Thursday, 20 June 2013

A Rough Guide To Football In Recife

A glistening new out-of-town stadium (albeit with paint pots and stepladders still dotting the corridors). The current World and European champions against the Copa América holders. Ticket (and snack) prices equivalent to the cost of a small family hatchback. It’s fair to say that Recifense football will tonight head into a brave, and entirely unfamiliar, new world. In typically idiosyncratic fashion, Latin Football World is proud to present a guide to the game in the city.

Football in Recife, like in most of the nordeste, is the hard knock life. The city’s three big teams, Santa Cruz, Náutico and Sport, tend to spend most of their time toiling away in the unglamorous surroundings of Serie B or worse, with only the occasional two weeks with a bucket and spade on the Serie A beaches to look forward to. Despite this, the teams pull in crowds that would make their richer (a relative term) cousins down in the south and south east green. Santa Cruz, the doomiest of the three, are regularly first or second in the Brasileirão crowds league table, and boasted an average of almost 40,000 two years ago – while in Serie D. Even Náutico, the smallest team in the city, had a higher average attendance last year than Rio “giants” Flamengo or Fluminense.*

That comparison also works on another level. In many cities in the nordeste, and even in the interior of Pernambuco, the majority of the population supports teams from the sudeste. In Recife, everybody supports Santa, Náutico or Sport. Football, it’s fair to say, is as central a part of the Recife experience as the slightly eggy whiff that sometimes (ok, all the time) emanates from the city’s canals and rivers. Here, then, is a look at each of the three clubs in turn. Before continuing, in the interests of journalistic integrity, your author should point out that he spent five years living in Recife, during which time he lost his heart to the sadomasochistic pleasures of Santa Cruz FC.

Sport (Recife B): In nordestino terms, Sport are Messi’s Barcelona, Di Stefano’s Real Madrid, and any other legendary club side you care to mention all rolled into one. At least in the eyes of their somewhat confused supporters. To give them their due, Sport did officially win the Brazilian title in 1987, albeit because all the good teams in the country were playing in another league, and after Flamengo decided they really couldn’t be bothered turning up for a play-off against a team that was basically the champion of Division 2 (such slapstick goings on are not uncommon in Brazilian football). More admirably, Sport won the Copa do Brasil in 2008, after a memorable run that included victories over Palmeiras, Internacional, Vasco and Corinthians.

The club’s fans are known for not only their delusions of grandeur but also for their occasionally intimidating war cry, “cazá, cazá, cazá”, which they love most of all to atonally reimagine using their car horns. Sport are currently in the doldrums of Serie B, having been relegated from the top flight last year. The club has had 14 managers in the last four years, and most recently hit the headlines for (a) former president Luciano Bivar, who claimed that he paid an agent to get one of the club’s players selected for the Seleção in 2001 (b) losing the last three Campeonato Pernambucano finals to hated rivals Santa Cruz (c) donating a sacrificial bull to a candomblé priest before one of those finals, in the hope of reversing an ancient curse. So it goes.

Náutico (Recife Jr.): Náutico are Recife’s cutest and cuddliest club, traditionally the team of the city’s elite. Until recently they played in Aflitos, one of the city’s toniest neighbourhoods, and even today possess the highest proportion of Recife’s soft of skin and gentle of brow upper middle class supporters. It is perhaps fitting then, that Náutico will be the first team to take one small step for a football club but one giant step for Recifense football when they relocate from Aflitos to the Arena Pernambuco after the Copa das Confederações. Many tears were shed over the leaving of Aflitos, nicknamed Barbie’s House by fans of Santa and Sport (Náutico play in pink and white stripes, which makes the club as metrosexual as Liberace in the eyes of more than a few unreconstructed Pernambucano males). In truth, the stadium was a bit of a dump, but it could certainly generate a fearsome atmosphere at times, contributing to the impressive home form that carried Náutico to a respectable 12th spot in Serie A last year.

Note to visiting Copa das Confederações fans: if charmed by a soft of skin and gentle of brow Náutico fan of the opposite (or indeed the same) sex, simply cry “Hexa é luxo!” (Náutico’s greatest claim to fame is a string of six successive Campeonato Pernambucano wins (hexacampeão) back in the 60s) and the very gates of heaven shall spring open to your touch.

Santa Cruz: Ah, Santinha. What more can be said? Of all the world’s footballing downtrodden Oliver Twists, Santa is surely the grubbiest of face. Three successive relegations from 2006 to 2008. Three seasons in Serie D, losing to a succession of teams for whom three men and a dog would be a bumper ticket office haul. A mountain of debt, barely enough money to pay player, or staff, wages. A tragedy to make King Lear seem light and frothy, witnessed by crowds of 50,000 or 60,000 gaping in horror from the Arruda terraces. 

Your author’s defining Santa Cruz story came in 2010. Santa were facing Guarany de Sobral in the later stages of the Serie D playoffs. A billowing swell of 55,000 filled Arruda for the first leg. Having studied his script, Santa zagueiro Leandro Cardoso scored two own goals. Having not, the rest of the team stormed back, and Santa won 4-3. The bus to the away leg in Sobral, in the Ceará dustbowl and the hottest place on earth, took 20 hours, winding through four nordeste states. Santa lost 2-0. The journey home allowed ample time for your author to work on his long unpublished narrative poem entitled "Ode To The Futility Of Existence (From The Window Of A Bus)."

But something has been stirring at Arruda of late. The Serie D slough of despond was left behind in 2011, though upward progress stalled last year and the club remains stuck in Serie C. More remarkably, Santa claimed their third consecutive Campeonato Pernambucano title this past May, beating Sport in the final for the third year in a row. A taste of the emotional intensity of Santa fans (the club is Recife’s time do povo, the team of the city’s huddled masses) at the first of those wins can be found here. If not exactly bright, Santa’s future is at least not as nihilistically black as it was a few years ago.

Note: a further snifter of Recifense life can be found in this piece about the one of the city's most notorious footballing sons, the infamous Charlie Bullet. *

A caveat – Recifense crowds are boosted by the state government program Todos Com A Nota. Aimed at the city’s neediest residents (of which there are many), the scheme distributes a number of free tickets (the quantity depends on the team, but usually totals around 10,000 per club) to anyone who can provide R$100 of shopping receipts. The motivation for the scheme is threefold – it’s simultaneously (i) a vote winner (ii) a tax inspection scheme, as local businesses can often be loathe to declare their earnings and (iii) a boost for the local game. While it’s easy to simply subtract these tickets from the overall crowd figures, that may be slightly unfair. Many Todos Com A Nota users would happily buy a ticket if they had the means. Oh, and crowing comparisons with the crowds of Rio and São Paulo teams should be asterisked with the fact that the truly pathetic attendances of some of those clubs are often more Irish League than Premier League.

Note: this return to life of See A Darkness can also be found on the excellent Confederations Cup blog, Latin Football World.

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