Friday, 9 July 2010

The World Cup is a blowsy tart of a mistress, swanning into town in shocking pink lipstick and painted-on leopardskin mini-dress. Us doltish menfolk moon around her for four short weeks, drooling and babbling and forgetting work, children and, worst of all, our long-suffering partners. We pretend we´ve always known we were too good for this humdrum life, and dream for a moment that it might always be like this – champagne football and super-craques. And then suddenly it´s over, and we realise we never really had a chance anyway, and we creep back home to our frumpy and decidedly unglamorous spouses with our tail between our legs, begging forgiveness, swearing it´ll never happen again, vowing that it didn´t mean a thing. They, of course– in my case Santa Cruz Futebol Clube – always forgive us. They don´t have much choice. They need us as much as we need them.

The World Cup once Brazil are out – at least if you live in Brazil – is a bit like being at a wedding once the bride and groom have left for their two weeks in Magaluf. The band´s still playing and the bar´s still open, so you may as well stay for a bit, but really it´s a bit pointless, and everybody is trying hard not to look at their watches and think about taxis home.

There´s no colder shower then than heading off to Arruda on a dripping wet Wednesday in Recife. I am feeling flush, and lazy, so I plump, for the second time in my life, for an upstairs grandstand seat under the roof. The first time I came up here was when elderly Ma Your Life Is An Impossibility was over, doing her best town mouse – city mouse routine: oh what lovely flags, she proclaimed, as the bottles flew over our heads and Inferno Coral Ibura tried to kick seven bells out of Inferno Coral Rio Doce. The occasion is Santa vs. Vitoria, one of Salvador´s big two and one of only two nordestino teams in Brazil´s Serie A, and the motive is the Nordestão, the recently revived dust-up between the lame and the lost of professional football in the nordeste of Brazil.

Really there´s not much to say – the game is as soothingly dull an affair as you might expect, it turns a little chilly as night draws in, the small crowd, bored, turn on the Santa players after about 40 minutes. In fact Santa play quite well – Dado Cavalcanti should clearly be the next Brazil coach, Menezes is a coltish, good-looking arrival at center-half, Paulo Cesar and Osmar fine full backs. Brasão, of course, is still Brasão, hurling himself after every ball as though it is the last minute of the World Cup Final itself. Vitoria score first, after a cock-up in the Santa defence, but after that Santa take over, and should score more than the one they do get, a Brasão penalty. After the game the players and the crowd drift off, idly chatting, and it is as though no-one would really have minded that much if they´d lost.

And I wonder then, sitting up in the draughty stands, what it must be like for professional footballers to watch other professional footballers playing at the very pinnacle of the game while they toil in ignominy in the trenches. Most of them, of course, are old enough and far enough away from stardom to know that they are probably not going to become true estrelas – they won´t play in the World Cup or even for the seleção, the majority of them will never make it to Serie A, let alone Europe. Do they feel resentment or pain? Do they watch scornfully, bitterly muttering to themselves I could do better than that, or if it wasn´t for that torn cruciate in 2004 that would be me up there instead of Julio frickin´Baptista?

Or do they beatifically accept their lot, and strive only to be the Prince of Pernambuco, realising that football is still a pretty good way to earn a pretty good living in these parts - top names at this level can earn around R$50,000 or so a month, more than twice what your average Recife lawyer might hope for? Looking at the faces it´s hard to tell, for they are the usual athletes’ faces – little of the emnity those in the stands might expect, instead plenty of camaraderie and the quiet elation that comes from intense physical activity.

And then there are the younger players, like Natan and Elvis, skinny and hungry and restless. They are easier to read, as much from their play as from their faces. The ball is never willingly given up, even to a teammate, and even when glory trail after glory trail runs itself into a blind alley, they barely look up or acknowledge their own selfishness. What, say the purposely lowered eyes and bowed head, did you think I was going to give it to you? What would you do with it?

It´s all the seven ages of man, I suppose, and full of lessons for all of us, though I can´t quite think what they might be. Some, I´m sure, would relate to the toiling work of anonymity that is this blog, though I chose writing as my particular route to fame and fortune because, well, your dreams die much later, and you can still be a young literary sensation at 38. Or at least I hope you can.

Sticking with Brazilian football just for a moment, a man who clearly hasn´t learnt any lessons at all is Flamengo goalkeeper Bruno, currently accused of killing a young woman who was also the mother of a child who may or not be is. It is Brazil´s very own OJ Simpson, though even juicier – Bruno allegedly hired a friendly traficante to do the dirty work, and once the girl was dead (strangled) she was cut into small pieces, her bones buried in cement, and the rest of her fed to Bruno´s rottweilers, who might be the only ones in the tale to actually feel very happy about the way things turned out. The story is gruesome and spectacular enough to not really say very much about Brazil, because it could happen anywhere, though there are plenty of very Brazilian motifs if you look hard enough – the slippery nature of extra marital paternal responsibilities (though the normal trick is to run away and deny all knowledge, rather than actually kill the woman in question), the exploitative sexual atmosphere (did you sleep with her at the party, Bruno was asked in a magazine article, yes, we all did, he replied, hinting at quite the bacchanal), and the social classifying (if all the players slept with her then that makes her a whore, and if she´s a whore then what´s all the fuss about, she´s just a whore, who cares if she´s dead, Bruno´s lawyer´s argument might well run in a few months). In any case it´s saved Dunga and Felipe Melo from being Brazil´s most reviled footballers a few weeks earlier than scheduled.

I think about all this as I walk around Recife on a chilly Thursday night. The night before I watched Cormac McCarthy´s The Road, which may well have been a mistake, for I am sensitive of soul. Armed gangs roaming the streets, taking whatever they please? Check. The weak and starving begging for assistance, eating anything they can get their hands on? Check. An endless, dismal sky, promising storms and heavy rain? Check (it´s winter). General air of desolation, abandoned buildings as far as the eye can see? Check. I quicken my step, nervously, and walk on, anxious for home.

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