Fear and Loneliness in Recife
Life, love and following Santa Cruz’s emotional return from the fourth flight
Supporting a team generally works one of two ways. The old way is to support the club that plays around the corner from where you grew up. These days this often feels like a throwback to a more romantic age, when teams were largely populated by local players and as a result represented something – a neighbourhood, a city, a region. Once, people who supported teams from towns and cities other than their own were often treated with derision by the football fan fraternity. The idea was to support your local club through thick and thin, through the wind and the rain, and so on. There was a sense of camaraderie and even smugness to such very British stoicism, the hint of a spirit that carried memories of the World War I trenches or the jostling and the elbow rubbing of the dark satanic mills. You weren’t supposed to enjoy it. It wasn’t supposed to be fun. But you were all in it together.
In the modern world (the wealthier parts of it at least) everything is about fun. About having it all – every film, every book, every song, every home comfort, streamed or downloaded with an Oblomovian twitch of the finger. It’s about watching every football match, too, anywhere in the world, whenever you want. Correction – not every football match. The best football matches. Only the best. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich. We possess intimate knowledge of teams and players from all over the world. It matters not a jot that we usually have no cultural or geographical connection whatsoever with these teams or players. They’re brilliant. We’re brilliant. Everything’s brilliant.
And when we’ve had our fill of watching the games, we can read features and interviews about the teams and the players from top English-speaking journalists in Spain, Germany, France and South America. And then we can talk about it all, endlessly, on Twitter, telling people what we have watched, showing people the staggering breadth of our global football knowledge. What we don’t do very often is go to matches. Though who cares about that anymore?
But there’s a third way to support a football club. That’s when you arrive, pretty much by chance, in a new city (it helps if it’s in a foreign country), choose a team to follow, then watch as your life, like the football team itself, collapses around your ears. When the football team in question becomes your cultural, spiritual and philosophical guide, a bit like the dice in Luke Rhinehart’s (or George Cockcroft’s) The Dice Man, to an exotic and often dangerous landscape, introducing you to people and places you would otherwise never have met and most of the time will wish you hadn’t. When it becomes hard to separate the facts of your life from the rambling novela of the football team you, entirely randomly, have ended up following.
It’s not a good way of supporting a football team (the second way is by far the most comfortable and least expensive), but you don’t really have a choice. It’s a bit like a drug habit. If only someone had warned you at the start, and if you had listened, you would have run a mile.
But of course, also like a drug habit, you don’t do that, because at the start it’s pretty great and leaves you wanting more. The first time I ever went to see Santa Cruz, from the anarchic, dilapidated and exhilarating city of Recife in the north-east of Brazil, was in 2007. It was a local derby against Náutico, and Santa won 2-0, courtesy of two goals from the journeyman striker Marcelo Ramos.
At the time I was living in the nearby town of João Pessoa, which is also dilapidated but decidedly not anarchic or exhilarating, and Recife, one of Brazil’s most violent cities then and now, scared the hell out of me. I had moved to the north-east a year after arriving in Brazil, and more specifically the more comfortable and prosperous south-eastern city of Belo Horizonte. But things had not worked out for me in Belo Horizonte, mainly thanks to the Ex-Girlfriend, of whom more later. Reluctant to scurry back to the UK with my tail between my legs after just a year, I closed my eyes and stuck a pin in a map of Brazil. João Pessoa was my fate. But João Pessoa was only ever a stepping stone to Recife.
A few weeks before my first Santa game I’d been taken by a friend to watch Recife’s most successful team, Sport, and even been given a gaudy commemorative club shirt, with a large corner of its red and black stripes torn away to reveal a growling cartoon lion clutching the blue, white and rainbow emblazoned flag of the state of Pernambuco. Sport won 2-0 and after the game my friend leant over and whispered, “You’re Sport now” in my ear. But I wasn’t. Over the next few years Sport would win the Copa do Brasil, play in the Copa Libertadores, and spend most of their time in Serie A. Being Sport would have been far too easy.
Santa made a lot more sense, especially to someone who had spent most of the 1990s watching Manchester City wallow in the second and third tiers of English football. And the City connection became even more apparent in my first year in the nordeste, as Santa, who had finished in last place in Serie A the year before, managed to go from flirting with the promotion spots midway through the Serie B season to somehow being relegated to Serie C for the first time in their history.
But I already knew Santa were that kind of side – a Middlesbrough, a Sheffield Wednesday, a yo-yo club kind of set-up. Recife’s youngest team, formed in 1914, but also in some way its most historically significant, being established not by the British-influenced elite of the city – like Náutico in 1901 – or by its burgeoning commercial class – like Sport in 1905 – but by a handful of the city’s urban scruffs, a gang of kids who were kicking a ball around on the steps of the Igreja de Santa Cruz downtown. Later, Santa would be the first club in Recife to field a black player.
Football in the north-east, Brazil’s poorest region, is generally of a low standard, mainly because the clubs don’t have the money to compete with the big clubs down in the south-east. So Santa have never made much of a splash in the Campeonato Brasileiro, although they did reach the semi-finals of the national championship in 1975. Other than that, there were some famous players – Rivaldo started his career at Santa – and a stack of Campeonato Pernambuco, the local state championship, triumphs.
Oh, and there were the fans. Santa are known as the time do povo, the team of the people, in Recife, making the Arruda (the club’s 60,000 capacity, creaking concrete bowl of a stadium) terraces an often thrilling place to watch football. Fans beg outside the ground to be able to afford the very cheap tickets and there are hundreds of youngsters inside wearing neither shirts nor sandals. I have seen a dwarf being chucked back and forth by his friends on the Arruda terraces. I have seen vast, sprawling punch-ups on the Arruda terraces. I have been pickpocketed on the Arruda terraces. Over it all hangs the heady reek of urine, the filthy, polluted canal outside the ground and the smell of grilling meat and cheese.
By the time 2008 rolled around I’d moved to Recife and become a semi-dedicated follower of Santa. In the first half of the year the team endured a dreadful Campeonato Pernambucano, finishing in seventh place behind not only Sport and Náutico, but also a gaggle of tiny clubs from the interior of the state. As a Kippax-dwelling City fan, something about the rawness of the terrace atmosphere and the doomy sense that disaster was constantly lurking just around the corner sucked me in. I believed I had a feeling for what Santa meant, culturally – that the team’s struggles reflected the (much greater, obviously) hardship of thousands of its fans and that the club’s failures mirrored the many knockbacks and disappointments of their lives. That, surely, made them the quintessential Recife team.
Campina Grande, July 2008
I am on my way to Campina Grande in Paraíba, the next state up from Pernambuco, to watch Santa’s Serie C opener against Campinense. I stay overnight at a friend’s house in João Pessoa and the next day manage to miss my bus to the game, a 90-minute drive away. The next bus will not make it in time for kick-off, so I take my chances with one of the grubby men who lurk outside the bus station offering clandestine lifts in their battered cars. My four sun-grizzled, elderly travelling companions are silent throughout the journey.
We get to Campina Grande just as the game is beginning. I jump on a moto-taxi downtown and we career wildly through the streets to the Amigão (“Big Friend”) stadium. Inside, one half of the ground is a mess of Campinense’s red and black stripes, the other a blaze of Santa’s white and red and black. There are around 6,000 visiting fans. Santa’s young team are eager enough, but failure breeds failure and the aching sense of need felt in the away end eventually proves the undoing of a mentally fragile group of players when, with five minutes remaining, Campinense score their second, and winning, goal. Silence sits heavy as storm clouds over the Santa hordes. Delirium explodes on the Campinense side. Fighting, between the Santa fans and the over-exuberant local police, swirls around me.
And then it is back to Recife. I have missed the last bus out, but chatting on the terraces I am offered a lift by a family of fifteen Santa supporters, ranging from grandmother down to grandson. As I sit amidst all this familial ruckus and warmth, the long convoy of Tricolores snakes through the sodden darkness of inland Paraíba and then Pernambuco. In every tiny town and village, each with such exotic names as Juripiranga and Camutanga, Sunday night tradition has drawn people onto the streets to stand and talk and there are bricks and boos and bouquets (though fewer of these) as we pass through the night.
Arriving in Brazil in those days, two things were quite likely to happen to a young, or even a not so young, man. One is that if he wanted to work, he would end up teaching English in a private language school. Another is that he would find himself a Brazilian girlfriend. The private language schools were usually in upper-middle-class neighbourhoods and catered to upper-middle-class students. Given geographic and social factors, and the fact that a lot of rookie gringos don’t speak Portuguese and a lot of poor Brazilians don’t speak English, there was a strong chance that the girlfriends would be upper-middle-class too.
While there is of course nothing wrong with upper-middle-class language schools or upper-middle-class girlfriends, both tended to offer somewhat restrictive views of Brazilian society. When I first arrived in Brazil, my own upper-middle-class girlfriend told me gravely that I was not, under any circumstances, to take the bus, go downtown or go to a football match, as any one of such activities would result in certain death. I heard similar dire warnings from my colleagues at the private language schools where I worked.
I managed to escape such narrow confines, and I hope therefore to learn a little more about Brazil than I otherwise might have done, for two reasons. One was Santa Cruz. The other was the Ex-Girlfriend. The two are closely intertwined.
Praça Maciel Pinheiro, Recife, August 2008
We go out drinking, the Ex-Girlfriend and I. We go out drinking a lot, probably because the Ex-Girlfriend, who is from Belo Horizonte, is now living with me in Recife. The Ex-Girlfriend is living with me because a few weeks ago her boyfriend, who was a traficante, was shot and killed by another traficante. The Ex-Girlfriend, who is not a traficante, witnessed the murder and now the killer is after her, hoping to burn the file, as they say in Brazil. So I have stumped up the cash to fly her from Belo Horizonte, where she would probably have been killed, to Recife, where she will hopefully not be killed. Another detail – the Ex-Girlfriend’s hand is twisted into a claw because it was hit by a bullet a few months ago, when the Ex-Girlfriend’s friend Carla, who was also a traficante, was shot and killed, and the Ex-Girlfriend got hit in the crossfire. In much of Brazil these are sadly not uncommon stories.
This night we go to a bar called Terça Negra in the Patio São Pedro, but when we get there things are winding down and people are already drifting home. Then we go to Recife Antigo, the oldest part of town, and stand in the street and drink. It starts to rain and the goths and playboys and punks and rastas and students shriek and run and plaster themselves to the walls of the alley. We go to a reggae club where the air is hot with the smell of trouble on the brew. Two boys begin to fight, their heads darting back and forward like lizards. We leave. On the way home we stop at the Praça Maciel Pinheiro for a last drink. Things are often unhinged in the Praça Maciel Pinheiro. The last time I was there a man walked past wearing swimming trunks. It was 3am. With the swimming trunks the man wore a diving mask and snorkel. As he walked he made breast-stroke motions with his arms and took big deep-sea diver wading strides. No one paid much attention.
Tonight it is 3am again and there is a group of four men staring at the Ex-Girlfriend. She stares back. All the men are big and all of them have tattoos and all of them are wearing Inferno Coral shirts. Inferno Coral is the name of the Santa Cruz torcida organizada, the organised supporters group. The gang has a well-justified reputation for ghoulish violence. But life is nothing if not lived fully so we go and sit down and talk to them.
“What do you do?” I ask the man who looks the least likely of the four to stick a fork in my eye.
“I’m an Inferno Coral director,” he says.
There is some silence at the table.
The Inferno Coral director seems to be suffering from tooth trouble. Occasionally he puts his fingers in his mouth and waggles them around and scowls. Then he takes a used bottle top from the table and puts that in his mouth and gnaws at it. When he reaches in and removes it I see his fingers are speckled with black marks, like the spots on quail’s eggs, only the black marks are, unlike with quail’s eggs, tooth blood.
When I have been to Santa Cruz games I have noticed that despite the absence of visiting supporters violence is constantly erupting among the Santa Cruz supporters. I respectfully ask the Inferno Coral Director why this is so.
He stubs his cigarette out on the table. The last directors, he says, were weak. Not like us. We are organised.
As we talk the Ex-Girlfriend alternatively flirts with and then ignores the man sitting next to her, like a butterfly that is impossible to catch. It is a routine I am not unfamiliar with.
After an hour we go home. We swap phone numbers with the men and agree to go to the Santa game together on Sunday. Social engagements are flexible in Recife – I don’t expect that they will call. Anyway, on Sunday it is wet and we decide not to go to the match but to go to picturesque, colonial Olinda instead, where it is old and romantic and we can walk the damp streets and watch the sunset through the clouds over Recife. Though later when we sit in a bar and drink, the brightest lights of all the lights in the city below us are the lights of Arruda where Santa are playing and I wonder if there is fighting down below or whether our new friends are keeping things in order.
Santa stumble through the first group phase of Serie C in 2008, but then finish bottom of their second-phase group, meaning that they are relegated to Brazil’s newly created Serie D after just twelve games. I am far away in Salvador on the day of Santa’s last game, drinking (something of a recurring theme at this time) alone in a grimy bar in Pelourinho, and it is the Ex-Girlfriend who gives me the bad news from Recife over the phone. Relegation, I find, is always a good time to take personal stock of one’s life and as I watch the Dickensian caperings of Salvador’s lost and disillusioned around me, I consider my lot – I am 36 years old, live 10,000 miles from home in an insalubrious flat in a grotty part of downtown Recife with the Ex-Girlfriend, who may, if her boyfriend’s killers manage to track her down, be killed at any moment. I work, part-time and with very little enthusiasm, in a private language school. Financially speaking, I have not much more than a pot to piss in. The closest thing I now have to a football team plays in Serie D of the Campeonato Brasileiro.
Life imitating football, as the saying goes.
Maceió, July 2009
I decide to make some improvements in my life. To give you some idea of how my moral compass may have gone awry, I decide that one of these improvements will involve joining the Inferno Coral. I pay five reais for a small plastic card Inferno card with my photograph on it. (I still have it today.) I feel very working-class Recifense, very far from upper-middle-class girlfriends and language schools and immensely, stupidly, pleased with myself. I go to Santa’s Serie D debut, a four-hour non-Inferno Coral supporters’ club bus trip away in the town of Maceió. It is a marvellous day, with a fried fish lunch on the beach and then a 3-0 win over CSA. A quick return to Serie C seems a certainty.
On the way back, sleeping beside the open bus window, I am hit with an egg hurled by a local tough as we pass through some godforsaken village or other. I think it is a stone and reaching to my head and touching something wet, shriek hysterically that, “It’s blood! I’m hit!” Only the smell, and the laughter of my fellow passengers, corrects me.
Our already wheezing bus begins gagging and spluttering even more dramatically somewhere around Ipojuca on the southern coast of Pernambuco and soon gives up the ghost completely on a small hill surrounded by creaking sugar cane and trees with branches that reach up to the sky like the fingers of a skeleton, which prompts a hitherto bullish young chap sitting behind me to moan that “it’s like a feckin’ horror film out here”.
We clamber off the bus and stand at midnight on a deserted country road in the Pernambuco badlands in the rain, waiting to be either robbed or saved, drinking cheap cachaça and eating carefully rationed crackers. Two or three menacing little groups of most probably armed men on motorbikes drive past very slowly, staring at us and our bus, while a disinterested police officer stops helpfully to advise us from the warmth of his patrol car that it isn’t safe out here and we should think about getting ourselves home sharpish. Three hours later, with the cachaça and crackers long gone, a replacement bus from Recife comes rolling over the hill and we are saved.
Santa do not, in the end, make a quick return to Serie C in 2009. In fact they finish bottom of their group, the win over CSA proving to be their sole victory. Despite average crowds of 38,000, after six matches and just over one month of football, by August Santa’s national league season is over, and the club will not play another competitive fixture for almost half a year. If there had been a Serie E, they would have been relegated into it.
Sobral, September 2010
By 2010 life in Recife has settled into a routine. The Ex-Girlfriend has gone, having met a nice, non-traficante new boyfriend, and set up home in a working-class neighbourhood in the city’s northern suburbs, not that far from Arruda. I am safely ensconced in a relationship myself, though as the young lady in question supports Náutico, I already fear there’s not much future in it. I wander the streets, I disinterestedly teach English to disinterested students, and I go out drinking, alone and with friends. A disproportionate number of my conversations are about Santa Cruz. I feel a bit like a character in a Graham Greene novel – slightly dissolute, dessicated by the sun, jaundiced from too much cerveja and cachaça.
I also write. I write short stories and abortive attempts at novels, and a blog about my life in Brazil. When too many tales about Santa start creeping into the blog, I start another one, this time about, you guessed it, Santa. I also start writing about Brazilian football in general for the Scottish blog, the Dirty Tackle. Not much will come of it, I think. It’s just a bit of fun.
Santa have fun too in 2010, but not much. They reach the two-legged play-off stages of Serie D, where they take on the not terribly mighty Guarany de Sobral from the parched interior of the state of Ceará. A win will put them back in Serie D. 55,000 people squeeze themselves into a heaving Arruda for the first leg. I go on my own and stand near the Inferno Coral. The ovation that welcomes the team onto the pitch is as loud and raucous as the boos which pour down upon the hapless central defender Leandro Cardoso when he scores two early own goals to put Guarany 2-0 ahead. Santa storm back, accompanied by hoarse, billowing roars from the terraces, and eventually win 4-3. According to the Recife ambulance department, 38 people are taken ill during the game.
The following week I briefly consider not going on the 40-hour round trip to Sobral for the return leg. Or at least I tell myself I am briefly considering it, that common sense might prevail, that I am too old and wise for such foolishness. But there is never really any doubt. In what is obviously a sign of impending doom, I crash my car, not too seriously, on Saturday morning, and then get to the Arruda late in the afternoon, huddling together with a few hundred other faithful supporters/complete idiots as we wait for our buses.
I spot Nel, the Inferno Coral director from the night with the Ex-Girlfriend in Praça Maciel Pinheiro, accompanied by a hulking Inferno pal.
“Gringo!” says Nel, shaking my hand. After that night he became friends with the Ex-Girlfriend and I would often see him around town and at Santa games. He was, the Ex-Girlfriend, told me, impressed by my largesse in offering her shelter in her time of need. As someone who had grown up in a world as violent as the Ex-Girlfriend, such gestures would have earned considerable brownie points with Nel.
“Are you going to the game? Come on our bus!” says Nel.
I consider the offer. I imagine the Inferno Coral bus will be filled with singing, shouting, boozing and testosterone. I think of the thousand miles of highway ahead. I decide I will thank Nel kindly for his invitation, but decline. It turns out there’s no need, however.
“Him?” shouts Nel’s hulking pal, whom I don’t know. “He can’t come on our bus. He’s got a cara de predio.”
A cara de predio! An apartment face! So it turns out my blending in with all things Inferno Coral and working-class Recife has not been as seamless as I imagined. To the hulking pal, I look like one of the wealthy, apartment-dwelling burghers of swanky neighbourhoods like Boa Viagem or Casa Forte, a man of pomp and prosperity. Not like Nel or his pal, who come from small, tumbledown houses hidden down narrow, shadowy alleys. I feel strangely sad, for I both want and do not want to be like them.
“No!” says Nel. “He’s humilde [humble]. He’s like us.”
Good old Nel, I think, although I also feel like I should point out that I’m probably not all that much like him. In any case, the moment has gone and we say our farewells and get on our respective buses. We will see each other at the various stops we make along the interminable journey into the searing heat of the sertão. A film crew from one of Brazil’s cable sports channels accompanies us and in my role as the crazy gringo following Santa Cruz half way across the sprawling backlands of the north-east, I give a short, embarrassed, interview. Eventually we get to Sobral, shower under a hose pipe and file into the poky stadium. Santa, it goes without saying, reward our dedication with a dismal display, lose 2-0, and will spend another season in Serie D in 2011.
It is a long trip back to Recife.
That defeat, however, accompanied by headlines such as “Fans without a Team” in the local press, is when things start to change for Santa, as inexplicably and mysteriously as they often do in football. In 2011, a collection of promising youngsters and grizzled veterans sees Santa lift the Campeonato Pernambucano for the first time since 2005, with the second leg of the final watched by a crowd of over 62,000 at the Arruda. The scenes of players and fans weeping with not only joy, but also the relief that comes with the simple reclaiming of a little dignity, would move the stoniest of hearts. I shed a few myself for, apart from my childhood flat-track bully favourites Linfield, it is the first time I have ever seen a club I support lift a trophy.
A few weeks later, hope springing eternally, I set off to watch Santa’s Serie D opener against Alecrim, from another nordeste state, Rio Grande do Norte. Alecrim, however, have no fans and so have decided to switch the game to nearby João Pessoa in the hope of attracting the Santa throngs. It works – in the middle of a week-long tropical deluge 16,000 fans make the journey north. As we lunch in João Pessoa, the news that a river has burst its banks and swept away the only bridge connecting Recife with Paraíba is paid scant attention.
The bridge is given even less attention when Santa register a comfortable 3-1 win, a victory that sets the scene for a memorable promotion campaign in which the club will finally claw its way out of Serie D a few months later with a nerve-wracking two-legged win over Treze from Paraíba. The second leg is watched by 60,000 delirious fans.
That day will feel a long way off, however, on the way back from João Pessoa. No journey watching Santa Cruz is complete without a sprinkling of disaster, because, as every fan of such teams knows, even victory must be accompanied by tremendous suffering. Soon after the game the massive Tricolor convoy rolls out of João Pessoa, horns a-pumping and flags a-waving. Soon after that the massive Tricolor convoy grinds to a halt.
No one seems to know what’s going on. Engines are turned off. People stand in the middle of the endless traffic jam, smoking and talking. There are rumours of muggings, for less scrupulous members of the Santa family are not above stealing the possessions of their brothers in arms. Four hours later or so the minibus I am on gets to the front of the queue. The police tell us that the bridge really has gone, the nearby town of Goiana is underwater, and the coastal motorway, the only practical way of getting back to Recife, is closed. I get the helpless, sinking feeling that has become all too familiar in my years of watching Santa Cruz.
The other route available is a five-hour inland detour via Campina Grande and Caruaru, an option only slightly more attractive than simply lying down in a ditch and waiting for morning, or death, to come. On the bus the decision is made to go back to João Pessoa and “wait it out”, though no-one really seems to know what “it” is and why waiting is going to make any difference. At around midnight my fellow passengers decide to head up the motorway and try again. This seems a particularly foolhardy plan, I think, so I tell them that I’m going to stay in João Pessoa for the night.
Which would be a good enough strategy under normal circumstances, except that with the best part of 16,000 Santa fans having had the same idea, there are now no beds left anywhere in João Pessoa. I spend over an hour wandering the streets in the pouring rain, being told there is definitely no room at various inns, before using my unwanted knowledge of João Pessoa and heading away from the beach and into the shabby downtown district, where I find what might be the only hotel room left in the city.
And that is pretty much that, except for the fact that the next day the flood waters are still running high and there are no buses from João Pessoa to Recife. It is late afternoon when the buses finally start going again, though at least the motorway has opened, and so it is early evening when I get home, meaning that it has taken over 24 hours to make a journey of around 120km.
But I shouldn’t complain. As Santa staggered drunkenly out of Serie D, I had a little success of my own. Matt Scott’s Digger column in the Guardian quoted a piece I’d written for the Dirty Tackle about Santa’s massive crowds and the Recife newspaper the Diario de Pernambuco interviewed me about why the hell I supported Santa anyway. And in 2012, I wrote a piece for The Blizzard about Santa and the struggles of nordestino clubs in general, for which I interviewed Nel and a number of his colleagues.
At least partly because of that story, I was able to convince other misguided sites and publications to let me write for them. Of course I wrote about Santa as much as possible. I interviewed the Inferno Coral for Rolling Stone, on the same night that two of the gang’s members would throw a toilet off the top deck of the Arruda, killing a rival fan below, and I profiled the immortal Flavio Caça-Rato, or Flavio The Rat Hunter, a striker who had grown up amidst abject poverty and violence not far from the Arruda, for the Observer. The latter story made the national TV news in Brazil and generated tremendous excitement in Recife, for which the club was tremendously grateful, presenting me with a shirt and baseball cap. But for me, the gratitude should have been flowing in the opposite direction. For without Santa, none of this would ever have happened.
The whole emotional point of supporting a football team, it would seem to me (to the extent that there is a point) is to suffer for a long time, and then to experience joy, relief, pride and redemption when success finally arrives. The suffering is necessary to make sense of and give perspective to the good times. The only problem with this theory is that it is impossible to repeat that first dizzying thrill of triumph. Even if bigger and better achievements come along later, you will never forget, nor recapture, the first time. And if success becomes too regular an occurrence, you will forget the bad times completely and become as smug and insufferable as every trophy-spoilt fan.
Santa haven’t got there yet. They probably never will, given Brazilian football’s financial imbalances (clubs such as Flamengo and Corinthians will earn around nine times as much from TV as Santa this year). They are, however, at least on their way to some kind of respectability. In 2013, a goal by the aforementioned Flavio Caça-Rato against Betim clinched promotion from Serie C to Serie B. There was another 60,000 crowd at the Arruda that day, and as the light bled from the Recife sky, the upper deck terraces swayed back and forth under the weight of so many bodies and so much emotion.
I had left Recife by then, having moved first to the hot, dusty, and comparatively passionless midwestern city of Goiânia (affairs of the heart were once again involved), and now, somewhat circularly, back to Belo Horizonte, where at least there’s some decent football to watch. Neither Atlético Mineiro nor Cruzeiro can touch Santa, though, and I travel the 2000km or so back to Recife, and the Arruda, as often as I can.
I was at the Arruda for that memorable win over Betim and in 2015, as the Serie B season drew to a climax, I followed Santa to Rio de Janeiro, where Botafogo were defeated 3-0, and then to Itu in the interior of São Paulo, where Santa beat Mogi Mirim to clinch a return to Serie A after a 10 year absence. I went to that game with the São Paulo-based Scottish journalist Andrew Downie, with whom I had been staying when his beloved Hibs were relegated from the Scottish Premier Division in 2014. Understandably, Andrew had been a touch upset that day, and I had tried to comfort him by musing on how many relegations I had seen “my teams” suffer. The answer was a lot.
Andrew, however, was not impressed. “Ah dinnae think feckin’ Santa Cruz count!” he snarled, and stomped off to the kitchen to make another cup of tea.
He was wrong though. Santa Cruz do count, even though I was born thousands of miles away from Recife and had never heard of the club until my mid-thirties. The footballing gods work in mysterious ways, especially, in my case, when there are big, passionate crowds and a few hard luck stories, for which I am a sucker, involved. Through Santa I learnt about Recife and the north-east, seeing up close its hardship and its passion, coming to understand how the nordeste is a country within a country. I was accepted by people whom I could not have imagined knowing a few years previously when I lived in London or Manchester and I am sure I became a better person because of it. Just as importantly, at a time when my own personal moorings were threatening to become loose, Santa gave me a passion, a focus, and something to do at the weekends.
So as the Santa supporters in Itu celebrated wildly around me, I stood quietly, thinking not of the joy of the moment, or even of what was to come, but of what had gone before. I thought of people like Nel and the Ex-Girlfriend and of all the other fans who had travelled to Arruda, or Sobral, or Campina Grande, or João Pessoa, to see their team play badly and lose, and who had then gone back the following week and done it all again. Most of all, I thought of the journey we had all been on together, and how one part of it was over, and a new part was just beginning.