Wednesday, 14 September 2011

It truly is the best of times and the worst of times for this tale of two cities, the great footballing loves of See A Darkness’s weary life. Twins separated at birth, Manchester City and Santa Cruz are as similar as they are different. The same goes for their hometowns.

In Manchester the dark satanic mills and industrial squalor and 90’s gun crime have been largely swept away. Five thousand miles away Recife’s  poverty and 3,000 and change murders a year remain, though things improve, slowly. The similarities are cultural and historical – for all the progress Manchester remains London’s surly ugly sister, the north a colder, harder knock world than England’s smug south. In Brazil the nordeste is its own depressed kingdom, light years behind the sul and sudeste in every social and economic indicator.

If nothing else this breeds swaggering local pride and culture – Joy Division/New Order, the Mondays and Oasis butt heads with Nação Zumbi, Chico Science and the best carnaval in Brazil. Mancunians talk of that fooking London in the same way as recifenses talk scornfully of paulista snobbery and condescension.

If Sport and United* are the two cities’ insufferable arrogants then City and Santa Cruz are their downtrodden huddled masses, their times do povo. But as Manchester has regenerated so, in the last few years, City have been transformed with Arab oil money. The proof is in the pissing - where once half-time wee flowed in rivers down the Kippax steps City fans now relieve their bladders with a contented sigh in the Etihad Arena’s gleaming pissoir cathedrals.

City have suffered like Santa suffer now, though it was never quite this bad. In 1998 the team tumbled into the 3rd Division, and in December of that year they lost 2-1 away to York City and stood, humbled, in 12th position.  Things got better, slowly, culminating in one of SAD’s most enduring football memories – the lunatic victory over Gillingham in the Wembley play-off final later that season. Even the hardened tickers of Santa fans might have found going 0-2 down after 87 minutes, before pulling one back on 90 minutes and equalising five minutes into injury time, hard to take.

Like Santa, City fans remained doggedly, preposterously faithful, even in the days of deepest darkness. Even in Division 3, 30,000 filled Maine Road for most home games, and 2,000 or 3,000 packed into the chicken-run away ends of grounds from Chesterfield to Wycombe. If it’s not the 50,000 that will heave into Arruda for a Serie D game this coming Sunday, or the 16,000 that battled the floods to get to João Pessoa a few short weeks ago, it’s still not bad.

Since then progress has been painfully slow but generally (though not always – City were relegated from the Premier League in 2001) in an upward direction, and earlier this year City won their first trophy in 34 years. That it came on the same weekend as Santa clinched their first Campeonato Pernambucano in six years only added to the symmetry, and made SAD briefly optimistic – two trophies in one weekend! Surely only good times lay ahead for both.

Or maybe not. On Saturday SAD is at Etihad to watch City destroy Wigan Athletic 3-0 while hardly breaking a sweat. City’s premiership record this season is played 4, won 4, scored 15, conceded 3. A day later Santa, back in João Pessoa, lose 2-1 to Guarani of Juazeiro Do Norte, giving up the leadership of Serie D group A3 to the other Santa Cruz, from Rio Grande Do Norte. Santa now need to beat Alecrim at home on Sunday to qualify for the knock-out stages, or draw with Alecrim and hope that Guarani don’t beat the other Santa Cruz.

Anything less than this and the season will be over after eight games, and with no games until January and therefore no gate receipts the current squad will be broken up and sold off for scrap, and worst of all Santa will have nothing much on the horizon except another year in Serie D in 2012, which will be their fourth in a row. And if this Santa team, champions of Pernambuco, easy winners over Serie B chancers Sport, Nautico and Salgueiro a few short months ago, conquerors of São Paulo, can’t do it, then what, really, will be the point of going on?

Match day experiences at the two grounds today are not so much from different worlds as from different galaxies. Approaching the Etihad there is live music playing on the stage amongst the clean lines of the City Square “fan space” (if it is not called this it should be). The beer is as unremarkable as ever but the pies are from Marco Pierre White’s kitchen and giant TV screens show views of the players warming up and the referee reading the team lists to journalists. A moment’s orderly queuing followed by the swish of an electronic swipe card gains entry, and upstairs on the top deck there are armies of stewards to point the novice to his or her seat.

At Arruda things are decidedly more organic – the music comes from boom-box speaker systems packed into the boots of cars, and the beer and churrasquinho is largely consumed by the banks of the putrid canal. If the beer is no better then at least it is colder.  If you are going upstairs you should try and get in an hour or so before the start, if it’s a big game. Any less than that and the crush outside and on the stairs inside – women screaming, children crying, old men clutching their chests - will give you a far closer idea of what Hillsborough was really like than you might have wanted. There are no stewards and the policia militar of Recife have not learnt yet that a large queue must be organised at the beginning, not at the end, when 10,000 people try and funnel themselves through a gate wide enough for six.

On the pitch the galaxies become universes. City have more money now than God and the pretty things that Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Sami Nasri and the rest can do with the ball make SAD clutch his hand to his mouth, squeal in a high pitched voice and, for the very first time in his life, experience what it is to be a woman, for surely only chocolate, chardonnay and the female orgasm can bring this much pleasure.

Though of course it is impossible not to draw the odd parallel here and there. Leandro Souza, Santa’s swashbuckling xerifão, might not be that far removed from the imperious Vincent Kompany. In goal Thiago Cardoso is surely a thousand times better than Joe Hart. Jeovanio looks a bit like Yaya Toure might in fifteen, or twenty, years. And even though Silva and Nasri see angles that would make Euclid’s head spin would anyone, really, swap them for Renatinho or Natan? Enough - having reached the front, where Santa are as impotent as eunuchs, it is probably time to stop such foolishness.    

So it’s simple, then. Give up Brazil, give up Santa, move back to Manchester and watch City win the league, the Champions League, the World Cup and the Republican nomination for the presidential elections.

But not quite. For sitting up there in the Gods, watching the ball whizz from foot to foot across the snooker baize pitch, SAD realises he is, odd as it seems, entirely bored. No-one is singing. There are no pounding drums, no jumping up and down, no magnificent Inferno Coral. No-one seems to hate Wigan - the people sitting next to SAD even clap the odd promising move. The referee will not need to be escorted off the pitch behind riot shields. 

Worst of all, everyone, including the Wigan players and manager, know that City are going to win, and win in style. So when the team are not on the attack, are not pinging it around in patterns that would make Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and co. dizzy, everyone nods off, or starts playing with their I-phones, or thinking about where they´re going to get some round leaf parsley to sprinkle on their tea time chips. With five minutes to go the stadium has emptied as everyone leaves to beat the traffic, whatever that might mean. City are good now, and the bleeding of the Blue soul has been staunched, and there’s no angst or desperation, and things have changed, maybe for the better, probably forever.

Whereas Santa have angst and desperation in spades and the tricolor soul bleeds on. This is life or death football, where, funnily enough, despite being in the netherworld of the Brasileirão Serie D, it feels like much more is at stake than in the billionaires’ club of the Champions League. Maybe it’s because Santa have fallen further, maybe it’s because people have less. A great number of Santa fans are some of the poorest people of a poor part of the world, and for them there will be no meals out in nice restaurants, or mini-breaks to Barcelona, or nights at the cinema, to take their minds of the latest defeat.

And so for them, and for SAD, Santa are everything, in a way that City used to be but perhaps, now that overall success is largely inevitable and so each individual victory (unless it’s against United) less easy to cherish, are no longer. And SAD can't decide if that is a good or bad thing. For what, in the end, do you do with your dreams once they've come true, as Carlitos Tevez, or even Flavio Rat-Hunter, might once have said?   

* An unintentionally hilarious comparison. Though it's doubtful that even United would stoop as low as a coisa have this week, allegedly promising fistfuls of dollars to Alecrim if they succeed in vanquishing Santa on Sunday. 
  

   

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

If the Serie D noose had not quite been tightening around tricolor necks then someone had at least been sent out to Hanging Ropes R Us to check on stock levels. The weeks leading up to Sunday’s game against Porto had a distinctly Arsene Wenger’s August 2011 feel about them.

Dissatisfaction has always spread as fast as bird flu amongst the Santa support. The 16,000 who invaded João Pessoa against Alecrim, still tipsy on campeão champagne, had dwindled to 4,000 (still not too shabby) by the time another chance to make the same trip, this time against evil twin Santa Cruz of Rio Grande Do Norte, came around nine days ago.

The prudent 12,000 didn’t miss much – a hopeless 0-0 that by all accounts was worse than the score line suggests. Home attendances have been on the slide too – 42,000 against Alecrim in the first home game of the league season dropped to 35,000 against the evil twin on 14/8, and a relatively puny 27,000 turned up against Porto. This is the best support in Brazil, after all.

Misfiring strikers have been the most obvious post Pernambucano Arruda malaise, with Messrs Grahl, Cunha, Rene, Kiros, Rat Hunter and Ricardinho as toothless as hens. Having the now departed Grahl lead the line was as appetising a prospect as cold porridge, while Cunha has not been the same since his injury early on in the Pernambucano running (and following the old adage that the more self-aggrandising a player is, the less his loyalty may be relied upon, there may still be some trust issues with Oor Thiago).

Rat Hunter is the current favourite of the vitriolic Arruda boo-boys and goals are urgently required soon if he is not to become the next Landu. 12,000km of distance makes it impossible for See A Darkness to comment on the hardly seen Kiros and the unseen Ricardinho, but even from afar the former has promise while the latter will hope to avoid the fate of Reinaldo's 2009 return to Arruda, which proved you should never, ever go back.

Injuries and suspension have decimated the midfield with Wesley, Natan and Renatinho – Santa’s three Don Drapers (aka creative whizzes, for those unfortunates who haven’t seen Mad Men) during the Pernambucano - all missing Sunday’s game. Bismarck has arrived to save the day, with Leandrinho in as his Ron Weasley.

Added to this was Matias-gate. Santa’s xerifão gave notice last week that he had received an offer from Ceará, currently tootling along happily enough in Serie A. Business was done in the usual Brazilian way – buying club contacts player and offers wheelbarrow load of cash, player accepts wheelbarrow load of cash, informs his current club (until now been completely in the dark) that he’s off, buying club offers selling club a small fraction of the contractual multa, or penalty, that player is responsible for when breaking his contract, selling club shrugs its shoulders and cries into its beer. The aforementioned Mr Wenger, railer against tapping up in all its forms, would not be impressed.

Matias is gone now, taking his remarkable 14 2011 goals with him (as a centre half!) and See A Darkness, is….well, not that bothered, if truth be known. Though the timing could have been better, the standard howls of Judas and Traitor are wide of the mark, given that Brazilian football clubs treat their players and managers like so much chattel – dumping them at will, paying them late if at all. Matias is pushing 30, and painfully slow even in his best days, and probably does not have much time left at the top. At a push he was Santa’s second best defender, after Leandro Souza, at worst number three or four behind Everton Sena and the as yet unused Walter. And a quick caveat emptor for the square-heads of Ceará – if Matias occasionally looked sluggish against the dullards of the Campeonato Pernambuco and Serie D, what terrors lie ahead against the likes of Ronaldinho Gaucho, Neymar, Lucas, Liedson et al?

Amidst all the confusion, even the implacable Mr Teodoro’s judgement has wobbled. Flipping strikers like burgers in a desperate search for goals, there has been little chance for continuity or understanding to grow amongst the tricolor troops. Three different formations were tested in the run up to Sunday’s game and the Friday favourite – 4-3-3 – was ditched at half time. Ditched before that was youngster Jefferson Maranhão, touted as Dutra’s replacement at left back. In the end Zé Knows  (most of the time) went with Chicão as volante, pushing Roma across to the left and Memo back to right back. Maranhão was left on the bench, of which more later. 

With all this in mind, 4th August 2011 had the feel of being Santa’s 16th July 1950 (or should that be another 16th July 1950, given that we've already had a few). See A Darkness followed things in the now usual way – tinny internet radio clutched to hot little ear. 0-0 after 45 minutes, against bottom of the table Porto, meant boos echoed around the canyons of Arruda at the break. Was it really going to wrong again, so soon? This is the problem with Serie D – two or three defeats can mean the end of the road.

Still at least one person in Brazil would be pleased – Tyra Banks* of the Centro-Oeste, currently patiently awaiting SAD’s arrival in the savannah swelter of Goiania. If Santa make it to the knock-out stages, SAD isn’t going anywhere but Recife. If Santa are out, Goiania beckons all the sooner.

In the end the small moments make all the difference. Back in November last year, in the final of the rubbish Copa Pernambuco, SAD witnessed a hitherto timid Gilberto, who had been so unsure of himself he’d been loaned out to Vera Cruz that year, and so shy he refused to give TV interviews, elbow his way in front of two big defenders and bully in a thumping header against Sport. Gilberto was transformed and would go on to carry Santa to the Pernambuco title and earn himself a move to Internacional.

On Sunday, with Santa floundering, Ze Teodoro threw on Bismarck and Jefferson Maranhão in place of Leandrinho and Ricardinho. Maranhão is 18 and so green around the gills that his birth place is not listed on the Santa website (it may or may not be somewhere in Maranhão). No matter -  after 13 minutes of the second half, after receiving a ball from Rat Hunter, he dribbled round the zaga and curled the ball into the corner.

Crisis over. With Maranhão and Bismarck’s pace and craft Santa were transformed, though Rat Hunter and Kiros missed their usual glut of unmissable chances and Thiago Cardoso was required to palm away a firm Porto header near the end. Arrudazo averted, a vital three points and the leadership of group A4 in the bag. Tyra Banks might have to wait.

* Name changed following reader complaints. And it always pays to keep the missuss happy.