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Cup more than half full for Brazilian football minnows

James Young

To begin, a health warning. Regular readers of this column, if such things exist, should make a mug of strong, sweet tea and find a sturdy armchair in which to settle. A little music, something soothing like Milton Nascimento or João Gilberto, might help. Those of fragile heart or nervous disposition are advised not to read on.

Normal harbinger of doom service has been temporarily suspended. There will be (almost) no bad tidings from Brazilian football today. Whisper it, but this was a week, on the pitch at least, to briefly warm the cockles of the grouchiest coração. Cheerier still is the news that the pitches in question were bumpy and cramped, surrounded by poky, low-slung grandstands, in two of the country’s most unloved footballing regions.

Corinthians’ Emerson Sheik 300x225 Cup more than half full for Brazilian football minnows

Corinthians’ Emerson Sheik on the front page a newspaper

Almost no bad news. If the night really is darkest before the dawn, then this night would get pretty dark indeed. First up was The Kiss. Corinthians’ Emerson Sheik is no stranger to either controversy (alleged involvement in car smuggling and playing for the Qatar national side before it was discovered that he had previously represented Brazil Under-20s, to name just two) or eccentricity (ask his pet monkey Cuta), so the photo of the player kissing a hirsute male chum on the lips should surely not have raised too many eyebrows.

Wrong. A few hours after the photo became public, a gang of Corinthians torcida organizada members turned up at the club training ground, bearing banners emblazoned “this is a place for men,” and “no fags here.” “We’re not homophobic, but if he’s going to do this kind of shit, he can go and do it somewhere else,” explained one eloquent protestor, sounding, um, rather homophobic. “We want a formal apology,” he raged on.

“Moronic prejudice,” retorted Emerson – the scorer, lest it be forgotten, of the two goals that won Corinthians their first ever Libertadores just over a year ago. The happily married recipient of the beijinho, chef Isaac Azar, had a better response for the kings of the stone age, recounting how afterwards he had asked toothsome soap star Bruna Marquezine, dining in the same restaurant, if he could snog her boyfriend Neymar too. “No way!” shrieked prudish Bruna. Boo, Bruna, boo.

There were more torcida organizada related high jinks a couple of thousand miles away in the nordeste. Recife, to be more specific, where epically underachieving fallen giants Santa Cruz are in the middle of yet another crisis. Struggling in Serie C, Santa’s legions of perpetually disgruntled fans had been after the blood of stalwart, if inexperienced (and somewhat tactically challenged) coach Sandro Barbosa almost since his appointment.

Two weeks ago, Sandro decided he could take the heat no longer, and quit, ironically enough after a thumping 6-0 win over Treze. Presumably taking a “no one gets out of here that easily” approach, the Santa board then persuaded Sandro to stay, performing a rather odd re-unveiling of the coach a few days later. Odd, as alongside Sandro, club president Antonio Luiz Neto, and assorted directors, were a gaggle of Santa’s Inferno Coral torcida organizada, presumably there to lend moral support (or intimidate any naysayers).

Either way, the second honeymoon didn’t last long. The day after this weekend’s defeat by Luverdense, members of Inferno Coral invaded training to “encourage” the players to try just that little bit harder. Sandro decided he could take no more (again), and quit (again), though showed his masochist streak by staying on as an assistant. Santa have since appointed Vica as the club’s new coach, presumably having checked with the Inferno Coral first.

On, finally, to happier tidings (with apologies in advance to Corinthians fans). The Copa do Brasil, the country’s knockout tournament, is more often than not a dull affair, the two-legged ties removing any chance of an upset. Not this year.

With the competition already made more interesting than usual by the participation of Brazil’s Libertadores participants in the latter stages, tiny Nacional from Manaus, and Luverdense, from the vast, sweltering state of Mato Grosso in the west of the country, have been quietly performing miracles. In reaching the quarter-finals, Nacional eliminated Serie A Coritiba and Ponte Preta, while Luverdense knocked out Bahia (also from Serie A) and Fortaleza.

The best was yet to come. On Tuesday, Nacional put up a rousing fight against Vasco da Gama at home, and were the better side in the first half, before eventually going down 2-0. Even in defeat, the team played with plenty of pride, and perhaps made a few Manaus football fans, who normally only have eyes for teams from Rio or São Paulo, pay just a little more attention to their local sides.

On Wednesday, it was Luverdense’s turn, welcoming Corinthians to Lucas do Rio Verde. This time there was even a happy ending, as the minnows humbled the current Club World Cup champions (who had the aforementioned Emerson sent off) with a last minute winner. “We believe in miracles,” said zagueiro Zé Roberto, as the locals went crazy.

There was less glee amongst the sudeste dominated national media. When announcing the Luverdense goal during the televised Cruzeiro v Flamengo tie, Globo commentator Luis Roberto audibly choked on his tongue for a brief second, before recovering. “It’s going to be a cauldron at the Pacaembu next week!” he crowed, astutely identifying that the real story wasn’t Luverdense’s achievement, but how much Corinthians would win by in the second leg. “Corinthians play badly and lose to goal that should have been disallowed,” sulked Lance! magazine, also not quite feeling the romance of the cup.

Luverdense president Helmute Lawisch, meanwhile, couldn’t wait to talk about The Kiss (lovers of the underdog should look away now, for their hearts may be crushed). “I’m old school,” he said. “For me a man’s a man. Each to his own, but I doubt the Corinthians fans will accept such behaviour.”

Luverdense’s unexpected win will probably soon fade from the collective national memory, and Corinthians are indeed likely to win by a hatful in the second leg. But for a few days at least, a little team from Brazil’s footballing wastelands grabbed the spotlight in remarkable fashion, demonstrating once again the game’s irrevocable knack of both generating surprise and renewing hope. At least, that is, until the next bit of bad news.

Postscript: it wasn’t just the little clubs having their fun in the Copa do Brasil, as this compelling strike from Cruzeiro’s prodigiously talented Everton Ribeiro shows. Those who remember the summer of Gazza (and Colin Hendry) and Football’s Coming Home should enjoy.

James Young writes about Brazilian football for Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Blizzard, and World Soccer, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about “love, death and football” in the northeast of Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.

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