Friday, 13 May 2011

One of the great fears of living in the darkness is that one day you will be forced to emerge, blinking, into the sunlight. And then what will become of the darkness dweller? Will he adapt? Become a brighter, sunnier person? After that, who knows? Is the suffering victim really just the bully waiting to happen?

All of this weighs heavily on See A Darkness’s mind these days, for it appears a significant moment may be approaching. This weekend, Manchester City, SAD´s first true love (a passion only slightly diminished by said first love’s shacking up with a filthy rich Arab chap), take on Stoke City in the FA Cup final. If City win, it will be their first trophy in 34 years. 

The boulder rolled slowly away from the entrance to the cave, and SAD stepped into the light....

Much more importantly, on Sunday Santa Cruz will play Sport in the second leg of the Campeonato Pernambuco final in Recife. That there will be more people at Wembley than Arruda is you suspect due to the fact that Wembley is a bit bigger than the Estadio José Do Rego Maciel. If Santa win, it will be their first state championship triumph in six years, and will represent a huge economic and motivational lift for a club currently dying a slow, agonising death in Serie D.

After years in captivity, the beefy gaoler opened the cell door and removed the blindfold from the prisoner’s eyes...

And to pour some cosmic salt into the petrol tank, on Sunday it is also SAD’s birthday!

The weightiness of all this is almost too much to bear. All week the radio and the TV and the papers blare out news of the game. Bala´s in! Bala´s out! The referee and linesmen will be flown in from outside Pernambuco! Teti will play instead of Mario Lucio in the Santa midfield! Léo will play instead of Mario Lucio in the Santa midfield! Natan will play instead of Mario Lucio in the Santa midfield! Gilberto was spotted in the club shop today! Santa coach Zé Teodoro says he likes chips! Sport coach Helio Dos Anjos says he loves his mum! There are queues a mile long outside Arruda! 26,000 Santa Cruz tickets sold on the first day, 45,000 by Thursday night, only 5,000 left! Hurry, hurry!

Worse still is the terrible feeling of dread, anticipation’s ugly sister. Santa should win. They won the first leg 2-0. They have beaten Sport by the same score on two other occasions this season. Far from the team of hod-carriers the media like to present them as, Santa have a better team than Sport – Thiago Cardoso is the better of the two goalkeepers (this year anyway), Leandro Souza the best centre half in the two squads, Wesley and Renatinho the most dangerous midfielders, Gilberto the best striker. Santa are at home, and there will be 40,000 tricolores in the stadium (45,000 if the police can be persuaded to authorise another 5,000 tickets) against 10,000 rubro-negros. Zé Teodoro has not put a foot wrong all year, cannily identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the both his own and the opposition players, and setting his team accordingly.

Nothing can go wrong.

The day will be one of those great days that don’t come all that often in a lifetime. Birthday champagne and strawberries (or cerveja, Skol and arrumadinho) at the Mercado Boa Vista from 11am onwards (all are welcome), a taxi hop, skip and jump up to Arruda around 13.30, and another hour or so of atmosphere soaking before the brawl to enter the stadium begins. The locale of the post match celebration is as yet undecided.

Everything can go wrong. Everything will go wrong.

SAD knows it. He has a vision – silent, agonised howling from the Santa end, mouths  open in horror. Sport players wheeling away in celebration after a late, decisive, goal. An explosion of sound and fury from the enemy end of the stadium. A night of hiding under the bed, listening to car horns blaring out the Sport anthem, and of fireworks, and the worst kind of revelry, which is the revelry of others...

Perhaps it will be better that way. Then SAD can continue to write his little blogs, and continue to see himself reflected in the toil and struggle of Santa Cruz Futebol Clube. Because if City won, and Santa won, then what would become of SAD?

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Recife dawns dank and drizzly, but today none of that matters. See A Darkness wanted to get something down before 4pm, which of course is when Santa Cruz play Sport at the Ilha Do Retiro in the first leg of the final of the Campeonato Pernambucano 2011, because life being as it is SAD expects only the worst from this afternoon's fun and games. 

Childhood flat-track bullies Linfield aside this long suffering journal has never seen a trophy lifted, never seen a victory lap. Because of this SAD knows that today will probably be no different. There will be the nervy march to the Ilha, the vein-popping shouty-shouty at the start, then the familiar helpless, sinking feeling when it all goes wrong. Not because Sport are better, not because they´ll deserve it, but because that's the way life goes. We are all, like Santa, honest triers, doomed never to get our grubby mitts on the golden chalice. SAD isn't complaining. It's the only way to be. After all, what do you do when you've won it all? 

But none of that matters now, because it is before, and not after. On Wednesday morning a car drove past the flat. A Santa Cruz CD bellowed from the stereo - commentary of past glories, the team song, terrace anthems. Probably the driver will have listened to the same CD for the last four days. From the apartment building five Santa Cruz flags have sprouted from apartment windows like the first shoots of spring. SAD queued for more than an hour on Thursday to get his tickets for the game. Once again, Santa and Sport seem to be all that matters. 

But win or lose, this Santa team deserves applause. For the two victories over Sport and the epic battles with São Paulo in the Copa Do Brasil, and for so many hard won mid-level triumphs in between. Many have made their names - the remarkable Thiago Cardoso, Leandro Souza, Memo, Wesley, Gilberto, Natan, best-coach-in-the-world Zé Teodoro. This might be the swansong for some, already - Gilberto will be off to Corinthians, probably, Cardoso might not hang around to play in Serie D

And so as a slightly bizarre tribute, SAD reproduces here a piece (from older sister blog Your Life Is An Impossibility) on a less-loved but equally valiant tricolor side, when things seemed even darker than they do now:

Goodbye to all that, said Robert Graves, and after Sunday, 9th August 2009, the supporters of Santa Cruz Futebol Clube are left feeling as if they’ve just spent a couple of years in a WW1 trench. Goodbye then, to Santa for another five months, out of Serie D after six games, and goodbye to the Serie D galaticos, Neto Maranhão, Gobatto, Juninho, Alexandre Oliveira, Thiago Laranjeiras and the rest, all of whom will pack their bags now and wander off in search of a game somewhere else. Cruel as a cat baiting a mouse, it was, on Sunday – the 30,000 inside Arruda raising the roof four times – twice for Santa goals, twice for Central goals far away in Sergipe. When the last Central goal, the winner, came in the last bloody minute, when Santa’s game was 2-2 and there were still ten minutes left, the old republicas fairly shook – of course we’re going to win now, look, it’s fated.

And Juninho hit the bar, and Paulo Rangel headed softly to the goalkeeper when he couldn’t not score, and in the very last minute everything pinballed around in front of the CSA goal, and a woman in front of me screamed, and (I learned later on the radio) another woman in the expensive seats suffered a minor heart attack, and one of the CSA supporters fell over the wall up in the anel superior and broke if not his neck then at least his hands, and fingers knees and toes, knees and toes, before the ball plopped gently into the hands of the CSA goalkeeper. And then the referee blew his whistle, and everyone just stood around looking at each other, thinking no, no, this can’t be right, we haven’t scored yet, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Before drifting home, silently, silently.

A final word, then, on tricolores and the Inferno Coral. Three home games at Arruda saw approximately 120,000 people roll up to watch Santa, the highest average crowd in Brazil this year. More than Flamengo, Sao Paulo and Corinthians. 6,000 followed the team four hours down the coast to Maceio. Another 3,000 went further still, to Sergipe. 7,000 hopped the short trip over to Caruaru for the away game against Central. The Inferno and Brazilian torcidas organizadas in general have a tremendous reputation for ultraviolence, but other than a small kerfuffle on the terraces in Caruaru, in Serie D Santa´s fans have given an impeccable demonstration of how to support a football team with great heart and passion and vibrancy (and could teach the fans of big European teams a thing or two about this) and without violence or mass destruction (despite, of course, the performances of the team providing much incentive for both).

I will remember all of it, for a long time. I will remember standing mouth agape as Arruda shook under 90,000 feet against Central. I will remember the bus trip down to Maceio and the six hour bus trip back and standing in the rain outside a sugar cane plantation somwhere in southern Pernambuco after the bus broke down, drinking cachaça and eating clube social crackers. I will remember the big iloveyouido party between the fearsome Inferno Coral and C.S.A´s hardcore Mancha Azul in Maceio (the two being allies under the Brazilian football mafia’s complicated we like them but we don´t like them network). I will remember other things too, but I can’t remember them now, because that’s the way memory works, at least for me.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

In which See A Darkness lurches inexplicably towards seriousness, while still expecting a Pullitzer nomination for the line "mirthless slumberdome". For those wanting an update of on-field events, Santa beat Porto 3-1 on Saturday, while Sport lost 2-3 to Nautico in the other semi-final, but went through on aggregate. This sets up everyone's dream/nightmare final, Santa vs Sport, the magnitude of which See A Darkness is still coming to terms with. 

A small step towards the death, or perhaps the re-birth, of domestic Brazilian football in its current form came not on the pitch but in a court room in the nordeste of Brazil last week.

Ailton Alfredo De Souza, a judge responsible for maintaining the perhaps ironically named Supporter’s Statute, passed a law banning the state’s torcidas organizadas from the semi-finals and finals of this year’s Pernambuco state championship.

It is not the first time a judge has taken such an action. Corinthian’s Gaviões da Fiel group were banned for a month earlier this year, and the organizadas of CSA and CRB in Alagoas are currently prohibited from attending games. A similar ban is in place in Paraná.

The reason is the at times frightening level of violence at football in Brazil. Shootings (generally away from the stadiums) are a frequent event both before and after clássicos, buses are destroyed, and street brawls between groups of fans are a common occurence.

But to simply blame the members of the organizadas for this is to fail to understand Brazilian footballing or social reality. Violent crime is a depressing reality of life in Brazil. Around 40,000 people are murdered every year, enough to meet the UN classification of a small-scale civil war. While there is not space to discuss the reasons for this here, the ease of acquiring firearms is one factor, as are the appalling levels of social exclusion and inequality.

The behaviour of a crowd, footballing or otherwise, is rarely more than a reflection of the nature of the society it springs from, and the average Brazilian football gathering is no different.

There is also misunderstanding when it comes to identifying the nature of the organizadas themselves. The name doesn’t help – usually there is very little organised about the supporters groups. Generally there is a small central group that organises chanting, flags, drums and trips to away games. Then there will be thousands of young men (and occasionally women) who buy an Inferno Coral ,or a Galoucura or a Força Jovem Vasco shirt, despite not being in any way affiliated to the organisations. Most of these people will go to the games, some will cause trouble before and after. Sometimes people will die because of it.

This weekend brought the usual Monday morning headlines in Brazil. It was the semi-finals or finals in most of the state championships, a day of packed houses and sporting celebration and disappointment. It was also a day of pitched battles and of death. A Goias fan was shot and killed hours after the Vila Nova – Goias clássico and there were two killed in Rio, not to mention large scale fighting in a number of cities.

In Recife there was almost no trouble at all at either the Santa Cruz vs Porto semi-final (watched by 34,000) or the Nautico vs Sport clássico (an 18,000 sell out at Nautico’s cramped Aflitos). To the observer, then, Mr De Souza’s decision was a success.

Not entirely. There is an argument that the ban is akin to using a nuclear warhead to crush a fly. How many of those banned, for example, would have gone on the rampage before or after the game? Sometimes the worst football related fighting in Recife involves individuals who have not even attended games, and takes place at bus terminals and outside shopping centres miles from the stadium. A mammoth police operation this weekend may have dissuaded troublemakers.

There are legal issues involved. The ban allows the wearing of torcida organizada shirts and the entry into the stadium of small groups wearing said shirts. But it prohibits the carrying of flags and musical instruments, and states that if the small bands of supporters group together into a larger mass inside the stadium, they should be dispersed and removed from the stadium by police. 

There would seem to be not much that is legally enforcable about such a ban. If See A Darkness wished to go to the game with five friends, all wearing Inferno Coral shirts, and then stood in the same area of terracing as another five such groups, would he be expelled from the game? Is it legally justifiable to ban large informal groups of people with no criminal records and no official history of illegal activity inside a football stadium? The organizadas have promised to appeal.

The effect of the ban on Brazilian stadium culture remains to be seen. But without the Inferno Coral and their drums and flags and chanting Arruda on Saturday had all the atmosphere of a minor court quarter final at the Wimbledon tennis championships.

Brazilian football will change over the next few years as shiny all-seater stadia sprout up in the run-up to 2014, and ticket prices will increase dramatically. The country’s upper middle classes will become the new target audience, just as occurred in English football post Taylor Report and Sky TV money. But whether more affluent Brazilians, often listless when it comes to contributing to public life in the country, will be able to stir themselves from in front of their TVs is another question.

And even more worrying is that the “new Brazilian football”, if it ever arrives, will exclude poorer Brazilians, the traditional bedrock support of the game.  If it has happened in England, a far more financially homogenous country, then the effects are likely to be even more drastic in Brazil.

New stadiums and safer, family environments to watch football are obviously desirable. But there is no reason why such progress should come at the expense of a vibrant atmosphere and the right of the working class supporter to watch his team. Fans of Manchester City, who lost so much of the noise and energy of a rowdy Kippax Street terrace when the team moved to the mirthless slumberdome of Eastlands, will no doubt agree.

NB: This article is also available on the excellent website.