Brazilian club Santos celebrate their centenary this weekend but, as well as recalling a magical past lit up by the great Pelé, they maintain high hopes that their current-day superstar Neymar can lead them to even more glory in the future.
A small-time club at its birth on April 14 1912, Santos became renowned the world over with Pelé in his prolific pomp in the 1960s.
They won the São Paulo state championship 11 times in 15 seasons in an era when the competition was far more prestigious than it is today.
They won the South American Copa Libertadores in successive years in 1962 and 1963 and also won the Intercontinental Cup — played against the reigning European champions — back to back in these years.
Two-legged victories over Eusebio’s Benfica and Italian giants AC Milan allowed Santos to legitimately call themselves the best team in the world.
Everyone wanted to see them in action and, as Pelé said at the presentation of a book to mark the club’s centenary, “the only place Santos did not visit was the moon”.
Their visit to a Congo embroiled in war in 1969 was enough to bring a halt to the fighting, albeit only temporarily, and the same applied when Santos visited Nigeria at the time of the Biafra Civil War that same year.
“It made no sense for these countries to carry on fighting while Santos were there,” club historian Guilherme Nascimento recently told sports daily Lance!
But the legend of Santos was inextricably linked to that of Pelé, who scored 1 281 goals in 1 365 career appearances and won three world cups with Brazil.
“Rarely in the history of football can a team have been so closely associated with one player as Santos FC are with Pelé,” say Fifa in their profile of the club on their website.
“For two decades, Santos and ‘O Rei’ weaved dreams together as the incomparable forward demonstrated his insolent mastery of the game across the planet.”
Santos hail from the city of the same name on Brazil’s Atlantic coast, and the city’s association with the sea explains the club’s nickname ‘O Peixe’ (‘The Fish’ in English).
With its population of under half a million, the port is dwarfed by the nearby metropolis of São Paulo, the biggest city in South America with a population of almost 20-million.
But while within Brazil there may be wider support for São Paulo giants Corinthians or Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro, Santos lay claim to 13-million supporters worldwide.
Pelé — who played for the club from 1956 until 1974, when he joined the New York Cosmos — may be the main reason for that level of popularity, but he was just one of many stars in the great Santos team of his era.
Zito, Pagao and Coutinho will also be remembered as Santos greats, while Pepe is the club’s all-time leading goal scorer after Pelé himself.
Ze Carlos, Toninho, Edu and former Brazil captain Carlos Alberto are other names to have lit up Santos’ compact Vila Belmiro ground.
But Santos can also be immensely proud of their more recent past.
The club’s academy has produced the likes of Robinho and former Manchester City midfielder Elano, while the stars of the current Santos team are Paulo Henrique Ganso and Neymar, both purveyors of the Brazilian style, the ‘joga bonito’.
Neymar led Santos to glory in last year’s Copa Libertadores, their first triumph in the continental competition since 1936.
Still just 20, Neymar is now coveted by Europe’s giants, his pace and control of the ball allowing him to be regarded as the next best thing in world football today after Lionel Messi.
However, Neymar is under contract until after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and the club are hoping he can lead them to more glory at the start of their second century.
The club, who in January 1998 were recognised by Fifa as becoming the first in the history of the game to score 10 000 official goals, are celebrating their first 100 years in a variety of ways.
The launch of a book and the release of a documentary film entitled Santos: 100 years of football art will allow fans of the world game to relive the history of this great club, named by Fifa as the best on the American continent in the 20th century. — Sapa-AFP