REVIEWED BY PAUL McPARLAN – @paulmcparlan

Until a few years ago the concept of a “football noir” novel did not really seem to exist. However, there are a growing number of authors such as Arild Stavrum, with his excellent Exposed at the Back, who are producing intriguing plots exposing the grubby underbelly of football. Real Paradise by Azu Aneke is another welcome addition to this genre as it unfolds in Brazil, the country where everyone dreams of becoming a footballer.

The background to the novel is the redevelopment of stadia that have been designated as host venues for the upcoming 2014 World Cup. The story is based in Salvador da Bahia in Brazil, which grabbed my attention from the first page for several reasons. In 1986, I spent six weeks touring Brazil and developed a huge affinity for the country, the culture and the people. Except for one place – Salvador! This was the only city where I genuinely felt concerned for my personal safety at all times and sadly grew to distrust anyone I encountered. I was glad to leave for the beachy charms of Recife. On reading this book, I was not surprised at all to note the levels of crime, corruption and urban depravation in Salvador thrived after the award of the 2014 World Cup to Brazil. Aneke uses the Fonte Nova stadium in Salvador, a designated ground for the 2014 competition, as the focus of his story.

The novel envelops you in the murky world of corruption at the highest levels from the start. Everyone from FIFA officials, State Governors and club owners appear to be enjoying a lifestyle funded by the financial largesse syphoned off from the funds for stadium developments. The people at the lower end of society are the victims. The redevelopment of their environment in Salvador impacts negatively on their lives; housing projects are cleared, homeless locals “disappear” and those in employment by the project managers find that wages are often not paid. This is a city where the award of the World Cup was supposed to improve the lives of the local populace. Instead, the rich and powerful use it as a unique opportunity to fund their lavish existences as they ensnare police and government officials in their web to ensure that any dissenting voices are swiftly silenced.

Rogerio is a young striker who has been trying to make a move to a bigger club. Like every Brazilian boy who has grown up in an impoverished background, he dreams of making it as a professional footballer with a big city team and playing for his country. When his team, Colo Colo – a small lower league club – win the Bahian state championship final at the Fonte Nova Stadium in Salvador, his goals and performances attract the attention of bigger clubs. The top team in Salvador – Vitoria – quickly snap him up. The big time beckons for Rogerio. Soon the club owner, Rafael, approaches him with an offer that challenges Rogerio with a moral dilemma. He quickly learns that if he wants to progress in football and play for the national team there are certain people who you have to keep happy. Does he sacrifice his moral principles for the lifestyle on offer as a top level footballer?

Toninho is an investigative journalist who has fallen on hard times. A former colleague, at great personal risk, has set up a website dedicated to exposing the levels of corruption in Brazilian football with specific reference to the funds provided for the 2014 World Cup. He asks Toninho to join him. He readily accepts as he has no money and no job. The first investigation is to centre on the Fonte Nova Stadium development in Salvador and rumours of obscene amounts of finance being diverted to the owner, Rafael. Of course, this is the stadium where Rogerio is now plying his trade and Rafael has just approached Rogerio with “an offer he can’t refuse”.

Salvador is portrayed by the author as a city in meltdown. Public transport is a total mess. The judicial system is falling apart. Child prostitution is rife. Drugs are widely available and widely consumed. The city is paralysed with striking workers. The Fonte Nova stadium has become a night time refugee for the drug-addled, homeless population. Gratuitous violence is the way to resolve disagreements and to silence the voice of dissenters. People disappear off the streets and are never seen again. Football appears to be even more corrupt than everything else in the city. Meanwhile, wealthy club owners and state governors are entertaining FIFA officials in five-star hotels with underage female company on call. As long as the girls keep smiling and the drinks keep coming, the FIFA officials are happy to release funds. Welcome to Salvador.

The story is fast paced and the rigours of daily life in Salvador are described in graphic detail. Retribution is swift and both Toninho and Rogerio have to make decisions that put their own lives and those of others in danger. Rogerio can rely on the support of those who grew up with him and shared his dreams, while Toninho hopes his journalistic connections can offer some limited protection to himself and his friends.

The level of criminality here is depressing at times. There is a dark underworld operating whereby survival depends on who you know and being connected to the right people. Anyone trying to expose the corruption at any level runs the risk of becoming another member of the “disappeared”. If you have ever watched the series “The Wire” you will have an understanding of how life in Salvador is depicted.

When the action focusses on the football, we follow Rogerio’s progress with interest. He is clearly a player who has the skill to perform at a higher level. The tension of the two-legged State Cup Final is palpable and we know that this is Rogerio’s chance to secure the transfer he has always wanted. His goals help Colo Colo to win and he achieves his dream move to the big time with Vitoria C.F., the best club in Salvador. We share his dream that one day he may get to wear that Brazil shirt. He looks forward to being able to offer his girlfriend Luanda the glamorous lifestyle she has always dreamed of. Fortunately for Rogerio, his romance with Luanda is based on who he is, and not who he is going to become and she is one of a number of strong women who play an influential role in the life of both protagonists. The women repeatedly suffer the consequences of the actions of their menfolk.

The Brazilian football legend, Romario, appears towards the end of the story. He, at present, appears to be untouched by the rampant corruption that surrounds him. In his new found role as a politician he is dismayed by how the finances intended to develop the football stadia appear to have been diverted into the pockets of the powerful elite and is determined to get answers. But already some of this elite are feeling that he is probing a little too deeply.

If you are expecting an uplifting, joyous ending than quite clearly this is not the book for you. However, if you want an understanding of how the tentacles of corruption can reach right into the heart of the beautiful game then this novel will soon have you gripped.

This is an extremely well written and well researched novel which poses a number of moral quandaries for the reader to consider. Rogerio has to decide if he can achieve football success on his own terms or does he need powerful friends in high places? Toninho has to balance exposing the levels of corruption against his own personal safety and that of his friends. The ultimate question is – who can you trust? Some characters find out that your supposed protector can turn against you at any moment.

As ever with a story that is self-published, there are some mistakes that a proof reader would notice that an author may miss. On at least two occasions the wrong character appears in a sentence and there are several spelling errors but none of this affects the flow of the plot. The glossary of Brazilian Portuguese terms at the start is very useful in allowing the reader to feel immersed in the daily life of Salvador.

This book would certainly not come recommended by the Brazilian tourist board and I would advise against reading it late at night if you want to avoid nightmares. Some of the depictions of violence are arguably a tad excessive at times and, apart from allowing the author to use a range of explicit vocabulary, add little to the plot.

This a long novel, over 360 pages, but once you start reading it will have you on the edge of your seat with every new development. What price are you prepared to pay to achieve your footballing dreams? At what point do you have to compromise your principles? It is to the writer’s credit that the story will keep you guessing at the outcome until the very end. The conclusion intriguingly leaves the way open for a subsequent story should Aneke choose to go down this route. I hope he does.

Real Paradise by Azu Aneke is available on Amazon HERE

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