The old boys from Brazil

Worlds apart: They last played in July, 1914. Now the professionals of Exeter entertain the samba masters for the long-awaited second leg
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There are times in a football fan's life when belief has simply to be suspended. Those who support clubs at the top of the Premiership are probably not aware of the concept but Dali himself could learn from the surrealism currently surrounding St James's Park. (That's the St James's Park, by the way, capacity 8,977, not that ostentatious fake on Tyneside.) Just ask yourself what is the big match this weekend. Crystal Palace v West Ham? Pah! Bristol City v Brighton? Pish! No, the answer is Exeter City v Brazil.

No, really. This afternoon, at 3pm. All right, so it's not the actual current Brazil team; rather, the Brazil Masters, a side built round the 1994 World Cup winners. But hey, it's Brazil - you know, blue-and-yellow, samba, beach towels for goalposts on the Copacabana, beautiful game, Jules Rimet - and they will be playing Exeter City. Red-and- white. Er, that's it.

One of the most bizarre aspects of this game - and indeed the whole point of it - is that it is actually a return fixture. On 21 July, 1914, Exeter City became the first professional touring side to play the Brazil national team. It would probably be reasonably fair to say that the fortunes of the protagonists have diverged somewhat since then. Brazil have won the World Cup five times. Exeter City won the old Fourth Division championship in 1989-90 and are now languishing in the Nationwide Conference.

The gulf between the two is huge and yet it has been bridged. One of the soul-touching aspects of any sport is the fabric of its history, without which the present is pretty meaningless. The Grecians have a proud past - next season is our centenary (I have to declare an interest here, as Supporters' Club member No 197). But lately it has been touch and go whether we'd be consigned to history. A series of financial crises, culminating in the arrest on pending fraud charges of the now-former directors, had us on the brink of oblivion.

That prospect is now, thankfully, past. There are still outstanding debts but a huge bar to survival was removed only on Friday when the Inland Revenue decided to withdraw its claims. The club has been for some months under the control of the Supporters Trust (yes, member 01352), for which countless of the faithful have given time and/or money. And, outrageous though it may be, Brazil are part of Exeter's history, and we of theirs and this anniversary fixture is, if you like, an affirmation of life. It will also help the bank balance.

That the original took place was another of the game's curiosities. Apparently the South American football authorities, feeling the time was right to become involved on the world stage, wrote to their British counterparts looking for a visit from a typical English football side. The Southern League put up Exeter City and 27 days after the end of the 1913-14 season, a party of some 20 players, wives and officials departed from Southampton for the two-week journey on a Royal Mail Steam Packet.

The venture lasted two months, eight matches and several notable incidents. After Exeter scored against Racing Club de Buenos Aires, the home side's secretary drew his pistol and threatened the referee. When Rosarian League got one back with a penalty against the visitors, the crowd went berserk with glee and started letting off fireworks while the band marched on to the pitch to play the Argentine national anthem six times in succession.

Several Exeter players were arrested on indecent exposure charges on the beach at Rio after they stripped off their tops and went for a dip in their football shorts. On their return to European waters on the SS Alcantare they discovered that Britain had been at war with Germany for five days and in the Bay of Biscay their ship was shot across the bows by HMS Vindictive.

It would be good to report that Exeter beat Brazil in that far-off encounter. Some sources give the score as 3-3, but that is, I fear, wishful thinking. The result set the tone for Brazil's international future, 2-0 with goals from Oswaldo and Osman; even in those days they didn't have first names. In mitigation, I will point out that our legendary goalkeeper Dick "Pincher" Pym (later winner of three Cup-winners' medals with Bolton and capped thrice for England) missed the game after breaking three ribs in the only other defeat of the tour, against Argentine Norte.

The celebration match is the culmination of, oddly, three independent strands of thought, one in South America and two here. It has been surrounded by an outbreak of samba fever, including a reception on Thursday evening at the Brazilian Embassy in London. Did I really hear His Excellency Senhor Jose Mauricio Bustani solemnly extolling the virtues of cultural and sporting links between Exeter City and Brazil? Having sampled several caipirinhas, the national cocktail, I certainly recall encouraging the ambassadorial No 2 to get stuck into some scrumpy at last night's do at the Exeter Guildhall. I hope he did.

Ian Huxham, the Trust managing director and the man whose single-minded determination and vision has been paramount in ensuring Exeter's survival, was another of those pinching himself in Mount Street. "Just as we went out there to help Brazil set themselves up, I hoped that, given our situation, that they could come and help us in our centenary year," he said. "Even so, if you had told me last year that our pitch would be graced by World Cup winners I'd have found it slightly difficult to believe. But having met them off the plane, it is reality. And they even seem excited about the game."

They're excited. Crikey. What do you think we, on the Big Bank and in the Cowshed, are at the prospect of Dunga, who held aloft the World Cup trophy 10 years ago, versus lumbering ex-boxer Steve Flack, or of Branca trying to cope with 5ft 4in Les Afful, two-goal hero of Wednesday's Devon Bowl defeat of mighty Bideford. But in the end it will matter not who won, or lost, but that the game was played.

Plans are afoot for a re-run of the original in July. The Grecians at the Maracana; now that is the stuff of fantasy. But it could give rise to a new terraces chant. It's just like watching Exeter City.

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