When Hibernian chose me

How does a Brazilian football writer end up in Edinburgh, fall in love with Hibs and become convinced Jason Cummings is better than Lionel Messi? Here’s how …

By Alex Sabino

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

quotation mark
“My tears are drying, my tears are drying” What the hell was that?

It was a scorching hot July day. Summer in New York is hell. Being a Brazilian, I’m supposed to be used to the heat and like it. But I don’t. It was so hot you could feel the will to do anything vanishing through your fingers.

It wasn’t strictly speaking New York. We were in East Rutherford, New Jersey, technically a stone’s throw from Manhattan but in reality, feels like the middle of nowhere. I was a journalist covering Santos FC in a pre-season match against Glasgow Rangers. In Scotland, you taunt their supporters chanting “You’re not Rangers anymore”. In 2002, they were. That Santos team had two teenagers and, because of them, would be crowned Brazilian champions six months later, ending the club’s 18-year wait for a major trophy. Their names: Robinho and Diego.

Robinho would play years later for Real Madrid, Manchester City and Milan. Diego went to FC Porto, Wolfsburg, Juventus, Atlético Madrid and Fenerbahce. We thought at least one of them would in the future be the world’s best player. We were wrong, as often happens.

Rangers had Michael Mols, Tore Andre Flo and Billy Dodds and they showed up in a beautiful orange strip. Santos players scrambled after the match to swap shirts with their opponents. Leo, the left back, wasn’t too interested and gifted me Dodds’ shirt. I still have it somewhere in my wardrobe. I’m not fit enough to wear it anymore. I’ve gained 20 pounds since then.

Being a sports journalist since 2000, my first contact with Scotland happened because of a football club. It brought back memories… I remember watching, as a seven-year-old wee child, when David Narey found the net against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup (a cracking goal) and it woke the beast. The final score was 4-1 but Tele Santana’s players could have added more goals to its stats.

I have to say, in Europe, you revere that team much more than Brazilians do. Because you Britons (I’m still allowed to call you Britons, right?), love football. I don’t want to shock you, but we don’t. We like to win. If our team don’t win, we forget them. I once met a lad in Glasgow who makes football t-shirts and he had three or four dedicated to the 1982 team. You’ll never find anything related to that squad in Brazil. Forget it. They lost. In the United Kingdom, if your club lose but put in a good effort, you applaud them. Brazilians will whistle until there’s no air left in their lungs.

Scotland should not have lost to Brazil in 1990. How Mo Johnston missed that chance with the last kick of the match is something I’ll never understand. Not the same, but you could have drawn in 1998. Tough luck.

I was thinking about those matches when I saw a big ginger lad pass by me in the old Giants Stadium. He looked familiar but for a few seconds I couldn’t grasp who he was.

Finally I realised: “It’s Alex McLeish!”

I went to him and asked for a photo. He seemed amused because it was obvious I wasn’t Scottish. I don’t know why but I felt obliged to give him an explanation.

“I’m a Brazilian journalist fan of Scottish football”.

“My tears are drying, my tears are drying”

What the hell was that?

Someone was singing. It was a boy, green and white scarf around his neck, looking through the window behind me, as the bus number 35 circled Abbey Mount and got ready to enter Easter Road.

The Edinburgh derby was not my first option on that Sunday in April 2015. I fancied going to Old Trafford but got beaten in the ballot for the United-City match. But it would be another experience in a time of my life when almost everything was new and exciting. After a long time, I was feeling blood running through my veins. I felt alive.

Looking back, I can’t remember how Edinburgh came to the forefront of our options of cities to move to. Fabiana had lived in Italy to get her European passport and we decided it was time to try a new life. We were frustrated in Brazil, sick of many things. We lived a lower middle-class life and I worked as a reporter for Folha de S.Paulo, the leading daily newspaper in the country. Not bad, but something was missing. Raul Seixas, a Brazilian rocker, composed a song called “Ouro de Tolo” (Fool’s Gold) to mock the dreams of working-class people in the country, who dreamt only about getting enough to survive.

“I don’t stay locked in my apartment’s throne with my mouth open and full of teeth waiting for the death’s arrival,” says the lyrics.

Life is supposed to be more than that. Most of the time it isn’t but we have to shoot for the stars, right?

We wanted to move, open a business and live in a nice place where we could feel welcome. The very second we stepped out of the bus at Waverley Bridge in the centre of Edinburgh, Fabiana stared at the Old Town and whispered into my ear.

“We’ve found it.”

How and why do you fall in love? Is there a rational explanation? Or is it simply that moment when your heart misses a beat and you feel your face blush with excitement?

We were living for a month in a flat at Fountainbridge and time was running out to find a long tenancy. Fabiana’s priorities were to get a place and explore the city. Her worries were also my worries but I had something extra in my mind: football. I knew that when, in footballing terms, I found myself, everything would be fine.

I grew up a few steps from Vila Belmiro’s Stadium, home of Santos FC. The club where a lad called Pele used to play. I almost got in trouble a few months later when I told a Celtic supporter that I was born in a city where Neymar started his career.

“Neymar’s a ladyboy!”, he said and tried to convince me to go to Parkhead and watch Celtic. He didn’t like it either when I suggested his beloved club needed Rangers in the Premiership to be pushed forward.

“No, we don’t!”

To be really happy in Scotland, I needed a team. But anyone who loves football knows, you don’t choose a football club. A football club chooses you.

I arrived early at Easter Road because I wanted to walk around the place, mix with the locals and try to be one of them. I certainly don’t look like someone born and bred in Scotland and since my arrival there was a lady who asked every single week if I was sure that I wasn’t a Muslim from Pakistan. Unless my mother had told me an incredible lie, I was quite sure. My approach was always, ‘I’m not one of you, but I want to get as close as possible’. I went to Tamsons for a pint, listened to conversations about the team and nodded politely to people.

At first, I thought it would be a struggle. Football is a collective experience. You share passion, anger, joy, frustration. You share life. The only thing that proves you are a supporter is the pain of defeat. What you feel when the team loses says it all. Winning is easy. Football is life, an everlasting fear of being defeated.

My seat was small. So narrow I poked the young lad in front of me with my knee every time I had to get up before a Hibs attack. It was a one-sided derby. Hearts had already acheived automatic promotion and Hibernian would try the playoffs, but the Easter Road team would finish on top. It was the afternoon I discovered that against Hearts, Jason Cummings is better than Lionel Messi. When El Alagui scored in added time and killed the match, an old man, holding a walking stick, got up and hugged me. His eyes were sparkling even after all those years. I did not feel uneasy any longer. Everything was fine.

“My tears are drying, my tears are drying”.

“That’s the song,” I realized when everyone in the East Stand and around the stadium (minus the opposition end) put scarves above their heads and sang. I didn’t know the words but I liked to be a passive part of the Easter Road crowd during Sunshine on Leith.

We were getting desperate. The search for a tenancy was blocking all our plans to set up our Brazilian food company, ask for a National Insurance number, move on with our life. Fabiana was nervous but hopeful, as she always is. I cannot say the same about me. I was ready to accept anything. She is the voice of reason. We looked everywhere and almost got an apartment at West Pilton. It didn’t work out. Fortunately.

We went to see a place at Hawthornvale. I will never forget the address: 38/12 Hawthornvale. It was a sunny day (really!) and when we entered the flat it was like a painting through the window. Edinburgh was in front of us. We felt the future was in front of us.

“Look! There’s a view to the castle!” Fabiana said.

I hadn’t noticed. I was hypnotized.

“Look! There’s a view to Easter Road!” I almost screamed.

The estate agent was well impressed. Not because of us. But he was a Hibs season ticket holder and was ecstatic with my happiness to see the stadium through the window of the living room. We told him we were really in a hurry to get an apartment and liked that one. Fabiana even made an (until now) unfulfilled promise to go to a match.

We got the apartment.

Edinburgh became our home town and every discovery was a victory. There wasn’t a bad day. Of course, we had to work, get money and live. But nothing could go wrong. We spent every second of our free time outside, exploring the city, living the dream and, at the same time, being aware of that. This is highly unusual because you only realize about the dream when it is over.

Easter Road was my neighbour from that day on. I saw it every morning and went to matches as often as I could. I tried to do it all: travel to Old Trafford with the Edinburgh branch of Man United fans, go to see Hibernian play and make things work for our enterprise, “Delights of Brazil”. Have you, by chance, met us at street markets? Leith? Musselburgh? Waverley Station? Dalkeith?

No? That’s ok. I live with the hope you’ll hear from us sooner than later.

The company was our priority. Edinburgh was our place in the world and Easter Road was my second home. It amuses me every time I remember when I went to a pre-match pint before Alloa Athletic and an everyday customer was drinking quietly at the bar. Someone told him it was better to go to the other side of the pub because there was a group of supporters who looked as offside as Kenny Miller.

“It seems they’ve been drinking since last night.”

“Aye. I’ve been drinking since 1974.”

End of conversation.

I wouldn’t tell anyone about my Hibernian allegiance at Annfield, the pub at Annfield Street where I would go almost every evening. It was obvious the place needed a restoration but I couldn’t care less. For me, it was like the “Cheers” theme song: where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. Perhaps to try to integrate me, Roscoe, the owner, liked to talk about my business, Brazil, and Brazilian football. Everyone assumed I was a Hearts supporter in the making. I guess that’s because they were all Hearts supporters. Nowadays, I don’t think it would be a big fuss if I told them about my trips to Easter Road. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted them to like me. If I said the truth it would sound as a betrayal in my head.

Recently, I discovered about the closing of Annfield. It ruined my week.

While Fabiana cooked and we waited for our street markets slots, I spent my time in job interviews to earn some cash and doing freelance articles for the Brazilian press. It was frantic. One day I was doing a shift at the Holiday Inn Hotel at Picardy Place. Twenty-four hours later, I was at Glasgow to interview Sir Alex Ferguson when he released that book everyone pretended to be about leadership for business but is, in fact, about football. Everywhere I went, people wanted to say something about Brazilian football when I’d rather talk about the game in Scotland.

“You must think our football is rubbish,” said Roscoe when I was at Annfield to watch Scotland be beaten by Georgia (“Aye, I don’t like Georgia. They are too fucking close to England,” he told me, without blinking, seconds later).

I never thought that, in fact. I love the game and the worst football is better than 95 per cent of things that happen on Earth. I always liked passion, commitment. You don’t have to be the most gifted player to win. There are other ways. You can find different angles to see a match. It’s not always about flicking the ball over the head of an opponent or doing 15 stepovers in a row. Of course, people in Europe don’t watch the Brazilian Championship and it seems to me their general impression is that the standard of football in Brazil is spectacular.

Well, it is not. There are very good players, but loads and loads of matches would bore you to death. A playmaker like Robert Snodgrass would be a starter in at least 10 teams of the First Division in Brazil. At Annfield, they thought I said those things to be polite.

I was being polite, but it doesn’t mean I was lying.

Walking around Edinburgh, learning about the city, the culture and enjoying myself everyday, I became what I said to Alex McLeish 13 years before: a Brazilian journalist fan of Scottish football. The trips to Easter Road every fortnight were a symbol of my allegiance, not only to Hibernian but also to the city.

I tried to fit the football in the middle of all the things we were doing. Working at street markets, catering for parties, doing shifts at hotels and writing articles. I went to Motherwell to see Rangers fail in its bid to return to the Premiership. I wrote about St Johnstone and the money they get from funerals at McDiarmid Park. I travelled to Glasgow to interview Sir Alex Ferguson (I’m so proud that I’m mentioning it again) and published a piece about Queen’s Park, the Barcelona of the 19th century. I remember going to the Military Tattoo and almost falling asleep because of tiredness.

But I would not change that for anything in the world.

With the scarf above my head, I was singing “Sunshine on Leith”. Hibs’ bid to get promoted failed against Rangers. It was the moment I realized I belong to this place. I’m comfortable. I’m home. The reason was simple: I was devastated. The pain showed that I cared and the perspective of another season in the Championship was dark. Nowadays I remember it as a happy moment because is good to know Hibernian had chosen me.

At the start of next season, Fabiana and I were struggling. Not because of money… well, it was also money, but that was not the most important thing. My mother was having health problems back in Brazil and she worried me a lot. We discovered that street markets weren’t enough. We needed a store anywhere in the city but did not have the money to invest. Fabiana was desperate to persist and stay. I wanted that more than anything in the world. In the middle of December, I received a job offer in Sao Paulo. We were torn. It was a reasonable proposal and the money was ok.

“Don’t give in. You came here to live your dream. If you have to go, be sure to have a plan to come back. Don’t worry. Edinburgh will be waiting for you,” Roscoe told me during one of my last visits to Annfield. I still did not have the guts to tell him about Hibernian.

We started a farewell tour. Every day we went to the same places, as if we had to do that to fix them in our memory. Walking along Pier Place, near our home in Newhaven. The Shore, breakfasts at The Haven Cafe, never-ending rides around the Old Town… That’s what we did for almost a month, trying to be positive, to have fun.

My last Easter Road match was on January 2nd, 2016. A 1-0 defeat of Raith Rovers and Jason Cummings (who else?) scored. I went home without looking back to the stadium, trying to trick my mind into believing I would be there again two weeks later, against St Mirren.

When January arrived, I was in Brazil, trying to help my mother and coping with a new job. I live with my memories of a time when travel to Old Trafford and Easter Road was as easy as going downstairs to get a pint with Roscoe and the whole gang at Annfield. Fabiana and I kept our bags locked for three months. Opening them would be a concession of defeat but eventually we had to do it and move on.

It became harder but still possible to follow Hibernian. Not in a legal way, of course. There are always alternatives to find feeds of matches or download Sportscene every week. The day Hibs won the Scottish Cup… it was amazing, but sad. I wanted to be at Hampden Park and felt happy for everyone who was part of the victory after losing promotion to Falkirk in one of those ‘Hibsed it’ moments. It was a perfect Saturday because hours later Man United lifted the FA Cup.

From Brazil, I plan a comeback. Never give in, Roscoe told me, and we’ll follow his advice. Like Hibernian trying to get back to the Premiership and me searching a link to follow them through the internet. I miss everything about Edinburgh and I miss Easter Road.

And, of course, from Brazil, I saw Jason Cummings score once again in the Edinburgh derby in the Scottish Cup this season. I told you, against Hearts, he is better than Messi.

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

Issue 11
out now

Subscribe here Buy a gift subscription Back copies