Sunday, 29 November 2009


Sportswriters (and carrying on from last week´s themes of irony and misunderstanding, can I just make it clear that I´m not really claiming to be a sportswriter, I´m just making an observation about sportswriters) are often blessed or cursed by the sporting landscape they write about. The great baseball writer Roger Angell, for example, was lucky enough to write about characters with names like Dizzy Dean, Virgil Trucks, Enos Slaughter, Goose Gossage and Vida Blue, as well as chronicling baseball at a time when the game was indelibly linked to American culture and history and moments such as The Shot Heard Around The World were as vivid and memorable as presidential elections, while Roger Kahn lived with the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers for a year (or a lifetime) and so in The Boys of Summer wrote about what it meant when Robinson broke the race barrier in baseball. Roger Angell also got to write about the Amazin’ New York Mets of the 1960s, simultaneously the worst and most wildly supported baseball team in baseball history, which might give you some idea about where this little tale is going to end up.

I didn’t really want to write about Santa this week, because it´s football and not everybody likes football and Crime and Punishment and Don Quixote and The Great Gatsby don’t talk about football, not even once (though Gatsby does include a few baseball references) and therefore how can I hope to write a timeless classic if all I do is waffle on about football (though there are probably more essential reasons as to why I’m not writing a timeless classic than football).

But it’s Santa, and on Saturday O Mais Querido won the Copa Pernambuco, beating Central from Caruaru (or Ballymena) 4-3. Which might not seem like a lot, and really in The Big List of Sporting Events the competition probably ranks somewhere beneath the Collegio Arraial De Bom Jesus (where The Argument works) Girl’s Under 11 Netball Tournament. (Rumour has it that some of Santa’s current galaticos tried out for the CADBJGU11NT but didn’t make the cut).

But, still. A little historical perspective – when growing up in Belfast I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to support The Reverend Ian Paisley’s Boys Club XI, more commonly known as Linfield FC (feel good hit of the summer – we’re up to our necks in Fenian blood, surrender or you’ll die). The good thing about supporting Linfield was that they won, on average, 27 cups and trophies and silver pots a year (the Irish League being even more bizarro world confusing than the Brasileirao). Which was all very nice and all, and even seemed like the normal way of things. But then I left Norn’ Iron for ever and ever, and happily forgot about Linfield FC and all such shenanigans. And after that – 20 years (almost) of watching rubbish football teams in England and Brazil (namely Manchester City, Atletico Mineiro and Santa Cruz), and thousands of pounds and reais and hours wasted, and not one little trinket, bauble, or Christmas tree angel to show for it! Relegations, oh yes, relegations I know. How many? Ten? Fifteen? But trophies? Nada, nowt, zilch. And for Santa themselves, of course, the suffering has been even worse, as previously documented in these pages.

Until now. Peter Robb, author of A Death In Brazil, maybe the best book ever written about Brazil by a non-Brazilian (or even by a Brazilian not named Gilberto Freyre or Euclides Da Cunha), writes that the nordeste is home to the greatest concentration of poor people in the Americas, to which I can only add that Arruda on match day might be home to the greatest concentration of poor people in the nordeste. (A Death In Brazil is full of piquant observation and great sentences – one of my favourites being Rio is huge and lovely and terrifying. Sao Paulo is huger and more terrifying and not lovely at all).

This makes Arruda a generally safe but distinctly edgy place, and also means that Santa might just have the most dedicated and raucous supporters in Brazil, given that football probably occupies a more tender place in the heart of someone who has few pleasures and fewer options in life than it might in the heart of someone who squeezes in going to the game between lunch at Spettus Grill (which may be found, of course, in Boa Viagem Uber Alles) and a trip to Cirque Do Soleil in the evening (ok, so Cirque Do Soleil has left Recife now, but who can pass up the opportunity of making sarcastic reference to an event that charges R$400 (or something) to watch a bunch of French-Canadian clowns jumping on a trampoline? Apparently there aren’t even any lions or tigers, which makes it a pretty piss poor excuse for a circus in my book).

Saturday’s game is a fine example of all things tricolor. After the teams drew 2-2 in Ballymena last week, all Santa have to do is draw 0-0 or 1-1, or even (what a concept!) win the second game. 20,000 roll up to Arruda for a competition where normally games are played on weekday afternoons and tickets are not even sold and Sport and Nautico field junior teams. 20,002 if you include The Argument and me. The Argument, used to the cosy confines of the socios section at Nauticinho, is not impressed with the wild west saloon bar ambient of Arruda. People don’t take their shirts off at Nautico, she says, a reference to the fact that most people around us aren’t wearing shirts (or shoes or sandals either). The huge Inferno flag rolls up over our heads and little bits of plastic fall on top of us. Uuuugh, says The Argument. Then everyone starts bouncing up and down and shouting oooh Inferno aiii, and even sing a song about how Nautico are so little and have so few supporters that they could all fit in a fuscinha (VW Beetle). The Argument is not amused. The game starts and the sky goes black with thunder clouds and it’s very hot and very muggy and now everyone is bouncing up and down and singing oooh Inferno aiii again (one of the unique things about Santa, it seems to me, is that about 60% (and probably more) of the team’s supporters associate themselves with Inferno Coral and wear Inferno shirts and sing Inferno songs. This is a much higher number than at most other Brazilian teams, where the torcida organizadas represent a fairly small percentage of the clubs’ overall support. Again, it all adds to the slightly end-of-the-world feeling one gets at Santa games).

The game itself is Santa-in-a-tin. After 3 minutes Santa’s Gonçalves, caught distracted by a pretty white bird flying across the black clouds, lets the ball roll under his foot and someone from Central runs through and scores. We’re all human, he says after the game, we were born to make mistakes. Never a truer word spoken. Irritated, a few minutes later he rolls his hefty bulk up the other end and scores an equaliser. Everyone jumps up and down and sings Oooh Inferno aiii. Then Santa score again (Joelson) and again (Joelson 2) and again (300 year old veteran Gaucho). 4-1 Santinha at half-time! Anyone other than myself would be celebrating. 4-1!, squeaks The Argument, Santa might score 10! I give her a dark look. Ha! With five minutes to go it’ll be 4-3 and we’ll all be on our knees praying for the final whistle, I tell her.

Which is, oddly, exactly how it turns out. Only Central score three goals, not two, to make it 4-4, which would have meant the cup going back to Ballymena on the away goals rule. A nice man with a yellow flag, though, decides that Central’s fourth goal is offside, which sparks a huge ruckus (or even a rumpus) amongst the Central players, and 432 players are sent off. And then the referee blows his whistle, and the riot police come onto the pitch to protect him and the man with the yellow flag from the Central players, and the Santa players run around the pitch with the big golden cup. Gaucho takes his socks off and throws them into the tricolor hordes. Oooh Inferno aiii, everyone sings, for variation. And then The Argument and I take the bus into town, rolling past huge throngs of smiling people in Santa and Inferno shirts standing at the bus stops. Maybe it’s the start of something for Santa, says The Argument, looking happy, and maybe it is. The Christmas lights are on in some of the squares around Avenida Norte and Encruzilhada. We go to Recife Antigo, where we drink with The Argument’s hard-living chums until 1am, and then we take another bus home, running across the Buarque De Macedo Bridge to catch it, the lights of the city glittering in the black water of the river underneath.

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