Watermelon slices on the floor of the men’s bathroom, riot police on standby, and a moat of water surrounding the field; welcome to football in Brazil’s tropical Northeast region.
The British brought football to Brazil in the late 19th century, but Brazilians made the game their own. This is particularly true in Recife, capital of Pernambuco—one of the poorest regions in the country, where a match-day experience is a far cry from that in my native Britain.
Unlike many of the sparkling, renovated stadiums of the richer South, the home of Santa Cruz FC, the city’s most beloved team, is a decaying concrete edifice. As my Brazilian companion Cassio, a lifelong Santa fan, told me, ‘It might not look like much, but this is a place of dreams’.
The Estádio do Arruda was built in the 1970’s during the team’s heyday. Once boasting crowds of over 60,000, today, the numbers barely reach 10,000 fans; fortune has not been kind to Santa in recent years. I am here for the match against city rivals Nautico, a team associated with Recife’s middle class. Should Santa lose, they will almost certainly be relegated to the Brazilian third division: Série C.
There are no seats in the stadium, only steep concrete terraces. Despite the space available, supporters pile in close together—we join the sea of red, white, and black; Santa’s mascot is the similarly marked coral snake.
Before the game has even begun, a band of drummers whip up the crowd with a fast rhythm, and the party has started; fans are shouting, screaming, jumping up and down, and some make the sign of the cross while praying for a good result.
It is a dramatic match as Santa Cruz go 2-1 ahead, only to find themselves 3-2 down with minutes to go. Just before the final whistle, the team have a penalty claim dismissed; Santa players immediately surround the referee, but the riot police move in and the match is over. Some fans leap down the stand’s concrete steps to express their fury at the referee; I quickly realise why there is a moat separating them from the field! As I gaze around the crowd, the faces explain the tongue-in-cheek coinage ‘Sofredors’, a play on the words ‘sofra’ (suffer) and ‘torcedor’ (supporter).
Outside the stadium, the dark streets are filled with the smoke of barbequed meats and the nasal cries of ‘agua, cerveja’! (‘water, beer’!). Sadly, for these vendors, business will be slow; the Sofredors are in no mood to party.
Kaspar Loftin is a British storyteller currently based in Brazil. He has previously written for The World Weekly Magazine, The Republic, and Red Pepper.