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Jun 23, 2011

The Santos Globetrotters

On Wednesday night, Santos picked up their third Copa Libertadores trophy with a win over Penarol, but just under half a century ago the side were regarded as one of the best in world as arguably the greatest player of all time, Pele, led them to back-to-back continental titles and a host of other silverware.

When the Copa Libertadores - now the most prestigious club competition in South American football - was born in 1960, two teams quickly emerged as frontrunners in the battle to be crowned the best club side in the region. Penarol, of Uruguay, won the inaugural championship and retained the title the following year, while Brazil's Santos landed the next two titles, before a decade of Argentine superiority arrived in the 70s. But, while Penarol went on to win the competition a further three times, few teams have made more of an impact on South America (and indeed the world) as the Santos side of the 60s.

The Brazilian national side were already the undisputed kings of football, having won the 1958 World Cup, and a teenager by the name of Edison Arantes do Nascimento (who had gained the nickname of 'Pele' due to his mispronunciation of the Vasco da Gama goalkeeper Bile, when he was a schoolboy) had exploded onto the scene.

Having caught the eye of local side AC Bauru and scout Waldemar de Brito, Pele had been snapped up by Santos as a 15-year-old on a $10 a month contract and formed the focal point of an already very talented side. With World Cup winning goalkeeper Gilmar and defenders Mauro and Zito forming a tough spine, plus the mercurial talents of Dorval and Pepe down the flanks, Santos were a formidable outfit with their outstanding individual skill and mesmeric interplay.

Thanks to Pele's incredible talent alongside Coutinho up front, Santos emerged as contenders on the Brazilian scene and embarked on a run of silverware that began with their first Campeonato Paulista title in 1958 and, after an abundance of further trophies, the side secured their participation in the 1962 Copa Libertadores after crushing Bahia in the Taca Brasil. The four full seasons since his arrival had seen Pele notch up 183 goals in 126 appearances in the league and there was already plenty of evidence that the youngster would go on to greatness.

Dr Jorge Carvalho, who played a part in the decision to take Pele to the World Cup at the tender age of 17, said at the time: ''Pele's ball control is born within himself and his intelligence is far over average... On top of all that he has an extraordinary range of vision. He can see things at such angles that they would be out of view for a normal human being.''

Santos ' inaugural Copa Libertadores campaign beginning in February and Pele's side started in blistering fashion. Drawn alongside Paraguay's Cerro Porteno and Bolivia's Deportivo Municipal, they netted 20 goals in their four group games, including a 9-1 hammering of Cerro in their final game - although Pele only netted twice himself.

Ahead of the 1962 World Cup in Chile in July, expectations were high, both for the defending champions Brazil and for Pele. However, the watching world only got a small glimpse of the forward's skills. In Brazil's opening 2-0 win over Mexico the 21-year-old was at his best as he beat four men before scoring, but he tore a thigh muscle in the next match against Czechoslovakia and was ruled out of the tournament; forced to watch from the sidelines as team-mate Garrincha inspired the team to retain their title.

With the bittersweet feeling of winning another World Cup despite having only completed one match, Pele's attention turned back to Santos' Libertadores run, although he did not shine in the club's defeat of Universidad Catolica in the semi-finals or in the two legs of the final against Penarol.

Instead, what David Goldblatt calls 'an epic narrative' in his seminal work The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer took centre stage in one of the most bizarre games in football history. After a first leg that had seen Santos win 2-1 in Montevideo, Penarol lead 3-2 in the return leg after 51 minutes when Chilean referee Carlos Robles was knocked unconscious by a stone thrown from the stand.

Goldblatt explains: ''Still on the pitch when he woke up forty minutes later he decided to abandon the game only to be persuaded by the Brazilians to let play continue. Santos equalised in the final moments of the restarted game, but simultaneously one of the linesmen was knocked out by another projectile. Robles disallowed the goal and abandoned the match - which had now lasted over three hours - and declared the result 3-2 to Penarol.''

Officially only 51 minutes of the game are recognised by CONMEBOL, but the longest game in Santos's history ended 4-4 on aggregate and forced a play-off. Thankfully, though, more drama was averted and Pele returned to form to score a second-half brace to ensure the first Copa Libertadores title for a Brazilian club was remembered for more than the events at the Vila Belmiro.

With the global recognition that winning the tournament gave him and Santos, Pele's legend was firmly set in stone by the time the 1962 Intercontinental Cup arrived in September. In the days when the champions of Europe and South America met home and away to decide the world club championship, Santos came up against back-to-back European champions Benfica (who boasted two of the world's best players in Eusebio and Germano) and triumphed 8-4 over the two legs. The Brazilian government called a national holiday as a result.

By his own admission, Pele's hat-trick in the second leg in Lisbon, which helped his side to a 5-0 lead, was his 'greatest achievement', and that opinion was shared by others as one Italian critic wrote at the time: ''It was a football ballet. I now wonder if Europeans will ever play like these Brazilians. We are too muscular. We are artisans: they are artists.''

The pens of English writers were rarely employed in praise of South American domestic football, yet the Guardian's Eric Todd, under a headline of 'Pele's brilliance beggars belief', was suitably impressed when Santos travelled to Hillsborough to take on Sheffield Wednesday for a friendly match a month later.

''When one considers some of the superlatives that are squandered on inside forwards in this country, the futility of trying to find new ones to describe Pele becomes all the more obvious,'' he wrote. While the Daily Mirror's John Bromley added: ''Here was proof, if proof was needed, that Pele is the world's greatest inside forward and Santos are the world's finest club team'' as the Brazilians ran out convincing 4-2 winners.

After their most successful season, Santos' rise continued in 1963 when they claimed the Copa Libertadores title again. They qualified automatically for the semi-finals and a 5-1 aggregate hammering of Garrincha and Jairzinho's Botafogo saw them reach the final against Boca Juniors. Once again, Pele's skills dazzled as he helped his side to become the first (and so far only) Brazilian team to lift the Copa on Argentine soil and it was a telling fact that, when World Champions Brazil faced Germany in May, no fewer than eight of the Seleçao's starting XI were Santos players.

What happened next? Santos tried to defend their title again in 1964 but they were beaten in both legs of the semi-finals by Independiente and, after losing to Penarol in 1965, decided to pull out of the competition to focus on other things. The incredible run of trophies - that had seen them notch up the two Copa Libertados titles as well as the Intercontinental cup twice, six national championships and thirteen state championships - came to an end with a final Campeonato Paulista title in 1973. Pele moved on a year later to join the newly-formed North American Soccer League. He finished his career with 1285 goals in 1321 appearances and is viewed by many as the greatest player ever to have graced the game.

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