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).
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.