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.