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From the Centipede to the Rat Hunter – How Brazil’s longest suffering club escaped from the wilderness

James Young
Arruda stadium 300x225 From the Centipede to the Rat Hunter – How Brazil’s longest suffering club escaped from the wilderness

Young Brazilian fans at the Arruda stadium

Hours before the game and the sun scorched streets around the Arruda stadium in Recife, home of Santa Cruz FC, are thick with people. When the team coach arrives it is mobbed by thousands of adoring fans, and by kick-off there are 60,000 or more inside the stadium.

It is a huge crowd, especially by the standards of Brazilian football – the average Serie A gate this year is just over 14,000. And this is no national title decider or fiercely contested São Paulo or Rio derby, but a third division play-off game against unglamorous opponents.

Welcome to football in the north east of Brazil.

Santa are not the only team in the region to draw big gates this year. The official attendance at another Serie C play-off, between Sampaío Corrêa and Macaé in São Luís, was just under 43,000, but local police said that a welter of forged tickets meant there were closer to 55,000 in the stadium. In a previous round, 56,000 packed into the Arena Castelão World Cup venue to see home team Fortaleza lose to Sampaío. And in September, at the same ground, 50,000 watched the Serie B game between Ceará and Palmeiras.

The quality of football in the nordeste, however, is rarely as impressive as the devotion of the fans. The region has a population of over 50 million people and covers 18 per cent of the land mass of Brazil, yet no team from the nordeste has won a national title since Bahia, from Salvador, were crowned champions in 1988.

Of the three teams from the area in Serie A this year, bottom club Náutico have already been relegated and Bahia are in danger of suffering the same fate.

Yet while success on the field remains elusive, this is no footballing backwater. Fans who spend time in the north eastern cities of Recife, Salvador, Natal and Fortaleza during the World Cup will find a passion for the game that is arguably more intense than in the south or south east of Brazil.

The struggles of nordeste clubs are largely down to financial disparity with the lower half of the country, though administrative chaos and bad decision making also play a part. The region is the poorest in Brazil, and trails the wealthier south east in every social and economic indicator, from per capita earnings to infant mortality and literacy rates. According to 2010 figures, 59 per cent of Brazilians who live in conditions of extreme poverty (officially less than £19 a month) live in the nordeste – more than nine million people.

This has a major impact upon the financial clout of football clubs in the region. Ticket prices, local TV contracts and sponsorship deals, and merchandising income in the nordeste generate a fraction of what they might in the south and south east.

Over lunch in a restaurant tucked under the great grey bowl of Arruda, Santa Cruz director Sylvio Ferreira told 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 and played in the Libertadores (the South American Champions League) the following year.

“The problem isn’t as obvious as a simple lack of money,” he said. “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.”

Media influence has also played a large part in how the game in the nordeste has developed. Football in Brazil is concentrated in the country’s big cities, and the vast size of many states (Bahia, for example, is bigger than Spain), combined with gruelling transport links, means that even today many who live in the interior, or countryside, visit their state capital only rarely. Such Brazilians are therefore more likely to support a team from Rio or São Paulo that they can watch on TV every week than they are their “local” club.

Of all the teams in this downtrodden footballing region, the one that has arguably suffered the most is Santa Cruz, where Rivaldo began his career. In 2005, Santa beat Portuguesa in front of 70,000 at Arruda to clinch promotion to Serie A. But the club were relegated just a year later. And then relegated again the year after that. And then, just for good measure, relegated again in 2008, this time to Serie D, where the majority of teams count their supporters in the tens, rather than the thousands. Santa would not escape from Serie D for another three years.

During these dark days, however, the fans did not abandon their team. It is said that Santa’s colours are black, white and red to reflect Brazil’s three main ethnic influences (African, European, and the indigenous peoples) and the club was the first in Recife to field a black player, Teófilo Batista de Carvalho, known as Lacraia or “The Centipede”, in the early years of the century.

As a result, Santa became the city’s time do povo, or “people’s team,” and today, while Brazilian football undergoes an undignified gentrification process, with gleaming new World Cup stadiums and expensive ticket prices, the mouldy concrete steps of Arruda and the overwhelmingly working-class profile of the fans feels like a throwback to a dying age.

Santa finally won promotion to Serie C in 2011. The club’s average gate that year was almost 40,000, the highest in Brazil by a distance, and earned Santa the dubious honour of being the best supported 4th division team in the world.

Upward progress stalled in 2012, but this year Santa made the Serie C play-offs, where they faced Betim from the south eastern state of Minas Gerais. The Recife team won the away leg 1-0, and took the field last Sunday just ninety minutes away from promotion to Serie B after seven years in the footballing wilderness.

The atmosphere during the game bordered on the hysterical, with every hopeful Santa hoof forward greeted by huge, billowing roars, and each Betim attack accompanied by shrieks of panic. The tension was eased a little when Santa opened the scoring, then cranked back up again when Betim equalised a few minutes later. As time ticked away, Santa were hanging on, nails bitten down to the quick in the stands.

Enter The Rat Hunter. When Flávio Caça-Rato was a kid growing up poor in Recife, he used to chase rats for fun. The nickname stuck, and even when he told the press last year that he didn’t like the tag anymore and wanted to be known as Flávio Recife, no one paid any attention. On as a late substitute, it was his diving header that finally clinched the win and, as Arruda erupted, sent Santa into Serie B.

It is still a long way from Serie A, let alone the Libertadores. But after the club’s recent struggles, it is doubtful that even next year’s World Cup winners will celebrate with as much gusto as the Santa fans and players. In the nordeste, it is always better to be thankful for small footballing mercies.

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