Charlie Bullet: The Curious Case Of The King Of Pernambuco

A story of love, betrayal and football from the nordeste of Brazil...
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A story of love, betrayal and football from the nordeste of Brazil...


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To me, the thing that is worse than death is betrayal. You see, I could conceive death, but I could not conceive betrayal.

- Malcolm X

One of the poorer parts of an often desperately poor city, San Martin, Recife, is no one’s idea of a desirable place to live. Gun crime and drug abuse are common, and the Avenida Recife end of the neighbourhood is a warren of makeshift wooden shacks, interwoven by foul smelling, polluted streams.

It wasn´t that much fun in the 80s and 90s either, when Charlie was growing up. After school or work, if you even had school or work to go to, there was nothing much to do except drink in one of the neighbourhood’s grotty bars, or play football on the scrubby sandlot pitches dotted around the area.

Charlie loved to play football. He was pretty good, too. He was fast, people told him, and determined. Charlie Bullet, they nicknamed him. But Charlie was small for his age, and so he was almost always the last one picked. This made Charlie angry. He was as good as the bigger boys. Better, even. Why wouldn’t they pick him? The games often ended in fights. Charlie was usually in the middle. Even though he was small, he never backed down.

Charlie loved to play football. He was pretty good, too. He was fast, people told him, and determined. Charlie Bullet, they nicknamed him. But Charlie was small for his age, and so he was almost always the last one picked. This made Charlie angry.

Team just missed out on the Premier League title? Ah, diddums. On the snakes and ladders board of anguish, this ranks only slightly higher than the Dom Perignon you’ve just taken from the fridge being a little less chilled than you’d hoped.

Team can’t stop losing? Pshaw. Defeats, even when they come in great galloping runs, are hardly more irritating, or lingering, than mosquito bites.

Relegation? Mere fleeting pain. You’re a hardy, adaptable creature. You’ll be used to your new, slightly less grandiose, home, by the start of next season.

But wait. Betrayed, you say? Your idol, the one who kissed the badge and told you he loved you, just walked out that door, and ain’t never coming back? Now you’re talking. Betrayal is real pain. Betrayal will never be forgiven, nor forgotten.

The footballing betrayer takes his sins with him to the grave.

Charlie got stronger. Faster. Developed his finishing. His determination, too, that desperate desire to prove people wrong, grew fiercer. He signed on with Recife giants Santa Cruz, and by the time he was 20, he was on the fringes of the first team. Now people, particularly those losers back in San Martin, would have to respect him. And if they didn’t, well, he’d play even better. He’d show them.

Charlie’s breakthrough season was 2005, when Santa were promoted to Serie A and won the Campeonato Pernambucano. He milked the glory for all it was worth, then packed his bags. He’d had enough of Pernambuco and the nordeste. He wanted to try his luck down south, where the real money was. Pernambuco was holding him back. Pernambuco was too small for The Bullet.

Traitor. Judas. Greedy bastard. Take your pick. There are a thousand and more such transgressors, and each of us has his personal (un)favourite. For this writer, growing up in Belfast, an early lesson in perfidy was supplied by winger Johnny Jameson, who after helping Linfield to two league titles in a row in the late 70s, hopped across the city to play (brilliantly, and for years) for the Blues’ hated rivals, Glentoran.

Later on in this personal A Fan’s Notes there was Howard Kendall, who walked out on Man City after just under a year in charge to return to his beloved Everton. “City was a love affair, but Everton is a marriage”, Kendall said at the time, using the lesser known, ”if they can’t work out which team it is I’m shafting, maybe they’ll let me off lightly” defence. It didn’t work. If City fans were the types to hang burning effigies from the rafters, burning effigies would have been hung from the rafters.

Sol Campbell. Luis Figo. Paul Ince. Harry Redknapp in his Southampton/Portsmouth days. Mo Johnston. Fernando Torres, even. Any player who has ever professed love for one club and then fled for the exit doors a few months later, tempted by the thought of earning an even more obscene amount of money elsewhere. And of course, it’s much, much worse when your former hero’s new floozy is a despised local rival.

There was Howard Kendall, who walked out on Man City after just under a year in charge to return to his beloved Everton. “City was a love affair, but Everton is a marriage”, Kendall said at the time, using the lesser known, ”if they can’t work out which team it is I’m shafting, maybe they’ll let me off lightly” defence.

Betrayal is British football’s cardinal sin.

After the 2006 Campeonato Pernambucano, when Santa lost to Sport, their hated Recife rivals, in the final, Charlie signed for Cruzeiro. But even though the money was good, things didn’t work out too well. The players were better than he was used to, for one, and he didn’t have so much time on the ball. It soon became clear that he wasn’t in the first team plans.

So when Sport came in for him at the end of the season, he didn’t think twice, even though he’d pissed a lot of their fans off when he gave them the finger during that last Pernambucano final. Nearly caused a riot, that one. But he could always apologise, he figured. By the start of 2007, he was back in Pernambuco. He’d always loved Pernambuco. Like he said at his press conference, he was coming home.

So why does a bit of harmless ship jumping so ripple the surface of the fan’s boundless heart? Perhaps it’s envy. For the player can do what no fan can do. He can leave. Wash his hands of the whole sorry mess. He might be responsible for having dumped the club in the relegation quicksand, but all it takes is a couple of quick phone calls to his agent and he’s off to pastures new, the good times that seemed to mean so much now summed up by just a few lines on his CV. All those happy memories forgotten, even before the tail lights of his SUV have faded to black.

You, the fan, can’t do any of this. You’re stuck in a loveless marriage with that useless shower you support, even though you know there’s not much in it for you anymore. The rules of the game, of society, will not allow you to quit. As you know only too well, there’s no jumping ship for you.

Sport and Charlie made a good partnership. After he’d apologised and kissed the badge a few times, and most importantly, scored a few goals, all that business about the finger seemed to be forgotten. Anyway, he’d started to think that he didn’t much care about what the fans thought. Sure, he liked it when they sang his name. But they were hotheads, blowhards who booed the players as often as they cheered them. They had no patience, and they didn’t know anything about football. Charlie knew all about them. He’d grown up with them. Anyway, by now he was earning in a month what most of them wouldn’t earn in ten years.

Sport and Charlie made a good partnership. After he’d apologised and kissed the badge a few times, and most importantly, scored a few goals, all that business about the finger seemed to be forgotten.

Those were good times. Sport won the Copa Do Brasil in 2008, thanks to Charlie, the first time a team from the nordeste of Brazil had won a national trophy in 20 years. They lifted the Campeonato Pernambucano too. But still there was that little voice inside his head that made him want to piss people off. That was why he did that boo-hoo gesture in front of the Náutico (Recife’s third team) fans, balling his hands into fists and rubbing them across his eyes, when he scored in the clássico.

Even worse was when he tried to plant a Sport flag in the centre circle at Arruda, Santa’s stadium, during another clássico. That one could have got really nasty. He got death threats. People said the Inferno Coral, Santa´s torcida organizada, were after him. His friends told him that if he didn’t calm down, one of these days he’d have a real bullet to worry about.

Another thing. Doesn’t the traitorous player reveal your eye-watering passion to be, well, a bit silly? Don’t blame me, he’d say, I never asked you to take it so seriously. It’s just a job. Let’s say you work at McDonalds, he’d suggest, astutely identifying the difference between his earning power and yours. If Burger King came along and offered you twice the money, and a better uniform, you’d go, wouldn’t you? Well, it’s just the same for me.

By pulling back the curtain and revealing the wizard pulling levers and pushing buttons in all his terrible shame, the betrayer makes a mockery of all your cherished, childish dreams.  Just a job? If it was me out there on the pitch it wouldn’t be just a job, you think, emphatically, terribly, crushed.

But Charlie didn’t care what other people thought. Not anymore. Not even when Sport wouldn’t give him the pay rise he wanted at the end of 2008, and coach Nelsinho Baptista asked the directors not to renew his contract. He´d never liked Nelsinho anyway. And he knew that across the city, Náutico would pay him what he wanted. So what if he’d offended their fans too? He’d apologise, again, and kiss the badge, again, and the fans would swallow it, like they always did.

He´d never liked Nelsinho anyway. And he knew that across the city, Náutico would pay him what he wanted. So what if he’d offended their fans too? He’d apologise, again, and kiss the badge, again, and the fans would swallow it, like they always did.

And they did. And the money kept rolling in. Even after Charlie fell out with Náutico half way through 2009, and another manager, Alexandre Gallo, told the board that the club would be better off without him. Charlie even had to go and play half a season for Atlético Goianiense, 2000km away in the midwest. But that was alright too. If nothing else, it gave him time to plot his next move.

In Brazil, things are both quite different, and very much the same (it’s often like this in Brazil).

Exceptions are generally made for storied veterans, such as Edmundo, who played for Rio rivals Flamengo, Vasco and Fluminense, as well as Santos and Palmeiras (sworn enemies from São Paulo state). Likewise, Romario turned out for Flamengo, Vasco and Fluminense. Nobody batted much of an eyelid, though O Baixinho did his best to upset the peace and tranquillity in 2000, scoring three for Vasco against Flamengo in his first game against his former club.

With players of this stature and longevity, the arguments generally rage only over with which club the star has a deeper historical association. It´s not hard to understand why. The endless state of flux in Brazilian football means veteran players and managers who spend most of their career in the country (as opposed to those who spend a lot of time abroad) will end up representing dozens of clubs. As such, playing for a number of the top teams is inevitable, as is a healthy bit of crossover with the neighbours.

By the time Charlie was done with Atlético (or more accurately, when Atlético were done with him) at the end of 2010, he had it all worked out. He’d get all three Recife teams to chase after him. He’d already played for them all anyway, so what difference did it make? The highest bidder would get Charlie Bullet, the King of Pernambuco football.

Secretly, he knew Sport would win. Sport had the deepest pockets. They were also, funnily enough, the most paranoid, and would pay almost anything to stop Charlie from going to Santa or Náutico. Which was just as well. He probably couldn’t have gone back to Santa, the team where his story had begun. Not after the flag incident, and after he’d come out and said that everyone gets what they deserve after Santa were relegated to Serie D.

But just as society in Brazil can be more volatile than it is in the UK, so Brazilian fans can make their British counterparts seem as fiery as Melvin Bragg and the boys on In Our Time. Just ask Roberto Carlos, who cut short his return spell in Brazil after admitting he could no longer deal with the intimidating demands of Corinthians´ notorious torcida organizada, the Gaviões Da Fiel.

The transfer of Richarlyson, an ex São Paulo player, from Atlético Mineiro to Palmeiras was scuppered recently following furious protests by some of Palmeiras’ fans, though depressingly, this may have more to do with the player’s alleged homosexuality than his São Paulo past (the classy Palmeiras organizada, Mancha Verde, displayed a banner proudly stating “Homophobia Wears Green”).

Training ground invasions are a fairly regular occurrence, and attacks on players are not unknown. With this in mind, Thiago Neves, once of Fluminense, but who starred for Flamengo last year before returning to Fluminense a few weeks ago, would do well to think about paying for a little extra private security in the lead up to the first carioca clássico of the season.

Still, for a while there it seemed certain that Santa, down in Serie D, would win the auction. It was only when Sport came in at the last minute, and offered Charlie R$40,000 a month (around £15,000), plus bonuses on top, to play in Serie B, that Santa dropped out. Charlie was a Sport player again.

Sadly, there would be no happy ending. Made complacent by years of pampering and fat wage packets, Charlie´s determination to prove people wrong, the driving force behind much of his success, was on the wane. Worse, a lot of that energy had turned negative. He fought with his teammates over any perceived slight, and squabbled publicly with the manager and training staff.

Sadly, there would be no happy ending. Made complacent by years of pampering and fat wage packets, Charlie´s determination to prove people wrong, the driving force behind much of his success, was on the wane.

Santa Cruz won the Campeonato Pernambucano that year. In his few appearances for Sport, Charlie didn´t play particularly well. When his apathy carried over into the Serie B campaign, he was shown the door, five games in. He headed off to the neighbouring nordeste state of Ceará, where he played for Fortaleza for a few months in Serie C, getting into trouble in one game for allegedly trying to persuade members of the opposition to throw the match.

The reign of the self-proclaimed King of Pernambuco was over, it seemed. Like many from poor, difficult backgrounds, Charlie’s primary motivation had always been hunger. When that hunger was sated, and was replaced by a desire to simply add to the hefty amounts of money he’d already earned, that which had made the Bullet special was gone. His relationships with fans, managers and directors changed too. All that mattered was how much money he could make before he finished, and the rest was irrelevant. Maybe even the game itself was irrelevant. Charlie would not be the only Brazilian footballer to end up feeling like this.

***

On January 15th this year, Santa began their defence of the Campeonato Pernambucano against little known Belo Jardim at Arruda. It was a humdrum game, won by Santa thanks to two second half penalties, and watched by around 30,000. An hour or so after the game, with a few hundred fans still drinking in the bars under the stands, the rumour began to spread.

Carlinhos Bala was on his way to Recife and would sign for Santa in the morning.

Arguments quickly flared up amongst the drinkers. A few plucky pragmatists defended the signing, reasoning that Bala’s goals and experience could help Santa in their bid to retain the Pernambucano, and win promotion to Serie B. The majority spat into their beer and stalked off into the night, fuming at the lack of respect the club had shown them by bringing him back.

Soon the news was all over Twitter, with #balanão (Bala No) and #balafora (Bala Out) the top trends in Recife. And the club, it appeared, was riven by internal dispute. Tecnico Zé Teodoro and his assistant Sandro, good football men who had led the club to the Pernambucano triumph and promotion from Serie D the year before, had recommended signing Bala. President Antonio Luiz Neto, conscious of the likely fallout, had reluctantly backed them. The rest of the board, including directors Constantino Junior and Albertino dos Anjos, opposed Bala ever coming anywhere near Arruda again. Talk of resignations filled the air.

Also in the air was the acrid smell of burning socio membership cards, as a large portion of Santa’s immense support (the club boasted an average attendance of 40,000 in 2011, and twice pulled in crowds of over 60,000, despite playing in Serie D) revolted. There was talk of boycotts and a protest march on Arruda before Bala’s signing the next day.

In the end though, as is often the case with fan fury, not that much happened. Bala signed on the Monday, draped in the club flag. He kissed the badge, of course, and apologised if he’d offended anyone in the past. I’ve always loved this club, he said, I feel like I’m coming home.

(The fans would swallow it, like they always did).

Bala was flanked at the press conference by Antonio Luiz Neto on one side and on the other, Paulo César Pinheiro, the president of the Inferno Coral, Santa’s torcida organizada (one of the biggest, and most notorious, in Brazil). Pinheiro had been invited to the event to show that the Inferno Coral held no on-going grudges against Bala, and perhaps to soothe the tortured souls of any renegade members thinking of meting out their own brand of justice against Bala. The state of Pernambuco, after all, has one of the highest murder rates in Brazil, around 4,000 deaths per year. Life can be cheap.

There was one final twist the next day, when a message appeared on the Inferno Coral Twitter account. The Inferno Coral does not, repeat does not, support the signing of Carlinhos Bala (more interesting still, these tweets have since been deleted).

This one, like Charlie Bullet, will run and run.

NOTE: Carlinhos Bala will play the first game of his return to Santa Cruz this Sunday.

FURTHER NOTE: Any similarities between the life and career of Carlinhos Bala and that of the entirely fictitious character described here as Charlie Bullet are of course entirely coincidental.

When James isn't teaching us about Brazil, he writes books, which you can go and buy by following the links below. Or you can read his blog I See a Darkness or click here to follow James on Twitter.


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