Saturday, 23 July 2011

Postman Pat, Postman Pat, Postman Pat and his black and white cat....all the birds are singing, the day is just beginning, and Pat feels he’s a really happy man. See A Darkness feels he’s a really happy man too, or at least he did last Sunday morning at about 8am. Little did it matter that it had been raining for the previous 25 consecutive days, or that he was coping with a low to medium level hangover. Serie D was back, and he was off to João Pessoa with 16,000 (16,000!) other tricolores to watch O Mais Querido’s first game.

Such journeys – to Maceió, Caruaru, Sobral – have become the stuff of legend, at least in SAD’s mind. This one does not start well – there are rumours of a collapsed bridge somewhere near Goiana, and cars are being turned back on one of the exit roads due to flooding, meaning an epic detour  through Peixinhos is necessary just to get out of Recife. After that it’s pretty much business as usual – pleasant company, pleasanter still liquid refreshment, several hundred bathroom breaks and a little nap – mouth open, saliva pooling on the lapel - somewhere around Conde.

As mentioned last week, there is a special buzz in the air, because Santa are champions of Pernambuco, and have kept their team together over the long break between the state championship and Serie D for the first time in years. So it will be hello again and big sloppy kisses for old friends Wesley, Leandro Souza, Jeovanio, Memo, Thiago Cunha et al. Santa are also one of the favourites to win Serie D, or at least the nordestino part of it, alongside perhaps Treze of Campina Grande and Bahia De Feira from Feira De Santana, champions of campeonatos Paraibano and Baiano respectively. All this optimisim can mean only one thing – pain, suffering, and that familiar helpless, sinking feeling.

But if tragedy is to come it will not come quite yet. Santa negotiate their first obstacle on the road to Serie C without too much trouble, beating Alecrim 3-1 with two goals from centre back Thiago Mathias, Santa’s Terry Butcher without the blood, and one from Thiago Cunha, on whom, in the absence of Gilberto, much will depend if Santa are to go up.

It is not a spectacular victory but it is solid enough and there is plenty to linger in the mind – Zé Teodoro’s once again impressive second half tinkering, the sterling guard dog work of the redoubtable Jeovanio, Rodrigo Grahl’s aging legs (he has a turning circle wider than an articulated lorry, as I think Barry Davies once said of Niall Quinn), debutant Jonathan’s worrying timidity at right full back.

Before all that there is a sea of mud to be negotiated outside the Almeidão, and the usual appalling crush on the way in – children crying, women screaming, old men clutching their withered chests – proving once again that stadium authorities in Brazil don’t see their responsibilities in hosting football games as going much further than unlocking the doors. On the terraces things are muted by the constant rain, and long hours of bus bound boozing mean from time to time, fighting breaks out amongst some young and not so young tricolores.

 It is only late in the second half, with the game in the bag, that SAD takes time to look all the way around the grim concrete bowl of the stadium and see just how many people are here. The thought strikes him that on a weekend when the coast of the nordeste has been battered by rain and floods, and at the same time as Brazil are playing Paraguay in the Copa America, there are more people here watching Santa in Serie D, three or four hours from Recife, than there are at the average Flamengo, or São Paulo, or Cruzeiro, or Internacional home game in Serie A. Thinking this, SAD feels quite proud of himself and his fellow guerreiros fieis.

But no journey watching Santa Cruz would be complete without a sprinkling of disaster (and that’s not a reference to the seleçao’s all-that’s-missing-is-the-giant-shoes-red-noses-and-flowers-that-spray-water penalty taking) because even in victory there must be sofrimento. Soon after the game the massive tricolor convoy rolls out of João Pessoa, horns a-pumping, flags a-waving. Soon after that the massive tricolor convoy grinds to a halt.

No-one seems to know what´s going on. Engines are turned off. People stand in the middle of the endless traffic jam, smoking and talking. There are rumours of assaltos – less scrupulous members of the Santa family are not above stealing the possessions of their brothers in arms. Four hours later or so SAD’s bus gets to the front of the queue. Goiana is underwater, is the information, and the BR101 motorway, the only real way of getting back to Recife, is closed. That familiar helpless, sinking feeling.

The only other option is a five hour detour via Campina Grande and Caruaru, an option only slightly more attractive than simply lying down in a ditch and wating for morning, or death, to come. The decision is made to go back to João Pessoa and wait it out, though no-one really seems to know what it is and why waiting is going to make any difference. At around midnight SAD’s van pals decide to head up the motorway and try again. Flip that for a game of soldiers, thinks SAD, and tells van pals that he will stay in João Pessoa for the night.

Which is a good enough plan, except that with the best part of 16,000 tricolores having had the same idea there are now no beds left in João Pessoa. SAD spends the best part of an hour being told there is definitely no room at various inns, before using his unwanted knowledge of The Village of The Damned that is João Pessoa and heading away from the beach and into the downtown district, where he finds what might be the only hotel room left in the city.

And that is pretty much that, except for the fact that the next day there are no buses from João Pessoa to Recife. It is late afternoon when the buses finally start running again, though at least the BR has opened again, and so it is early evening when SAD gets home, meaning that it has taken over 24 hours to make a journey of around 120kms. That familiar helpless, sinking feeling....

Thursday, 14 July 2011

And so it begins again. And, ironically enough, it begins again in the same place (roughly) where it all began the first time around, three mostly happy years ago. Life turns full circle, as shifty ex-Santa midfield genius and full time merry tippler Rosembrik (aka The Skinny Wizard) might once have said, though he probably didn’t.

Such geometric waffling is all down to the fact that on July 9th 2008 See A Darkness’s more sensible (and more pretentious, if such a thing were possible) older sister blog, Your Life Is An Impossibility, published a piece loosely entitled Planes, Trains and Automobiles. This told of See A Darkness, then a mere twinkle in YLIAI’s eye, making a what seemed at the time epic journey to Campina Grande, Paraíba, to watch Santa lose to Campinense in the opening game of that year’s Serie C. There followed a few more starry eyed but inherently doomy articles on Santa’s plight, before howls of derision from YLIAI’s  handful of readers forced football of the menu entirely. And thus See A Darkness, the world’s only English language Santa Cruz FC blog, was born.

See A Darkness himself was then only a mewling toddler amongst the grizzly tricolor veterans. These days, after tours of duty in Caruaru, Vitoria Do Santa Antão, Maceio and Sobral, (it is this last that still gives him the thousand yard stares) not to mention four years of loyal service on the footslopes of Arruda, he considers himself an equally grizzly veteran.

But what makes football special, for all its endless foolishness, is that every new season makes hope spring eternal. It will be different this time, tricolores everywhere are telling themselves. It’s not all cheery – musing over Santa’s prospects in a Recife bar this week, See A Darkness was struck by the following thought, both stirring and terribly gloomy at the same time: Santa should go up this year. They have the players, the manager, the fans, to do so easily. Followed by the punch line: Therefore, if they don´t go up this year, they´ll never, ever, ever go up again.

The optimistic part is well founded. Santa are champions of Pernambuco, and to become champions they breezed past three teams from Serie B over a long, pontos corridos league season, then four bitter knock out ties. They beat São Paulo, with Rogerio Ceni, Lucas, Dagoberto, Alex Silva et al, at Arruda, and only narrowly lost the second leg. In doing all this they unearthed five real prospects in Renatinho, Memo, Gilberto, Natan and Everton Sena. At least three veterans brought in from unsalubrious locales played football that would not have looked out of place in the upper reaches of Serie A – goalkeeper Thiago Cardoso, zagueiro Leandro Souza and midfielder Wesley. Manager Zé Teodoro showed himself to be exactly the type of manager needed in a situation like Santa’s, which is to be five managers at the same time – a clever tactician, a firm disciplinarian, a matronly nanny figure, a rousing cheerleader to the tricolor masses, and a savvy media spinner. Santa became a team this Recife summer, and they remain a team today, with Gilberto the only major departure.

There are new arrivals, of whom Dutra is the best known. 37 years old and ex-Sport might not exactly seem like every tricolor’s dream signing, but Dutra is, and probably always has been, the epitome of class both as a player and a man. See A Darkness predicts that he will be Santa’s Kevin Keegan’s Man City era Stuart Pearce – swashbuckling his way to the by-line when given the chance, terrifying in the tackle when doing his day job at left back.

The immortal Flavio Recife (née Flavio Rat Hunter) and Porto’s strapping Kiros have come in to replace Gilberto, and will scrap it out with Rodrigo Grahl and Thiago Cunha for the starting spots up front. None are as good as Gilberto, but none are as bad as Landu. A combination of any two might make Santa more dangerous up front than they were during the Pernambucano, though as ever with striking double acts, gelling is the key.

Grahl and pointy-headed midfield schemer Teti give See A Darkness hot flushes – both arrived last year amidst a fair bit of hullabaloo. Both got injured soon after, and did not much of anything after that. But Grahl is a big name at this level, after years of service at Gremio and elsewhere, and Teti, based on a few brief, shimmering, flashes at the end of the year, might – might – blow peoples’ socks off.

Perhaps best of all, this is the first season opening when See A Darkness will not be forced to clutch a wrinkled piece of paper in his sweaty little hand as he heads to the ground, the names of eleven utterly unknown jobbing footballers scrawled across it in shaky penmanship. To put it another way – Santa have, for the first time in what feels like years, managed to retain the side that played in the Pernambuco, right through to the national championship.

All this writing nice things about Santa and their players feels slightly odd. Looking back at those old YLIAI articles one comes across names of players that are hard to remember, even though it wasn’t really so long ago – Rafael Mineiro, Edmundo, Gonçalves and Paulo Rangel, to name a few. See A Darkness can’t imagine writing much that is nice about any of them. Santa have a good side now. See A Darkness types the words. Reads them again. Remembers the golden rule of living in the darkness. Pride comes before a fall, and then another fall, and then another fall, and then...

One thing will not change, though players and managers come and go. Just when See A Darkness thinks he is growing blasé about the derring-do of Santa’s marvellous, marvellous supporters, he gets slapped around the face with a wet fish and is forced to cry out, what, no, really?  

On the first day of sale (Tuesday) Santa sold over 3,000 tickets for the trip to João Pessoa on Sunday. One of the twenty or so coach trip organisers complained on the TV news that he´d already filled four buses and would have to lay on a fifth. If things continue even a little like this over the next four days See A Darkness imagines that between 10,000 and 15,000 will converge on the somnambulant Paraibano capital, two hours or more from Recife, on Sunday. For a game in the Brazilian 4th division. What, no, really?