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 Doll’s 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.