Wednesday, 26 October 2011

With apologies to John Updike, a few picked-up pieces on Santa and futebol in the centro-oeste, such as it is....

* The mighty Brasileirão Serie D, which tucks in just behind the Liga Dos Campeõs and in front of the Copa Do Mundo in the league table of global football tournaments, possesses one major flaw. The sole objective of Serie D is to escape (upwards, of course), and thereafter to never play in Serie D again. This is achieved by getting through the early group stage, then winning two knock-out rounds to claim a spot in the semi-final and, at the same time, a place in Serie C next year. The four promoted teams then have to battle on (a two-legged semi followed by a two-legged final) for the dubious honour of being Serie D Campeões. Which no-one, really, is that bothered about. Proof enough of this came at Arruda on Sunday when 34,000 of the 60,000 who had watched the quarter-final promotion decider against Treze the week before decided not to bother. 26,000 would be a good crowd for most Brazilian clubs, but for Santa it's almost disappointing.

* Vila Nova, SAD is told, is the time do povo in these parts. If so, there aren`t many povo in Goiania. Just over 900 people turned up at the 40,000 seater Serra Dourada last Friday night for Vila`s game against Barueri. Atlético Goianiense attract some of the smallest crowds in Serie A, ahead of only Avai and America (MG), and empty seats far outnumber the 9,000 or so who watch Goias every other week. It`s not entirely Vila`s fault - Brazilians don`t tend to waste their time watching losing teams, and Vila have been winless for several months and are doomed for Serie C, which means with a bit of luck SAD will get to watch Santa in Goiania next year.

* The main reason for this is that Goiania is one of those hellish one-horse towns where everyone supports teams from Rio or São Paulo. Up the road in Brasilia it`s the same - as Brasiliense and Gama die a slow death from lack of interest, replica shirts fly out of the big Flamengo club shop downtown. Goiania`s footballing roots point firmly in the direction of São Paulo. There`s a Morumbi-removed club shop in one of the swankier shopping malls not far from here, complete with a life size cutout of a grinning Rogerio Ceni in the window. Out for a stroll on Sunday afternoon, SAD was drawn towards a nearby bar by the sound of drums and low, rhythmic chanting. It sounded not unlike a sleepy Inferno Coral bateria. And true enough, it was a torcida organizada - the Gavioes Da Fiel, Goiania branch, watching Internacional v Corinthians on TV. There were about 20 of them, and they stared moodily out at the street as SAD walked past, eyes filled with sulky frustration at not having been born in the shadow of Héliopolis.      

* If fans are in short supply, then good old fashioned Brazilian footballing mentalism is not. Goias originally boasted two teams in Serie D, Itumbiara from the south and Anapolina, from Anapolis, the second biggest town in the state (and locally known, for no apparent reason, as the Manchester Goiana). Both ended up in the same group and an epic Greeks and Trojans battle ensued. The teams ended level on 13 points, one behind Tupi (MG), with Itumbiara taking the second qualifying spot on goal difference. This was after Anapolina, needing to win by five, had managed only a 4-1 victory in their last game against a Toncantinopolis side promised big bundles of cash by Itumbiara if they managed to hold Anapolina to a victory of four goals or less. Anapolina justifiably pointed out that Toncantinopolis had achieved this by, after having three players sent off, ordering one of their players to feign injury, meaning the game was called off with 20 minutes remaining. The CBF ordered the game to be replayed, and Anapolina won 6-1, taking Itumbiara's spot in the second round.

* This was clearly not enough drama for Anapolina tecnico Nivaldo Lancuna. Celebrating with his players on the pitch following the replayed game, he overheard a supporter calling him a burro, the result of some perceived strategic error or other. Outraged, Sr. Lancuna immediately resigned his position. Some idiot comes down here just to call me a moron? I don`t need it, I`m finished, he roared. His proud gesture lasted slightly under 24 hours before he was persuaded to return to his post. Anapolina, remarkably, are still alive in Serie D, and, if they beat Tupi over two legs, will play in Serie C next year. More excitingly, if both Santa and Anapolina reach the final of Serie D, Santa will play here in Goiania (probably) in a few weeks time!

* Forget Bruno e Maronne, Vitor e Leo and the rest of the ill-starred country double acts that pimple the centro-oeste like chicken-pox, the only duplo sertanejo that SAD would pay to watch are Renatinho and Natan.

* Last year`s epic journey to Sobral was slightly over 1000km. It took 20 hours. On Sunday Santa will play the second leg of their Serie D semi-final, against Cuiaba, in Rondonopolis, Mato Grosso, which is just over 700km from Goiania. The journey takes just over ten hours. There's an ovenight bus that leaves Goiania at 11pm on the Saturday night and gets into Rondonopolis at 9am on Sunday morning. I mean, how can SAD not go?

* In roughly 25 years of supporting football teams from Manchester to Recife, via Belo Horizonte, SAD thought that the biggest sporting prize in existence was not getting relegated. Since January this year, when the previously mentioned Francis Begbie appeared on the scene, Santa have won the Campeonato Pernambuco, been promoted from Serie D, and opened up a big can of whupass on the callow Recife B on a number of occasions. Man City won the FA Cup in May and are top of the Premier League, and as most will know, narrowly came out the better in last Sunday`s Manchester derby, courtesy of six lucky goals. If only for this, then SAD must continue to bear the multiple agonies of a long-term relationship.

Finally, which was better - this or this? If he had been there, jumping up and down like a fool in the away end, SAD would probably have said the former. But as he wasn't, and as it's hard to really care quite as much any more, it has to be the latter.

Monday, 17 October 2011

At about 7pm on Sunday (it`s horario de Brasilia all the way for See A Darkness these days), 60,000 people in Recife rub their eyes and jump up and down and look to the stars and give out great screams of relief and joy. At the same time one person (See A Darkness, of course) does the same thing in a small gloomy kitnet on Rua 91, Setor Sul, Goiania.

Francis Begbie, SAD`s loyal companion, asks him what all the excitement is about. Even though he`s been explaining patiently for the last week what all the excitement is about.

Santa have done it, SAD cries, they`ve drawn with Treze, and now they`ll be in Serie C next year!

A draw?, says Begbie. So they didn`t even win?

Shut it woman!, bellows SAD, still jumping around the room.  

Begbie gives SAD a steely look. She picks up purse and keys and leaves the gloomy kitnet, slamming the door behind her. Like Captain Oates, she may be gone for some time.

But it`s not her fault, really.

Because it was SAD, not Begbie, who was sitting in a grimy bar in Pelourinho (why he can hardly remember) in August 2008 when Santa drew disastrously with Campinense at home and fell like a stone into the newly created Serie D.

Serie D?, yelled SAD at The Ex-Girlfriend, on the other end of the line in Recife, much to the amusement of the hookers and beggars and other assorted human detritus around him. What the hell is Serie D? Who plays in Serie D? They can`t be in Serie D. They`ll sort it out. Someone will be kicked out of Serie C, or something like that.

SAD was obviously forgetting for a moment the difference between being a big, poor club from the nordeste, and being a big, powerful club like, say, River Plate, or Fluminense, for whom rules are bent and backhanders made so that the day may be saved. No rules were bent to save Santa. And nor should they have been.

Darkness reigned.

Begbie wasn`t there in 2009, either, when Santa, during their first calamitous tour through Serie D, lost on successive Saturdays to Sergipe, and then followed up by losing away to Central. She wasn`t there on that truly awful afternoon in August that year when Santa, needing just a win to make the next phase, could only draw 2-2 with CSA at Arruda, with 30,000 baying from the stands and screaming and clutching their chests before finally drifting off, silently, into the night.

And in September last year, wherever she was, she wasn`t spending 20 hours on a bus to get to bloody Sobral, Ceará. She didn`t see Santa score two own goals in front of 55,000 in the first game at Arruda, before coming from behind to record a slapstick 4-3 victory. She didn`t see Sobral win the return leg 2-0, all too predictably, the week after. She didn`t then spend 20 hours on a bus on the way home from Sobral, trying very hard to think of a reason, any reason, to get out of bed the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that.
So it`s hard to blame Begbie. She can`t be expected to know how it feels now that it`s finally over, how even from far away it feels a million times better than the Campeonato Pernambuco victory over Recife B, because that was really just local bragging rights, whereas this promises, somewhere down the line, dignity, and self-respect, and a brighter future.

Finally, she can`t know how marvelous it feels to at last be able to say to the likes of Sergipe, Confianca, Potiguar of Mossoró, the evil other Santa Cruz of Rio Grande Do Norte, Guarani of Juazeiro Do Norte, Alecrim, Coruripe and Treze….we`ll never play you again, we`ll never play you again.

Ever. Or at least until the next time. 

Note: Begbie returned some time later, without any noticeable frostbite wounds.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Nothing in Serie D became them like the leaving of it, is how half of Pernambuco hopes this story ends up. And if this was See A Darkness’s last jolly in Brazil’s football gloomy basement for a while, then it wasn’t all that bad a way to bow out.

Sunday in Recife dawns grey and muggy, and Ray Winstone of Piedade’s formidable organisational skills are responsible for the nordestino miracle that is a minibus leaving on the dot of 8am. Even more miraculous is that these tricolores’ inner protestant wins out over more natural catholic laxity – the first can of Skol isn’t cracked open until 8.30.

For a last splash there aren’t many landscapes as thrilling as this – up the BR101 through Pernambuco before hanging a left at Goiana (ironically enough), and then on through specks on the map such as Juripiranga (town motto – the bird that sings, for some reason) and Itabaiana (the queen of the valley)*.

The prehistoric (geologically and culturally) landscape of Paraiba stretches out towards the horizon – great rolling plains broken by stark splinters of granite jutting up towards the clouds. There is the occasional lone donkey wandering too close to the road, a place where the town cemetery seems to be the major tourist attraction (and it’s no Père Lachaise), and locals everywhere giving it the thousand yard stare by the side of the road, the caravana tricolor seemingly big news in these parts. Whatever the landscape it is hard to imagine that there will be a football match anywhere near here today.
Speaking of prehistoric, there has been much puffing of pigeon chests in the Treze camp in the days leading up to the game. Club president Fabio Azevedo expressed misplaced doubts over the ability or otherwise of Santa to bring many fans to Campina Grande (a bit like criticising a Muscovite’s proclivity for vodka ice-pops, considering O Terror Do Nordeste took 16,000 to nearby João Pessoa just a few weeks ago), and sent only the CBF minimum of 2,000 tickets to Recife. When it transpired that Treze weren’t going to be able to sell their 17,000 allocation (as Santa striker Thiago Cunha put it, Campina Grande is a town where folk are more likely to watch Fla-Flu on TV than turn up to support their local team), more tickets were hurriedly sent. But they arrived late on Friday afternoon, making it almost impossible for Santa to sell them in the few working hours left before Sunday’s game. Common or garden lower-reaches nonsense, in which the only people who suffer are the players and managers, distracted from more important matters, and the fans, as always in Brazil, in the dark until the last minute.

But the Amigão is nearly full, as is the Santa section, and the atmosphere crackles. Courtesy of Mr Sylvio Ferreira, poet, assessor to Santa President Antonio Luiz Neto, and as fine a man as you could wish to meet, and bus-pal (and equally fine) Big Carlos, SAD wangles his way into the posh bit, such as it is, where one of his neighbours turns out to be Renatinho, Santa wunderkind meio-campista on his way back from injury. SAD discovers that while endless blog buffoonery might be a strength, Frost style insightful interviewing is probably not. Cheers mate is as about as far as it gets.

On the pitch Tricolor confidence is as fragile as ever. Treze are two time Paraibano champions and in the first knockout round easily elbowed aside Evil Twin Santa Cruz from Rio Grande Do Norte, who had beaten Santa into second place in the group phase. Even more remarkably, in Marcelo Vilar the team has had the same coach for over two years, whereas the normal life span for a Brazilian coach, particularly at this level, is about two months.

And lest we forget, Santa’s Serie D campaign has been agonizing. Apart from that opening day 3-1 win over Alecrim in João Pessoa, all the team’s six victories have been by a single goal, and have followed a similar pattern – a host of missed chances followed by last minute hanging on for grim death. A place in the knockout phase was only achieved with a narrow final group game victory over the same Alecrim at Arruda. Coruripe were eliminated in the last round via a painfully difficult 1-0 win at home, followed by a grueling 0-0 in Alagoas. A rodizio of strikers – from Cunha to Kiros to Flavio Recife to Ricardinho to Ludemar to Fernando Gaucho – have been tried and have largely failed. The memory of Gilberto looms large, still.

Things start well enough, though it’s hardly pretty. Briefly, Santa seem to be bossing things – quick enough in the tackle and able to hold on to the ball when they get it. It’s the best I’ve seen Santa start a game in Serie D, says Sylvio Ferreira. A few seconds later Everton Sena stumbles comically, putting in ex-Santa pest Cléo, who passes to Dodo for a 1-0 Treze lead. Jesus wept.

Tricolor nerves jangle louder than ever. Things start to get ugly in the boxes and Renatinho, presumably not enjoying hearing his friends and colleagues being roundly abused, scurries off. Then on 22 minutes Cléo crosses from the left and Tiago Cenedesi heads home courtesy of more dodgy defensive positioning. All around darkness descends and the ghosts of Sobral stalk the land.

SAD can take it no more. If it is going to end like this (again) then it should end in the cheap seats, amongst the firecrackers and the desperate howling and the occasional fist fight. He apologises to Sylvio Ferreira and Big Carlos, heads down the steps and out of the ground and then in again at the geral entrance, waving his unused original ticket at the bored doormen.

The cheap seats, then, where in the second half, the times may just be a-changing. Zé Teodoro, mindful of the fact that his first half tactics were a pig’s ear, throws on Eduardo Arroz in place of Everton Sena and, later, Bismarck and Fernando Gaucho in place of Natan and Ludemar.

It looks like someone, too, has reminded the players that this is it, and that if they get hammered here then there will be no way back, and Serie D will be over for another miserable year, just like it was in Sobral twelve months ago, and the Pernambucano title win and the victory over São Paulo and everything else will be forgotten.

Whatever it is, Santa are transformed, though sincere thanks must go to Treze goalkeeper Lopes for throwing the ball into his own net at the start of the second half. Even when Cléo sets up another Treze goal soon after, putting Tigrão in, Santa are undaunted.

Thiago Cunha puts in Fernando Gaucho for the second on 61 minutes and then, with ten minutes left and the crowd baying them on and evening turning hazily into night, and the Recife end ablaze with red and white firecrackers, Gaucho prods home after what seems like a dozen attempts and Santa have fought back for a precious away draw.

And that, for SAD, perched on a fence in a dumpy stadium in the middle of Paraiba, waving his arms in the air, surrounded by 4,000 tricolor loyalists, might well be that, at least for a while. Next Sunday anything between 60,000 and 100,000 will shoulder their way into Arruda for the game that will hopefully see O Mais Querido, of late O Mais Sofrido, finally escape from the dank dungeon of Serie D

At the same time SAD will be 2,000km away in Goiânia, listening to the game on the radio, hoping and praying not only that Santa make it, but that Itumbiara, from somewhere far away in the south of Goias, make it too. That way there will remain a small, quiet hope that not too far in the future SAD will once again hear the Inferno Coral’s drums pounding out, and feel the heat of five or sixteen or seventy thousand equally desperate souls around him, and see Santa Cruz play a game of football.         

* It was probably Itabaiana. It might not have been. SAD confesses he can't really remember.

NB: Life changing moves to cities 2,000km away from O Mais Querido notwithstanding, See A Darkness will of course go on. Somehow.