A Nothern Uprising
There is just something about the words North, East and football…
Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Bilbao, Aberdeen, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Recife, Bahia. It seems there is something uniquely special about North Eastern cities and their love for football. These gritty downtrodden industrial cities often blighted with poverty and ignored by the rest of the country have an untold passion for football and fans so loyal they often defy both logic and demographics. Their teams seem to mirror the people and life in those cities: strong, hardworking and passionate; building up hopes of a better future and then bringing those hopes crashing back down to reality.
Brazil’s North East and its football teams are no exception. Last week as the Brazilian championships entered their final weeks of the season the usually half-empty Brazilian stadiums witnessed some awfully low and some eye opening impressive crowds. Like most things in Brazil the extremes were exasperating. In Rio, a pitiful crowd of just 5,483 turned up to watch two of Brazil’s ‘big’ clubs Botafogo against Internacional. However, over 1,400 miles away in a very different Brazilian city two stadiums were packed to the rafters for two games of football that were full of end of season drama.
These two games, watched by a combined total of nearly 90,000 people, weren’t even games in Brazil’s top flight. They were two games in Brazil’s Serie B and Serie D. The city was Recife: a city in the North East of Brazil.
Brazil’s North East was long seen as an economic backwater. Poverty stricken migrants fled the dry and barren interior to seek work, fame and fortune in the industrialised South, specifically Sao Paulo. One of these poor and illiterate migrants, Luiz Inacio Da Silva (Lula) would one day become the president of Brazil.
Like most Europeans, and probably many Brazilians, I often presumed that the North East of Brazil was Amazon rainforest or deserted beaches. In fact, Brazil’s North East is home to the vibrant, modern cities of Bahia, Recife, Natal and Fortaleza; cities now firmly on the map in a region that is very much on the up. The areas economic resurgence was led and backed by one of its own that former migrant and now ex-president Lula. The area is witnessing an economic boom and professional migrants are now leaving Sao Paulo to seek better prospects in the emerging North East. In 2014 the region will host a total of 22 World Cup games. 30% of the games in total .They have even snatched some Confederation Cup games from the South who dithered and delayed the start of their stadium construction.
Yet, despite their proud history, impressively huge stadiums and footballing tradition the Nordeste football teams are still often ignored by Southern based journalists and CBF’s footballing bureaucrats. Before the inauguration of a truly Brazilian championship they were even ignored by the local populace who would often follow a Rio or Sao Paulo based team via the first the radio and then television. The North East and its football teams were seen as poor, backward and somewhat second rate.
Financially the North East teams still can’t compete. Watch a game or two on television and you will see how the impressive modern stadia in the country’s South (with their plastic seats and executive boxes) are a harsh contrast to the shadeless, concrete bowls of the North East. Rio and Sao Paulo’s teams support shirt sponsorship from national telecommunication giants and multi-national companies such as Gillete which somewhat overshadow the local cement companies or ‘loan shark’ sponsors of their North Eastern rivals.
When Brazil’s stars return home after playing in Europe they still opt for the big money and the more cosmopolitan cities of the South. It seems that neither Rivaldo nor Juninho Pernambucano fancied a nostalgic return to their old Recife stomping grounds.
However despite these economic limitations football in the North East is on the up and, as we enter the final weeks of the season, it is (remotely) possibly that next season four teams from the North East could be competing in the top flight.
The city of Salvador is home to (Esporte Club) Bahia who have spent this season defying the odds in Serie A. The state of Bahia is heavy on African influence and here the home crowd is noisy, loyal and passionate. The cauldron like atmosphere of Fonte Nova has witnessed some impressive performances including home wins over Sao Paulo and reigning champions Fluminense. Back in September a headline making 3 – 1 win away at Flamengo convinced the doubters that Bahia were simply not making up the numbers.
Ceará, from the North East city of Fortaleza, are another North East side fighting for survival in the top flight. They are currently in the relegation zone but just 1 point adrift from safety. As luck would have it Cereá travel to Bahia on the last weekend of the season.
The city of Recife, capital of the state of Pernambuco, is the epitome of a North Eastern city. It’s industrial, hectic, dirty and in your face. The stench from the over polluted canals lingers in the air; there is a lot of poverty, a lot of violent crime and of course a lot of football. Recife is football mad. It is the birthplace of Rivaldo, whose upbringing was so impoverished it resulted in a loss of teeth and bowleggedness. And of course there is Junhino Pernambucano who, if legend is to believed, practised his infamous free kicks by hitting balls over and around buses that travel on the cities busy PE-15 intersection!
The city boasts no-less than three major clubs. This season two of the cities three clubs have already secured promotions. Nautico, who play in the cities smallest stadium Aflitios, have been promoted to Brazilian’s first tier while the cities most-well supported side Santa Cruz are also enjoying a well overdue revival. They are the current state champions and have already secured promotion to Serie C.
Supporting Santa Cruz is a passion and the Tri-colour loyalty and noise made by the ‘ultra’ group Inferno Coral maybe can’t be matched anywhere else in the footballing world. The term sleeping giant doesn’t even come close. Despite languishing for 3 seasons in Serie D (Brazil’s fourth tier) Santa often attract crowds in excess of 40,000. Last Sunday, with promotion already assured, 55,000 people saw them fail in their bid to win the title outright. Their following is fanatical. Brazil’s lower divisions are an abyss and Santa’s home crowds are often bigger than the population of their opponent’s entire city! Their crowd and home games are the real deal and maybe capture the true match day spirit of the football crazy country. Shankley’s famous lines: ‘It’s not a matter of life or death…” certainly rings true here.
Meanwhile, never to be outdone, cross city rivals Sport Recife are also dreaming of promotion. They are currently clinging to the last promotion place in Serie B and could be joining Nautico in the top flight if they can match or better 5th placed Bragantino’s result in the final game of the season next week.
Recife, Salvador, Fortaleza and Natal four North Eastern cities and so-called footballing backwaters that just love to be the underdog. Tough, proud and resilient they experience the daily highs and daily lows that make life and football entwined in the fabric of the working classes. In case you were wondering I follow Sport. My Recifense wife told me I supported Sport the day I arrived in Brazil. In fact she even denied the very existence of the other 2 clubs even after I had consulted and double-checked their existence on Wikipedia. In Recife, like most North Eastern cities, you choose your team wisely as they will be with you for life.