Monday, 29 October 2012

Darkness On The Edge of Town

It was a close run thing there, for a while. Two Pernambuco state championships in two years. The despised Recife B trodden on like so much dried pigeon dung, Recife Jr. put firmly back in their little pink and white box. And if escape from Serie D was more digging a tunnel under the prison walls with bare hands than gliding out of Colditz, who was complaining? The slide had been reversed, Santa were on the rise, and promotion to Serie B was surely a formality.

Things were getting dangerously close to looking up.

Until yesterday, when normal service was unhappily restored. Somewhere in the wilds of Pará (a state where things can get pretty wild indeed), the club that boasted the 39th biggest average attendance in the world while playing in Serie D last year (38,000) contrived to lose 1-0 to Águia de Marabá, and ended up out of the play-off spots. It will be the decidedly undercooked fare of Serie C again next year.

In some ways it is hard to know what went wrong. The players that drifted into Arruda during the year all looked passable on paper (and there were six of them in the team yesterday), but in the main, failed to reproduce on the pitch. Part of that failure is no doubt due to the insane MAKE-IT-HAPPEN-NOW culture of Brazilian football, which grows madder still in the short seasons of the lower divisions. A newly arrived midfield schemer will be given two games to transform himself into Xavi and Iniesta combined before being branded a flop, and woe betide the striker who fails to score on his debut – he’ll likely be warming the bench next week. Part of it is due to this being Serie C, and Santa being in straitened financial circumstances (the crowds may be big but the debt pile is bigger still), which means the calibre of athlete, home grown youngsters aside, is unlikely to be very high.

There were specific failures. The loss of excellent goalkeeper Thiago Cardoso to injury was a bitter blow, and neither Diego Lima or Fred convinced as his replacement. There were too many changes at the back, where Santa played without a recognised left back (and a pretty hard to recognise right back, Diogo) for most of the year. Perhaps the greatest problem was a lack of creation in the middle. Talented but gossamer light youngster Natan was lost to injury yet again, and Weslley has been on a decline since the 2011 Campeonato Pernambucano win. Veteran Luciano Henrique impressed in spurts, but not consistently, and late arrivals Leaozinho and Leandro Oliveira flattered to deceive. Up front, Denis Marques was perhaps the villain of the piece – looking good enough on occasion to convince tricolors he was The Answer, but missing far too many chances (and penalties) when it mattered. The lack of a decent strike partner didn´t help – the powerful but decrepit Fabricio Ceará was useful only for carrying heavy kit bags from the team bus to the changing room, while the adulation afforded Flãvio Rat Hunter surely drips with irony.

And then there was Zé. Mr. Teodoro stepped on the ball in epic fashion in 2012. A terror of losing (understandable, given the gun-to-the-temple nature of his job) meant that even the lowliest of opposition was treated with fearful dread, and three volantes (defensive midfielders) became the norm (the hopeless Chicão became, incomprehensibly, a regular). On what seemed like hundreds of occasions, Santa would fail to make their lumbering pressure count early on, the opposition would break away and score, and Zé would be forced to hurl on attacker after attacker in an attempt to chase the game. Tactically speaking, it was grossly incompetent, made worse by a refusal to recognise the obvious flaws and modify the system. Such tactics had served Santa well against bigger teams (São Paulo and Recife B were both put to the sword in this way), but against Treze, Cuiabá and Guarany de Sobral it was hardly appropriate. Ultimately, this lack of confidence and reluctance to attack may have cost Santa promotion (Fortaleza aside, the division was not particularly strong).

Which leaves Santa once again in the slough of despond. The financial impact will be felt hard (three home play-off games at Arruda would have generated well over R$1,000,000 in receipts). Worse is the long-term effect the defeat may have. For oddly enough, despite yesterday´s tragedy, Santa, under the guidance of president Antonio Luiz Neto, have become a model of responsible football management. There is clear evidence of a long term plan – despite at least three vociferous campaigns for the removal of Zé Teodoro over the last 12 months by the more imbecilic elements of the Arruda crowd, ALN has remained calm, and stressed the importance of “the project”. “Why on earth would we sack a manager who took us out of Serie D and won us our first state championships in six years?” has been the remarkably mature thinking. As a result, after two years in charge, Zé Teodoro, has become a kind of less successful, lower division Alex Ferguson of Brazilian football. And Santa´s fortunes have, compared to where they started, followed a largely upward curve. At least a dozen Serie A clubs should take note.

And yet it is no longer so easy to justify maintaining Mr. Teodoro as Santa´s coach. Throughout 2012 he has shown himself to be tactically limited, though that may in part be down to the players he has had to work with, and the manic in-out-in-out signing culture that exists in the lower divisions. It is fair to ask if things are likely to improve much in 2013. But on the other hand, stability and continuity are priceless advantages in this part of the world, and if the less stagnant elements of the playing staff can be retained, there is no reason why Santa cannot learn from their mistakes and achieve promotion next year.

Complicating the issue are the looming presidential elections. More than a few comments on Twitter after yesterday’s game wanted not just #ZéTeodoroOut but also #ALNOut, while another said that if the president wanted to lose the election, all he had to do was to extend Zé Teodoro´s contract. Those banging their bloodied knuckles on the windows and howling for vengeance are, of course, unlikely to have given much thought to whom might take over as manager or club president.

See A Darkness listened to last night´s game on the radio. When it was over, and the kitchen walls started to close in, he took himself out into the stifling Goiãnia night to seek solace in the bottom of a glass. He drank alone, as he often does, and as he considered how heavy life´s burdens can sometimes be, he remembered another night, four years ago, amidst the Dickensian horrors of Salvador´s Pelourinho district. He drank alone that night too, only pausing to call friends in Recife and find out the score of Santa’s final game in Serie C against Salgueiro. It finished 2-2, and Santa were improbably relegated to Serie D. The smothering heat of the night, the shadowy figures moving through the darkness, the sense of aching disappointment – maybe not that much has changed in those four years after all.

And perhaps there´s some comfort in that. After all, the journey´s half the fun, and the destination is usually a disappointment when you get there. Though these are sentiments unlikely to be appreciated by tricolores on this most dismal of mornings. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

On Scepticism

Doleful old Greek sceptic Pyrrho believed that nothing was inherently good or inherently evil, nor honourable or dishonourable, but simply that things merely existed. On one occasion he even went so far as to refuse to help a (presumably unimpressed) friend out of a ditch, as that would involve passing judgement on the value of friend, ditch, fetid ditch water, and so on. It doesn`t do, runs Pyrrho’s thinking, to interfere with the general order of things in the great cosmic tapestry.

With this in mind, Pyrrho would no doubt approve of Serie C of the Brasileirão. Serie C, at least for Santa Cruz Futebol Clube of Recife, is the footballing equivalent of purgatory, of an overcast day that is neither hot nor cold, of boiled potatoes, cabbage and ham for dinner. Lacking even the desperate pathos of Serie D (and surely Santa fans missed a trick by not adopting Man City’s “we’re not really here” anthem during their time in the abyss), or the almost-there-now buoyancy of Serie B, Serie C is neither good nor bad. It`s simply there.

Fittingly enough, Santa Cruz have also been neither good nor bad this year, but have merely existed. The team is competent enough for this level, occasionally oscillating towards the poor, notably when losing to Fortaleza and Luverdense away from home, and drawing 0-0 against Cuíaba, without ever really plumbing the depths. And Santa`s best moments, such as the 6-1 thumping of Águia de Maraba at Arruda a week ago, or the equally handsome 4-0 home victory over Icasa, also in Recife, have been undercut by the feebleness of the opposition.

This sense of ennui is perhaps in keeping with the work of Zé Teodoro. Zé Te Adoro, as he was christened back in the heady days that followed the epic Campeonato Pernambucano win over Sport back in May 2011, is something of a specialist in teams with all the imaginative spark of a kitchen chair. Zé`s Santa, creatively speaking, do the bare minimum, but still manage to win (or at least avoid defeat), most of the time, through dint of sheer hard work and organisation.

That though, is what makes sense at this level, which is why the continued campaigns to have Mr. Teodoro’s head mounted on a spike somewhere on Avenida Beberibe make little sense. Yes, the football produced by Santa is brutally functional at best, but surely, given that this is the third tier of a very flawed Brasileirão, it was always going to be this way. See a Darkness has racked his brains and consulted the Big Book of Football Records for mention of a truly memorable, aesthetically pleasing Third Division campaign by any team, anywhere, and come up with close to nothing. Division 3, Serie C, call it what you will, is not a place that is particularly suited to football as art. So are tricolor expectations, demanding victories and tiki-taka symphonies at the same time, unrealistically high?

Perhaps. Or maybe it`s all about perspective. SAD first exchanged hot glances across a crowded room with O Mais Querido back in 2007 (his first game a handsome 2-0 win over Náutico at Arruda, both goals courtesy of Marcelo Ramos). Santa finished the estadual that year in 7th, behind such three-men-and-a-dog luminaries as Vera Cruz and Porto, and a few months later, were relegated to Serie C of the Brasileirão.

The year after brought more Pernambucano pain (another 7th place finish, behind Ypiranga and Serrano, no less), and relegation to Serie D. The misery continued for the next two years as Santa failed to escape from Serie D and finished a distant 3rd behind Recife B and Recife Jr in the Pernambucano.

In short, it`s been the footballing equivalent of very thin gruel. As a result SAD’s expectations are lower than standards of customer care at a Brazilian telecommunications company, or in other words, very, very low indeed. Perhaps if he had been around a bit longer and seen some of the great Santa teams of the past, such as the 1975 side that reached the semi-finals of the Brasileirão, eliminating Palmeiras and Flamengo along the way, or even the team that stormed back into Serie A in 2005, he might understand better the rage of those screaming for Zé Teodoro’s blood to be spilt.  

Thinking back, in SAD`s more than five years of supporting Santa Cruz, the team that has come closest to playing entertaining football (and this gives an idea as to how bad it`s been) was perhaps Dado Cavalcanti`s 2010 side, with the elegant Léo at volante, creaky-legged veteran Jackson and Elvis pulling the strings in midfield, and Brasão splashing around up front. And that team couldn`t make it out of Serie D.

Zé Teodoro is not as bright or open a coach as young Mr. Cavalcanti (now doing well at Serie C Paraguayan horse Luverdense), but he might just be a more efficient one. A love of efficiency rather than beauty, after all, is surely the only explanation for the repeated presence of the lumbering Chicão in the Santa midfield. Elsewhere, this Santa team is a mix of the good (Denis Marques, William, Memo, maybe Leandro Oliveira and Leozinho), the bad (goalkeeper Fred, who when handling the ball strongly resembles a man fighting off bees*), and the ugly (Fabricio Ceará, who might be a tub-thumping striker, but is unlikely to attract a new generation of female admirers to Arruda).  

That has been good enough in the past, and is probably not much more than can be expected for Santa`s reduced present. Whether it is enough to reach the (relatively speaking) promised land of Serie B remains to be seen.    

* This line stolen from the lyrical pen of Roger Angell. The photo shows players from Santa's 1957 Campeonato Pernambucano winning team, and is taken from the excellent Memorias do Santa Cruz site. 

Monday, 4 June 2012

Uncomfortably Numb

Compared to the modern day Constantinople (or Sodom and Gomorrah, depending on where one sups of an evening) that is Recife, living in Goiânia just ain´t no fun at all. There´s no beach, no carnaval, and worst of all, no O Mais Querido. And yet there are a few cultural thrills here in the Midwest. For example, instead of carnaval, there´s the Pecuária, or Cattle Fair. For two whole weeks the city brims over with men in cowboy boots and hats, girls in next to nothing, and the Munchian howl of a thousand and one duplas sertanejas – Vitor and Leo, Bruno and Marrone, Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise. See a Darkness hasn't visited the Pecuária yet, but there´s still time, and this is one show he doesn´t want to miss – not after a colleague sang the praises of the Plastic Cow Parade and a really super display of irrigation systems.

And there’s football too, the mighty Emerald Army of Goiás (lurking somewhere near the bottom of Serie B), the Time do Povo of these parts (Vila Nova, Santa´s Serie C roommates), and perhaps Brazil´s best kept footballing secret, Atlético Goianiense. Atlético are a team of such grandiose scope and ambition, such rich tradition, that the club’s board recently decided it could bear the bumbling of freshly appointed coach Adilson Batista for no more than 900 minutes (especially as such an eternity included the scarcely believable incompetence of two draws to start Serie A).

Adilson still has our confidence, said one director, just before the axe fell, but it seems like we have a different way of looking at things. A team like Atlético can´t be defensive at home. If it was up to me, I´d sack him. The Atlético hordes, who easily filled the front two rows of the Serra Dourada for Dragão´s last home game against Ponte Preta (attendance: 1,700), nodded furiously in agreement. Despite never having finished higher than 13th in Serie A, Atlético clearly have their sights set high, and Mr. Guardiola, Mr. Hiddink and company are advised to wait by the phone.

But if life is more bitter than sweet in Goiânia, imagine what it must be like in Rio Branco (Acre), Campina Grande (Paraíba) or Araguaína (Tocantins). SAD can´t. Take Campina Grande, for example. SAD lived in João Pessoa for a year, the longest of his life, and if João Pessoa makes Goiânia look like New York, Paris, and London all rolled into one, imagine what it must be like to live in a place which looks up to João Pessoa as a seat of learning, culture, and industrial and technological advancement! SAD feels faint just thinking about it.

He´s been to Campina Grande, twice in fact, once for Santa’s fairly gruesome 2008 defeat against Campinense, and then last year, for that stirring come-from-behind draw with Treze in the Serie D playoffs, courtesy of the gone-and-pretty-much-forgotten Fernando Gaúcho. Not a bad sort of place, all in all, particularly if you´re the kind of person who stops, points up at the sky, and cries behold, the great metal bird has returned! every time a plane passes overhead.

Araguaína, comparatively, seems a modern, progressive kind of city, at least from what little information SAD can glean from the internet. What’s not to like, after all, about a town where the local cinema, Cine Natal, showed only sex and karate flicks during the 1980s, before being closed down for good after hosting a live, on stage, mucky-touching show in 1985? Other than that, there might not be that much going on in Araguaína – SAD’s battered 2003 copy of the Rough Guide to Brazil says that “it’s many times larger than (Tocantins state capital) Palmas, but no more attractive a place to stay”. And Palmas really isn’t that attractive a place to stay.

As for Rio Branco, all that needs to be said is that it’s the capital of the state of Acre, and all that needs to be said about the state of Acre is that when wooing his trusty companion Francis Begbie not so long ago, SAD declared that so deep and true runneth his love (or something) that he would move anywhere in Brazil to spend his days and nights with the lucky girl – except Acre.

So what, then, do all these godforsaken places have to do with Santa Cruz? More than they should, as it turns out. For, as anyone who cares about Santa, or Fortaleza, or Paysandu, or any of the other five or six teams in the division that have any supporters, Serie C is on hold, and it doesn’t look like it will be unheld anytime soon.

It’s on hold, because last year, Rio Branco, who had finished top of Group A of Serie C, were disqualified after appealing, via the common law courts, a state government decision to close their stadium. And, as everybody knows, this is a sin more heinous than any committed in the biblical version of the Leeds-Bradford conurbation mentioned in the first line of this text, as Rio Branco should first have exhausted all the options open to them via the Brazilian sporting justice system (the shadowy organ known as the STJD). The decision to disqualify Rio Branco effectively relegated the club, so saving Araguaína (who had finished bottom of the same group) from the drop. That, at least, was how the rest of last year’s Serie C played out, with Luverdense taking Rio Branco’s spot in the second round.  

The chaos engine that is the CBF, though, had barely warmed up. Earlier this year details emerged of an agreement between Ricardo Teixeira’s former plaything, the STJD, and Rio Branco, who had been appealing against their disqualification. According to the deal, Rio Branco would drop any further legal proceedings against the CBF, in return for which the CBF would allow Rio Branco to play in Serie C in 2012 – meaning Araguaína found themselves relegated again.

Cue squeals of protest from Tocantins, where Araguaína promptly obtained an injunction from a local court preserving their place in Serie C. Take that, you swines, cried Rio Branco, not to be outdone, and obtained their own injunction, in Acre, guaranteeing their third tier spot. Avast, ye varlets, yelled Treze, confusing everyone for a minute, before clearing things up by getting yet another injunction, this time in Paraíba, arguing that as the fifth placed team in 2011’s Serie D, if there were any spots going free in Serie C 2012, they were first in line. 

And as if all that wasn’t enough, similar shenanigans are taking place down in the southern half of the league, where Brasil de Pelotas and Santo André are bickering like overtired toddlers about which of them is entitled to the dubious honour of playing in Serie C. SAD would like to explain the machinations of this particular saga too, but thinking about it makes him feel very, very sleepy.

Meanwhile, the athletes that represent the finely tuned footballing machine that is Santa Cruz, bicampeões of Pernambuco, sit and twiddle their thumbs. It’s a frustrating business, particularly as Santa’s directors have been working hard at cleaning house for Serie C. Gone, rather disappointingly for lovers of petulant, somewhat squalid drama, is the immortal Charlie Bullet, along with barely seen left back Eduardo Arroz. In have come some enticing names - excellent left back Jefferson, brutishly efficient zagueiro Diego Bispo (both ex-Náutico), veteran striker Fabricio Ceará (one of the stars of Salgueiro’s excellent Pernambucano campaign), and, intriguingly, the attacker Paulista, who was top scorer of 2011’s state championship for Porto, before flopping at Sport. Goalkeeper Fred, who had been tootling about in the 2nd division of the Campeonato Mineiro with Araxá, might see more action than he’d been expecting if Thiago Cardoso’s injury woes continue.

Much more serious than bored footballers, of course, are the financial ramifications of such a paralysation. As regular readers of this column will know, Santa Cruz are skint, broke and potless. The servicing of an enormous debt (around R$70 million at last count) while playing in the dusty wastelands of Serie C and Serie D, with their short, World Cup format seasons, makes even paying wages a mighty struggle – in the four years between 2008 and 2011 Santa played a grand total of 21 Brasileirão games at Arruda (an average of five and a bit a year). And in Serie D, obviously enough, ticket prices, TV and sponsorship deals, and CBF hand-outs are all far lower than in the higher divisions. 

Worse still (or better, for the lily livered liberals amongst this column’s readers), some of Santa’s debts have recently become immediately due, as the Brazilian courts have decided that the payment of wages really should have been a legal requirement right from the start, leading to huge bills from unpaid players from the 70s, 80s and 90s arriving on the doormats of pretty much every club in the country.

And though it’s hard to believe, there are some teams that are even worse off than Santa. Serie C bed pals Guarany de Sobral, for example, have stated that if the games don’t start very soon, they’ll pull out of the competition and, with no money to pay wages, release their players. SAD sympathises greatly with Guarany’s plight. Or at least he would, if Guarany hadn’t knocked Santa out of 2010’s Serie D playoffs, and SAD hadn’t spent 20 hours travelling to Guarany to see the game (and another 20 hours getting home again).

But, as is usually the case, those who suffer most here are the fans. After all, for faithful tricolores, this was the year when everything was supposed to change. Serie D had become just a terrible story with which to frighten the kids into eating their greens. Thanks to the new, slightly improved Serie C format (two groups of ten teams), Santa would now be guaranteed a dizzying nine home matches in 2012, the nightmares of those short Serie D seasons a distant memory. There would be no more Sundays spent bored and listless at the beach, wishing instead that you were at Arruda watching O Mais Querido. No more staring numbly at the TV, trying to be interested in Flamengo vs. Whoever Flamengo Are Playing This Week. 

That was the plan, at least, until the CBF once more demonstrated that neither it nor its dubiously selected representatives would be fit to organise a bit of post-pub, back alley five-a-side, let alone the professional game in perhaps the biggest footballing nation on the planet, and Rio Branco and Araguaína and Treze started their merry dance...

* They’ll have to wait a while longer – Atlético appointed ex Recife B blusterer Helio dos Anjos as their new supremo last week.       

Note: Photo, once again, from the fantastic Memorias do Santa Cruz blog. 

Monday, 9 April 2012

All I Know Is That I Know Nothing

For a while there, things got pretty ugly. Anti-Zé Teodoro protests at training sessions. Twitter and Facebook campaigns demanding the removal of The Fool on the Hill. Fan turning on fan. Then again, maybe it was all worse than it seemed.

After all, the most steadfast of Santa’s support has always come from the trenches, amongst the Inferno Coral masses, and the hordes up on the arquibancada superior who can’t afford to pay more than R$10 for their tickets. The boo-boys are generally to be found over in the more middle class neighbourhoods of Arruda, in the seats and the área de sócios, where the only chanting ever heard involves calling for the head on a stick of some doomy player or manager. And it’s a fair bet that with more time and more internet access on their hands, those same middle class types (relatively speaking) made the redes sociáis their very own digital área de sócios fiefdom for a few weeks. Empty vessels, and all that.

Either way, it was no fun at all. For an eminently reasonable gringo tricolor such as See A Darkness, the thought of sacking a manager who had taken Santa to their first Campeonato Pernambucano triumph in six years, and had lifted the club out of Serie D after three lonely seasons, all because of a positively arctic run of six defeats since January (even if one of them was the gruesome Copa do Brasil elimination against Penarol, from the murky depths of Amazonia), seemed just a mite hasty.

At the height of the Everybody Hates Zé campaign, it all felt a bit like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Neighbour turned upon neighbour. Suspected Zé sympathisers were outed to the House of Representatives Commission on Un-Santa Cruzian Activities. Democracy and civil liberties withered on the vine. To dare to suggest, that it might be, um, better to, well, you know, give Zé a few more weeks, days, or even hours to blend seven or so new signings into the team brought only bared teeth and feral snarls. The tablets had come down from the mount – Leandro Souza was a worthless mercenary (for being tempted by a money spinning move to Europe (or at least Hungary) instead of pledging the rest of his career to a team in the third flight of Brazilian football that rarely pays his salary on time), and Zé Teodoro was a dolt, a dead man walking, guilty of the twin crimes of being (a) stubborn and (b) an “inventor” (of which more later).

Thankfully, the sky over Arruda is brighter now. Eight wins on the trot tends to do that. True, the football served up by Santa is hardly ebullient, and the suspicion of rifts among coaching staff and diretoria (festering ever since Balagate) remains. But then as this is the lumpy lower reaches of the Brazilian leagues, tiki-taka is probably a bit much to hope for. Organisation, doughtiness, and the odd bit of attacking flair is about as anyone can expect for the moment. After all, that was enough for Santa to achieve their objectives last year, and it might just do the trick again this time round.

And who to thank for these glad tidings? William Alves, the strapping zagueiro over from Portugal, who has single-handedly shored up a leaky defence and elbowed in a few key goals from corners? Denis Marques, who’s helped himself to a fairly cheap thirteen goals despite managing to look fairly rubbish most of the time? The always marvellous Renatinho, back to his scampering best now that Dutra has Zimmer-framed it off to Japan? Perhaps (gulp) even Zé Teodoro himself, for stoically weathering the storm, keeping his dignity, and getting Santa to play as a team again (even if not an especially good one)?

SAD thought so. But it turns out SAD was very wrong. For the people most responsible for the remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of Zé Teodoro and Santa Cruz are, it seems, those who wanted Sr. Teodoro sacked in the first place.

The news came via an article on the Santa fan page of Globoesportes, where SAD has been known to scribble a few lines himself. The article was even written by SAD `s marvellous boss (if an unpaid entirely amateur freelance writer can have a boss) at Globoesportes, a man SAD loves like a distant cousin he hasn’t seen for a long time. Turns out that players and managers had little to do with the upturn in results, and that thanks were instead due to the protestors for giving said players and staff the kick up the arse that they so desperately needed. 

Stupid SAD!

SAD, as you might gather from all the verbosity on display on these pages, is not a man often lost for words. But this time was different. For hours, in fact, it was all he could do to point to the remarkable text, mouth agape, wonder and confusion etched across his deeply furrowed brow. For days, he wandered the streets of Goiânia in his dressing gown and slippers, the spilt egg yolk from that morning’s breakfast crusting on his t-shirt, birds nesting in his Joaquin Phoenix (post-breakdown/career change) style beard. He was fired from his job. Francis Begbie, needless to say, packed Flup The Idiot Pekingese into a suitcase and headed off to her mother’s.

Nothing, it seemed, would ever make sense again.

Perhaps it’s because SAD isn’t from these parts. After all, in the mad, mad world where SAD grew up, it’s not seen as particularly conducive to footballing success to sack your manager every few weeks. Tends to stifle such fanciful notions as long term planning and team, and player, development. And as all that pressure created by a fear of defeat means tactical experimentation is far too great a risk to take, everything ends up trapped in some nightmarish footballing equivalent of Soviet functionalism, where what was once a beautiful, open game becomes a war of attrition, the field patrolled by packs of monstrous defensive volantes (hence the howls of stop inventing, you clown, whenever oor Zé made changes to the Santa first XI).

If SAD was to play devil’s advocate, he might say that perhaps all this hot-headedness on the part of supporters and directors is actually doing considerable harm to Brazilian football. That really, the problem goes much higher than Santa Cruz and Zé Teodoro. He might say that despite being undoubtedly the world’s biggest and best talent factory, the home of Tostäo, Gerson, Rivelinho, Pelé, Zico, Romario, Ronaldo, Flavio Caça Rato and Creedence Clearwater Couto, Brazilian football hasn’t produced a really expansive, original international side for about 30 years, and that the jogo bonito now resides in Madrid and Barcelona instead of Rio and São Paulo.  

And worst of all, while once promising young coaches such as Silas, Vagner Mancini, Adilson Batista and Caio Junior rub Grecian 2000 into their prematurely greying hair and gaze down at the 20 or 30 jobs already listed on their fledgling CVs, the best managers Brazil has managed to find for the last two stints of coaching the Seleção have been Dunga and Mano Menezes, with the direct result being the dismal fare served up over the last four or five years. During the same time, of course, coaches such as Bielsa, Tabárez, and, at club level, Sampaoli have transformed football in other South American countries with far fewer natural footballing resources.

But SAD would never say that. He’s far too amiable a chap. Instead, he’ll take the boss’s advice. He’ll raise a glass and toast all those who booed their own players and manager, all those who poured out vitriol and abuse on the internet, all of those in favour of ripping up the progress of the last 18 months and starting all over again.


Note: This article is dedicated to Waldemar Lemos, tecnico of Santa’s neighbours Recife Jr until this weekend. In December, Waldemar performed the water into wine miracle of getting a fairly tiny club promoted to Serie A of the Brasileirão. On Saturday, after a whopping six defeats in the Campeonato Pernambucano, Mr. Lemos was relieved of his position. Recife Jr have suffered dreadfully from injuries to key players this year, and Mr. Lemos has revealed today that for the last few months he has been travelling, when time allows, to Rio de Janeiro, to be with his sister, who is suffering from cancer. It is hoped that the fans and directors of Recife Jr are very, very proud of themselves this morning.  

And thanks, one more time, to the work of art that is memoriasdosantacruz for the photo. 

Friday, 16 March 2012

Fine Dining, Difficult Second Albums and Other Mixed Metaphors

Supporting a team like Santa Cruz, who over the last few years have put their supporters through Websterian (John) levels of agony and suffering, does something to the body and soul. It creates a certain toughness of spirit. Raises the pain threshold.  Makes one, so runs the theory, a better man.  

Not for the tricolor the whining of the supporters of leading English teams not named Manchester City, with all their complaining that their fabulously wealthy club is not as rich as another, even more fabulously wealthy club. Not for the tricolor the whimpering of the Flamenguista, demanding the head of Patricia Amorim on a silver platter because Mengão don’t win the Brasileirão, the Libertadores, and the All-Rio Under 15’s Domino Championship every single year.

Sobral away, for those unlucky few who went (SAD among them), was the tricolor’s bitten-by-a-funny-coloured-spider-in-the-lab moment. A quick reminder. Despite two balletic own goals by zagueiro Leandro Cardoso, Santa won the first leg of the 2010 Serie D promotion playoff against Guarany de Sobral 4-3, in front of a swaying, heaving mass of 55,000. A tidy performance away in the Ceará dustbowl would be enough to see O Mais Querido through. To stay at home was hardly an option, so SAD joined a thousand or so fellow sufferers on the 20 hours there, 20 hours back pilgrimage to Sobral. Santa lost 2-0. The return journey was, then, a time for considerable self-evaluation, and the making of many promises about how things would be different from now on.

After that, the spiderman super powers kicked in. Defeats were sneered at. Eliminations simply bounced away of the tricolor’s protective armour. After Sobral, nothing could hurt the tricolor.

Until now. Until this week, when in one of the more miserable of many, many miserable performances over the last five or six years, Santa lost 3-2, at home, to Penarol of Amazonas, and were eliminated from the Copa Do Brasil. To give some background, Penarol were playing in Division 2 of the Campeonato Amazonense in 2008 and, as late as 2007, were still an amateur team. The club’s average gate in 2011 was 823 people. A further note. Santa had won the first, away leg, 2-1.

And suddenly, the protective armour helps not a jot. SAD, to his surprise, is sick and sleepless with anger, frustration, and regret.

Perhaps it hurts because of the sheer stupidity of it all. Given that Santa won the Campeonato Pernambucano last year, defeating two Serie A (nominally at least) teams in the form of Recife Jr and Recife B, and then went on to win promotion from Serie D in October, plus reinforced (nominally at least) the team in the off-season, AND with an away victory from the first leg in their pockets, the team shouldn’t, you would have thought, have had too much trouble seeing off the mighty Penarol.

Perhaps it’s because expectation died so quickly and cruelly. And here SAD is himself to blame, for committing the cardinal sin of looking forward to something. For if Santa had managed the herculean task of defeating Penarol, they would have come up against Atlético Mineiro. Atlético Mineiro! SAD’s first team in Brazil, from all those years ago when he first stepped off the boat in Belo Horizonte (excuse artistic and geographic license). What a time for reminiscing and happy, happy remembering it would be! More importantly, a game that would bring back memories of Santa’s glorious Copa do Brasil displays over the last two years, against Botafogo (the home leg was lost, the away leg was won, miraculously, in Rio, with a last minute goal from Souza) and São Paulo (the home leg was won, though stout resistance in the second game could not, ultimately, keep Lucas et al at bay). And more importantly again, an (improbable) victory over Atlético would see Santa take on (possibly) Goiás in the next round! Here, in SAD’s very own Elba!

None of which will now happen.

Perhaps it’s down to a greater knowledge of Santa and their financial plight (debts of R$75 million and counting, a constant struggle to pay bills, wages and service outstanding debts). Last year’s game against São Paulo was watched by 46,000 at Arruda. Gate receipts totaled close to R$1 million, which doesn’t include TV money or extra sponsorship deals. With Santa’s crowds perhaps healthier even this year than last, such income would have been easily surpassed in a game against Atlético.

[Insert link to sound effect of water swishing and slurping down a plughole].

Why, then, were Santa so apathetic against Penarol? Why, in fact, have they been so apathetic throughout 2012? SAD, if he may, would like to suggest two possible theories:

(1) That difficult second album syndrome. Santa Cruz, in 2011, were the perfect blend of determination and organisation. Entering the Pernambucano, Santa’s last game had been against Sobral, the year before.  Wrongs were there to be righted. Zé Teodoro had arrived, with a clear idea of how the team should be set up. The players themselves were an ideal mix of hungry, young talent (Gilberto, for example, had spent 2010 on loan at Vera Cruz, in the interior of Pernambuco, and had seemed on more than one occasion to be on his way out of Arruda), and journeymen, inspired by playing in front of such big crowds and either still hopeful of climbing the ladder (Weslley, Thiago Cardoso) or stretching out a long career for just one more year (Jeovanio). The team were underdogs, vira latas, rank outsiders in the Pernambucano. That determination, organisation, and never say die spirit carried the team a long way. Guerreiros, the fans sang, and for once it wasn’t an exaggeration.  

2012 could hardly be more different. The team is more confident, more sure of its own abilities. Nothing to prove here, might be Santa’s motto, we know what we’re doing. We’re a top outfit these days, you know. It might not always be obvious, or even conscious, but it’s there, lying beneath the surface, making the blood run just a little slower, sapping just a pipette of energy from pounding legs, allowing the mind to wander, just a little, at just the wrong moment. The results have been calamitous.

(2) The posh restaurant syndrome:   In 2011, with extremely limited resources, Zé Teodoro made water into wine. Nineteen year old Everton Sena, with only a handful of first team appearances behind him, was transformed into the greatest man marker the world has ever seen, effortlessly nullifying São Paulo’s Lucas, at the time riding a vertiginously ascending star for both club and country, and Recife B kingpin Marcelinho Paraiba. Gilberto was given enough confidence to become the Pernambucano’s best player, and earn a move to Internacional. Even when the goals dried up at the end of the year, the manager was able to eke out a vital away goal here and there to see Santa safely into Serie C. It was, in short, a virtuous display.

Things are different now. It is as though after a year or two of performing gastronomic miracles with some lentils, a bit of dried bread and some on the cusp tomato sauce, Zé I Love(d) You has been seated at the best table in Recife’s finest restaurant, a crisp white napkin tucked under his neck by an obsequious flunky, and told to order whatever he wants. The surprisingly tasty lentils, dried bread and tomato sauce (Renatinho, Léo, Natan, etc) are no longer good enough. Now only the finest will do for our hero. I’ll have the suckling Charlie Bullet, with mountains of Eduardo Arroz on the side, and a vat of Luciano Henrique sauce to go with it, he cries. And when the platter arrives, tough, chewy, far from as fresh and tender as expected, Zé is undaunted. I paid for it, so I’ll bloody well eat it, he bellows, as a waiter dares to remove one of the plates. And, stubborn to the end, our Zé does chew his way through it all, oblivious to the damage being done to his waistline, arteries, and Santa’s prospects for the year ahead.

Another slant on theory (2). Once more in Recife’s finest restaurant, Zé Teodoro is bewildered by the myriad choices on offer. Ordering becomes impossible. It’s all too much, he shrieks, you decide, passing the menu to a passing Pekingese. The Pekingese emits a few random barks, and Zé’s order is placed, after a fashion. That, then, would be an analogy for Zé Teodoro, who, entirely spoilt and confused by having to solve such conundrums as which two from Memo, Léo, Sandro Manoel and Anderson Pedra to play as volantes (Zé, of course, chooses Chicão, which nobody can understand, not even the Pekingese), gives up entirely, gives his pen to a passing pigeon, the pigeon scrawls a few names on the team sheet, and pronto!

Job done.

And the year, already shaping to be one of ennui and mild to heavy suffering, rumbles slowly on. 

Note: Profound thanks to Memorias do Santa Cruz, again, for the photo.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

A Disease Called Patience

At first, See A Darkness was going to complain. After almost six months on Elba, the return journey was grueling. But then spending time at Brazil’s airports is always fairly arduous (a little joke). It threatened rain for most of Wednesday and Thursday. There was much consternation over how tickets might be procured (55,000 might seem a lot, but not if the game in question is Santa x Recife B). Ray Winstone and Tim Roth were both backed up in fim do mundo traffic jams on Agamenon Magalhães.

While our hardy troops huddled in the Arruda social club bar, the hordes swarmed up Avenida Beberibe and along the canal and the Rua das Moças, and up the stairs to the Anel Superior. Another few minutes and the corridors would become impassable – the wounded would be passed from arm to arm across the Boschian nightmare below, the weak and the lame would fall bravely in battle. Worse still, Francis Begbie, who weighs in at 50k soaking wet, would be attending her first game at As Republicas Independentes, and might not live to tell the tale.

In the end though, it all went smoothly enough. The getting in and out, that is. The game itself, of course, was a copper bottomed nightmare – Santa old and weary legged, feeble in the tackle, pitiful when going forward. Role reversal from last year, when Sport’s manic egos and creaking joints were undone by young tricolor bucks. This year’s first clássico felt like the Twilight of the Never Were Gods for Dutra, Luciano Henrique, Denis Marques, and Charlie Bullet. With nary a stirring from the Santa masses (45,000 watched it), Begbie declared herself unmoved.

Worse was to come the week after, while enjoying a recifense Last Supper, when the news came over the airwaves (from a radio in the restaurant kitchen, more specifically), that Santa had gone down 2-1 to Petrolina in the far interior, and were now four points off the G4! Caramba! (Looking back, there was a fabulous kind of symmetry to it all – 2,000km, 2 defeats, R$2,000 poorer, probably).

And of course once SAD had headed back to Elba, crusty old Zé decided to restore Renatinho and Léo to the team, Super William Alves made his debut at zagueiro and scored, and Santa stuffed the same Petrolina 6-0 at Arruda.

SAD was not a happy man. But things could be worse, he told himself. Think of the starving kids in Africa. Think of those born rubro-negro. Think of Antonio Luiz Neto.

Antonio Luiz Neto. President of Santa Cruz. Hirer of Zé Teodoro, schemer behind last year’s Campeonato Pernambucano win, and promotion, finally, from Serie D. Now, hidden away in a locked room at the Real Hospital Português in Recife, struck down by a terrible illness.

ALN’s doctor, Dr. Sou Tricolor Doente, was on the news just yesterday, explaining the condition.

“The situation of the patient is very clear,” he said. “Antonio Luiz Neto is suffering from a severe case of Patience. He is president of the best supported club in the nordeste. The current champions of Pernambuco, with a squad bursting with talent. But the team has already lost four games in 2012! Four games! It’s madness! Obviously, any team that loses four games in just a few short months must fire its coach immediately!”

Here the good doctor stopped for a moment to light a cigarette and take a quick swig from a bottle of Pitu he had stashed in his pocket.

“Even worse,” he continued, wheezing only a little, “the tecnico, some guy called Zé Teodoro, is as stubborn as a mule! It’s like he doesn’t want to listen to the fans at all! And everybody knows that the fans know plenty, after all, they watch one, maybe two games a week. Not like old Zé, who stands around at training all day doing nothing. Oxe!

Another pause, this time to watch a heavy-hipped nurse swaying her way down the corridor. When she had gone, Dr. Sou Tricolor Doente went on, drooling only a little.

“Now, the symptoms. In the middle of this crisis at Santa Cruz, the president seems utterly calm. He hasn’t visited the dressing room to scream at the players. He hasn’t called his coach a donkey in the press. He doesn’t even have a fever, or bulging eyes, and his heart rate is normal! In a situation like this! What a cruel disease this Patience is!”

Suddenly, Dr. Sou Tricolor Doente lowered his voice. He looked straight at the camera.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this on TV. The man is very sick. I don’t want to humiliate him as well. But a few minutes ago, I was talking to him in his room. I don’t mind telling you I ended up more worried than before. He seems to be delirious. He would only repeat one thing, over and over. The priority is Serie C, it’s a long term project. We trust Zé. We trust his judgment. Madness, ? I feel terrible for him, and his family. Summing up – I’ve never seen a case of Patience as bad as this!”

The interview ended there. Later that day, though, in his capacity as a top professional sportswriter, SAD received a phone call from the good doctor.

“Listen, SAD,” he rasped, “can I tell you something in confidence? Not for the papers? You know I’m tricolor, right? Maybe the name gave it away. Anyway, I wanted to tell you, one tricolor to another, and God forgive me for saying this, but perhaps it would be better for the club if the president didn’t recover. This disease is serious. When you have Patience, it’s almost impossible to be totally cured afterwards. You’re never the same again. Even when he’s better, Antonio will continue to bear the scars of the disease.”

Here the doctor stopped again. There was the sound of ice tinkling and a glass clinking against dental braces. He continued.

“And just imagine, SAD, if ALN and Zé left! We could get that fantastic president from Serra Talhada, José Raimundo, instead! He sacked Reginaldo Sousa after five games of the Pernambucano. Now that’s a real president! He won’t accept a single defeat! He’ll soon take Serra Talhada to the Libertadores, you wait and see! And maybe he could get us a better tecnico? What about Mauro Fernandes? Or even better, Givanildo again? If not, if this disease called Patience continues to spread in Brazilian football, we’ll end up like those gringos over in Manchester, stuck with that joker Alex Ferguson for 25 years. And what’s he ever done? Deus me livre!

And then, finally, wheezing and gasping, still murmuring about the terrible disease Patience, Doctor Sou Tricolor Doente hung up the phone.

NB. SAD would like to make it clear that the President of Santa Cruz, Antonio Luiz Neto, has not been taken to the Real Hospital Português, Recife, and his doctor is (probably) not called Dr. Sou Tricolor Doente. However, it seems as though Antonio Luiz Neto really is suffering from the terrible disease Patience, and this can only be good news for Nação Tricolor. It’s just a pity that more presidents and directors working in Brazilian football don’t have the same disease. Isn’t it, Mr Odone?

This piece is dedicated to Caio Junior, who suffers like a true tricolor

Friday, 3 February 2012

Thanks to a run of scarcely believable coincidences, improbable happenings, and dollops of good old fashioned luck, this piece was written at the same time as Santa Cruz’s titanic Wednesday night Campeonato Pernambucano clash with Central at Arruda. Live updates, in italics, may therefore interrupt the seamless narrative flow from time to time.

Armadilha, they call it in these parts. Entrapment. Santa Cruz and their supporters; the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of Pernambuco’s teeming shores, know all about armadilhas.

Dateline: Recife/Goiãnia, February 1, 2012. Rain falls in biblical quantities over the centro-oeste. 2000km away in Recife, Santa take the field against Central on a starry starry night. Luciano Henrique plays in place of midfield kingpin Weslley, injured. Club-footed strike pair Branquinho and Flavio Rat Hunter continue up front, as does veteran left back Dutra, 64, while Charlie Bullet and Renatinho pick the black bits from their fingernails on the bench. The Pernambuco anthem, Brazil’s prettiest, drifts over the airwaves.

It’s a simple enough theory. You start off at the bottom, say, Serie D of the Brasileirão. You wait for things to get better. It takes a long time, and while you’re waiting, you suffer. You lose most of your games, at least the important ones, to teams that demarcate their stadiums by putting a rope around the pitch and chasing the stray dogs off the grass. A circus troupe of some of the worst players ever to grace a football pitch is paraded in front of your disbelieving eyes. If that isn’t enough, someone (conspiracy theorists can insert their own name here) decides that success and glory will shower down upon your swarthiest rivals like gifts from a bounteous god, just to rub salt into your gaping wounds (see also: Recife B, Copa Do Brasil winners, 2008). 

Then, as slowly as climate change, things get better. Cap’n Zé arrives and decides that it might be better to trust in a few of the local lads than accept agents’ backhanders and ship in job lots of never-have-been, never-will-be chancers from the interior of São Paulo (the heretic). It works, and along comes that never to be forgotten 2011 – São Paulo are humiliated at a tempestuous Arruda in the Copa Do Brasil, Recife B are whup-assed once, twice, three (and a half, kind of) times as the Campeonato Pernambucano is won, and finally, Treze are pipped at the post and it's out of Serie D, enfim, in front of a messy, joyful throng of more than 60,000.

Now you’re feeling good. Sure of yourself. O gigante acordou! Santa are back! You’re the cock of the walk. Your strutting grows more insufferable still when such sweet smelling packages as Anderson Pedra, Denis Marques, Luciano Henrique, Geílson and Sandro Manoel are found under the Christmas tree. 

Yet tread softly, now that you're happy. The armadilha is abroad. Sensing it, those most sensitive of souls, tricolor babies, toss and turn nervously in their cots. 

Rat Hunter breaks free. He must surely score. Instead, he throws himself into a perfect imitation of Greg Louganis, howls for a penalty, gets booked. 25,000 unsurprised sighs rise like swallows into the night sky.

Expectations burgeon. Tricolor spirits are dampened not a jot by a rather clunking opening day Campeonato PE victory over little Belo Jardim. Even a good kicking by Salgueiro in the sertão is not too distressing - Salgueiro away is a tough ride for anyone. And that defeat is soon followed by a solid wins over Serra Talhada and Ypiranga. Two victories in a row! While hardly last year’s record breaking start, it’s enough to make the most po-faced tricolor tipsy with emotion, as can be seen from the following conversation between SAD and The Jimmy Joyce of Arruda, SAD’s esteemed editor over at the Santa webpage of Brazil’s, if not the world’s, biggest broadcasting empire:

SAD: Feeling pretty excited about Santa these days. If a player as good as Léo can’t get in the team, then it’s looking good, right?

TJJoA: Exactly! We’ve got strength in depth. Probably the best bench in Pernambuco. (SAD assumes TJJoA is referring to the quality of the players sitting on the bench, rather than the bench itself).

SAD: Yes!

TJJoA: Infinite options in midfield and attack. I’m thinking Triple Crown (the Campeonato Pernambucano, Copa Do Brasil and Serie C titles).

SAD: Why not indeed!

Giddy with excitement, SAD signs off and goes for a lie down.

30 mins gone. The game has turned a bit boring. Remarkably, considering the attacking talent on the pitch (ho ho), Santa are struggling to break down the Central defence. Rat Hunter performs his in front of goal party trick, "swing-wildly-at-nothing-while-ball-rolls-harmlessly-away”. In the stands, the natives grow restless. Central players try to liven things up by yelling abuse at each other. Feeling a bit peckish now. Wonder if there’s anything in the fridge?

So. Two wins in a row, during which the ball pinged from tricolor boot to tricolor boot with a glorious synchronicity that would make Messi and his galumphing chums green.  TJJoA is right! The Triple Crown’s on the way!

Which is about the time, of course, when darkness stirs itself from its all too brief slumbers and kicks Santa and their fans squarely on the behind, in the shape of a proper gubbing away to the Goats of Araripina (their choice of nickname, not SAD’s). We might call it the Happiness Armadilha.

Renatinho Little Pants (for Dutra) and Charlie Bullet (for Branquinho) are on as second half substitutes for Santa, who were booed off at the break. The crowd try to lift the team, chanting Tri!, Tricolor!, Tri-tri-tri-tri-tricolor! SAD has chanted this a few times himself since arriving in Recife, which tonight, suddenly, strikes him as kind of ironic, given that at certain junctures of his neither well, neither mis, spent youth, the singing of such a refrain would have been considered at least a mid-level social faux pas

Santa were truly awful in Araripina. A cramped, bumpy pitch didn’t help, but there are deeper problems afoot. Andre Oliviera inspires as much confidence as a zagueiro as Madonna inspires as a filmmaker, while the previously dependable Leandro Souza seems to have caught a fairly serious bout of the jitterus uncontrollablus during his holidays on the beach. Dutra is old enough to be Renatinho’s dad, and plays like he’s old enough to be his granddad. Then there’s Branquinho and Rat Hunter. Both are rumoured to be excellent table tennis players, which is lucky, because they’re certainly not excellent footballers (in the interests of diplomacy, SAD will add, “at the moment”). Needless to say, a ropy defence and a clueless attack doth not a champion make.

Central are on top at Arruda. Zé Teodoro brings on Jefferson Maranhão for Natan. The first cries of “burro, burro” are heard, and the natives are now not so much restless as really quite unhappy. SAD is struck by the certainty that Santa cannot win tonight, while Central most certainly can.

What is frustrating is that a few weeks ago Santa had what seemed to be the answer to their defensive problems running training laps of the Arruda grass. Then, the recently signed Diego Gaúcho was injured, and the Santa diretoria, in their infinite wisdom, cancelled his contract (how not even Perry Mason could guess) deciding not to wait the three or four weeks for the player to recover. This left Santa with exactly three zagueiros – Oliveira, Souza, and the promising but currently calamitous Everton Sena.

Central zagueiro Ricardo is sent off! Hape springs eternal! Minutes later, Rat Hunter bravely hurls himself in front of a goalbound Santa shot, and the ball bounces away for a goal kick. Charlie Bullet, striker/attacking midfielder, seems to be playing as a volante. At least one good thing will come out of tonight – when the team is playing this badly, everyone forgets about how much they hate Charlie Bullet.

Perhaps William Augusto, signed today from Feirense of Portugal, will help plug the Gobi desert sized gaps in the Santa back line. If not, even with attacking big dogs such as Denis Marques and Geílson awaiting regularisation, SAD fears that 2012 will not be a happy year for the nação Tricolor. After all, as Michel Teló said, a team lives and dies by its defence. Still, at least if everything goes terribly wrong (again), there’ll be no more foolish talk of confidence and high expectations. Hopes will be as low as they should have been in the first place. No more armadilhas, at least until the next time.

With five minutes left, Central hit the post. In the short time that is remaining Oor Flavio misses at least three more decent chances. The sound of gnashing teeth from the stands is deafening. A few minutes after the final whistle, Recife Jr, who Santa will play in the clássico on Saturday, score two quick, effortless goals against Ypiranga. Boooooooo! 

Still, at least Recife B lose. Hooray!

Note: Thanks once again to Memorias Do Santa Cruz for the photo, taken during Santa's Fita Azul tour of the Middle East in 1979.    

Friday, 20 January 2012

See A Darkness feels sorry for Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man United and the rest of that dreary bunch. All that sleek efficiency and streamlined, terribly modern, excellence seems from here a drab affair.  Somewhere along the line somebody must have missed the point, believing that football has something to do with how hard, fast or accurately a bunch of young men can kick a football in a particular direction.

The fools. It’s not about that at all. It’s about people, be it the huddled masses on the terraces, or the despots in the boardroom, or the fabulously paid peons on the pitch. It’s about people - those tortured souls, the tennis balls of the gods, and it’s about communities, and knuckleheads shouting the odds in bars, and missed trains, and the rain, and crushes on the way in and out of the ground, and losing your wallet, and looking forward to the game for days before and thinking about how bad it was for days afterwards. And it’s about disappointment, most of the time, and about caring too much about something that should not be cared about at all, and it’s about gloating and mocking, and also about hiding, when you’re likely to be the victim of gloating and mocking, and it’s about irrationality and occasionally, very occasionally, it’s about pure, unsullied happiness, of the sort that is only otherwise experienced prior to the age of nine.

It’s also about things, emotions, mainly, being close to the surface, and while loveable pranksters like Mr. Balotelli do their best to entertain and remind the world that those really are human beings out there on the pitch, and not digitally generated avatars, in truth all that chummy eccentricity is merely superficial – the thrashing of a few lonely individuals in a joyless world of sporting magnificence, maximum productivity, and most importantly of all, splendid comfort.

None of these words apply to the Campeonato Pernambucano, of course, and it’s all the better for it. Santa, in the odd-feeling position of defending champs, have rather stumbled into action in 2012. Twenty eight thousand showed up at Arruda on Sunday for the home opener, confident of a thumping victory over Belo Jardim, a team so hard-up that they were once SAD‘s fellow guests at the R$50 a night Hotel São Domingos (now demolished) in the decidedly down-at-heel Praça Maciel Pinheiro, in downtown Recife. As far as he can recall, SAD has not recently shared a hotel with Messrs. Messi, Rooney or Ronaldo.  

Twenty eight thousand left feeling somewhat nonplussed – Santa were as cutting edge as they had been in Serie D last year, and have been ever since Gilberto packed his bags for Internacional, which is to say, not at all. Even with ten men, Santa struggled, in the end only sneaking past ten man Pretty Garden thanks to two Weslley penalties.

But that, as everybody knows, was only a cheeky little aperitif compared to Sunday’s main course. The return of Charlie Bullet to Pernambuco had long been expected, only the destination was supposed to be Araripina, where he’d line up along-side ol’ mucker Rosembrick. He wouldn’t go to Recife B, or Recife Jr, surely, after acrimonious arrivals/departures in 2010 and 2011. And he certainly wouldn’t go to Santa, where he’d once been o mais querido himself, but who he’d led a merry dance in 2010 before signing for Recife B, and had publicly humiliated on more than a few occasions, trying to plant a Sport flag in the centre circle at Arruda after one clássico, and saying, after the club’s tumble into Serie D, that people only get what they deserve.

The howls of protest on Twitter were how SAD, two thousand kilometres away in Goiania, first heard, before the news was confirmed on Recife radio. Bala, who in Pernambuco football is a cut price version of all three of Carlitos Tevez (mercenary tendencies), Sol Campbell (scant regard for local rivalries) and Mo Johnston (apparent death wish), was on his way to Recife and would sign for Santa in the morning.

The reaction from inside Arruda, were tricolores were still supping their pints in dubious celebration, was mixed to say the least. Several hundred, if not thousand, comments on Twitter talked of cancelled sócio memberships and boycotts.  The plot thickened when news of a split came seeping out of the boardroom – the signing had been forced through by tecnico Zé Teodoro, grudgingly backed by President Antonio Luiz Neto, and openly opposed by the rest of the diretoria. There was even talk of resignations.

Things reached their peak on Monday, with the #BalaNão and #ForaBala lobby still hopeful of a stay of execution. But like tree hugging protesters in front of an army of JCB’s, the anti-Carlinhos lobby were swept aside, Bala signed, and it was off to the press conference, itself a masterpiece of theatre.

There was Bala, proud leader of the WoodFace and BrassNeck tribe, perched between Neto, and Inferno Coral president Paulo César Pinheiro, in front of a battery of cameras and surrounded by more than a few glum looking Santa directors.  Pinheiro was there to ease fears of any violent Inferno repercussions against Bala, who had previously been declared a persona non grata by the organisation. Though interestingly, later that night, a statement on the official Inferno Twitter feed stated that the group officially opposed the transfer.

Bala kissed the flag, apologized to supporters of a Recife based football club for the 3,456th time in his career, and talked about having always loved the club and coming home. More than a few present sniggered behind their hands. But smirks aside, the job was done, and Bala was Santa once more.

The howls of protest continued into Tuesday, but by Wednesday had died away a little, or at least changed timbre. Zé Teodoro might have hit upon a perfect antidote to Balagate fury – make the team play so badly that the mucky little pup is ultimately viewed as a saviour, and a solution to the team’s woes in front of goal. Santa were awful in their second game, against Salgueiro at a boisterous Cornélio de Barros. Hound dog and former tricolor Elvis scored both the goals in a 2-0 victory, meaning Santa have played two and scored a grand total of zero goals from open play. In hot headed Pernambuco, this spells trouble, and defeat against surprise leaders Serra Talhada on Sunday, coupled with the Bala affair, will see the faqueiros out for Zé Teodoro.

Still, misery loves company, and Santa have that in the form of equally troubled noisy neighbours Recife B. Sport drew their second game of the season on Thursday, this time at home against lowly América. The team were booed off, and more than a few in the crowd howled for técnico Mazzola’s head. Slightly ungrateful, given that it was Mazzola who, as interim coach, led the team to a miraculous promotion from Serie B in 2011.   

Note: Thanks to the magnificent Mémorias do Santa Cruz site for the photo of former Santa legend Ramon and Pelé.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

In a few weeks’ time, down in the impoverished sudeste of Brazil, the Campeonatos Malandragem and Arrogância will limp into action with all the vigour of the death throes of a speared fish flopping on a chopping board. On Sunday, meanwhile, up in God’s Own Country of Pernambuco, the earth will tremble on its celestial axis, the roiling oceans will heave and roar, the heavens shall split asunder in a blaze of furious light, and the Campeonato Pernambucano will burst into life.

This is Brazil’s best estadual. It is the best supported – 8,000 a game, not bad at all considering the size of the flyspeck towns a number of the participants hail from. It might be one of the most competitive too – with Recife Jr and Recife B from Serie A (nominally, anyway), our glorious Mais Querido, plus Salgueiro, representing Serie C, and Central and Porto always a handful. Making waves too this off-season have been Araripina, from the backlands of the interior. While Shaun Goater might have been O Bode’s dream signing, they’ll make do with ex-Santa midfield whizz, and chronic sauce guzzler, Rosembrick, and perhaps Pernambuco’s version of Denis The Menace, or better yet, Gnasher, Carlinhos Bala. Either way, the Pernambucano pulled in Brazil’s biggest crowd last year (over 63,000 watched Santa Cruz v Sport in the final), and in all probability, if the fixtures work out right, will do so again in 2012.
On Sunday, SAD is sure, the day will dawn hot and cloudless, and in the late afternoon, as the temperature drops a little and the shadows begin to creep across the green expanse of the Arruda pitch, Santa will kick off the defence of their title against little Belo Jardim. A 30,000 crowd is hoped for, though that’s perhaps optimistic this early in the running (if it happens, it will be twice the 2011 average Serie A crowd).

Are Santa ready? The answer is a resounding maybe. The challenge this off-season has been to rebuild where needed, while holding on to the key pieces from last year’s Campeonato Pernambucano champs and Serie D promotion winners. Thankfully the young players who so energised proceedings in 2011 – Memo, Everton Sena, Natan and Renatinho - are tied to long term contracts, complete with fat penalty clauses. No fear there then, of Victor Hugo style flits into the fragant nordestino night. And as explained in previous columns, few tears will be shed for veteran departees such as Rodrigo Grahl and Thiago Cunha.

What news then, of new arrivals? As hoped for, but hardly expected a couple of short weeks ago, Santa’s cup now if not quite runneth over, is at least half full (though jaundiced by the horrors of the last seven years, many morbid tricolores cannot help but see less mead in the chalice, or Pitú in the glass).

The defence, which was sluggish but solid, has been stocked up a little, though there is still room for reinforcements. Lateral direito Anderson Maizena seems perfect tricolor fodder, being high in mileage, low in expectation, and well used to the vagaries of lower division football – in 2009 he signed for Santa, trained for two days, then changed his mind and went off to play for Fortaleza instead. He was at CRB (Serie C promotion winners, handily) in 2011.

Zagueiro is fast becoming Santa’s Bermuda Triangle. Half way through last year the team was well set, with capitão Thiago Mathias and Leandro Dedé’s My Bitch Souza. Mathias aped Mr. Hugo above and fled to Serie A Ceará, who he promptly helped guide into Serie B. Now Leandro seems to be on his way to an unnamed Hungarian club, as according to Zé Teodoro “someone” made a mistake with his contract (not signing it seems to be the most likely blunder), meaning the R$4 million penalty clause no longer applies and the player can leave for free. Those damned Hungarians!

On top of this there is a further twist to The Strange Case of The Disappearing Zagueiros. Fresh from União Leiria in Portugal’s top flight, strapping Diego Gaúcho was tipped for great things at Arruda. But soon after signing his contract, our Diego injured himself in training. As his projected recovery period was a seemingly intolerable three weeks, Santa, for some unfathomable reason in an unseemly hurry, decided to cut their losses, and Gaúcho was gone. Contract? Pah!  

Which leaves things looking ropy at the back. If someone stood in front of you with a downcast look on their face and shrugged their shoulders in a disinterested fashion while exhaling heavily and saying wearily well he’s alright, I suppose, you would immediately think of the newly crowned top dog of Santa’s squadron of centre halves, Andre Oliveira. Everton Sena has potential, but also has a lot to learn, namely how to stop making bloody stupid mistakes. At least Rodrigo Arroz, who arrived yesterday from Barueri, comes highly recommended.

No such problem at volante. Santa have a bus load of ‘em. Léo is back from Botafogo, and if he is only half as good as he was in 2010, he’ll still be better than Chicão. Sandro Manoel, who played a fair few times for Cruzeiro but is still only 23, looks terrific, and even better, he misspent his youth bouncing up and down with the Inferno Coral on the Arruda terraces. Best of the lot might be Anderson Pedra, the Nigel de Jong of As Republicas Independentes, who played for Santa in 2009. Midfielder maestro Weslley has already talked about Anderson as the super hero of Santa’s engine room. There’s also Éder Túlio, who has arrived from Guarani, or América (MG), or somewhere like that, and of whom the only thing SAD can think to say is that he doesn’t really know anything about Éder Túlio.  

In midfield, creaky ex-Recife B Luciano Henrique was mentioned last time out, as was Branquinho (though the latter will probably play more as a striker, at least in the early running). Either way, with those two alongside Weslley, and Renatinho and Natan also available, Santa look set fair. Maybe youngsters Thiago Henrique or Maranhão are ready to burst onto the scene, and in a perfect world Bismarck would have stayed too, but as every tricolor knows this is very far from a perfect world.

Up front, of course, was the place where Santa’s attacking moves went to die in the second half of 2011, and urgent retooling was required. B+, probably, will be the diretoria’s end of term grade here, as at least one more warm body is still needed. But Denis Marques, when fit, should be a cut above anything else in Serie C (and in Pernambuco possibly a cut above anything not called Kieza), and Geílson was a force of nature for Náutico in 2010. Those two, along with Branquinho and the redoubtable Rat Hunter (and SAD has a sneaky feeling that 2012 will be the year of the rat, if not the rat hunter), will be almost, quite, nearly, quase enough.

Even if it’s not, young striker Alex Pires (on loan from Fluminense) will not be included here, because SAD hates young striker Alex Pires, because young striker Alex Pires is the son of ex-tricolor Cosme, who played for Santa in the late 1980s and who SAD doesn’t remember because he hadn’t heard of Santa in the late 1980s, but he knew and watched and loved other footballers during the late 1980s, which means that young striker Alex Pires is the son of a player from the generation SAD grew up watching, which makes SAD feel sad and want to cry.   

On which note, a late bid for the seemingly Angola-bound born-tricolor Rivaldo notwithstanding, it’s time to close. If the season started tomorrow, rather than on Sunday, how do Santa look? Good? Certainly. Good enough? Who knows. The not knowing, of course, being more than half the fun.

NB: Thanks to this fine site for the photo.