Saints and winners: Return to the Superdome

At last, New Orleans has something to celebrate - the success of its football team, knocked off course by Hurricane Katrina, but now with a chance to make the Superbowl
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It was the image that kept a city's heart beating in the darkest months after Katrina, the first thing that caught your eye as you arrived from Louis Armstrong International Airport, and drove into downtown New Orleans.

"Go Saints," proclaimed the huge sign draped on the Superdome in the local National Football League team's colours of black and gold, as crews of workers completed repairs to the sports arena's roof, half torn away by the hurricane that struck on 29 August 2005.

And not to put too fine a point on it, the Saints have kept their end of the bargain.

Tomorrow these same New Orleans Saints, eternal lovable losers of the NFL, play the Chicago Bears in the championship game of the National Football Conference - for those less familiar with the technicalities of gridiron, the semi-finals of the season. For the winners awaits a place in the 41st SuperBowl, the greatest event in America's sporting calendar.

Never have the Saints come as close to the supreme prize. To watch them seek to clear the penultimate hurdle at Soldier Field on the icy shores of Lake Michigan will cost you £2,000 for a pair of the best seats. This is a match-up that has caught the national imagination.

The renaissance of the Saints is a wonderful story for America's sports pages, and for everyone who believes sport has a role to play in healing human suffering. It is a heaven-sent drama for the NFL itself as it tries, yet again, to sell the charms of the most popular professional US sports league - and the sport that bears a closer resemblance than any other to organised warfare - to a global audience.

This autumn, either Twickenham or (on the off-chance it is finally ready) the spanking new Wembley stadium, will host the first ever regular NFL season game outside North America. And there are plans for an exhibition game between two NFL teams in China this summer, part of a campaign to bring American football to the biggest consumer market on the planet.

Above all, however, it is a magical story for New Orleans, that has at last given the struggling city something to take its mind off the ever present, ever tangible tragedy of Katrina, almost 17 months after the event.

This January has been as wretched as any of those months. But for once the Big Easy can roll its lips around a word almost vanished from its vocabulary - success.

All this week, since the Saints overcame the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC division series game, New Orleans has thought of little else. On Monday, jury selection was to have begun in a high profile asbestos trial. But the judge delayed the process by two days, deciding that the workings of the law were no match for the risk that potential jurors, whether too exhilarated or too suicidal, would simply not show up at the appointed hour. "The world is now safe for Saints football," a court official told the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.

It is hard to exaggerate the transformation in the team's fortunes over a single season. By knocking out the Superdome, Katrina forced the Saints into exile for the entire regular 2005 season, between September and December. Temporarily based in San Antonio, Texas, the team lost 13 of its 16 games. True, 2005 was not shaping up as a vintage year for the Saints, even before the hurricane. But Katrina was a terrible additional off-field distraction.

The Saints would not have been human if their thoughts did not constantly return to the Superdome, the home stadium that once boasted of being the largest fixed dome structure in the world, but reduced by Katrina to a leaking, steamy cesspool of misery, filled with refugees from a storm that had exposed how the Third World existed in the richest country on earth.

Worst of all perhaps were the rumours of machinations to take the team away from New Orleans for good, relocating it to San Antonio or some other happier, richer American city that had decided an NFL franchise was all that it needed to seal its big-time status.

In purely athletic terms, to be honest, the loss would not have been overwhelming. New Orleans is arguably America's most distinctive city, celebrated for many things - its food, its music, and its beguiling, sultry fatalism. Not, however for its football. Long before Katrina the team was a mess - likened by one local sportswriter during another losing season back in 1997 to "a coffin on wheels playing bumper cars".

But the great thing about the NFL is the way it fosters competitiveness among its 32 teams. In any given year, more than half of them have a shot at winning the SuperBowl (an example to our Premiership, where only three or four teams of 20 have a realistic chance of victory).

The Saints have rarely been in this company, however; for all the 39 seasons since the team was founded in 1967, they have not once reached the SuperBowl, let alone won it. Now they are just a single game away.

To achieve their goal they must beat "Da Bears" before overcoming either the New England Patriots or the Indianapolis Colts, in Miami in a fortnight's time. The Bears are favourites tomorrow, although in a one-off game anything can happen, especially when the Saints' explosive offence took the team to an impressive 6-2 away record in 2006. It should be added that they will almost certainly have to contend this weekend with the uplifting personal presence at Soldier Field of Barack Obama, native Chicagoan and talismanic superstar of that other brutal contact sport known as American politics.

The youthful and charisma-laden Illinois Senator reflects the confident mood of the Windy City ahead of the great encounter. "I am happy for New Orleans," he says. "I think it's a wonderful story, but the fairytale ends when they come to Chicago." Barack Obama, however, is another story whose time has not quite come. Sunday is about New Orleans, the good - and the bad.

The Saints' on-field success masks an opposite reality. Even taking into account the enormity of the Katrina disaster, reconstruction proceeds at a snail's pace, in a city long known for it dysfunctional and corrupt government.

New Orleans' population - 450,000 before the hurricane - is barely half that today. Tens of thousands people live in trailer cities inland from the Gulf coast; more have moved elsewhere in the US, probably for good. The poor Lower Ninth Ward just east of downtown remains a ghost town, a subtropical Pompeii. A diminished population has brought no decline in the violence for which New Orleans was long notorious. Yes, the French Quarter glitters once more with neon sin, a magnet as always for tourists seeking, as the signs proclaim, "Happy hour, all Day, all night".

But the carefree veneer was swept away by a ghastly murder last October, when a part-time bartender killed and dismembered his girlfriend in a flat above a voodoo shop.

And only last week, thousands of people marched to City Hall to protest the latest wave of murders - eight in the first 10 days of January - that suggest the city has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing of the bad old days.

The Saints may be resurgent, but Mayor Ray Nagin is once again in the sights of his critics, as usual talking the talk, they say, but failing to walk the walk.

The suspicion persists that New Orleans, notwithstanding the heroics of the Saints, is in slow but irreversible decline. Long before the hurricane, the oil and gas industry that was the backbone of its wealth had moved its headquarters to Houston, 300 miles to the west. By no coincidence Houston, like that other booming southern city Atlanta, is a prime permanent destination for displaced citizens of New Orleans.

The city they have abandoned faces a diminished future, even when its protective levees are rebuilt - promised to withstand even a category five storm (Katrina, when it hit, was "only" category three). Conventioneers and tourists will always love the place - but, you fear, increasingly as a carefully conserved Disneyland rather than as vibrant, self-sustaining city.

Amidst this moral and physical decay, the Saints have been a beacon of optimism. Joe Vitt, the team's assistant coach who arrived from St Louis after the wretched 2005 season, instantly understood the importance of the link between city and team. "When you come down here, you see how this place was just decimated. You see the displacement of families, and closed hospitals and schools, areas that will never be the same again. It's heart-wrenching." But the Superdome at least stands renovated and pristine, its 72,000 seats sold out for every one of the Saints' eight regular season games last year.

"I bet we have 35,000 to 40,000 season-ticket holders in those stands that are still living in trailers," Vitt said. He was joking, but perhaps only slightly.

In fact, not only sentiment and raw emotion are propelling the team towards the once impossible dream. The Saints are actually pretty good in their own right. Indeed, being lousy has its advantages under the NFL's draft system, which allows the worst teams the first choice of available new players in order to promote equality and competitiveness, and has now been imitated by America's other major-league professional sports.

That, for instance, was how the Saints acquired Reggie Bush, the hottest running back prospect in years from the University of Southern California, as a first-round draft pick to enhance their offense. And a scout's wise eye can notice more deeply embedded pearls - such as the wide receiver Marques Colston, acquired in the seventh round of the 2006 draft, and who has proved a revelation.

Their feats last year turned Sunday afternoons into times of joy for New Orleanians, both those who stayed and those in the diaspora. Now the biggest moment is at hand. But even if the Saints confound Senator Obama and go on to win it all on February 4, the bitter truth will remain. Sporting triumph, however intoxicating, is short lived. For the jury pool in the asbestos trial, reality will return on Wednesday morning. For the city they inhabit, the reality of Katrina will never disappear.