Monday, 15 August 2011

Sunday August 14th does not begin well. Outside it is a typically glorious Norn Iron summer’s day – come noon the temperatures will top out at a scorching 15°C. SAD’s back is aching, because the night (and the next three weeks) has been spent in a sleeping bag on The Ould Dolls sofa.

Then there is the terrifyingly sweaty moment when SAD sees himself in grown-up print for maybe the first time, in the shape of an interview with upstanding Pernambucano journalist Cassio Zirpoli in the Diario De Pernambuco.

In the end it is not anywhere near as bad as it might have been, putting aside minor grumbles - (a) apparently SAD is a britânico, which might be true from a strictly geographical point of view, or when arguing border disputes with fellow citizens of Norn Iron of The Wolfe Tones persuasion, but is firmly not true in a spiritual, cultural, footballing, or any other form of context you might care to mention, when the only possible definition of SAD’s nationality is, for good or bad, Norn Irish and (b) there are far, far, far too many references to Recife plague dogs Sport.

Though none of this matters in the end, because as mentioned it is Sunday August 14th, and the good Santa Cruz of Pernambuco, our heroes, are playing the evil Santa Cruz (somewhat confusingly) of Rio Grande Do Norte, our villains, in Serie D of the Brasileirão.

It is the first time in a very long time that SAD will not be anywhere near Arruda for an important game, and the sense of distance and exile spears the heart like hot knitting needles. As predicted by Sr. Zirpoli, SAD will follow the game, and the debut of the sure-to-be-fantastic Bismarck, on CBN/JC Recife radio, via the magic of the internet, in the company of the excellent Aroldo Costa, Mane Queiroz, and Ralph De Carvalho (and a quick moment’s silence here for esteemed Recife radialista Yata Júnior, who passed away yesterday).

It is not the same, not the same by half as strolling up to Arruda under a molten sun (though the magic of the internet tells me that Recife’s skies are heavy with rain) and meeting up with whoever might be on hand (The Vin Diesel of Barra De Jangada, The Pampas Goat, The Louth Media Mafia, or even the recently discovered Ray Winstone and Tim Roth of Piedade), sucking down a few Skols, battling up the stairs to the top deck, finding a good spot and taking a deep breath and looking around at all the people and the bright green of the glass and exhaling a long, satisfied ahhhhhhh....

There is a false start when SAD advises The Ould Doll that he won’t be able to attend a family lunch (in a caravan at a windswept beach) because there is a four hour time difference between Brazil and Dundrum, Norn Iron, and that means that if the game is at four in the afternoon in Recife then it will be at midday here, and there´s no internet in the caravan at the windswept beach. It is only as The Ould Doll is driving away that SAD realises that the time difference is really the other way around and if the game is at four in the afternoon in Recife it will be at eight o’clock in Dundrum, Norn Iron.

There then follows a quick sprint after the car before family relations are restored via lunch and a hike along the windswept beach. And finally the fading early evening sun sees SAD in his mother’s bedroom, trusting everything to a wobbly internet connection, and the imagination, to conjure in the mind the colours and sounds of Arruda on match day. 

And the imagination, and memory, is stronger than might have been expected. When Aroldo Costa tells of how there are only 18 supporters of Santa Cruz (RN) in the stadium SAD can picture them huddled up in the draughty rafters of the main stand. And when the radio talks about the crowd squeezed up against the police barriers on the upper deck, at the Rua Das Moças end, and then the barriers being moved to let people move into the space that was reserved for segregation, SAD can picture it as clearly as though he was there.

And then the game begins, and suddenly SAD is cast back into childhood, when he was eleven or twelve or thirteen, listening to the English league games on BBC Radio 2. More than twenty five years later, he doesn’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that when Wesley crosses the ball into the six yard box after three minutes, and Kiros heads it home, he yelps like a big, hairy girl and jumps around the room. Gooooooool, shouts Aroldo Costa for about forty seconds, and then the jingle starts up, the one that goes é gol, e felizidade, é gol, e meu time é a alegria da cidade that sounds like a cinema commercial from the 1970s, and then Aroldo Costa is back, yelling tri tri tri tricolor into the microphone, and more than 12000km away the same shouts bounce around the room of a small semi-detached house in Dundrum.

What’s going on, asks The Ould Doll (a two time veteran of Arruda herself), and when SAD explains that Santa are one up she says, oh that’s nice dear, before wandering off to make a cup of tea, the best, and only, way an Irish mother can think off to celebrate such joyous tidings.

But it is hard, very hard, to follow your team on Brazilian radio. The commentators gabble excitedly for 90 minutes, as fast as Peter O’Sullevan calling The Grand National, whether describing a 30 yard rocket shot or a throw-in around the half-way line. It makes for thrilling listening. It also makes it almost impossible to know what’s really going on.

Out of the verbal firestorm a few images emerge. On 17 minutes Renatinho plays Memo clean through on goal. Flavio Recife/Caça Rato misses two good chances, after 29 and 39 minutes. Flavio Recife/Caça Rato seems to be having difficulty with the concepts of ‘team game’ and ‘passing to colleagues’. Still, Renatinho, Dutra and Wesley all seem to be on top of things, Memo a different man back in his old volante spot.

In general then, Santa seem to be playing quite well, though with the same old, unsettling failings – too many missed chances, vulnerable at the back on the counter attack.

In the second half things continue as before. Ralph De Carvalho informs me that Santa have wasted five good openings – three thrown carelessly away by the strikers, two ungrasped by Renatinho. The evil, potiguar Santa Cruz, who boast strikers with names as worrying as Tiririca and Pantera, are growing in stature. It sounds troublingly like the last home game against Guarani.

There is radio bedlam at 21.34, Norn Iron time, when Renatinho skips clean through and rolls the ball towards the net. Gooooo......shouts Aroldo Costa, then stops, and things go a bit swirly for a moment while everyone tries to work out what has happened. In the end it transpires that the ball was cleared off the line at the last possible second. In the handbags that follow, Michel of Santa Cruz RN is sent off. The only problem is that while everyone was standing around, before the card, Michel of Santa Cruz RN was substituted. The referee, looking for the object of his wrath, finds him on the substitute bench, and proceeds to show him the red card. As he has already been substituted it doesn´t make much difference to anything, and the evil Santa Cruz escape unpunished. It is quite a typical Serie D moment.

Leandrinho enters for Santa in place of Caça Rato. Tiririca drives the evil Santa Cruz up the other end on a counter attack and almost scores. Sweat blooms on tricolor brows. SAD decides that Serie D is perhaps the most difficult football championship in the world, and imagines Messi, Xavi and Iniesta bossing teams like Guarani and Alecrim for 89 minutes, hitting post, bar and an inspired goalkeeper twenty times, before covering their faces in horror in the last minute as their cowpoke foes lumber forward in a terrifyingly dangerous (though simultaneously bumbling) counter attack.

The attendance is announced – 35,000 and change. There are tuts and heads are shaken – the republica tricolor expect nothing less than 50,000 a game these days. A few seconds later, Leandrinho, who is sounding encouragingly lively, smacks a shot against the post. The commentary no longer matters, for the crowd are telling the story – a hushed silence, following by the screams of women and not a few men when the evil Santa Cruz approach Thiago Cardoso’s goal, furious bellowing and gnashing of teeth and the screams of women and not a few men when the good Santa Cruz squander yet another chance.

And then it is over, finally, the weak light long faded from Norn Irish skies, and Santa have won 1-0. It is almost time for bed here, and SAD’s feet are cold. He imagines the crowd thronging out into the warm Recife night to suck down Skol and talk about the game. And then he goes and makes a cup of tea, because there’s not much else to do.

NB – romantic pseudo literary whimsy apart, O Mais Querido have in their last three games drawn 0-0 at home with Guarani, drawn 2-2 away against bottom team Porto, and won a squeaker against the evil Santa Cruz. It is only the first round of Serie D and already the road to redemption is proving tortuous. Against the better teams that lie ahead, will Santa lift their game to the level that made them champions of Pernambuco, or does further agony and disappointment await? SAD, very far away, is beginning to worry.

Friday, 5 August 2011

With apologies to Morrissey, who hardly deserves them, there´s panic on the streets of Beberibe, Peixinhos and Agua Fria. Or if not panic, then at least the mild concern that comes when four or five years of utter footballing misery and disappointment runs slap bang into consecutive draws with the not terribly mighty Guarani of Juazeiro Do Norte and Porto of Caruaru (or Belo Jardim if you prefer). Such panic is also a result of the diabolically truncated structure of Serie D which, if you´re not careful, can be over before you know it, leaving you facing another year in the abyss.

Casualties of such panic, and the somewhat short-termist thinking of the one or two bad games and you´re out strategy (closely related to the theory of three or four bad games and you´re out for managers), are the Oblomov-esque volante Helton (who is rumoured to have played at least 45 minutes for Santa at some stage this year, though no-one can remember when or where), skittish as a My Little Pony lateral Jonathan, and, sadly, potentially magnificent Eraserheaded midfielder Teti.

See A Darkness, for no good reason at all, was a fan of Teti, who showed on a couple of occasions that he had a surgeon's eye for a long, chipped pass, even if he took as long to play the long, chipped pass as a surgeon does scrubbing in and setting up for a triple bypass op. But in the end a sack-load of goals for someone or other in the 2011 Campeonato Santa Catarinense gave Marcio De Souza Jotha a reputation he couldn't quite live up to at Arruda, particularly in a miserable showing away to Alecrim a few weeks ago. If nothing else he now has another club on his impressive (quantity wise at least) CV, which currently stands at 19 teams in 13 years, including, bizarrely, four different spells at Cabofriense.

All of which leaves Santa perhaps missing a certain creative something in midfield. If Natan played more often everything would be just dandy, because Natan understands the metronomic tick-tocking that is good modern football passing, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Natan is made of whatever material is more fragile than fine bone china (though See A Darkness hopes very much that he is wrong about this).

In his absence Wesley has drive and vision, and smacks a mean freekick, but might not be the man to unlock massed Serie D defences, which frequently recall hordes of torch-bearing villagers massing around Dr. Frankenstein's (or was it Dracula's) castle.

Still, for once at least there can be few accusations that the diretoria are resting on their laurels. Five new faces have arrived in the last week or so. There is help for the defence in the shape of giant zagueiro Walter, ex-Nautico, and urgently needed, and slightly chippy looking, right back Eduardo Arroz, who should at least save Memo from his out-of-position flounderings, and thankfully ensure that Bruno Leite will never play another first team game for Santa.

More importantly, there are two allegedly creative midfielders in the shape of Leandrinho and Bismarck, the latter of whom caused much nashing of tricolor teeth last year when starring for Guarany De Sobral in The Game That Shall Not Be Mentioned. Finally, striker Ricardinho, a Santa youth team discovery back in the days when See A Darkness was just a glint in Your Life Is An Impossibility's eye, has come back to help a forward line that has scored fewer goals in Serie D than centre half Thiago Mathias.

The sad thing is that See A Darkness is writing all this in a LAN house around 2,000kms from Recife, not knowing when, if ever, he will next see O Mais Querido again. The traffic might flow more easily in Goiania, and the streets might be cleaner and the street dogs less carniverous, but there´s no Santa Cruz Futebol Club here, only poetry-free toilers such as Goias, Atlético Goianiense, and Vila Nova. All three might be in the top two divisions of the Brasileirão, but there´s no drama, no suffering, no massa tricolor, and without that, what's the point of anything?

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

ON 5 September 1976, Corinthians played Fluminense in the semi-final of the Campeonato Brasileiro title play-offs. Typically for big games in Brazil then, and to a lesser extent today, a mammoth crowd of 147,000 crammed into the Maracanã to see it.  

Less typically, over 70,000 in the ground were not Fluminense supporters, but had travelled the 440 km from São Paulo to Rio to roar on their team. Goals from Pintinho for Fluminense and Ruço for Corinthians meant the game finished 1-1, with Corinthians winning on penalties, and the Invasão Corintiano passed into Brazilian footballing folklore.

Such pilgrimages are not common in Brazilian football. Distances are usually too great, travelling costs are high, Brazilian bosses not as generous with time off as their European counterparts. In England a long away day might involve a 600km round trip (say Newcastle to London). In Brazil an away trip can easily hit 3500km (Porto Alegre to Belo Horizonte, for example), and that's limiting things to the sul and sudeste football power base. Throw in the norte and the nordeste and the distance might be twice that.

So the days of the Invasão Corintiano are long gone. Except that a few weeks ago, in what to many in São Paulo and Rio is a remote part of the Brazilian football empire, the clock was turned back 25 years, albeit on a slightly reduced level.

On a weekend when rains and flooding battered the nordeste of the country, 16,000 people made the three hour journey from Recife to João Pessoa to watch Santa Cruz play Alecrim.

It was hardly an easy drive - nine people died in floods and landslides in Recife that weekend and 500 families were left homeless in Goiana, a city situated on the same BR motorway that connects the Pernambucan and Paraiban capitals. On the way back the motorway was closed entirely due to flooding and most people were forced either to spend the night in João Pessoa (your writer included) or make a 400km detour home via the interior. Kick-off clashed with the Copa America quarter-final between Brazil and Paraguay, though that will have hardly registered with Santa fans.

The game was not a final or semi final, nor an important league game in Serie A or B, but was Santa's opening game in Serie D.
 
At a time when crowds in Brazil are a real concern - the Serie A average is around 12,000 - Santa Cruz of Recife are writing a small, probably obscure, bit of history.

Last year, again in Serie D, Santa had the highest average crowd in the country - almost 35,000. This year the club boast the four biggest crowds in Brazil - 60,000 for the Campeonato Pernambucano final against Sport, 46,000 for the Copa Do Brasil game against São Paulo, 45,000 against Sport in the league phase of the Pernambucano and a week ago, in Santa's Serie D home opener, almost 43,000 against Guarani. This last named is the highest crowd to date this year in any Brasileirão game, whether in Serie A, B, C or D.

It is a remarkable achievement, unmatched anywhere in the country. Santa have managed to do what no other Brazilian club have done in quite a while, which is to turn their home games into 'must see' events. To stay at home is to miss out, and to know that the match, and more importantly the crowd, will be a talking point at the water cooler and in the newspapers and on television. To go is to be part of the story and to watch the admiration bloom across people's faces (envy if it is a supporter of city rivals Nautico and Sport) when you say I was there.

While Santa have always been able to call on massive popular support (the club is Recife's time do povo, or 'team of the people') the story really started with the slide down the divisions. Santa played in Serie A in 2005, but after going down at the end of that season suffered two more consecutive relegations, including, in 2008, a dramatic tumble into the newly created Serie D, where they have remained for the last three years.

As is sometimes the way, the worse the fortunes of the team, the bigger the crowds (fans of mid-to-late 1990s Manchester City will relate). The final game of last year's Serie D, against another Guarany, this time from Sobral, drew 56,000 to Arruda. True to form, Santa were eliminated in the away leg a week later.

In truth few teams' fortunes have gotten as bad as Santa's. Some decent players have played at Arruda in the last few years - Carlinhos Paraíba is now a dynamo in the São Paulo midfield, and young striker Gilberto, and his midfield accomplice Léo, have recently moved to Internacional and Botafogo respectively. In 2010 striker Brasão briefly became an idol with his gangbusters style. He is now at Vitoria de Setúbal in Portugal. The rest, generally, have been dross, and things have been made worse by a succession of short-sighted managers and boards of directors shadier than a dark Recife alleyway on a cloudy night.
 
Things have changed in 2011. With a canny manager in Zé Teodoro and a nice blend of veterans and journeymen - zagueiro Leandro Sousa, terrific goalkeeper Thiago Cardoso, watchdog volante Jeovanio, classy midfielder Wesley - and exciting youngsters - the aforementioned Gilberto, Renatinho, Memo, Natan and Everton Sena - Santa won the Pernambuco state championship for the first time in six years.

Things have started reasonably well in Serie D too, with a win against Alecrim, followed by a mildly frustrating home draw against Guarany a week later.*

But the crowds continue to be the story. A tiny asterisk should probably be placed next to the statistics - the Pernambuco state government supplies around 10,000 free passes a game to Recife's underprivileged through the Todos Com A Nota programme, where supporters exchange shopping receipts for tickets.

But to say this devalues the numbers is missing the point. The nordeste is one of Brazil's poorest regions, and trails by a distance the richer sul and sudeste in every economic indicator from infant mortality to adult literacy and average household income. These are people who would go to the games, and buy tickets, if they had the means. That they are too poor to afford tickets should hardly be held against them.

Perhaps too Santa are benefiting from car crash culture – the club's plight is so bad that it drives people to the stadium almost as an act of defiance. If Santa were floundering and pointless at the bottom of Serie A the same might not be true (though crowds held up well last time round in Serie A despite the team's struggles). Brazilians do not like to watch losing football.

Whatever the reasons, match day at Arruda continues to be a wonderful thing - the great concrete bowl starts to fill an hour or two before kick off, and when Santa's torcida organizada, the Inferno Coral, enter and the drums start pounding the atmosphere becomes electric.

And so with the Maracanâ and the Mineirão and Fonte Nova closed for rebuilding, and Inter and Grêmio seemingly set for 'intermediary' years, it might be that the best place to watch football in Brazil this year will be in Serie D.

* Alarm bells may be ringing more loudly after Sunday's troubling 2-2 draw against fellow Pernambucanos Porto. The similarities stop at geography - Porto have recently been evicted from the stadium they were sharing in market town Caruaru, and number their supporters in the hundreds rather than thousands. This week's game was played at the Mendonção in Belo Jardim in the interior of the state, a stadium that holds just over 3,000 people. After dominating for most of the game, Santa conceded a last minute equaliser. Although the team are still handily placed to qualify for the next, knock-out phase of Serie D, the disappointments of recent years are not easily forgotten, leaving the tricolor masses once again biting their fingernails.   

Note: This article originally appeared in a slightly altered form on The Dirty Tackle website.