Sunday, 30 January 2011

Brought up on the old maxim that two’s company, three’s a crowd, Recife’s bizarre love triangle takes some getting used to. Blues v Glens, City v United, Galo v Cruzeiro – cities divided down the middle like a big fat sponge cake, the haves and the have nots (and never wills), that’s the way it should be.

But throw a cuckoo into the nest and things get more interesting. By rights Recife should be Sport and Santa, the two clubs with the biggest support and the greatest rivalry. Nautico, despite being the oldest club in the city, are something of an afterthought, with their cute little doll’s house of a stadium nestled in one of Recife’s leafiest bairros amidst Japanese restaurants and juice bars. Nautico’s supporters are apple cheeked and bursting with well-fed health, and their torcida organizada, Fanautico, would fail to quicken the pulse of defenceless little old ladies even in the darkest of alleys.

It’s all a far cry from the wild west arquibancadas of Arruda. Interest in this Sunday’s clássico dos emoções, as the Nautico v Santa derby is known, is so high that there is talk of moving the game from the cosy confines of Aflitos to Arruda’s wide open spaces. They can’t do that, protests a Barbie (Nautico’s not entirely favourable nickname) loving friend, what about the Nautico supporters? I suppose Nautico would be the home team still, I say, and get the majority of the ground. Oxe*, says the Barbie, do you think I’m going to Arruda? Are you mad? Scruffy Beberibe, where Arruda lies, is a geographic mile and a cultural universe away from Aflitos.

In recent years Santa v Nautico has fallen down the pecking order of Recife clássicos. Nautico v Sport (the clássico dos clássicos) has claimed top spot as Santa have tumbled into Serie D and Nautico and Sport have battled together in Serie A. The clássico dos multidões holds eternal sway for the pure, unabashed hatred that swills amongst the Santa and Sport hordes, and of course the accompanying ultra-violence. Santa and Nautico sometimes has a feeling of being o clássico junior.

But not this year, in what is quickly shaping to be the most tumultuous Campeonato Pernambucano of recent years. Stirred by Sport’s quest for the hexa (six championships in a row) and Nautico’s obsession with preventing such feat (Nautico are proud owners of the only previous hexa back in the 1950s), cash has been thrown around like it’s Monopoly money. Sport have signed Wellington Saci, Carlinhos Bala, former Nautico goalhanger Bruno Mineiro, and have Marcelinho Paraiba on the way. Nautico have grabbed chubby goalkeeper Douglas, storming defensive midfielder Derley, Eduardo Ramos (ex Sport midfield tinker), and Palmeiras midfielders William and Deyvid Sacconi. There has even been talk of bringing back former Sport defensive dreadnought Durval, earning Serie A wages as a Santos first team staple.

Even with all this largesse, Santa’s motley crew of journeymen have rolled off six wins on the trot and lead the table, while Sport have struggled mightily. Nautico started slowly but seem to be clicking into gear, which makes this afternoon’s game all the more gripping. Timbu have more on paper, while Santa hope stout hearts will make up for fragile psyches and ill-fitting boots.

The first clássico of the season always causes a tingle in the bones. Out in the early Sunday morning with the dog and the streets of downtown Recife have a rare freshly washed feeling, as if even the city has made a bit of an effort. It’s still cool enough, though by four this afternoon the air will feel like hot soup and Aflitos will be bouncing. As you might expect, this particular albatros has never seen Santa win at Aflitos – a 2-1 defeat in 2007, no game in 2008 due to Santa being unable to qualify for the second round proper of the Pernambucano, a 2-2 draw in 2009, and two defeats in 2010, one in the league phase, the other in the semi-final knock out stage. Slim pickings, as always.

And so while the cariocas and paulistas may rouse themselves from their early season torpor for São Paulo v Santos and Flamengo v Vasco today, the most fun to be had will be in the nordeste, where Ceará and Fortaleza butt heads in Fortaleza, and where in Recife Santa will cross fingers and toes, once again, and hope for just a little bit of validation, or at least that if defeat comes it’s not too wrenching.

It probably will be, though. It usually is.

* Only slightly infuriating nordestino expression of surprise.

Friday, 21 January 2011

On summer nights in Recife the windows are left open against the heat and the sound of radios drifts down to the street. The same radios play from taxis idling at traffic lights and beer and cigarette stands on street corners, and the huts of dozing security guards and night porters. On Wednesday nights from January to May the radios are tuned to the local news and sports stations, JC/CBN and Radio Clube, and carry news of the night´s football and of the adventures of Santa Cruz and Nautico and Sport in the Pernambuco championship.

This year it is not just on Wednesdays. Due to the Planner´s Dream Gone Mad that is the fixture list of the Pernambuanco this year, Santa Cruz and Sport started their seasons on Tuesday last week, played again on Sunday, again on Tuesday, and again last night (Thursday). Nautico played on Tuesday and Sunday and Wednesday and will play tomorrow (Friday). No joke when opponents away from home include Petrolina (734km from Recife), Araripina (690km) or Salgueiro (518km), which might mean a game on Tuesday, a Wednesday travel day, and a game on Thursday. Temperatures in the sertão can hit 35 degrees or higher in summer.

Such a schedule remembers baseball, as does the romance of listening to sports on a crackly radio – forty four New England stations poured out the news from the Fenway...Maine lobstermen pulling their traps of Saddleback Ledge called the news of the previous night´s game from boat to boat through the foggy dawn air. The moderator of an August town meeting in Andover, Massachussets, interrupted a hot budget debate to cry, ‘The Sox are leading, 2-1, in the sixth!”. Three hikers descending the Brook Trail on Mount Chocorua, in New Hampshire, caught the afternoon score from a transistorized ascending climber.* But football is not baseball, and footballers run a lot more than podgy outfielders. Pernambuco physios and medical departments are puto da vida (really quite angry indeed).

Radio has not always been a friend to Pernambuco football. In the 1940s Rio based Rádio Nacional began to broadcast the games of Flamengo and Vasco and the other Rio and São Paulo giants across Brazil. This did not overly concern torcidas in Recife and other capitals of the norte and nordeste, where Santa and Sport and Nautico (and Bahia and Vitoria and Remo and Paysandú and so on and so on) were long established and possessors of massive popular support.

It was a different story for the often very poor residents of the interior. The vast distances from the sertão to the capital meant that in those days Recife could seem as remote as Rio. There was no special bond with the teams in Recife, and the lure of Garrincha and co and 200,000 crowds at the Maracaná (jumping forward a bit) was strong.

The results can be seen today. According to recent supporter polls (a great favourite in Brazil – when dubious** market research showed that Sport had more supporters than Santa the unhumbles from the Ilha Do Retiro erected a giant billboard commemorating the fact) 54.8% of the population of Pernambuco, or 4.82 million people (such research assumes that everybody supports somebody) follow Santa Cruz, Sport or Nautico. Which means that almost half the population of Pernambuco supports a team from outside the state. And the vast majority of the outsiders dwell in the interior (with apologies for lexicographical ironies).

It was this that governor Eduardo Campos spoke of earlier this year when launching the todos com a nota free ticket campaign. Todos com a Nota can bring the poorest supporter to the stadium, he tubthumped. We know that football is an important part of the culture. In the interior, this means the prescence of our supporters in the stadium. We need to bring this to the masses, because it reflects upon our own self-esteem. In the nordeste, only Pernambuco continues to mount strong resistence. We are in a trench, and we need to be an example with the growth and valorisation of local supporters supporting local teams. Those of European bent might be more used to such words coming from the mouth of a man with a moustache, beret, bicycle, stripy shirt, string of unions around his neck and machine gun in his hand. If it was 1944.

Tricolores will not care terribly about any of this upon waking to a rainy Recife this morning. Last night a goal from Thiago Mathias (as previously mentioned, captain, inspirational central defender and joint leading Santa goal scorer – if he strongly resembled a menapausal housewife there would surely be no separating him from Steve Bruce) gave O Mais Querido a squeaky 1-0 victory over Araripina in the sertão. After four games Santa are now two points clear at the top, and more importantly five ahead of Sport and eight ahead of a floundering Nautico. Radio Ga-Ga!

To close, a tribute to JC/CBN´s Santa commentator, Aroldo Costa, describing Santa´s goals against Ypiranga last Sunday.

* Roger Angell. Who else?

** Brazilian footballing headcounts generally involve a man standing in the street asking people who do you support?, meaning that an 11 year old girl (with apologies to 11 year old girls) from Amapá (with apologies to Amapá) who has never been to the Maracaná or heard of Zico carries the same weight as a 20 year season ticket holder. Perhaps she should. I don't know.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Which we might call Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part I.

For those brought up on the well lubricated corporate love-in that is professional football in the gringo world, Brazilian football can often seem like some kind of surreal through the looking glass alternate reality. Goalkeepers (allegedly) pay people to hack their ex-partners to death, managers are fired after a couple of weeks in charge, no-one can decide who won the national championship in 1987, and lots of people still don´t really believe that points based league systems are that much of a good idea. This week in Pernambuco the game between Salgueiro and Cabense was called off after 30 minutes due to electricity failure. When Cabense didn´t turn up for the rearranged fixture the next day, Salgueiro were given the points on a WO. That kind of thing.

As you drop down the divisions things become stranger and stranger. Watching Santa Cruz, for example, gives the supporter the rare opportunity to become both fan and scout. Every year, or at least every year for the last three, Santa have dispensed with an entire team in October or November (really as early as contracts will permit – the club´s professional commitments are usually done with in August or so). Then in December and early January they sign another, entirely different team. Usually no-one has heard of any of the players, which means when the first game rolls around it is a case of peering anxiously out towards the grass, trying to decide whether any of them might make one remember happier times.

They usually don’t. Stirring through the soup of memory, Leandro Gobatto was a scrawny bog-brush haired central midfielder, brought in in 2009 to be the creative fulcrum of the team. Unfortunately he was neither creative nor fulcrum. Santa were eliminated from Serie D even earlier that year than they were in 2010.

Juninho was the Gobatto of 2008, right down to the six or seven minutes he needed before deciding what to do with the ball. Santa were relegated from Serie C to Serie D during his time at Arruda. And there are hundreds more, from lumbering centre half Goncalves (2008 and 2010), catastrophic full backs Alysson (2009) and Robinho (2010), to disaster prone strikers Roger (2009) and Saci (2008) not to mention witless managers by the sackful. Hello, Mauro Fernandes, hello Bagé! So many players and coaches, so little talent.

It is a pleasant enough way to while away an afternoon, perched up on the top of the big concrete bowl of Arruda, with the sun dipping low in the sky and spreading shadows across the field and further out, over the little houses and shacks of the favelas spreading over the hills towards where the city ends.

As for the scouting, a check list seems a good way to start. New right back Bruno Leite? Pace – slow to moderate. Tackling ability – questionable. Passing – weak. Ability to get forward – not much. Crossing – not so far applicable. Overall – a palpable hit!

The fun is only slightly diluted by the terrace critics you might find around you. It is the first week of the season, after all, and the first time most people have seen any of the players. Verdicts must be reached quickly. The quick workers get going after about three minutes. Caralho que zagueiro ruim! Christ what a shit central defender! Que filho da rapariga é esse lateral direito! This right back is a real son of a bitch! Miseravel! Desgraça! Pathetic waste of space! Bloody embarrasment! The Algonquin Round Table it is not.

This year might or might not be different. Santa have signed 16 or so new players, upon whom, together with one or two holdovers from last year and five or six promoted from the youth team, the hopes and dreams of a couple of million tricolores will rest in 2011.

Some have previous. Mário Lucio will carry a lot of weight on young shoulders in midfield after an impressive Serie A season (or half of one) for Guarani last year. Thiago Cunha is a blast from the past, known as Thiago Capixaba in his previous incarnation at Arruda. He will hardly be well remembered, having sued his way out of the club in 2008 (going to Palmeiras, where he did nothing), but has promised to change. Landú, a notorious hell raiser, has come in from Remo in Belém, perhaps the only club in Brazil currently in as much pain as Santa. Best of all is Thiago Mathias, a craggy, occasionally elegant centre half who along with Marcelo Ramos was Santa´s best player in 2009. Goalkeeper Thiago Cardoso once saved three penalties in the same game somwhere in Ceará.

I cannot summon the energy to travel the 50km or so to Vitoria De Santo Antão for Santa´s first game in the Pernambuco championship this year. Things seem to go well enough without me – O Mais Querido win 3-0, with goals by Laécio, Thiago Mathias and Renatinho. But one is not a Santa fan without a hefty dose of scepticism. It does not do to get carried away. Judgement will be reserved until I see it with my own eyes.

Continued below.

Which would make this Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part II.

On Sunday I am one of 23,000 at Arruda for this year’s first home game against drylands mid tablers Ypiranga. Fireworks and hissing drums and thunderous applause welcome the team. Things go quite well for a while then get worse. Santa´s sole tactic seems to be to hoof high balls into the opposition penalty area. These balls drift as harmless as fireflies into the glass jars of the Ypiranga goalkeeper and defenders. Then Ypiranga score just before half time. For the remaining few minutes of the first half the crowd boo Santa´s touches and cheer the opposition’s. So far, so business as usual.

Things get bouncier after the restart when Thiago Cunha comes on and slots home an equaliser after neat control and running from midfielder Weslley. Fifteen minutes later Thiago Mathias heads in what turns out to be the winner. With Sport and Nautico melting their way to draws under the backlands sun against Petrolina and Araripina, Santa are the early league leaders, which is not something that has been said for quite a while. Four years and 93 games, actually, which is the time that Sport have occupied top spot in the Pernambuco. We all go home happy.

And what of the players? Starting with the good. All tricolor babies born in 2011 should be named Thiago Mathias, who puts me if no-one else in mind of 1980s and 90s Heart of Midlothian center half Classy Craigie Levein, and as well as being captain has scored two goals in two games. Mário Lucio and Weslley at least appear to have played football before, perhaps even at a professional level. Alex Silva at left back might not be as bad as Alysson, 2009´s full back fiasco. Thiago Cunha and Landu could make Santa fans forget the folclorico Brasão soon enough. Thiago Cardoso didn´t make any mistakes. Renatinho Little Pants (of whom more later) will have Chelsea and Man City scounts drooling in the near future, though by that time he´ll probably be playing for Santos or São Paulo and it will be they who will get their hands on a fat cheque and not Santa.

On the flip side, I´d bet that ineffective will soon seem like far too kind a word to describe centre half Leandro Souza and the aforementioned Bruno Leite. Memo is the only youth product in the starting lineup, presumably as a result of winning some kind of dressing room raffle. Jeovanio, at 35, is this year´s yes he can´t really run anymore but look at the experience he brings, following the rich tradition of perpetually out of breath wonders such as Amaral (47 years old) and Jackson (61).

Lastly, Brazilians love their days, such as Teachers’ Day and Bus Drivers’ Day, in which various sectors of the workforce get a day off or at least an easier than normal day at the office. Opposition teams coming up against Santa forward Laécio will feel it is Central Defenders’ Day.

But we shall see. What matters for now is that we have begun, which is the best thing of all.