Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Misery whore! So See A Darkness was once christened by this sorry individual. The gypsy was wrong, of course. SAD doesn`t love misery. Nor does he seek it out. Nor does he perform sexual favours in exchange for it (though in terms of new business opportunities it might not be such a bad idea). In fact it`s the other way around. Misery tracks down SAD like a hungry bloodhound.

Take Saturday, for example. SAD didn`t go to the Serra Dourada, in Goiania, amidst an apocalyptic rainstorm, specifically in search of misery. He went in the expectation of seeing a robust, fairly played out sporting contest between Vila Nova Sub-16 and Recife B. Were Vila Nova to win the game, so condemning Recife B to another doleful year in Serie B, why, that would merely have been a bonus.

To begin, an aside for lovers of nature. This is the time of year when that rare bird malus brancus makes its appearance in the skies above Brazilian football grounds. Before the game, Vila Nova Sub-16 were allegedly promised anything from R$3 to R$3 million by Recife B`s forlorn promotion rivals Vitoria and Bragantino, if they could manage to hold Recife B to a draw.

The very lucky few might catch a glimpse of the even rarer malus pretus. Whereas malus brancus is a friendly, good natured beast, malus pretus is a sinister, unlovable predator. SAD thinks he spotted malus pretus above the Serra Dourada on Saturday, but he can’t be sure.

Still, how else might the amateur ornithologist explain the generosity of Recife B`s directors in buying up 7,000 tickets for the game (at R$50 each, after Vila had jacked up their prices), full in the knowledge that fewer than 2,000 Recife B supporters would make the journey? The directors of already relegated Vila were no doubt most grateful. Only the worst kind of cynic would suggest that news of Recife B`s generosity (or even some of the R$350,000 itself) might have trickled down to the players and coaching staff of Vila Nova Sub-16. SAD, of course, is no such cynic.

By the time SAD takes his seat in a sodden and almost entirely empty Serra Dourada the game has already started. Like toddlers in need of burping, the Recife B fans are making a lot of noise in the rain over on one side. Around fifty Vila Nova supporters, and six tricolores (including SAD), sit in weary silence on the other.

For around 45 minutes things go really rather well indeed. The mighty Boa Esporte go 2-0 up against Duque De Caxias in Rio, claiming, temporarily at least, the last promotion spot. In the rain, Recife B struggle mightily. Vila Nova Sub-16 miss two clear chances. Enthused, SAD slaps his neighbour heartily on the back. Santa are champions of Pernambuco, free of the infernal Serie D at last, and now Recife B are blowing it all at the last hurdle – could 2011 get any better?

They sell beer inside the Serra Dourada, making it, in SAD`s book, an excellent spot for the footballing tourist. As a result, the half-time break fairly flies past. Further interval entertainment is provided by ten or twelve members of Vila Nova`s Comando Vermelho, who decide to run, or swim, all the way around the stadium to start a fight with some Recife B supporters. The police chuck some tear gas about and the ten or twelve members of Vila Nova’s Comando Vermelho run all the way back to their seats.

It is around ten minutes into the second half, with the rain coming down in thick grey sheets and the pitch almost underwater, that things start to go wrong. Recife B have improved. Vila Nova Sub-16, it is clear, will not score on this or any other day. SAD remembers the old Tom Zé song.

Tristeza não tem fim, felicidade sim. Sadness has no end, but happiness surely bloody does.

With terrible clarity the impossibility of a happy ending becomes apparent, and SAD understands not just the foolishness, but also the moral bankruptcy, of his mission. His own team is not playing here today. Worse, the result of Vila Nova Sub-16 v Recife B will not even directly affect O Mais Querido. And yet, instead of spending his Saturday sitting at home eating chocolate biscuits and watching teeth-grindingly awful Brazilian television, here SAD is, metaphorically clothed in black, spewing ill will, emitting only doom and gloom.
Secar, they call it in these parts. To cheer against a rival, to support a team that you don`t even like in the hope that someone you like even less will be vanquished. To pray for only defeat. It`s a shoddy, depressing business. And it almost never works. 

SAD has previous. For long years he secared Recife B`s better looking older sister, Man Utd. The predictable result was that Man Utd won everything in sight. In 2008 he secared Recife B in the Copa Do Brasil. The predictable result was that Recife B won the Copa Do Brasil.

With about 15 minutes left, with dreadful inevitability, Recife B score. The other side of the ground explodes. After the final whistle, the supporters of Recife B run onto the pitch. A few of them advance towards the fistful of Vila Nova fans. One of them decides that the most appropriate way to celebrate the promotion of one`s football team is to reveal one`s genitalia to an almost empty football stadium. SAD, while oddly fascinated, takes this as his cue to leave. As he slumps towards the exit, he swears never to secar again, knowing, of course, that he will secar again at the first opportunity (the Figueirense v Corinthians game the next day).

SAD walks home through the darkening night and the Book of Revelations rain with much to ponder. Does that perfect football year, when one`s team romps to glorious triumph after glorious triumph, while hated rivals are utterly and repeatedly humiliated, really exist? Is it wrong to wish ill on someone else, even a football team? What strange motivation had made SAD spend his Saturday afternoon in the rain, cheering on the reserve team of a club which had not won for 12 games and which he did not support, full in the knowledge that they had absolutely no chance of victory? Will the world record for the number of car horns beeped in an hour be broken in Recife that night? Will it ever stop raining? Why does it rain anyway? Why don`t bicycles fall over? Will Francis Begbie really make SAD watch the first three films in the Twilight saga when he gets home, as promised/threatened, in preparation for the final, castrating blow that will be a visit to the cinema the next day, to see the fourth?

The answers to the above questions and more may or may not be revealed in future editions of See A Darkness.     

Monday, 21 November 2011

The laurels all are cut, the year draws in the day, and we`ll to Arruda no more.* It is 18.38 in Goiania, 2000km from As Republicas Independentes. Santa are drawing 0-0 with Tupi as SAD writes, a result which means the not-all-that-coveted crown of Serie D Champions 2011 will very soon be heading it`s way south, to Juiz De Fora in Minas Gerais.

Around 14 minutes of the game remain. Zé Teodoro has revealed himself to be an avid reader of See A Darkness, and has gone with exciting midfield triumvirate of Bismarck, Renatinho and Weslley. Exciting midfield triumvirate of Bismarck, Renatinho and Weslley have failed miserably. Actually, this is not entirely fair - Santa have played well enough, or at least it sounds so on the radio, but the curse of incompetence in front of goal, courtesy of Messrs Cunha, Gaúcho, Kiros, Rat Hunter and Ludemar, all too common in the second half of the year, looks like it will be the team`s undoing once again.

Afternoon dwindles into night, another sweltering midwestern day fades, and Santa`s season too, gutters in the gloom. There will be no proper football now at Arruda until January, which is at least a shorter break than recent years, when the footballing calendar finished in September or October and tricolores were left to twiddle calloused thumbs for five months or more.  

Suddenly, as SAD listens idly, Tupi score one, and a few minutes later, a second. Silence falls on what had been a boisterous Arruda. SAD feels sad, but not too sad. Congratulations are due to the mineiros – though the score reflects a hard lesson for pernambucano football – teams from the sul and sudeste always end up kicking nordestino arse, even at this level.

In the end, then, after all the sound and fury, there is nothing much to do but imagine 60,000 tricolores drifting quietly out of Arruda (stumbling on the broken steps down from the anel superior, probably ending up in an unpleasant crush on the second landing), and into the night, and to remember the best of the year gone by.

Like the first home game against Ypiranga, back in January, a hard-to-recall 2-1 tricolor victory, when new friends were welcomed on to the Arruda turf: Thiago Cardoso, Weslley, Leandro Souza, Landu and Thiagos Mathias and Cunha, who would go on to great things in 2011 (yes, even Landu); Alex Silva, Bruno Leite, Laécio and Mario Lucio, who wouldn`t, and would soon be forgotten. 

That game came near the start of a six game unbeaten run that would make Santa early leaders, though reality was lurking unpleasantly near – thumping defeats against Recife Jr, away at Aflitos, and Porto, in the perennial graveyard of Caruaru, brought fears of a clássico whipping the following week against Recife B at Arruda.

That was the day that set the theme for the year – overturning expectations, grinding results out even when the overall play was frequently unlovely, and a tremendous sense of unity among journeymen (Cardoso, Weslley, and Leandro Souza), grizzled veterans (Thiago Mathias** and Jeovanio) and youngsters (Gilberto, Memo, Natan, Renatinho and Everton Sena).

SAD is too lazy to rehash the entire year here, and in any case, anyone who pays attention to all things tricolor will need no reminding – of the stirring 1-0 over São Paulo at Arruda, of the three consecutive helpings of whupass served up on Recife B, of the narrow squeak past Porto in the semis, and of that final, triumphant aggregate victory over A Coisa in front of more than 60,000 at As Republicas.

Then the tortuous trail of Serie D began  – the invasão of João Pessoa by 16,000 tricolores for that first game against Alecrim, then fifteen games of, well, excruciating pain, not to put too fine a point on it. Without Gilberto, Santa forgot how to score – mustering a feeble 17 goals in 16 games, and promotion was achieved thanks to organization, stamina, stout work in midfield and defence, and a marvelous goalkeeper.  Better, much better, will be needed in Serie C in 2012.

Maybe it is for the best that in the end things culminate in a defeat. SAD has been getting pretty cocky recently – foolishly, because as anyone who has lived in darkness knows, even though the clouds may briefly part, there are always storms lurking just over the horizon.

Defeat against Tupi will serve as a reminder, then, that nothing is guaranteed, and that for O Mais Querido, losing still comes as easily than winning – if not more so. This is as it should be, of course, in football as in life, because only in this way can we good tricolores appreciate and savour those rare victories when they come.

And really, no-one should care much about losing to Tupi. Promotion was all that mattered, and promotion is in the bag. Real darkness might descend next Saturday, as Recife B, it seems, have somehow wormed (the verb is an apt one) their way back into the Serie A promotion spots (and a plague on the houses of Vitoria and Bragantino for letting it happen). 

Which leaves SAD no option but to show up at the Serra Dourada in Goiania next Saturday, and scream his support for Vila Nova for 90 unhappy minutes. For if Recife B win, then they`re up into Serie A, and we will all walk in darkness once again…

* With apologies, once again, to AE Housman and Roger Angell.

** Unity up to a point, in Mr. Mathias`s case.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Guerreiros, Guerreiros, Guerreiros, Time De Guerreiros, is a chant that has echoed around many a Brazilian football ground in recent years. Based on the track Sorte Grande (or Big Luck), by introspective, melancholic Bahian singer Ivete Sangalo, with its hushed, haunting refrain of Poeira, Poeira, Poeira, Levantou Poeira (we sure kicked up some dust, or words to that effect), it acclaims the warrior spirit of the team in question, salutes their unconquerable spirit, praises their brave Brazilian hearts.   

Perhaps the most famous Team Of Warriors in the last few years has been 2009’s Fluminense, who were bottom of the table with only a few games left before reeling off six wins on the trot and escaping relegation on the last day of the season. A quick scan of the internet, however, reveals that the term Time De Guerreiros has, like cheap shoes, been somewhat devalued by overuse. This year’s warriors include Cruzeiro (one position above the relegation zone despite an extravagantly talented cast of players), Vasco (fair enough – coach Ricardo Gomes almost died of a stroke a couple of months ago, and last week’s stirring comeback against Universitario of Peru wasn’t too shabby), Guarani, heroically mid-table in Serie B, and Atletico Parana (even worse off than Cruzeiro). These days, it seems, winning a throw-in in the opposition half while losing to a team not much better than yourselves is enough to earn a rousing chorus of Guerreiros, Guerreiros, Guerreiros, Time De Guerreiros, from the stands.  

Santa Cruz 2011, of course, have been a Time De Guerreiros pretty much all year, and from time to time have even deserved it. On 30th March Rogerio Ceni, Lucas and the rest of the São Paulo glamour pusses rolled into Recife for a Copa Do Brasil tie. Santa’s names were less well-known but gutsier. 19 year old Everton Sena marked Lucas out of the game, Gilberto out-muscled Alex Silva and Rhodolfo, Renatinho did his smaller-faster-better routine one more time, and Rogerio Ceni lost the plot completely, charging 90 yards to scream in the referee’s face as Santa goalkeeper Thiago Cardoso lay injured on the ground. The referee sensibly sent Rogerio The Humble 90 yards back to his own goal, as cries of timinho, timinho (wee team, wee team, in the Norn Iron vernacular) rang around the ground. 

Another timinho, aka Recife B, aka Sport Club Do Recife, were chewed up and spat out three times in a row, first of all at Arruda, then at the Ilha Do Retiro, then at the Ilha again in the Campeonato Pernambucano final. All three times Santa were rank outsiders – Sport’s payroll is three or four times bigger than Santa’s, Santa are/were in Serie D, Sport have the biggest support in Recife, in the nordeste, in America Do Sul, in the world, and are rivalled on the pitch only by Barcelona and possibly Manchester City (by now SAD’s leanings towards the bluer, and better half of Manchester are hopefully common knowledge).*  All three times the results were ground out through determination, sweat, and the odd moment of genius from Wesley, Renatinho, Gilberto or Thiago Cardoso.

So far so guerreiro. But then came Serie D. Santa were no-hopers at the start of the Pernambucano, expected to finish well behind Sport, Nautico, and maybe even Salgueiro, Porto or Central. But in Serie D, suddenly, Santa were favourites, roared on by crowds 60, or even 600, times bigger than some of their rivals. And if wages at Arruda are a long way behind those at the Ilha or Aflitos, then imagine what the slim pay packets at Alecrim or Coruripe must be like.

Such pressure has weighed heavy on fragile tricolor backs, and in truth Santa have struggled mightily in Serie D. Such has been the fear of defeat (understandable, given the cruel twists and turns of Serie D’s group/knockout structure) that Santa have retreated into their collective shell. Steadfast, determined, warriors once more, even though this time the opposition has not been São Paulo or Sport but Cuiaba, Treze and Guarani.

Still, the salutes of guerreiros, guerreiros have continued. The scoreless second leg away in Alagoas against the mighty Coruripe was clearly the work of heroes, as was the stirring fight back against the all-conquering Treze in Campina Grande. SAD might even have joined in with a verse or two in Rondonopolis as the omnipotent Cuiaba were put to the sword in the Serie D semi-final. Fair enough – all three games saw Santa qualify for the next round. But really, Coruripe, Treze and Cuiaba?

The thing about being a Time De Guerreiros is that the underlying subtext is that, well, you’re not very good. Nobody calls Barcelona or Man City a Time De Guerreiros, because Barcelona or Man City don’t really need to roll their sleeves up and battle as though their lives depend on it to escape from Juiz De Fora with only a 1-0 defeat (supposedly setting things up nicely for the second leg). Being a Time De Guerreiros means a team is effectively a bunch of honest toilers, stubborn and hard working, but lacking in talent and inspiration. And when you’re being a Time De Guerreiros against teams that are probably worse off than you are, then it’s an even poorer state of affairs.

The thing is that Santa are more than a Time De Guerreiros. Thiago Cardoso is as good a goalkeeper as there is outside of Serie A. Leandro Souza is a classy zagueiro, if a bit slow. Memo has developed into a decent volante, though is a terrible fill-in fullback. Weslley has a terrific range of passing. Renatinho and Natan are as gifted as those weird 12 year old kids who pass their Oxford or Cambridge entrance exams that you sometimes see on the news.

And then there is Bismarck. Bismarck is imaginative, creative and quick. Bismarck has transformed almost every game he has played in (usually coming on as a late substitute). A midfield of Bismarck, Renatinho and Weslley would carve open most defences at this or even higher levels, and certainly that of Tupi, Santa’s opponents in the second leg of the Serie D final on Sunday. Even Thiago Cunha, Kiros and Rat-Hunter, surely, could not contrive to miss all the chances that such a midfield would create.

But Bismarck is not a guerreiro. Bismarck might give the ball away too often. Santa have come this far on Zé Teodoro’s terrific organizational skills and the aforementioned redoubtable mental and emotional characteristics. Bismarck, then, is a luxury, perhaps to be held in reserve for the more refined terrain of next year’s Serie C.

Maybe, though, the whole guerreiro thing is getting a bit tired now. It’s the last game of the season. Santa’s chance to win their first ever national championship (embarrassing as that sounds). 60,000 roaring from the stands. Jeovanio is suspended, opening up a spot in midfield. Tupi are probably not very good. Two defensive midfielders will perhaps not be completely necessary.

SAD feels the need to beseech. Come on Zé Teodoro! Guerreiros no more! On Sunday, as Santa run out 3-0 winners following a glorious display of expansive, flowing football, a new chant will be needed!

Weaklings, weaklings, weaklings, team of weaklings!        

* All of these claims, remarkably, are true. At least according to every Recife B supporter SAD has ever met. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

SAD´s Santinha away jaunt CV is not as healthy as he would like.

Exhibit 1: vs. CSA in Maceió (285km from Recife), July 2009.  A thumping 3-0 opening day victory, with goals from Juninho (saudades), Reinaldo (whatever the opposite of saudades is) and Neto Maranhão prompted misguided hopes of a quick promotion from Serie D. A quiet enough beginning off the pitch, with the only incident of note coming on the return trip: on the way through some benighted hamlet or other in Alagoas or south Pernambuco, a mischievously tossed object whizzes through the warm night air, slips silently through the window of the bus, and cracks softly against SAD’s forehead. I’m hit, I’m hit, cries SAD, reaching up and touching something wet, before realising the object was egg, not rock, and the goo is yolk, not blood.

Exhibit 2: Maceió again, in August 2010. A last minute winner from who else but Brasão saw Santa through to the second round of that year’s Serie D. On the way back the coach brakes down in the middle of a sugar cane plantation miles from civilisation. Three hours and several epic rainstorms later, a replacement bus arrives from Recife and the journey can continue.

Exhibit 3: Sobral (1038km from Recife), October 2010. Twenty hours there, twenty hours back. A 2-0 defeat and another premature exit from Serie D. Long term physical and psychological damage.

Exhibit 4: João Pessoa (128km from Recife), July 2011. A routine victory against Alecrim. 16,000 tricolores make the trip. On the way back, this.

Exhibit 5 does not start well. The bus to Rondonópolis, Mato Grosso, leaves at midnight, just as Goiânia, SAD’s new home, is engulfed in a downpour of biblical proportions. For the next eleven hours it seems certain that death, when it comes, will at least be quick and painless. The great plains of the centro-oeste are engulfed in utter blackness. Every few minutes lightning crackles along the horizon, illuminating a few skeletal trees and miles and miles and miles of flat, empty land. Our driver is undaunted by the zero visibility – the bus careens madly around corners, skidding in the wet as juggernauts scream out of the darkness towards us, klaxons blaring.

SAD spends most of the journey in the brace position, just in case. And offers up the first traveler’s tip of the 2014 World Cup. If of nervous disposition and about to embark on a long distance bus journey in Brazil, do not on any account choose one of the raised, “first floor” seats at the front, above the driver. The grandstand view of the mayhem outside will prove too much for a skittering heart.

Rondonópolis is one of those stubbornly provincial, industrial “second cities” (through really towns) that seem to be common in middle ranking Brazilian states, reminiscent of Campina Grande (Paraiba), Caruaru (Pernambuco) and Anápolis (Goiás). And Mato Grosso is one of those Brazilian states where local football is strangled at birth by the televised lure of gaudier fare from Rio and São Paulo. Santa’s opponents, Cuiabá, from the state capital (and Brazil’s least loveable World Cup host city), boast average crowds of around 700 and a stadium too small for such an illustrious occasion as today’s Serie D semi-final, which is why today’s game has been moved here, to the not-quite-the-Emirates environs of the Estádio Luthero Lopes.

Though with a bit of forethought the CBF might have realised that not that much space would be required. 3045km is too far even for the Santa hordes to travel, meaning that tricolor support here today is limited to a scattering of waifs and strays marooned in Brasilia or Goiânia (SAD included). The majority of Cuiabá’s few fans will have been put off by the 230km drive from the capital. Most of what little noise there is is being made by the Rondonópolis branch of Palmeiras’ Mancha Verde torcida organizada, who have turned up in support of their pals in Santa’s Inferno Coral. The total crowd is under 500 and the atmosphere slightly less intense than an early group game in Norn Iron’s Milk Cup juniors competition.

But amidst the echoing shouts of players and coaches things go well enough for Santa. The rain has stopped and the pitch is in good shape, and the three sided stadium is pretty enough. It is the best attack in Serie D (Cuiabá) against the best defence (Santa), and Zé Teodoro has gone for negative overkill to hang on to a 1-0 first leg lead, with three zagueiros and two volantes, leaving Wesley as the only creative outlet.

Such plans go out the window after about three minutes, when Fernando scores a clever goal, sending the gaggle of Cuiabá fans into a frenzy. Over on the Santa side it feels hard to get excited – promotion is already ensured, and only the hours wasted on the bus seem much of a reason to care.

But Arruda’s Almost Invincibles (one defeat in fourteen Serie D games) are made of stern stuff. Sleeves are rolled up, and after twenty minutes Eduardo Arroz crosses and Fernando Gaúcho finishes off for the equaliser. Gaucho may just be the club’s best striker these days, which is admittedly not saying a lot.

With Cuiabá needing two Santa are happy to sit back and control the game, which they do quite nicely. Renatinho comes on for Dutra, giving a bit more of a breakaway threat. With twenty minutes remaining the Artist Formerly Known As Little Pants crosses for Gaúcho to get his second, and Santa are in the final.

Which is pretty much it, except that at the end there is a nice, up country stadium, touch, as the gates are opened and the few fans that are there are allowed to wander happily amongst the players. SAD considers remaining aloof but sooner gives in to his inner child and makes his way onto the grass for photos with Jeovanio and Zé Teodoro.

Afterwards there is beer and macaxeira at what must be the only bar in Rondonópolis owned by a Pernambucano. There is plenty of praise from the locals for Santa, whose crowds over the last few years have garnered nationwide fame. An argument starts over whether local favourites Vila Aurora played Santa in the Copa Do Brasil in 2006. Bets are made, though no-one seems to know the answer, and iPhones with web access are unsurprisingly thin on the ground. A shoeless man in a grubby Vasco Da Gama shirt knocks on a door further down the street. When the unseen oracle inside has spoken, our messenger scurries back. He stands on a chair and proclaims the verdict – in February 2006 Santa beat Tigrão 1-0 over two legs. On a mysterious technicality, the loser of the bet refuses to pay. The winner is not pleased. The atmosphere becomes heated. SAD decides it’s time to head to the bus station, to think about the eleven hour journey to come.