The lone away fan who led his club to glory

Tiago Rech holds aloft an FC Santa Cruz flag at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022
Taking FC Santa Cruz to Qatar – Tiago Rech holds up a club flag at this year’s World Cup

Tiago Rech has watched Santa Cruz for as long as he can remember, even when he was famously the only one. But right now, on the final day of the 2023 Campeonato Gaucho Serie A2, he can hardly bear to do so.

The Brazilian club’s season has all come down to this: one kick, one penalty to settle a shootout and send the club back to the state top flight for the first time in a decade.

For Tiago, though, this is the culmination of something far greater – a lifelong love affair that has taken him in directions he could not possibly have imagined.

It has brought him a brief moment of global fame, a remarkable Football Manager-esque rise to becoming president of the club in his 20s before suffering near financial ruin and depression as they slipped to relegation and near oblivion.

But this is not a story that deserves an unhappy ending. All midfielder Mauricio has to do is score and the fairytale is complete. In the stands, Tiago Rech watches and waits.

Short presentational grey line

It was an act of watching and waiting that brought Tiago the 15 minutes of fame to set this whole ball rolling 21 years ago.

Born just five blocks from the club’s 5,000-capacity stadium in Santa Cruz do Sul, he was a regular on the concrete steps of Estadio dos Platanos from the age of 10, eating a hot dog and watching his team play with his father.

As he entered his teens, school, university and then a job on a newspaper eventually led him to a life in state capital Porto Alegre 120km away and a reduced diet of games.

In 2012, though, Santa Cruz had an away match against Gremio in his new resident city – a golden opportunity to be in the away end with his fellow Galo fans to witness their side take on one of the state’s biggest teams. It didn’t quite work out how he planned.

“The game was due to start at 9pm and I left work around eight and went alone, on foot, with my Santa Cruz T-shirt stuffed in to my jacket just because there would be lots of Gremio fans around and I didn’t want any trouble,” explains Tiago to BBC’s World Service.

“When I got to the stadium I went to the space reserved for our side and I went up to the ticket office and asked if any of the Santa Cruz fan base had arrived yet. This was 20 minutes before the game.

“The security said no, but I thought it’s still early it takes two hours from Santa Cruz, maybe they were late so I went in and sat down, waiting for the game to start and for the rest of the fans to arrive.

“Then the game began and no one came. Five minutes went by, then 10 and then at 15 minutes in, Santa Cruz scores the first goal. And I’m there celebrating, I mean, slightly embarrassed because I’m the only one there.”

The television team watching the game soon noticed the lone figure in the away end and picked him out. That was when Tiago’s phone started buzzing with calls and texts from his parents and friends.

“The game went on and Gremio scored so then it was one all then 2-1 then 3-1 and in the end they won 4-1. And I’m just there on my own, the whole time,” continues Tiago.

Tiago Rech sits alone watching FC Santa Cruz play Gremio in 2012
The shot that went around the world – Tiago alone in the away section to watch FC Santa Cruz play Gremio in 2012

The next morning, an image of him sat alone in the stand, a half-drunk plastic cup next to him, was on the front page of the paper at which he worked. “Don’t Leave Me Alone” read the headline.

Soon, the image and story were heading around the world and drawing comments courtesy of online coverage and a YouTube clip that quickly rocketed past 1m views.

That wasn’t the end of the story, though. It was barely the beginning.

A year later, at the end of a dire campaign, Santa Cruz had just been relegated to the second tier. Tiago was living back at home having left his job.

But a chance meeting with the then club president gave him the chance to turn his hobby into something more. They got chatting, Tiago told him he was out of work and a job offer was made in return.

With players operating to season-long contracts, there were only four people employed by the club at that time – the president, manager, a supervisor and secretary. Tiago became the fifth, operating ostensibly as their communication and marketing man, but eager to branch out into every area possible.

“I would look for sponsors, I would talk to the fire brigade about security and to the police. So I did much more than just communications,” he says. “I joke that that I would end up taking the corner, heading the ball in the box, and then racing to the back to defend.”

This was a crash course in football administration, one that enabled Tiago to marry his passion-driven ideas to the practical reality of achieving them.

“When I was just a fan I would always be criticising from the stands,” he says. “Why didn’t the team grow? Why were we such a small club?

“But now I could see the difficulties of being a little football club, trying to survive – you’re dealing with a lack of money, lack of resources, lack of sponsors, just a general lack of support.”

He attended club dinners on a Friday – a tradition since the 1980s – to rub shoulders with directors and political figures of the city, including the mayor.

Relationships were built and ideas shared. Tiago’s revolutionary plan was for the club to move away from the constant churn of contracting players and a manager for one short season and then starting all over again the following year. He felt they should play all year round, with a more consistent playing staff.

It intrigued the Santa Cruz advisers, so much so that when the time came to elect a new president there was only one man for the job – the 27-year-old fan turned club employee.

“I had dreamed for a long time about the idea that one day I would be president of the club,” admits Tiago.

“I always say it’s not an accident that I became president at 27. The club wasn’t doing well, the directors were very old, we needed new people and they could see I wanted it so I got elected.”

His father took more convincing, having seen the negative impact the role had taken on friends of his, but ultimately backed his son’s dream.

It quickly became a nightmare.

“To begin with it was great,” explains Tiago. “We got some good players, I got some new sponsors, we started winning but by the third month things were going wrong

“We started to run out of money, the games were happening in the winter and it gets very cold here, it rains, so there weren’t so many fans coming to the matches which meant we were selling fewer tickets and in the end it got very hard.”

Debts began to pile up. Tiago asked his father for a loan to pay players, he maxed out credit cards and put all of his savings into the club – money his parents had helped him amass to use to buy an apartment.

Santa Cruz avoided relegation but Tiago’s one year of presidency had taken a heavy toll.

“I got very depressed,” he says. “When the championship was over I would stay in bed all day. I was just sad and so down, to the extent that I had to go to the doctor and get medication to try and get better.

“In the end the doctor and my dad came to the decision that I needed to stop running the club that I needed go back to my old life.”

So that is what he did. He got treatment for his depression, moved back to Port Alegre, returned to journalism and became just a humble fan of Santa Cruz once more.

Unfortunately, the club’s fortunes did not improve. After seasons of struggle, they were relegated to the third tier in 2018, prompting suggestions they may have to fold.

It was around this time that Tiago returned to his home town and bumped into an old friend, a local business owner, who made a crazy but desperate plea to him – that the club would close unless he came back as president.

Despite all that had gone before, he decided to take up the challenge, but this time armed with lessons from the past. They built slowly, accrued sponsors, paid off debts.

“It really helped that our players came from the city, so the community supported us – families would come to the game so we had fans and an income and we started to be able to pay off our bills,” says Tiago.

It is a testament to the work done that even a global pandemic that interrupted two seasons was unable to halt their progress. In fact, it may even have helped the club to a degree.

In September 2020, it was decided that a shortened championship season would take place, with only 10 teams participating. The absence of some of the bigger clubs enabled Santa Cruz to convince members of their squads to come and play for them.

With their help, three months later the club won their first-ever title – the Copa Federacao Gaucha de Futebol.

“It was incredible, fantastic, sensational, I cried, I celebrated,” recalls Tiago. “The games were a bit strange because there was no crowds, just a few people were watching.” It is a feeling Tiago knows well.

Tiago Rech recreates his famous photo from 2012 in 20202, this time with a proper cup
Take two – Tiago recreates his famous photo from 2012, but this time with a much bigger cup and a smile

After the game, a photographer asked him to recreate the famous shot of him in the away end in 2012, but this time, instead of a plastic drinking cup beside him, he had the club’s first ever piece of silverware. Once again, Tiago’s image went viral around the world.

More success was to follow. He would sign off his tenure as president by overseeing the club’s return to the second tier before handing over the reins to the same friend who had prompted his return to the role three years earlier.

Short presentational grey line

All midfielder Mauricio has to do is score and the fairytale is complete.

Tiago Rech watches from the stands, no longer a lone fan but one of thousands, barely able to watch but hoping and praying.

Cool as you like, Mauricio strokes the ball past the goalkeeper and the crowd erupts. After a decade away, little Santa Cruz are back in the state top flight, the Campeonato Gaucho.

After the initial rush of celebration has died down, with the players still soaking it all in on the pitch, reporters seek out Tiago, to remind everyone of his story, his sacrifices and, now, to share in his joy.

“I’m just grateful to all the Galo fans, to those who never stopped believing like me, to my family, my father Carlos my mother, my brothers Rodrigo and Paulo this win is for you as all of them have ever been,” he says, his voice breaking.

Tiago continues to work with Santa Cruz, but is now content – much to his father’s relief – to allow others to lead. His mission complete.

He insists that he will continue to be there, following their games, forever a fan. Even if he’s the only one.

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