Sunday, 8 February 2009

I fookin’ love football me (that’s a shocking written attempt at a Manchester accent, for anyone reading this from more exotic climes). I mean really, really love football – in a profound, simplistic, organic way that many other people understand but no-one really ever talks about. I don’t love football because twenty two overpaid young men chasing a ball around a pitch is particularly enthralling (though it can be) but because of what football represents, still. That the hopes and dreams and happiness of so many, often underprivileged, people are invested in the successes and failures of one team or another. The epic, lifelong commitment that millions of people all over the world are prepared to make to a team – a commitment that may outlast love affairs, familial relations, marriages, homes, careers. That a football team can come to represent a city, part of a city, a community, in a way that not many other things can any longer.

On a personal level, football represents the history of my life. As an often unhappy, sometimes slightly lonely child, I went frequently to watch my local team in Belfast, Linfield. I went alone, mostly, and told friends at school the next day that I had gone with a mysterious, entirely imaginary cousin. When I lived in Manchester as a semi-adult, I found my identity in supporting Manchester City. While my student colleagues pissed their time and money away in campus bars, I rolled with the (not very) rough stuff – drinking in grotty dives around Maine Road with real Mancunians (whatever that meant). After a while, I would go to away games – tribal junkets to London and Newcastle and Liverpool and Birmingham, planned with military precision – who’s got the tickets, who’s bringing the booze, who’s driving, how much is the train...

In Manchester, games against United were different. It was forbidden to go out the night before – a good night’s sleep was an essential. On the Saturday or Sunday in question I woke early and made a special breakfast – sausage sandwiches, or went to a café for a fry-up. Newspapers were scoured for news of the game. Then to the pub, before the doors opened, of course, and three or four hours heavy drinking and heavier talking (exclusively about football). And then the game, and ohsweetmaryandjoseph the intensity of it all, the feeling that the only thing that mattered was beating them, that it wasn’t football, it was Luke against Darth, Rocky against Clubber Lang, Alex Higgins against concentration camp night watchman Steve Davis….

Anyway. For reasons good or bad this particular Dick Whittington decided to move himself down to London, and even though I went back to Manchester every other weekend (mostly) to watch the City, something had been lost. And a whole lot more was lost when City moved to their dismally toytown new stadium, and I could no longer get seats near my friends, and everything was more expensive, and they played Britney Spears videos and Playstation commercials on the TV screens at half-time.

So. I believe you should love where you live – that you should feel a deep spiritual connection with the place. I loved Manchester in this way. I didn’t love London, because who could possibly love London in such a way? Enjoy, maybe, but love? No. Now, though it took a while, I again live somewhere I love – blindly, stupidly. And now I love Santa Cruz Futebol Clube too, blindly, stupidly, and thinking about the team gets me all giggly like a schoolgirl.

Today a crowd of 54,000 Tricolores will watch O Mais Querido, which is a tricky translation but probably boils down to My Greatest Love or The Most Loved Of All, play their mostly ridiculous, but of course much more successful local rivals (isn’t it always the way?), Sport, in the Campeonato Pernambucano. A few days before the game and Recife is already consumed - on every bus and street corner the only talk is of did you get the tickets yet, did you get the tickets yet? A couple of random acts of ultra-violence amongst the ranks of the Inferno Coral, Santa’s hardcore torcida organizada spice things up a bit (one Inferno leader shoots and kills a non-ranking member in the group’s headquarters for pushing weed onto local kids and for generally being “a bit of an arsehole”). In the days leading up to the game the local rag, the Diario De Pernambuco, scandalously publishes a series of sensationalist, juvenile articles about torcida organizadas – based around an in-depth survey into the frightening underworld of etc, etc, etc. Only in this case in-depth seems to mean talking to a couple of kids that the journalist’s mate’s cousin’s mate knows. All torcida organizada members, therefore, are black, poor and take drugs. The paper’s glee when the murder story runs is palpable. Told you so, they nearly say.

All this excitement stems from the fact that there hasn’t been a Classico Das Multidoes (with three teams, each of Recife’s three classicos has a different name - Sport v Nautico is the Classico Dos Classicos and Santa v Nautico is the Classico Das Emoçoes) for a couple of years, as Santa dropped into the third and now the fourth division, while Sport sit pretty in Serie A and this year will play in the intercontinental Libertadores, courtesy of being the first team from the Brazilian nordeste to win a national title (albeit the slightly throwaway Copa Do Brasil) in over 20 years. And also because after years of humiliation Santa have miraculously clambered their way up the Campeonato Pernambucano table and now perch on Sport’s chippy shoulder. The winner of the game might just win the title.

There are those that criticise the state championships - they mess up the start of the Brazilian football calendar, they’re an anachronism that has no place in the modern game, and the big city teams shouldn’t be forced to travel long distances to play often uncompetitive games against small teams from the interior. But to take such a position is to misjudge entirely Brazilian football history and the socio-economic culture of the country. Brazilian football has long been based in regional disputes - the first real national championship took place as late as 1970. Before that there were only the state championships and a few inter-state squabbles (Rio - Sao Paulo, for example). Brazilian teams count their state titles as Barcelona and Real count their national championship wins (though if you’re lucky enough to have won a few national championships, like Flamengo and Sao Paulo, you count those too). And because of all Brazil’s regional fuckeduppery teams from the norte and nordeste have very little chance of competing on a national level with teams from the more prosperous sul and sudeste. And so in Salvador and Fortaleza and Recife and Belem and everywhere else where there are football teams that a lot of people care deeply about – the state championships are everything, and huge, swaying crowds fill the stadiums to watch every game.

Which is why in Recife, today, all that matters is Santa and Sport (and Nautico too, of course, but they’re much too cuddly to inspire any real love or hate). Or rather, not all that matters – the day has already dawned bright and boiling hot, and 250,000 people are preparing to get their rocks off at the Virgems De Verdade pre-carnaval party down on the avenida. Later on another 30,000 people with much more money than sense are going to watch the atrocious Ivete Sangalo yowl and stomp.

And as I said before, football makes things historic. Last night was the night before the game, and as I caught a bus from Piedade in the far south of the city and belted along 14km of urban beach and another 8km of city streets, everything felt a little different. On the beach there were late night games of football and fishermen throwing shimmering lines into the black waves. In Praça Boa Viagem there were hundreds of people eating and drinking and wandering around the artesenato stalls. A young couple got on the bus – the boy’s tattoos flexed and the girl’s hips swayed below her naked belly. Their eyes were wide and overly bright, hopped up on something or other – my guess was poppers, weed and glue. They started to fight, viciously, and then started to kiss, equally viciously. As we tore over the bridges and then the flyover that takes you out to Olinda a rather battered hatchback started bunny-hopping at the lights. A young black man clambered out the window. He stuck his fists in the air and flung out his tongue and screamed. One word. Triiiiicooooolor! Of course. Some people on the bus joined in, and soon most of us, or some of us, were singing along.

So it’s with a feeling that I am sacrificing a great part of my literary soul in writing this, but, given that I’ve recently decided that Slide Away is the greatest song ever composed (and I know I should know better), there are no other words that work better than to say that today, maybe more than ever, Recife is mad for it.

And more than that, Recife is home now. And I’m going to look at my tickets for the game one more time, just to check that they’re real and no-one has stolen them in the last fifteen minutes. Then I’m going to have that special breakfast.