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Santa Cruz: The third division Brazilian club with the incredible fanbase

James Young
brazil 300x225 Santa Cruz: The third division Brazilian club with the incredible fanbase

(Getty Images)

Roma? Small fry. Sevilla? Mere minnows. Spurs, Juventus, Athletic Bilbao and Everton? Also-rans. At least compared to Santa Cruz FC, currently residing in Serie C of the Brasileiräo.

If not on the pitch, then certainly on the terraces. Last year Santa, according to a recent survey by a Brazilian sporting finance firm, chalked up a higher average attendance than any of the above, ending up with the 39th highest gates in the world. And there’s more bad news for the European big-hitters. If the measure is biggest home crowd of the year, then Arsenal, Celtic, Atlético Madrid, Liverpool, Chelsea and a host of others can be added to the list of clubs that trailed the team from Recife, in the north east of Brazil.

While playing in Serie D, the remarkable Santa boasted an average crowd of over 39,000. The club’s biggest crowd of the year was 62,243 for the Campeonato Pernambucano final against city rivals Sport, while 60,000 watched the promotion clinching home tie against Treze. And that’s not to mention the 13,000 that followed the team three hours up the motorway (16 hours on the way back, thanks to storms flooding the area and washing away a bridge) for the season opener against Alecrim.

Remarkable on the terraces, remarkably bad off it. In 2005, Santa were promoted to Serie A. A year later they were relegated in last place (a 3-0 win over a Corinthians side featuring Tevez and Mascherano the only high spot). Then, instead of a quick return to the top flight, 2007 saw relegation to Serie C for the first time in the club’s history, which is where the fun really started.

While the top two divisions of Brazilian football follow a standard 20 team, home and away league format, Series C and D are structured along World Cup lines, with group phases followed by a series of knock-out rounds. In 2008, Santa stumbled unconvincingly through the first stage, but finished bottom of their second phase group – dumping them in Serie D.

Where, improbably, things would get even worse. Santa were unable to escape Brazilian football’s slough of despond in either of the next two years, finishing bottom of their first round group in 2009 (meaning the season ended after six games), and losing over two legs to little Guarany de Sobral in the 2010 knock-out stages (55,000 watched the home leg, when zagueiro Leandro Cardoso helped things not a jot by scoring two own goals). Amongst the opposition that Santa faced during these two years: Sergipe, Central, Confiança and Potiguar de Mossoró – teams not much more familiar to the average Brazilian football fan than they are to the readers of The Independent.

There are plenty of reasons why Santa have struggled so badly, despite drawing such mammoth crowds. Financial reality is mostly to blame – the nordeste has long been Brazil’s most impoverished region, and although things are slowly improving, the resources (reflected in ticket prices, sponsorship and TV deals and merchandising income) available to clubs in the area are dwarfed by those of clubs in the sul and sudeste.

The only national title to end up north of Belo Horizonte in the last 32 years came when Santa’s local rivals Sport won the Copa do Brasil in 2008. And dubious financial management has meant that what money there is has been squandered – like all Brazilian clubs, Santa’s debts (including millions of reais in the unpaid salaries of ex-players) are terrifying.

Another reason is history – the power and glory in Brazilian football traditionally lies to the south, and as a result, the big clubs from Rio and São Paulo boast national followings. Clubs like Santa have to fight for support, even in their own states. And finally, it would be wrong to suggest that managerial incompetence, boardroom chaos and on-field fumbles have not also played a large part in Santa’s demise.

At least those huge, passionate crowds were rewarded in 2011, as Santa, by their own lowly standards, completed a miraculous year. Under the modest management of Zé Teodoro, São Paulo were beaten 1-0 in front of 45,000 in the Copa do Brasil, the Campeonato Pernambucano title returned to Arruda for the first time in six years (in a number of those seasons Santa had finished behind teams such as Ypiranga and Serrano from tiny towns in the interior of the state), and most importantly of all, promotion from Serie D was achieved, courtesy of a nail-biting two-legged win over Treze.

The script was surely written – if Santa had tumbled through three relegations in three years, then surely three straight promotions would be easy enough, allowing Recife’s best supported team (and the place where Rivaldo began his career) to claim their rightful spot in Serie A just in time for the 2014 World Cup?

Not quite. Despite retaining the Pernambucano, Santa struggled to repeat 2011’s success, and last week finished up outside the Serie C play-off spots. Brazilian football being what it is, Zé Teodoro has been promptly thanked for the good times and sent on his way.

It is hard to know what the future holds for Santa. Modern football economics mean that big crowds no longer mean either on or off field prosperity, down in Rio, Fluminense have one hand on the Serie A title on average crowds of 10,000 and most of what money Santa do generate goes to servicing the club’s debts.

And although social conditions in Recife, Salvador and other cities in the nordeste are improving, that has yet to be reflected in the financial fortunes of the region’s football teams – in 2012, the total projected income for all three Recife sides combined (Sport, Náutico and Santa) was considerably less than the sum Corinthians would earn from their TV deal alone.  

And until the situation changes, things are unlikely to get much better for Santa, or the huddled masses on the Arruda terraces.

NB: In the interests of journalistic integrity, the writer of this piece must confess to having spent far too much time watching Santa Cruz in recent years. He still bears the emotional and psychological scars.

A longer version of James’ piece on Santa Cruz and football in the north and north east of Brazil can be found in Issue 6 of The Blizzard

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