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.