Monday, 1 February 2010

Running is good, running is healthy, running helps you think. Running is particularly good just after all of 2010’s promises have been razed to the ground. Though Brazil might just be the worst place in the world to keep a new year’s resolution, particularly those relating to smoking, drinking or the improved upkeep of the morality of one´s soul, because six weeks after the turn of the year comes carnaval, which, as everyone knows, is a five (or six, or seven) day booze soaked celebration of something or other, all sponsored in Recife and Olinda by the big beer companies - which is better, at least, than not only being sponsored by the big beer companies but also entirely planned and orchestrated by the big TV companies, like in São Paulo. Rumour has it that carnaval used to have some kind of religious significance, if only in terms of its place in the calendar, but it’s now an entirely pagan affair, so pagan in fact that it’s shunned by the most proddy of Brazilan’s proddy dogs, the evangelicos. Anyway – carnaval seems a wearying prospect, these days, particularly after gallons of drink have been drunk on the weekend.

Hence the running. On Sunday it is the Virgens De Verdade pre-carnaval parade (or bloco) in Olinda. Virgens De Verdade (Virgins 4 Real, you might translate), is a splinter group from Virgens Do Bairro Novo, a carnaval group that has been running for 57 years. Rather oddly for one of the world´s most rock-skulled machismo societies, both the Virgens De Verdade and Virgens Do Bairro Novo involve large numbers of overweight, unattractive men dressing up in women´s underwear and parading up and down the street. 200,000 or so people come out to celebrate all this by singing and dancing and drinking and smoking and fornicating and urinating and defecating in the streets, just as the good Lord intended. So as I run (the revelers have long gone home and only a few lost souls wander the streets down by the seafront, shambling the zombie shuffle from who knows where to God knows where) the ground is sticky and the air is ripe with the smell of spilt beer and piss. Still there is a damp salty breeze off the ocean and a fat orange moon hanging like a rotten grapefruit among the clouds, which is something. And, like I said, it is good to run – because it gives one time to think. And when I think, of course, I think about Santa Cruz.

What I think about this night, with the heat and the smell almost suffocating, is how one of the things that has always attracted me to baseball is the pleasing symmetry between the sport and the seasons, at least in the USA. In Boston, the annual Truck Day February departure of the Red Sox equipment truck on its lonely crawl down the coast, on what is the New England equivalent of Groundhog Day, represents the (hopeful) end of winter, or at least the hope that the end of winter is in sight. Spring training itself, in sunnier climes like Arizona or Florida, is self-explanatory – spring is here, summer is coming. And then summer itself is finally here, and the boys of summer will play a game every day for the next handful of months, only fading gently into the night with the crisp winds of autumn come October.

No such luck in Recife, with its mono-season climate (very hot and sunny with a short period of still pretty hot and occasionally rainy). What would be the recifense equivalent of Truck Day? Hard to say, given that football in Brazil never really stops – at the end of the national championships in December it`s only a few weeks until the start of the state competitions in January. Santa Cruz, O Mais Querido, are as banjaxed as ever, of course. Hardly anyone remains from the disastrous 2009 Serie D campaign – which might be a good thing. Most of the team is made up of the craggy veterans and toothsome young whelps that made up the glorious Copa Pernambuco winning team (if winning a semi-pro competition you`re only in because you got knocked out of Serie D rather earlier than expected counts as glorious), plus whatever has-beens and never-will-bes that could be tempted to give up the anonymity of the second divisions of the São Paulo or Rio (or Mato Grosso) state championships to come and try their luck in the bear pit of Arruda. Financial peril hovers ominously– rumours are that the Ministerio Da Justica is poised to flog off the club`s team bus and floodlight towers to pay outstanding labour debts. Football being football though, where impoverishment and mammoth debt never seems to get in the way of spending money on new players, Santa unveil midfielder Jackson at the start of the Pernambucano. Jackson is also a craggy veteran, but unlike the other craggy veterans, he might be pretty good.

And so it all begins again – the whirring creaking rollercoaster of Pernambucanan football. No-one has any money, everyone will sack their manager after a few weeks and most of their players after a few months, and Sport will probably win it because they`re not quite as bad as Santa or Nautico. Big crowds will roll up for the games – Santa and Sport are already averaging over 20,000 per game though the only opposition so far has been the farmhands and share croppers from the interior. Best of all, the format has been changed, and now calls for semi-finals and a final at the end of the league trot, which should ensure at least a handful of apocalyptic classicos before the whole thing is put to bed.

This little ode to all things tricolor was inspired, largely, by the fact that at five o`clock (RMT) last Wednesday Manchester City played Manchester United in the second leg of the semi-final of some cup or other (classico), and at half past eight on the same night Santa Cruz played Nautico in the fifth game of the Campeonato Pernambucano (super-classico). This made me as excited as a fat twelve year old locked in a chip shop with the fryers on full, of course, especially after City hero Carlitos Tevez, who speaks English like I speak Portuguese, called famed Manchester United shop steward and son of a man called Neville Neville, otherwise known as Gary Neville, a sock-sucking moron. I was in Manchester for the first game, which City won 2-1, and apart from the shininess of the stadium, and the jumbotron TV screens, and the fact that we went for drinks in a chrome and glass furnished Danish theme bar before the game (as opposed to sucking down cans of Skol by the stagnant canal as it might have been if the game had been played in Recife), was touched by just how much the atmosphere at Eastlands was similar to the atmosphere at Arruda. In that, at least, pretty much all the City fans would have cheered had the Angel of Death wrought cruel vengeance on all the United fans and team, and vice versa, in much the same way as all tricolores would wish similar agonies upon all rubro-negros if it were Sport - Santa, and vice versa. Fun and games afoot after the game, too, when all of Manchester, it seemed, was swamped in buzzing police sirens and blinking red lights. No running street battles, though, which made me feel just a little saudades for Recife.

All these uncanny football related twists of fate and coincidence, of course, were knocked into a nevilled hat when token City Brazilian genius, Robinho, announced that he couldn`t stand earning r$10,000,000,000 per minute for playing very badly for another second, and that he was homesick for Santos. As anyone who has ever been to Santos might tell you, it`s a strange place to pine for, being, if anything, the Brazilian Middlesborough. All this sparked great debate amongst UK based journalists and people who write things on their own internet pages, the question being, namely –why the hell would a Brazilian millionaire living in the First World ™ want to come back to Brazil and play for bloody Santos?

A very good question, of course, right up there with that posed to Deep Thought in The Hitchhiker`s Guide To The Galaxy, and relevant to gringos in Brazil, many of whom are probably if nothing else at least used to better quality of bed linen back home than they are in their new sub-tropical lives. The answer, when it comes, comes from a strange source – Roberto Querioz and Ralph De Carvalho – the Gandalf and Yoda of Recife´s sporting radio waves. I´ll tell you why they want to come back, said one or the other last year, answering the same question in regard to another wayward former superstar recently returned to Brazil, Adriano. I went to France for the 1998 World Cup. Day one – fantastic, cup of coffee on the Champs Elysees, look at the pretty French girls, bingo. Day two – up the Eiffel Tower. Day three, the Louvre, Mona Lisa, lovely. After that – pause for dramatic effect – what the hell are you going to do in Paris if you´re Brazilian? You can´t go to the beach, you can´t see your friends or your family, you can´t even go for a proper bloody drink. To which, slightly demented and tongue in cheek though it is, I can only say – hear hear, and I imagine Robinho in his lonely Cheshire mansion, the neighbours complaining when he plays his Banda Calypso records too loud, turning to the missus on a rainy Friday night and saying Christ, love, what the hell are we going to do tonight? Go for a pint down The Dog and Duck?

All of this, funnily enough, leads me in a round about way to the point. To the extent that there is a point. And the point is this. Watching the City game on TV last Wednesday as a cheeky little aperitif to the main course (I’m more Santa than City these days, funnily enough), I ponder things aloud to The Argument. If I have to choose, light of my life, my heart, my joy, which should it be? City, who haven’t been to a final in 34 years, and who are up against the Evil Empire itself? Or Santa, permanently in chronic need of happiness and charity in their endless fight against total self-destruction? And for a while I actually ponder it! Can you believe it? I actually believe I have a choice! It´s only four minutes into the Tricolor-Nautico classico, City already having been cruelly put to the sword (in the last minute!) on TV, when Santa´s uber-clown zagueiro Alex Xavier is sent off, that I realize the foolhardiness of my foolhardiness. What were you thinking, I scream to the heavens, as the rain starts hissing down over the aptly named Aflitos (Afflicted) stadium, that either of them actually stood a chance? Have you learnt nothing in the last thirty seven years?

So Santa, of course, lost too, rather as I knew they would once foolish bravado had been cast aside. And I wish I was a newspaper cartoonist, because if I was I would draw three people in a bar, all looking down on their luck. The first would say I´m Haitian, and I´ve lost my house and my family in the earthquake. The second would say that´s nothing mate, I´ve been a Manchester City season ticket holder for twenty years. And the third would say, so what? I’m a City season ticket holder and a Santa Cruz socio. Beat that.

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