The real-life tales of a football writer
Following the interview with Socrates, I spent a week in Brazil writing up the thoughts of the great man. I also took in Palmeiras v Sao Paulo, one of the big Paulista derby games.
The home win for Palmeiras, who lost to Manchester United in the 1999 World Club trophy final in Tokyo, was overshadowed by the death of a fan, killed in clashes between rival sets of supporters.
Twelve others were also injured and there was much debate in the Brazilian media about how to tackle the hooligan problem.
Copying the ‘English example’ was often highlighted as a solution.
Brazil will stage the 2014 World Cup finals. The country is booming as Rio also won the right to stage the 2016 Olympics, but the bureaucracy can be trying.
I was happy to pay a tenner and stand behind the goal, but a journalist encouraged me to apply for a press ticket to test the system. He was right to be suspect.
The English example: one the copy, apparently...
A simple press application for the game took far longer than needed, but it had its comic moments. After a 20-minute wait at the gate, a man whom I took to be Palmeiras’s press officer approached.
"England?” he said."Yes, I’m from England. You have my application and here is my press card.""Portsmouth. Sheffield United. Newcastle United and Sunderland," he replied. "I support all those teams."
His enthusiasm for English football was obvious and he was friendly, but I also needed to get in the ground and do my job.
The whole system seemed to be based on who knew who, every decision taken on a wink or a nod. And waiting politely did nothing, until, with five minutes to kick off, I was reduced to raising my voice and saying.: “I’ve been waiting for one hour now. I’ve travelled a long way to see this game. I am happy to listen to your stories about England, but I’d also like to see the game.”
“Ah,” he replied helpfully, “then you need to speak to the press officer. He’s over there.”
I just made kick off.
After Sao Paulo, we headed south to Florianopolis, an island which has two professional sides, first division Avai and second division Figueirense, who were in the top flight until 2008.
After being promoted for the first time in 29 years, Avai finished sixth in the national championship last year – a fine achievement for such a small club - ahead of grander names like Corinthians, Gremio, Fluminense and Santos.
Nearby, an old man sat on a bench looking out to the Atlantic. He said that he used to be a photographer for Veja, a respected Brazilian news magazine.
Asked what he thought of Socrates, he replied: “Elegant,” before adding, “he was a great player, but the best Brazilian player ever was Garrincha.”
He would have been impressed by Neymar too, the 60 kilo 18-year-old Brazilian who plays for Santos alongside Robinho. Santos beat the Corinthians of Ronaldo et al for their ninth straight win as leaders of the Paulista state championship.
A day later, I heard two Argentinian tourists arguing in the street about Boca and River.
"Manchester United!” I shouted."Estudiantes?" one growled"No, Manchester United.”"Ah, United! Anderson. Tevez. Woo-ney.”
That man Tevez again. While away, I half cheered a Manchester City goal for the first time in my life, Tevez’s against Chelsea, though a draw would have been just as satisfying for most United fans.
"Oi, Mitten - did you cheer that one?"
In comparison with the overwhelming dominance of the big two in Spain, which sees third place Valencia 16 points behind Real Madrid and Barcelona, the Premier League is far more exiting this season.
You don’t always see it that way when you are a fan of one of the clubs, but United have lost six games and are still in with a good chance of the title.
Only Blackburn Rovers have managed to win the Premier League by losing more than six games, but football didn’t start until 1992 as some rolling news channels suggest.
Derby County lost 10 when they won the league in 1975 in a season where Liverpool, Ipswich, Everton, Stoke City, City, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough contested the title and the lead changed hands 22 times.
Sir Alex Ferguson was right to predict a tight Premier League.
Before I returned to Europe, I received a message from Doctor Sid Lowe, who writes very well about Spanish football for The Guardian. He’d fixed us both up a Daniel Alves interview and we’ll go together to see him in Barcelona on Thursday.
Alves is the best right-back in the world, but my admiration for him is nothing compared to Sid’s.
I think it’s love and I’m worried that I’m going to be party to some kind of homage, where the doctor unfurls a Brazilian flag, places it neatly on the floor before gently kneeling and kissing the defender’s precious feet.
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