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Santa Cruz FC, the Brazilian Soccer Team in the Heart of Zika Country, Is Fighting to Avoid Relegation

"We have to show the city is bigger than Zika. We can't let the bad news win."

by James Young
Aug 24 2016, 2:15pm

PERCIO CAMPOS, EPA

As Neymar, Weverton and the rest of Brazil's Olympic gold medal winning heroes cavorted in celebration at a heaving, joyous Maracanã last weekend, a gloomier yet all too familiar soccer narrative was playing out in another part of the country.

On Sunday, Santa Cruz, arguably the best-supported team in the sprawling city of Recife in the northeast of Brazil, lost at home to Rio de Janeiro club Fluminense. The defeat marked Santa's sixth league game in a row without a win. And with just over half the season gone, the loss left the club, which was promoted to Serie A last season, staring at an immediate return to Serie B.

Not that relegation would be a new experience for Santa Cruz. Despite enjoying massive popular support in Recife, the club dropped from the first to the fourth division between 2006 and 2008, and then spent three miserable years in Serie D, Brazil's lowest division.

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Santa's suffering is a depressingly common tale among teams from the northeast of Brazil. The club's city rival Sport, who Santa will play in a Copa Sul Americana clash this week, has also spent the season battling to stay out of the Serie A relegation zone. And Recife's third club, Náutico, is marooned in the middle of Serie B.

There are only three teams from the nordeste, an area that covers nine states and over 50 million people, in this year's 20-club top division. The last time a side from the region won the national championship? Twenty-eight years ago, when Salvador's Bahia lifted the Brasileirão.

Financial woes lie at the heart of the struggles of Santa and the other clubs from the northeast. The region is Brazil's poorest, and income from sponsors, TV deals and ticket sales is dwarfed by that of big teams from cities such as Rio, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte.

"Our policy at the moment is survival," Santa Cruz president Alirio Morais told VICE Sports. "We're still in a very fragile situation. Every month we have to pay the current players and staff, as well as all the players and staff who weren't paid in the past."

Santa's struggles come at a particularly difficult time for Recife, an often-chaotic coastal metropolis of around 4,000,000 people, where isolated clusters of expensive apartment buildings tower over vast swathes of run-down housing. According to a study by a Mexican NGO, Recife was the 37th-most violent city in the world last year, while a 2011 report found that around 1.37 million people in the city and the surrounding state of Pernambuco lived in extreme poverty.

Recife recently achieved global notoriety when it became known as "Zika ground zero" following a huge spike in cases of the disease, which is believed to cause the potentially severe brain condition microcephaly in babies of infected mothers. More than a third of Brazil's Zika-related cases of microcephaly have been recorded in Pernambuco.

Estadio Arruda in Recife. Photo: Wikimedia user LeRoc

As the panic surrounding the disease grew at the end of last year, alarming images of federal troops patrolling Recife's poorest neighborhoods in search of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito were beamed around the world.

In hard times, clubs like Santa, whose fans are often struggling to make ends meet, can function as an essential emotional outlet for local people.

"Football has always been an escape for parts of society, especially the more working class sections, in Recife," said soccer journalist Cassio Zirpoli, who writes for the city's Diario de Pernambuco newspaper. Zirpoli also said that a recent survey showed that 84 percent of Santa's fans were from lower socioeconomic brackets.

Santa's working-class nature stems from its origins. The club was created in 1914 by a group of young men who played soccer on the steps of a church in downtown Recife. It later became first team in the city to field a black player, just a few decades after Brazil officially abolished slavery in 1888.

"Since its foundation, Santa has been known as the time do povo ("the team of the people"), so the ideal of social inclusion exists as an ideology within the club," president Alirio Moraes told VICE Sports. "Everybody at Santa Cruz has suffered some kind of discrimination at the hands of other fans, or even from the media, describing us as the team of the poor ... or the team of the prostitutes. From my way of looking at things, being described as the team of the poor, or the 'prostitutes' is something liberating, that ties in with our roots."

Veteran central defender Danny Morais, who was born in the south of Brazil, is aware of the club's social relevance.

"I knew the northeast suffered from discrimination, and to be part of this struggle, alongside such good people, and to be part of the club and the city, is a really great thing," he told VICE Sports. "There are so many positive things that you only get in the nordeste, like the warm, friendly people."

Perhaps because of the similarities between Santa's humble origins and the struggles of their own lives, the club's fans have a reputation for loyalty which is rare in Brazilian soccer. While playing in Serie D in 2011, the club's average crowd was 37,000–the biggest in Brazil that year. More than 60,000 were at the club's giant, creaking stadium in December that year to watch Santa finally escape from the bottom division, while another 60,000 showed up to see Santa promoted from Serie C to Serie B in 2013.

"I believe (the fans are different here) because they know they have an important role in the club," Milton Mendes, who managed Santa between March and August this year, told VICE Sports. "The team has been through so many difficulties, and the fans know the part they played in its return.

"They knew Santa was in financial trouble, and they came to help, and they filled the stadium. That showed a great degree of intelligence and an understanding of the history of the club, and that's why they are so close to their team."

A favela in Recife. Photo: SEBASTIAO MOREIRA, EPA.

When Moraes took over as club president in late 2014 and promised a quick return to Serie A, skeptical fans christened him "Delirio"–that is, delirious. Since then, the team has attempted to strengthen its bond with its supporters and local community not only via on-field performance, but through a range of social programs that include giving stadium tours and educational workshops to poor children from some of the surrounding neighborhoods, partnerships with local NGOs, and allowing local trash pickers access to the rubbish on the stadium terraces after games.

"The directors understand that a football club should represent more than a team, more than a game, within society ... it's a type of identity badge for people who support that club, and it's part of their everyday lives," Inácio França, Santa's director of communications, told VICE Sports.

"It's more than just opening Arruda for them to collect the trash. They designed the program and suggested details and modifications, it was a participative process."

Such projects, however, have not helped Santa bridge the financial gap with other Serie A teams. According to figures from the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, the club, which does not even own a training ground, had a total income of $4.6 million in 2015. During the same period, big clubs from the south east of Brazil such as Cruzeiro, Flamengo and Palmeiras made over $100 million each.

Brazil's current economic crisis has hit the northeast harder than other regions of Brazil, and the fans, so loyal in the lower divisions, have dropped away. Santa's average attendance this season stands at just over 12,000.

"In Serie B, Santa wasn't a poor relation of the other teams, but in Serie A it definitely is," Zirpoli said. "In that sense, it's a reflection of large parts of the nordeste that are experiencing difficulties. Santa is a parallel for a section of society."

Despite their shared struggles, Santa Cruz and the people of Recife will continue to battle on against the odds–both on the pitch, and against the city's numerous social problems, like Zika.

"It's a new problem, but Recife will learn how to deal with it quickly," said former coach Milton Mendes. "There are so many good things in the city ... we have to show the city is bigger than Zika. We can't let the bad news win."

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