On the way back the coach brakes down in the middle of a sugar cane plantation miles from civilisation. Three hours and several epic rainstorms later, a replacement bus arrives from Recife and the journey can continue.

Exhibit 3: Sobral (1038km from Recife), October 2010. Twenty hours there, twenty hours back. A 2-0 defeat and another premature exit from Serie D. Long term physical and psychological damage.

Exhibit 4: João Pessoa (128km from Recife), July 2011. A routine victory against Alecrim. 16,000 tricolores make the trip. On the way back, this.

Exhibit 5 does not start well. The bus to Rondonópolis, Mato Grosso, leaves at midnight, just as Goiânia, SAD’s new home, is engulfed in a downpour of biblical proportions. For the next eleven hours it seems certain that death, when it comes, will at least be quick and painless. The great plains of the centro-oeste are engulfed in utter blackness. Every few minutes lightning crackles along the horizon, illuminating a few skeletal trees and miles and miles and miles of flat, empty land. Our driver is undaunted by the zero visibility – the bus careens madly around corners, skidding in the wet as juggernauts scream out of the darkness towards us, klaxons blaring.

SAD spends most of the journey in the brace position, just in case. And offers up the first traveler’s tip of the 2014 World Cup. If of nervous disposition and about to embark on a long distance bus journey in Brazil, do not on any account choose one of the raised, “first floor” seats at the front, above the driver. The grandstand view of the mayhem outside will prove too much for a skittering heart.

Rondonópolis is one of those stubbornly provincial, industrial “second cities” (through really towns) that seem to be common in middle ranking Brazilian states, reminiscent of Campina Grande (Paraiba), Caruaru (Pernambuco) and Anápolis (Goiás). And Mato Grosso is one of those Brazilian states where local football is strangled at birth by the televised lure of gaudier fare from Rio and São Paulo. Santa’s opponents, Cuiabá, from the state capital (and Brazil’s least loveable World Cup host city), boast average crowds of around 700 and a stadium too small for such an illustrious occasion as today’s Serie D semi-final, which is why today’s game has been moved here, to the not-quite-the-Emirates environs of the Estádio Luthero Lopes.

Though with a bit of forethought the CBF might have realised that not that much space would be required. 3045km is too far even for the Santa hordes to travel, meaning that tricolor support here today is limited to a scattering of waifs and strays marooned in Brasilia or Goiânia (SAD included). The majority of Cuiabá’s few fans will have been put off by the 230km drive from the capital. Most of what little noise there is is being made by the Rondonópolis branch of Palmeiras’ Mancha Verde torcida organizada, who have turned up in support of their pals in Santa’s Inferno Coral. The total crowd is under 500 and the atmosphere slightly less intense than an early group game in Norn Iron’s Milk Cup juniors competition.

But amidst the echoing shouts of players and coaches things go well enough for Santa. The rain has stopped and the pitch is in good shape, and the three sided stadium is pretty enough. It is the best attack in Serie D (Cuiabá) against the best defence (Santa), and Zé Teodoro has gone for negative overkill to hang on to a 1-0 first leg lead, with three zagueiros and two volantes, leaving Wesley as the only creative outlet.

Such plans go out the window after about three minutes, when Fernando scores a clever goal, sending the gaggle of Cuiabá fans into a frenzy. Over on the Santa side it feels hard to get excited – promotion is already ensured, and only the hours wasted on the bus seem much of a reason to care.

But Arruda’s Almost Invincibles (one defeat in fourteen Serie D games) are made of stern stuff. Sleeves are rolled up, and after twenty minutes Eduardo Arroz crosses and Fernando Gaúcho finishes off for the equaliser. Gaucho may just be the club’s best striker these days, which is admittedly not saying a lot.

With Cuiabá needing two Santa are happy to sit back and control the game, which they do quite nicely. Renatinho comes on for Dutra, giving a bit more of a breakaway threat. With twenty minutes remaining the Artist Formerly Known As Little Pants crosses for Gaúcho to get his second, and Santa are in the final.

Which is pretty much it, except that at the end there is a nice, up country stadium, touch, as the gates are opened and the few fans that are there are allowed to wander happily amongst the players. SAD considers remaining aloof but sooner gives in to his inner child and makes his way onto the grass for photos with Jeovanio and Zé Teodoro.

Afterwards there is beer and macaxeira at what must be the only bar in Rondonópolis owned by a Pernambucano. There is plenty of praise from the locals for Santa, whose crowds over the last few years have garnered nationwide fame. An argument starts over whether local favourites Vila Aurora played Santa in the Copa Do Brasil in 2006. Bets are made, though no-one seems to know the answer, and iPhones with web access are unsurprisingly thin on the ground. A shoeless man in a grubby Vasco Da Gama shirt knocks on a door further down the street. When the unseen oracle inside has spoken, our messenger scurries back. He stands on a chair and proclaims the verdict – in February 2006 Santa beat Tigrão 1-0 over two legs. On a mysterious technicality, the loser of the bet refuses to pay. The winner is not pleased. The atmosphere becomes heated. SAD decides it’s time to head to the bus station, to think about the eleven hour journey to come. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

With apologies to John Updike, a few picked-up pieces on Santa and futebol in the centro-oeste, such as it is....

* The mighty Brasileirão Serie D, which tucks in just behind the Liga Dos Campeõs and in front of the Copa Do Mundo in the league table of global football tournaments, possesses one major flaw. The sole objective of Serie D is to escape (upwards, of course), and thereafter to never play in Serie D again. This is achieved by getting through the early group stage, then winning two knock-out rounds to claim a spot in the semi-final and, at the same time, a place in Serie C next year. The four promoted teams then have to battle on (a two-legged semi followed by a two-legged final) for the dubious honour of being Serie D Campeões. Which no-one, really, is that bothered about. Proof enough of this came at Arruda on Sunday when 34,000 of the 60,000 who had watched the quarter-final promotion decider against Treze the week before decided not to bother. 26,000 would be a good crowd for most Brazilian clubs, but for Santa it's almost disappointing.

* Vila Nova, SAD is told, is the time do povo in these parts. If so, there aren`t many povo in Goiania. Just over 900 people turned up at the 40,000 seater Serra Dourada last Friday night for Vila`s game against Barueri. Atlético Goianiense attract some of the smallest crowds in Serie A, ahead of only Avai and America (MG), and empty seats far outnumber the 9,000 or so who watch Goias every other week. It`s not entirely Vila`s fault - Brazilians don`t tend to waste their time watching losing teams, and Vila have been winless for several months and are doomed for Serie C, which means with a bit of luck SAD will get to watch Santa in Goiania next year.

* The main reason for this is that Goiania is one of those hellish one-horse towns where everyone supports teams from Rio or São Paulo. Up the road in Brasilia it`s the same - as Brasiliense and Gama die a slow death from lack of interest, replica shirts fly out of the big Flamengo club shop downtown. Goiania`s footballing roots point firmly in the direction of São Paulo. There`s a Morumbi-removed club shop in one of the swankier shopping malls not far from here, complete with a life size cutout of a grinning Rogerio Ceni in the window. Out for a stroll on Sunday afternoon, SAD was drawn towards a nearby bar by the sound of drums and low, rhythmic chanting. It sounded not unlike a sleepy Inferno Coral bateria. And true enough, it was a torcida organizada - the Gavioes Da Fiel, Goiania branch, watching Internacional v Corinthians on TV. There were about 20 of them, and they stared moodily out at the street as SAD walked past, eyes filled with sulky frustration at not having been born in the shadow of Héliopolis.      

* If fans are in short supply, then good old fashioned Brazilian footballing mentalism is not. Goias originally boasted two teams in Serie D, Itumbiara from the south and Anapolina, from Anapolis, the second biggest town in the state (and locally known, for no apparent reason, as the Manchester Goiana). Both ended up in the same group and an epic Greeks and Trojans battle ensued. The teams ended level on 13 points, one behind Tupi (MG), with Itumbiara taking the second qualifying spot on goal difference. This was after Anapolina, needing to win by five, had managed only a 4-1 victory in their last game against a Toncantinopolis side promised big bundles of cash by Itumbiara if they managed to hold Anapolina to a victory of four goals or less. Anapolina justifiably pointed out that Toncantinopolis had achieved this by, after having three players sent off, ordering one of their players to feign injury, meaning the game was called off with 20 minutes remaining. The CBF ordered the game to be replayed, and Anapolina won 6-1, taking Itumbiara's spot in the second round.

* This was clearly not enough drama for Anapolina tecnico Nivaldo Lancuna. Celebrating with his players on the pitch following the replayed game, he overheard a supporter calling him a burro, the result of some perceived strategic error or other. Outraged, Sr. Lancuna immediately resigned his position. Some idiot comes down here just to call me a moron? I don`t need it, I`m finished, he roared. His proud gesture lasted slightly under 24 hours before he was persuaded to return to his post. Anapolina, remarkably, are still alive in Serie D, and, if they beat Tupi over two legs, will play in Serie C next year. More excitingly, if both Santa and Anapolina reach the final of Serie D, Santa will play here in Goiania (probably) in a few weeks time!

* Forget Bruno e Maronne, Vitor e Leo and the rest of the ill-starred country double acts that pimple the centro-oeste like chicken-pox, the only duplo sertanejo that SAD would pay to watch are Renatinho and Natan.

* Last year`s epic journey to Sobral was slightly over 1000km. It took 20 hours. On Sunday Santa will play the second leg of their Serie D semi-final, against Cuiaba, in Rondonopolis, Mato Grosso, which is just over 700km from Goiania. The journey takes just over ten hours. There's an ovenight bus that leaves Goiania at 11pm on the Saturday night and gets into Rondonopolis at 9am on Sunday morning. I mean, how can SAD not go?

* In roughly 25 years of supporting football teams from Manchester to Recife, via Belo Horizonte, SAD thought that the biggest sporting prize in existence was not getting relegated. Since January this year, when the previously mentioned Francis Begbie appeared on the scene, Santa have won the Campeonato Pernambuco, been promoted from Serie D, and opened up a big can of whupass on the callow Recife B on a number of occasions. Man City won the FA Cup in May and are top of the Premier League, and as most will know, narrowly came out the better in last Sunday`s Manchester derby, courtesy of six lucky goals. If only for this, then SAD must continue to bear the multiple agonies of a long-term relationship.

Finally, which was better - this or this? If he had been there, jumping up and down like a fool in the away end, SAD would probably have said the former. But as he wasn't, and as it's hard to really care quite as much any more, it has to be the latter.

Monday, 17 October 2011

At about 7pm on Sunday (it`s horario de Brasilia all the way for See A Darkness these days), 60,000 people in Recife rub their eyes and jump up and down and look to the stars and give out great screams of relief and joy. At the same time one person (See A Darkness, of course) does the same thing in a small gloomy kitnet on Rua 91, Setor Sul, Goiania.

Francis Begbie, SAD`s loyal companion, asks him what all the excitement is about. Even though he`s been explaining patiently for the last week what all the excitement is about.

Santa have done it, SAD cries, they`ve drawn with Treze, and now they`ll be in Serie C next year!

A draw?, says Begbie. So they didn`t even win?

Shut it woman!, bellows SAD, still jumping around the room.  

Begbie gives SAD a steely look. She picks up purse and keys and leaves the gloomy kitnet, slamming the door behind her. Like Captain Oates, she may be gone for some time.

But it`s not her fault, really.

Because it was SAD, not Begbie, who was sitting in a grimy bar in Pelourinho (why he can hardly remember) in August 2008 when Santa drew disastrously with Campinense at home and fell like a stone into the newly created Serie D.

Serie D?, yelled SAD at The Ex-Girlfriend, on the other end of the line in Recife, much to the amusement of the hookers and beggars and other assorted human detritus around him. What the hell is Serie D? Who plays in Serie D? They can`t be in Serie D. They`ll sort it out. Someone will be kicked out of Serie C, or something like that.

SAD was obviously forgetting for a moment the difference between being a big, poor club from the nordeste, and being a big, powerful club like, say, River Plate, or Fluminense, for whom rules are bent and backhanders made so that the day may be saved. No rules were bent to save Santa. And nor should they have been.

Darkness reigned.

Begbie wasn`t there in 2009, either, when Santa, during their first calamitous tour through Serie D, lost on successive Saturdays to Sergipe, and then followed up by losing away to Central. She wasn`t there on that truly awful afternoon in August that year when Santa, needing just a win to make the next phase, could only draw 2-2 with CSA at Arruda, with 30,000 baying from the stands and screaming and clutching their chests before finally drifting off, silently, into the night.

And in September last year, wherever she was, she wasn`t spending 20 hours on a bus to get to bloody Sobral, Ceará. She didn`t see Santa score two own goals in front of 55,000 in the first game at Arruda, before coming from behind to record a slapstick 4-3 victory. She didn`t see Sobral win the return leg 2-0, all too predictably, the week after. She didn`t then spend 20 hours on a bus on the way home from Sobral, trying very hard to think of a reason, any reason, to get out of bed the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that.
So it`s hard to blame Begbie. She can`t be expected to know how it feels now that it`s finally over, how even from far away it feels a million times better than the Campeonato Pernambuco victory over Recife B, because that was really just local bragging rights, whereas this promises, somewhere down the line, dignity, and self-respect, and a brighter future.

Finally, she can`t know how marvelous it feels to at last be able to say to the likes of Sergipe, Confianca, Potiguar of Mossoró, the evil other Santa Cruz of Rio Grande Do Norte, Guarani of Juazeiro Do Norte, Alecrim, Coruripe and Treze….we`ll never play you again, we`ll never play you again.

Ever. Or at least until the next time. 

Note: Begbie returned some time later, without any noticeable frostbite wounds.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Nothing in Serie D became them like the leaving of it, is how half of Pernambuco hopes this story ends up. And if this was See A Darkness’s last jolly in Brazil’s football gloomy basement for a while, then it wasn’t all that bad a way to bow out.

Sunday in Recife dawns grey and muggy, and Ray Winstone of Piedade’s formidable organisational skills are responsible for the nordestino miracle that is a minibus leaving on the dot of 8am. Even more miraculous is that these tricolores’ inner protestant wins out over more natural catholic laxity – the first can of Skol isn’t cracked open until 8.30.

For a last splash there aren’t many landscapes as thrilling as this – up the BR101 through Pernambuco before hanging a left at Goiana (ironically enough), and then on through specks on the map such as Juripiranga (town motto – the bird that sings, for some reason) and Itabaiana (the queen of the valley)*.

The prehistoric (geologically and culturally) landscape of Paraiba stretches out towards the horizon – great rolling plains broken by stark splinters of granite jutting up towards the clouds. There is the occasional lone donkey wandering too close to the road, a place where the town cemetery seems to be the major tourist attraction (and it’s no Père Lachaise), and locals everywhere giving it the thousand yard stare by the side of the road, the caravana tricolor seemingly big news in these parts. Whatever the landscape it is hard to imagine that there will be a football match anywhere near here today.
Speaking of prehistoric, there has been much puffing of pigeon chests in the Treze camp in the days leading up to the game. Club president Fabio Azevedo expressed misplaced doubts over the ability or otherwise of Santa to bring many fans to Campina Grande (a bit like criticising a Muscovite’s proclivity for vodka ice-pops, considering O Terror Do Nordeste took 16,000 to nearby João Pessoa just a few weeks ago), and sent only the CBF minimum of 2,000 tickets to Recife. When it transpired that Treze weren’t going to be able to sell their 17,000 allocation (as Santa striker Thiago Cunha put it, Campina Grande is a town where folk are more likely to watch Fla-Flu on TV than turn up to support their local team), more tickets were hurriedly sent. But they arrived late on Friday afternoon, making it almost impossible for Santa to sell them in the few working hours left before Sunday’s game. Common or garden lower-reaches nonsense, in which the only people who suffer are the players and managers, distracted from more important matters, and the fans, as always in Brazil, in the dark until the last minute.

But the Amigão is nearly full, as is the Santa section, and the atmosphere crackles. Courtesy of Mr Sylvio Ferreira, poet, assessor to Santa President Antonio Luiz Neto, and as fine a man as you could wish to meet, and bus-pal (and equally fine) Big Carlos, SAD wangles his way into the posh bit, such as it is, where one of his neighbours turns out to be Renatinho, Santa wunderkind meio-campista on his way back from injury. SAD discovers that while endless blog buffoonery might be a strength, Frost style insightful interviewing is probably not. Cheers mate is as about as far as it gets.

On the pitch Tricolor confidence is as fragile as ever. Treze are two time Paraibano champions and in the first knockout round easily elbowed aside Evil Twin Santa Cruz from Rio Grande Do Norte, who had beaten Santa into second place in the group phase. Even more remarkably, in Marcelo Vilar the team has had the same coach for over two years, whereas the normal life span for a Brazilian coach, particularly at this level, is about two months.

And lest we forget, Santa’s Serie D campaign has been agonizing. Apart from that opening day 3-1 win over Alecrim in João Pessoa, all the team’s six victories have been by a single goal, and have followed a similar pattern – a host of missed chances followed by last minute hanging on for grim death. A place in the knockout phase was only achieved with a narrow final group game victory over the same Alecrim at Arruda. Coruripe were eliminated in the last round via a painfully difficult 1-0 win at home, followed by a grueling 0-0 in Alagoas. A rodizio of strikers – from Cunha to Kiros to Flavio Recife to Ricardinho to Ludemar to Fernando Gaucho – have been tried and have largely failed. The memory of Gilberto looms large, still.

Things start well enough, though it’s hardly pretty. Briefly, Santa seem to be bossing things – quick enough in the tackle and able to hold on to the ball when they get it. It’s the best I’ve seen Santa start a game in Serie D, says Sylvio Ferreira. A few seconds later Everton Sena stumbles comically, putting in ex-Santa pest Cléo, who passes to Dodo for a 1-0 Treze lead. Jesus wept.

Tricolor nerves jangle louder than ever. Things start to get ugly in the boxes and Renatinho, presumably not enjoying hearing his friends and colleagues being roundly abused, scurries off. Then on 22 minutes Cléo crosses from the left and Tiago Cenedesi heads home courtesy of more dodgy defensive positioning. All around darkness descends and the ghosts of Sobral stalk the land.

SAD can take it no more. If it is going to end like this (again) then it should end in the cheap seats, amongst the firecrackers and the desperate howling and the occasional fist fight. He apologises to Sylvio Ferreira and Big Carlos, heads down the steps and out of the ground and then in again at the geral entrance, waving his unused original ticket at the bored doormen.

The cheap seats, then, where in the second half, the times may just be a-changing. Zé Teodoro, mindful of the fact that his first half tactics were a pig’s ear, throws on Eduardo Arroz in place of Everton Sena and, later, Bismarck and Fernando Gaucho in place of Natan and Ludemar.

It looks like someone, too, has reminded the players that this is it, and that if they get hammered here then there will be no way back, and Serie D will be over for another miserable year, just like it was in Sobral twelve months ago, and the Pernambucano title win and the victory over São Paulo and everything else will be forgotten.

Whatever it is, Santa are transformed, though sincere thanks must go to Treze goalkeeper Lopes for throwing the ball into his own net at the start of the second half. Even when Cléo sets up another Treze goal soon after, putting Tigrão in, Santa are undaunted.

Thiago Cunha puts in Fernando Gaucho for the second on 61 minutes and then, with ten minutes left and the crowd baying them on and evening turning hazily into night, and the Recife end ablaze with red and white firecrackers, Gaucho prods home after what seems like a dozen attempts and Santa have fought back for a precious away draw.

And that, for SAD, perched on a fence in a dumpy stadium in the middle of Paraiba, waving his arms in the air, surrounded by 4,000 tricolor loyalists, might well be that, at least for a while. Next Sunday anything between 60,000 and 100,000 will shoulder their way into Arruda for the game that will hopefully see O Mais Querido, of late O Mais Sofrido, finally escape from the dank dungeon of Serie D

At the same time SAD will be 2,000km away in Goiânia, listening to the game on the radio, hoping and praying not only that Santa make it, but that Itumbiara, from somewhere far away in the south of Goias, make it too. That way there will remain a small, quiet hope that not too far in the future SAD will once again hear the Inferno Coral’s drums pounding out, and feel the heat of five or sixteen or seventy thousand equally desperate souls around him, and see Santa Cruz play a game of football.         

* It was probably Itabaiana. It might not have been. SAD confesses he can't really remember.

NB: Life changing moves to cities 2,000km away from O Mais Querido notwithstanding, See A Darkness will of course go on. Somehow.