On summer afternoons in the Brazilian nordeste temperatures rarely dip below 35 degrees. Some think such heat too intense for football. Others say days like that, when the temperature in the middle of a big standing crowd seems to rise another five or ten degrees, are perfect. Shirts stick to wet backs, the heat rises with the ebb and flow of the game and the aromas of the grilled cheese on the barbecues and the peanuts on the braziers mingle with the smoke from the firecrackers. Flags and ticker-tape and the green of the pitch and the players' shirts all look brighter — and better — against a blue sky, too.

In Recife — a sprawling, chaotic city of close on four million people (in the nordeste Recife trails only Salvador in size) — on just such a sweltering Saturday in November 2005, Santa Cruz defeated Portuguesa from São Paulo by two goals to one. The official crowd at Arruda was given as 60,000, though most observers put it at 70,000 or higher. The result, the last in Serie B that year, clinched Santa's promotion, making them the first team from the state of Pernambuco to play in the first division since 2001. The game took place on the same day that Gremio won the infamous 'Battle of Aflitos', also in Recife, beating the home side Nautico 1-0 (Anderson, now at Manchester United, scored the winner) to clinch their own promotion, with Nautico missing two penalties and Gremio finishing the game with seven players.

But Santa barely lasted a year in Serie A, a memorable run of victories over Flamengo, Corinthians (boasting Tevéz, Mascherano and Nilmar) and Fortaleza being the only bright spot in a miserable campaign. The year after that, in Serie B again, the team flirted with the promotion spots for a few months before going into a tailspin, and by the end of 2007 they were relegated to Serie C for the first time in their history.

Worse was to come in 2008 — the Brazilian third division's convoluted regional group system (planned for economic reasons; to ask generally impoverished teams to travel halfway across such a huge country 19 times a year for away games would be impossible) meant that after hobbling through the first phase Santa were eliminated in the next (losing to such obscure opposition as Icasa and Potiguar, and failing to beat their state rivals from the vast, and largely empty, interior, Salgueiro) and relegated for the third time in three years, this time to the newly created Serie D. 

Fiercely contested local disputes take place in each of Brazil's 28 states prior to the start of the national championship, and things weren't much better in the Pernambuco state championship that year. Santa were left trailing not only their big city rivals Sport and Nautico but also several teams from small towns in the backlands — in fact, things went so badly that in the second phase the team were placed outside the 'championship hexagonal' six-team group and floundered instead in the 'hexagonal of death' in which the only prize is avoiding relegation to the second rank of the Pernambucano — the equivalent of a parks league. 

Other major teams in other countries have suffered declines, but Santa's demise is probably the most spectacular. And, like so many others, the constant throughout the club's collapse (aside from bad luck, bad management, lack of investment and players of questionable quality) has been the fierce loyalty of the fans. In 2010 and2011 Santa, still mired in Serie D, pulled in the biggest average crowds in Brazil — around 35,000 per game. 

It's a tale that resonates among supporters across Brazil's deprived norte and nordeste regions. From Belem at the mouth of the Amazon to Salvador on the Atlantic coast, norte and nordestino football is a story of squandered hopes and dreams. The love people in the region have for their teams is famous — local derbies in Salvador, Recife, Fortaleza and Belem can attract over 60,000 people and the average attendance of a number of sides can reach 40,000 in a successful year, which is more than many of the "Big 12" teams from Rio de Janeiro, the São Paulo region, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre. The norte and nordeste is an area that covers around 60% of Brazil's land mass and includes around 37% of its population, or approximately 65 million people. 

Yet when Sport of Recife lifted the Copa Do Brasil in 2008 it was the first national trophy won by a team from the north or north-east of the country since Bahia won the national championship in 1988. Teams from the region struggle to survive for very long in the top flight of the Brasileirão — Fortaleza, Vitoria and Bahia have been relegated from Serie A in the last few years, although though both Náutico and Sport won promotion from Serie B last season; that may seem healthy but the prime objective of all three this season will be to avoid relegation. Of the six nordestino teams in Serie B in 2010, three were relegated.

Further down the league, the picture is no rosier. Of the seven nordestino teams in Serie B in 2011, two were relegated, while ASA, from Alagoas, survived by only a point. Remo and Paysandu (the two big teams from Belém), Bahia, Vitória, Santa and Náutico have spent time in Serie C in the last few years. 

Remo, in particular, might be even worse off than Santa. Twice in the last four years the team that, according to local polls, boast over a million fans in the region, have failed to qualify for Serie D (achieved by finishing in one of the top positions in the respective state championship), meaning they did not play any competitive national league games. A spot in the bottom division was only achieved this year when little Cametá, the 2012 Pará state champions, gave up their place due to lack of funds. 

Why should clubs with such popular support fail so consistently? Most obviously, teams from the region, more so even than most Brazilian football clubs, seem to enjoy shooting themselves in the foot — a constant merry-go-round of managers and players removes any hope of continuity or sustained growth, and behind the scenes frequent presidential elections and power struggles prevent any hope of stability.

As with much of Brazilian political life, corruption casts a long shadow and rumours of financial skulduggery in the boardroom are commonplace. Often it's more than just rumours: the Remo president Sergio Cabeca was recently sentenced to 16 years in prison for financial wrongdoing when in charge of a Belém educational organisation during the 1990s.

History plays a part. As well as huge fan bases in their home cities, the big teams from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo claim nationwide support. The influence of early radio, and later television, broadcasting these teams' games, often to places with little organised football of their own, mythologised the great Flamengo, Vasco da Gama, Palmeiras and Corinthians teams of the past and ingrained their place in popular culture throughout Brazil. There are many sizeable states in the north and north east without a widely-supported local team — everyone there supports Flamengo, São Paulo or Fluminense. Even in the bigger football states of the region (Ceara, Pernambuco and Bahia), teams from the south-east enjoy wide popular support outside the metropolises.

Eduardo Campos, governor of Pernambuco, summed the situation up recently. "We know that football is an important part of our culture," he said. "In the interior, this means the presence of our supporters in the stadium. We need to bring this to the masses, because it reflects upon our own self-esteem. In the nordeste, only Pernambuco continues to mount strong resistance. We are in a trench, and we need to be an example with the growth and valorisation of local supporters supporting local teams."

Clubs from the region also face other problems. The political history of Brazil is the story of centuries of the abuse of power being slowly eroded by positive social change. Such a summation could apply equally well to Brazilian football — the first half of the phrase, anyway. Brazilian football is dominated by the previously mentioned São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro-Porto Alegre-Belo Horizonte axis, way down in the south and the south-east. Teams from these regions dominate the lists of title winners, national media coverage and, most importantly, money. 

The infamous Clube dos 13, what began as a union of the 13 most powerful teams in Brazil now expanded to 20, for years divvied up the majority of TV and sponsorship money and shared it out largely among its own members. Common enough in the footballing world, except membership of the Clube was not based on league position, but by voting among existing members. And, as any expansion of the organisation would result in a smaller slice of the pie for member clubs, there was not usually much incentive to embrace newcomers. 

São Paulo's Guarani, for example, a Clube member who spent 2008 in Serie C and 2009 in Serie B, earned around twice as much money from TV during these two years as Nautico, who spent the same two years in Serie A, but were not a Clube member1.

Simple economic truth prevails. While Brazilian football as a whole has learnt to deal with the drain of the country's brightest talent to Europe (and today even to Japan and Arab countries), the norte and nordeste tries to cope with a different reality — that the region's best players go south to São Paulo or Rio first, often without even playing for a local team, and then on to other leagues (Hernanes of Lazio, is recifense, as are Rivaldo and Juninho Pernambucano, while Daniel Alves is from Salvador). Money from player sales is essential to the survival of every Brazilian club, whether Clube Dos 13 members or not. And it is much rarer that a team from the norte or nordeste makes money from an overseas transfer deal than it is for, say, Cruzeiro or Internacional. 

Regional financial inequality draws a line in thick black ink across the map of Brazilian football. Life in the norte and nordeste is often difficult — the region trails behind the rest of Brazil in every social and economic indicator — from per capita earnings to infant mortality and adult literacy levels — and its football teams are similarly impoverished. Clubs in São Paulo, the biggest and richest city in South America, can charge three or four times as much for tickets than can teams in Salvador or Recife, while local TV and sponsorship deals in the nordeste pay a fraction of what they might in the sudeste. One of the reasons cited for the departure of the respected coach Nelsinho Baptista from Sport following the team's Copa Do Brasil triumph was that the wages of most of his proposed list of reinforcements for the coming season, many of whom were sitting on the substitute benches of teams from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, would have shattered the club's salary structure. 

Over lunch in a restaurant tucked under the great grey bowl of Arruda, Sylvio Ferreira, advisor to Santa Cruz president Antonio Luiz Neto, tells me about some of the great nordeste teams of the past, such as the Bahia side that overcame Pelé's Santos to win the Brazilian title in 1959, and the Náutico team of 1967 that finished runners-up nationally and played in the Libertadores the following year. "The problem isn't as obvious as a simple lack of money," he says. "You don't necessarily need money to have a good team. But without money in the local economy, in the state, clubs can't sustain that success. Without money, success can only ever be ephemeral."

In 2009, fans of Santa Cruz had high hopes of an instant return to Serie C. But following a bright start, when they won 3-0 away at CSA (6,000 fans made the four-hour journey to Maceió), things quickly went awry. A 2-2 draw at home against the same opposition meant early elimination and another season in Serie D.

Yet the love of football runs deep in the region. Arguably those who suffer most in the chaos are the fans and arguably the fans who suffer the most of all are the poor, of whom there are a great many in Recife, Salvador and beyond (37% of Salvador's population and 43% of Recife's live below the poverty line,). While a large part of the country's middle class has forsaken attending football matches, a result of fear of violence in the stadiums and easy access to pay-per-view live transmission, those with hardly the means to do so continue to do their best to fill the country's grounds. 

In Recife, the state government has introduced the Todos Com A Nota programme, which allows anyone with a hundred reais of shopping receipts to claim a free ticket to a Sport, Nautico or Santa game (the programme, as well as protecting the area's footballing heritage, is a mixture of vote-winner and tax inspection scheme). As a result, the Pernambucano championship is Brazil's best supported regional tournament, pulling in around 9,000 people per game across the state, an impressive number when the size of some of the tiny towns in the interior is taken into account. The number of free tickets is limited, so plenty of tickets are sold in the normal way, but the scheme gives people who might not ordinarily be able to afford entry the chance to watch a game. 

But when it comes to attendances the real story is Santa Cruz. The figures for 2011, the club's third successive season in Serie D, are remarkable. 60,000 watched the home leg of the Pernambucano final against Sport in May. A couple of months later, amid severe rainstorms and flooding, 16,000 followed the club to João Pessoa for their first away game in Serie D. 45,000 showed up for the home Serie D opener against Guarani and 60,000 squeezed into Arruda for the decisive quarter-final against Treze of Paraiba. Santa's average league attendance this year was over 40,000, the highest in the country and the club is surely, by some distance, the world's best supported fourth-division side.

A central part of Santa's core support is the club's torcida organizada, the Inferno Coral. Much has been written and said in Brazil about the rise of the torcidas organizadas — in some ways a throwback to the hooliganism of British football in the 70s and 80s. This being Brazil, however, where violence is considerably more ingrained in society and guns are frighteningly easy to come by, things often become decidedly more bloody. There were 42 violent deaths inside Brazilian football stadiums between 1999 and 2009, and far more have died in football-related violence away from the grounds. Torcidas organizadas are often responsible for this — pitched battles are fought in the streets before classicos, dozens of city buses are destroyed and homemade bombs are smuggled into stadiums. And no Brazilian football season would be complete without at least one story of how organizadas have invaded the training ground of a struggling club, threatening or attacking the players and coach. 

A major difference between the Brazilian organizadas and European hooligans is that in Brazil internecine rivalries (usually squabbles between neighbourhoods or gangs) mean that fighting among supporters of the same team is common. Before Sport played at Arruda in last year's Pernambuco championship, one member of the Inferno Coral shot and killed another inside the group's headquarters. The local newspaper took advantage of the opportunity to publish an insider report into the murky underworld of the organizadas, complete with statistics about the percentage of members of Inferno who have been involved in violence, who use marijuana or sniff glue before games, who indulge in underage drinking and who rob and steal. It is a far from pretty picture. 

But neither is it a complete picture. Unlike teams from the south and south-east (with the possible exception of Corinthians), the torcidas organizadas of teams from the north and north-east represent a huge percentage of the club's fan base — at any Santa game, for example, there are likely to be as many Inferno shirts on display as there are replica team strips. Including those who wear the organisation's colours but are not necessarily registered members, the Inferno Coral army can total between 10,000 and 15,000 for a big game. While some of these people, perhaps many, engage in violent and criminal activity, when looked at in the context of such numbers the percentage of troublemakers is not as great. 

Samuel, Nel for short, is what many would consider a typical member of Inferno Coral — young, black and from the extremely poor, frequently dangerous neighbourhood of Coque. He is fiercely proud of his recifense roots, of being tricolor (Santa's colours are white, red and black), and most of all, of being Inferno. Now 32, he has been a member of the organisation since the age of 14, when his brother took him to Arruda for the first time. 

I meet him in a street corner bar in Recife's Beco da Fome, or Hunger Alley, on a Friday night. It has been a typical early summer day in Recife — temperatures hovering around a balmy 30 degrees, towering blue skies, white-tipped waves flickering out on the ocean. We drink beer and he introduces me to the other Inferno members sprawled around the table. With them is Diogo, a high ranking member of Força Jovem Vasco, up from Rio to press some flesh and firm up the bond between the Vasco and Santa organizadas. Everyone is wearing Inferno sleeveless shirts and baseball caps, and I wonder briefly if the sleeveless cut is designed best to show off bulging biceps and menacing tattoos. 

Most of the people around the table are pleasant enough company. I ask Nel why he thinks young men like these feel the need to smash buses, to run onto football pitches, to fight with other young men they don't really know. Bright and articulate, he talks about the effects of growing up surrounded by poverty and violence. He tells me that he was often involved in skirmishes with both neighbourhood gangs and the police when he was a teenager and, once he discovered the Inferno, fighting with rival groups was a logical next step. Uncomplainingly, he describes his lack of opportunities — Brazil delivers only the most rudimentary of educations to people such as Nel, and university, and a decent job after it, is rarely an option. "If it had been," he says, "maybe I'd have had something else to focus on." 

A voice from the end of the table mentions the group mentality — that you are with your mates, and when someone starts doing something, you follow them. Adrenalina, agrees Nel. The buzz. Everybody nods. It is a word that crops up a lot. 

Like many such groups, there is a curious moral code at work. Violence is accepted as part of organizada life, but other forms of petty crime are frowned upon. Nel stresses firmly the organisation's commitment to rooting out criminality — Santa avoided punishment from the Brazilian football authorities a couple of years ago when an Inferno member ran on to the pitch during the game against CSA as Inferno leaders identified the culprit and then banned him from their headquarters and social events for six months. Nel has paid a heavy price for his attempts to civilize elements of Inferno  he shows me a scar above his right ear where he was stabbed after attempting to reason with one Inferno sect who had been attacking and robbing fellow tricolores after home games. 

This demonstrates the greatest problem facing the members of torcidas organizadas who wish to bring some respectability to their groups—trying to find a way of controlling large groups of young men from underprivileged neighbourhoods who are extremely reluctant to recognise any kind of authority. Nel admits he has no idea, and says that of the 4,000 or so registered Inferno Coral members, he considers less than 500 to be 'core' members who take part in the decision-making processes, identify themselves completely with the ideals of the group and travel to every game no matter the distance. The rest, he says, shrugging, just wear the shirt and make a lot of noise at home games.

2010 promised better for Santa. Lessons had been learned, everyone believed, and, boosted by the rambunctious performances of the striker Brasão (last seen at Vitória Setúbal in Portugal), the club did well enough in the Pernambucano, reaching the semi-finals before losing to Nautico. The first group stage of Serie D was negotiated successfully if not convincingly. That meant the little-known Guarany de Sobral, from the parched interior of Ceara, were next up. 

On a sweltering August day Arruda heaved with 55,000 bodies for the first leg. Santa responded in traditional fashion, going 2-0 down inside 24 minutes, courtesy of two own goals from the hapless zagueiro Leandro Cardoso. A terrible silence settled over the big concrete bowl of the ground — could it be over again, so soon? 

Not quite.

Santa roared back, scoring four without reply, with each goal, each attack, followed by huge, billowing roars from the crowd. 

With the score at 4-2, Santa might justifiably have believed they had one foot in Serie C. But things are rarely so easy. Attention wandered towards the end and Guarany scored another away goal — one that would prove fatal. 

A week later, 1000km away in the scorching heat of the northern backlands, Santa went down 2-0, leaving them to face their third successive year in Serie D

I talk to Nel about what Inferno Coral means to its members and remember a night game I attended at Arruda a few years ago. The crowd was big and boisterous, and after Santa scored the winner an enormous flag was unfurled across the heads of the supporters. When fully open it stretched across a third of the huge upper deck of the stadium. "The biggest flag in the world, 175m by 45m", it says on the photo of the unfurled flag on the back of the Inferno membership card, though fans of Uruguay's Peñarol might beg to differ. 

After the game that night I stood waiting to cross the road as an army of teenage Inferno members carried the flag into the group's headquarters. A full five minutes passed before the tail of the flag disappeared inside, and I remember wondering about the dedication of the boys (and the occasional girl) carrying the flag, and of the drummers who spend their Saturdays rehearsing and their Sundays at the game, pounding out hissing rhythms to accompany the chanting. It is clear that there is a tremendous sense of pride and of belonging felt by Inferno members — and for young men from disadvantaged neighbourhoods, often with absent fathers and with few positive role models, and without much hope of upward social mobility, any feelings of self-worth are welcome. There are few teenagers from Santa Amaro, to name just one of Recife's needier bairros, who are able to say they were once involved with something which might feature in the record books. 

We talk about the alliances between organizadas throughout Brazil — Inferno are allies with, among others, Bahia's Bamor, Palmeiras's Mancha VerdeForça Jovem Vasco and Galoucora. When the clubs of two allied organizadas play each other there is a great swapping of flags and T-shirts and often (as was the case in Maceio against CSA a couple of years ago) the two groups intermingle or carry each other's banners. And when one of the teams plays away it is obligatory for the allied torcida organizadas in that city to turn out in support. Of the few hundred people at Santa's recent Serie D semi-final against Cuiaba in Rondonopolis, Mato Grosso, 2000km from Recife, a couple of dozen or so were from the Rondonopolis branch of Mancha Verde, cheering on Santa. 

We discuss the social projects that organizadas are involved in — Diogo tells me that Galocoura have set up more than 200 such projects, running from crèches to muay thai and capoeira classes and blood donation drives, and that many of these schemes are run in conjunction with the Minas Gerais state government, who recognise the social punch of the organizadas.

It grows late. Talk has ranged across subjects as diverse as the similarities in the origins of British and Brazilian football hooliganism, how the organizadas must change in what will probably be a very different Brazilian footballing landscape in the run up to the 2014 World Cup and when Santa might return to Serie A — if ever.

Towards the end of the evening I ask Nel if he has any friends in Jovem Sport, the organizada of Sport and Inferno's hated rivals. He grimaces and admits that yes, he has one or two childhood friends who found themselves on the wrong path. We laugh. He points to another knife scar, this time above his left eye. "I got this one last year during the Sport v Goiás game," he tells me (Força Jovem Goiás are also Inferno allies). His eyes shine a little brighter and he leans forward in his seat, excited by the memory. His relish makes me feel a little uncomfortable, particularly given the knowledge that many young men have died in such circumstances (two Palmeiras supporters were killed early this year during a battle between Mancha Verde and Gaviões da Fiel in São Paulo).

Once again, I ask him why he does it. He shrugs. "Defending our territory," he says, "our honour." He gives me another example, this time from Santa's recent home game with Paysandu, whose organizada is allied to Náutico's Fanáutico gang. "We told Paysandu that if they came alone there'd be no trouble," he says, "but that if they came with Fanáutico, then it would kick-off." I ask him what happened, already knowing the answer. Another shrug. "It kicked off," says Nel, giving me a troublingly infectious grin. 

Then it is time to pay the bill and go home.

This is a story with a happy ending. Following the disaster in Sobral, Santa hired a relatively unheralded coach for the 2011 Pernambucano. Zé Teodoro's CV is fairly standard among Brazilian football managers, boasting 21 clubs in 15 years, but he soon set about melding a group of youngsters and journeymen into some sort of a team. 

The results were better than anyone could have hoped. São Paulo were defeated in the Copa do Brasil at a pulsating Arruda, with the 17-year-old local Everton Sena marking the highly-rated Lucas Moura out of the game. Their rivals Sport were beaten at Arruda and, remarkably, away at the Ilha do Retiro, where another youngster, Gilberto (since sold to Internacional) scored twice. Santa went on to win the Pernambucano title, their first in six years, beating Sport in the two-legged final.

But while the win against São Paulo, and even the Pernambucano triumph, were nice enough, the real focus was Serie D and a return to some kind of national respectability. With Gilberto gone, the team suddenly forgot how to score goals and the short Serie D season, in which elimination could come after only eight first-round group games, is no place to tinker. 

Still, despite managing just 10 goals, Santa scraped painfully through their group, courtesy of a nerve-wracking final-day victory against Alecrim. Tiny Coruripe, from the neighbouring state of Alagoas, were next, and again Santa did barely enough, winning 1-0 at home before hanging on grimly for a 0-0 in the second leg. 

All this meant the team were 180 minutes from Serie C, exactly as they had been the year before. And after 45 of those minutes it seems that the only thing that had changed in 12 months was the name of the opposition. Away in João Pessoa, Treze quickly went 2-0 up, and were bossing the game. Santa heads dropped — the failure of the past is a heavy burden to carry. 

Hope blossomed briefly when the Treze keeper Lopes tossed a Thiago Cunha potshot into his own goal, though Tigrão made it 3-1 soon after. 

But the Santa of 2011 were a more resourceful bunch than in previous years. The team dug deep and two goals from Fernando Gaucho completed an unlikely comeback.

Needing just a home draw to go through, Santa lived on the edge at Arruda the following Sunday. The home team were dominant, but Treze, needing just a goal, looked dangerous on the counter-attack. 60,000 chewed their finger nails in the stands. Finally, with the score at 0-0, and after what seemed like a decade of injury time, the referee Marcelo de Lima Henrique blew his whistle for full-time and Santa could finally say adeus to Serie D, having taken one small step back on the road to redemption. 

So for Santa Cruz, at least, 2011 was a good year. 2012 has gone pretty well too, with the Pernambucano retained after another triumph over Sport and a solid if unspectacular start to Serie C. As the Brasileirão season winds on, huge crowds will once again fill Arruda and transistor radios across the city will pour out the news of the game on Sunday afternoons. The Inferno Coral will be there, beating their drums and belting out their ferocious chants. There will probably be windows broken and buses smashed, too, and young men arrested, and bloodied pavements, and this is something Nel and other organizada leaders must address, just as Brazil must address the violence that is rife throughout its society.

2011 was also a good year for Náutico and Sport, who made it back to Serie A. Alongside Bahia, they will try and hang on to their top flight status in 2012, while in Serie B, Vitória, Ceará and a clutch of other nordestino clubs dream of promotion. Fortaleza and Paysandu remain mired in Serie C and poor old Remo will be happy to have at least qualified for Serie D. 

In the long-term things are looking up for the nordeste and norte of Brazil. The former president Lula is a nordestino (though, unforgivably, also a Corintiano), and did a great deal for Brazil's needier regions. Improved social welfare programmes and an increased minimum wage have meant a better quality of life for more and more of Brazil's poor. Public and private investment in the area has increased dramatically. This greater affluence is bound to be reflected in the financial fortunes of the region's football clubs, although parity with the sul and sudeste is a long way off. And until it comes, all there is to do for Santa and Remo and Paysandu and Bahia and Náutico and all the other clubs of the norte and nordeste of Brazil, is to keep going. It may be a vainglorious pursuit, but it is a pursuit.