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.