Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The worst thing about all this time spent living in darkness is that the feeling that the rug is about to be pulled from beneath your feet is never far away, even when off on the horizon the sky seems to be getting brighter (and other mixed metaphors).

19,000 or so tricolores felt it on Sunday. On the pitch things bubbled along nicely with a 2-0 victory over Porto, keeping Santa in first place. The team played some fine football – youngsters Natan, Renatinho and Gilberto skipping rings around Porto’s own geldings, and even Landu (the misfiring striker is now the subject of a ‘give us a goal, Landu’ TV campaign) looking occasionally incisive.

Games against smaller teams at Arruda can sometimes be moribund affairs but this was different. Transistor radios were glued to ears for news of Sport’s game against Central, which The Mad Cows won 3-2. There was a lot of singing too, and it may be that scepticism is giving way to genuine optimism - Santa have been in top spot for a few weeks now.  

But mainly there was Gilberto. Watching an ugly duckling turn into a slightly less ugly swan is one of football’s rarer treasures, and those who have watched Gilberto’s progress over the last few months should consider themselves lucky. Never much more than a long shot for success until this season, he was even loaned  out to Vera Cruz last year, where he did at least well enough to earn a ticket back to Arruda.

First team football still seemed a long way off and the player soon earned the title of ‘King of the Copa Pernambuco’, a scathing reference to his success at junior level. The Copa Pernambuco is the unloved consolation prize Santa have found themselves playing in for the last few years after early elimination from Serie D. But the 6,000 (5,999 plus your writer) who were at last year’s final against Sport might have spotted something – Gilberto scored two, including a barnstorming header that suggested he might finally be shedding his acne-ridden-teenager-in-the-kitchen-at-parties persona.  

And when injuries gave him a chance at senior level this season he grabbed it with both hands. Gone was the infuriating shyness – two weeks ago at Arruda he single handedly battered the life out of Nautico’s bigger and more experienced defence in the Classico das Emoções.

On Sunday he put on a captivating show – fast, mobile and strong, and smacked in two great goals, one with each foot. That made it nine goals in ten games in this year’s Pernambucano. Even the self-imposed media ban has been lifted – for his first few weeks as a first teamer he had asked the press if they would mind leaving him alone as he was too, er, um, stutter, stumble, shy to give interviews.

The watching money men from Corinthians must have been impressed, which brings us back to talk of rugs and feet. Perhaps due to such a fairytale-esque transformation, Gilberto’s rise caught everyone unawares, and he has not been offered a new contract at Santa, unlike Natan, Léo and Everton Sena. As a result his current pauper’s deal runs until January 2012 and contains a buy-out clause of R$390k. Not much to Corinthians and their bottomless debt pile.  On Sunday Gilberto was taken off with ten minutes left to a standing ovation, and almost everyone in the ground knew it was the last time they’d see him play for Santa.

On Monday Corinthians duly announced they were ready to pay the buy-out fee, Gilberto rolled up to Arruda to collect his sweaty jockstrap and shin pads and announced he was off to try his luck alongside Adriano and Liédson at the Pacaembu in return for r$30,000 a month (and not the r$3,000 he was on in Recife). Brazil’s most embittered supporters turned their ire on the Santa board – how could they have let this happen? Less than six months after the promising Vitor Hugo had been allowed to do a runner to Santos? Hell has no fury like the supporter of a big team stuck in Serie D who has just seen the club’s best player leave.

Only that wasn’t the end of it. Stirring themselves from their slumbers, Santa’s crack legal team hauled themselves into life. Santa had discovered Gilberto, was the argument, and had given him his first professional contract, and so under the Pelé Law were entitled to first refusal in any contract renegotiation. Nonsense, said Gilberto’s agent, his first contract was a two year deal he signed with Confianca in Sergipe. Well if that’s true then he signed it when he was fifteen, because he signed his first deal with Santa when he was seventeen, and if he was fifteen the contract was illegal. You’re a liar, said Gilberto’s agent. No you’re a liar, said Santa’s lawyer. Well you’re a big fat liar, responded Gilberto’s agent. Well you’re an even bigger even fatter liar, retorted Santa’s lawyer. Corinthians directors started thinking about signing less complicated players – Mario Balotelli, Mike Tyson, Muammar Qaddafi.

The good news for Santa and rug aficionados everywhere is that Gilberto is staying, at least until the end of the Campeonato Pernambuco (in about a month away, but in the darkness you take what you can get). Santa have offered him a new deal, which he probably won’t sign, and whether he goes to Corinthians or not after that very much depends on what paper you read. In a fine example of football doublespeak, both player and agent have declared that they never really wanted to leave Arruda. No-one though is blaming Gilberto very much – r$3,000 a month (paid late if at all) to play in Serie D alongside Landu or r$30,000 a month to play in Serie A and (probably) the Libertadores next year alongside Adriano or Liédson? Tricky. 

So Santa will have their artilheiro for tonight’s mammoth Copa Do Brasil clash with southern softies São Paulo. If the crowd is less than 50,000 there will be tuts of disappointment, and the rickety concrete upper deck of Arruda will be shaking like a Coney Island roller coaster, not least because recifense legend Rivaldo will turn out for the away team. Along with the newest of Brazil under-7s attacking holy trinity, Lucas (Ganso and Neymar being the others), record breaker Rogerio Ceni, Juan, Miranda, Dagoberto, former tricolor favourite and rejected at the Milli Vanilli audition stage Carlinhos Paraiba, Fernandinho, etc, etc, etc...

Santa will no doubt get a tonking, but even that won’t be so bad. Gilberto will be there, and maybe even-better-than-Gilberto midfielder Léo will make his first start in six months, and it will be one of those glorious, rambunctious Arruda games that have become more frequent, it seems, as the team’s plight has worsened.  

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