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.