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. 

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