Santos step out of Pele's shadow
For one of the most famous names in world football, it was a long wait for a third continental title. Santos were winners of the third and fourth editions of the Copa Libertadores, back in 1962 and '63, but hadn't managed to add a third continental championship since, until Wednesday night. A 2-1 home win in the second leg of the 1960s throwback final against Penarol - the Uruguayan giants they deposed as champions back in '62 - was enough to lift the trophy after the first leg in Montevideo had finished 0-0 a week earlier.
The long gap was for a simple reason: in terms of fanbase and economy, Santos aren't a big club in Brazil anymore. They could hardly, of course, be described as 'small', but they're not up there with the likes of Flamengo, Sao Paulo, Corinthians et al when it comes to coverage and expectations. This Copa win, their first for 48 years, might finally mean the club can start to step out of one great player's shadow, as well: it was always unfair to refer to that team of the 60s as 'Pele's Santos', but now younger generations of supporters have a triumph all of their own.
The stars this time round are unlikely to stick with the club for as long as Pele did though. The idea of any of them being declared 'unexportable' by the Brazilian government is a peculiar one in today's world, for starters. Already, two look certain to leave. Paulo Henrique Ganso, the tall, slim playmaker who many in Brazil wanted to be taken to last year's World Cup as a replacement for Kaka, will surely be in Europe before long - though it looks like he might move to Corinthians for a year beforehand. Neymar, meanwhile, is the poster boy of the side (in spite of that ridiculous hair), and is bound to be off to Europe soon, if not during the coming transfer window - a possibility that will only increase should he impress in the Copa America, for which he'll be an important figure for Brazil.
One thing no readers who caught any of this year's Libertadores (any of Santos' Brazilian Paulista state championship, or any of his Brazil appearances to date) will have failed to notice is that unfortunately, he dives. A lot. I produce a podcast on Argentine football and, recently, we had a Brazilian guest on to discuss his national team prior to the Copa America. He was a Santos fan, and when we asked what he thought of Neymar, even he said he dived too much. He'll surely realise pretty quickly when he comes across less tolerant refereeing that he can't keep doing so, though.
It's undeniable, in spite of the above paragraph, that Neymar's a magnificent talent. He's quick, a good finisher and, at 19, he's only likely to improve in every respect. His insistence that - for the moment at least - he feels Santos is the best place for him to play his football is also a sign that whilst he seems to know full well he's a star attraction, something in his head's in the right place. In that respect there are similarities with Erik Lamela, the River Plate starlet (also 19 years old) who I profiled for ESPNsoccernet a couple of months ago.
As well as Neymar moving on at some point, and Ganso looking destined for Europe, a couple of Santos' other forwards might also be on their way. At first glance that seems odd considering the side only won one match - the final group game - by more than a single goal, but this is a side whose threat, at least, was always there. Maikon Leite, who didn't play a minute of the final, is off to Palmeiras, but a more key figure, Ze Eduardo, has got a move to Genoa in Italy.
Ze Eduardo's move is a little surprising because what he mainly seemed to do during this Copa campaign, with the notable exception of the 3-3 draw with Cerro Porteno in the second leg of the semi-final, was miss some absolute sitters. Neymar might have seemed very individualistic to some viewers, but some of that at least was down to his strike partner looking all at sea. All the same, his previous record as a goalscoring forward/attacking-midfielder is roughly one goal every three games, so perhaps we shouldn't judge him too harshly. Superbly, he's referred to by Santos fans as 'Ze Love'.
Elsewhere in the side, Santos have stuck to at least one great Brazilian tradition in having superb attacking full-backs. That's especially true on the left, where Leo, the former Benfica veteran and now aged 35, has been a major attacking threat. When he's not been able to feature, his understudy Alex Sandro, a Brazilian Under-20 international, has slotted in seamlessly.
With the forwards not always managing to heavily outscore opponents in spite of their undoubted talents, Santos' defence has been a major part of their success as well, of course. 30-year-old centre back pairing Durval and Edu Dracena - the latter formerly of Olympiakos and Fenerbahce - have been uncompromising at the back, although captain Edu has a black mark against his name for a silly red card near the end of the semi-final second leg which saw him miss the first game of the final. One for the future, though, could be goalkeeper Rafael, who's already played upwards of 70 first team games at the age of just 21; Sevilla have been linked.
So Santos are going to have a struggle in the coming months to keep their team together, though the lure of December's Club World Cup might help for six months at least. All the same, they can finally step out of the shadow of Pele, who was delighted to be presenting them with the trophy as (of course) a representative of the competition's sponsors. Santos F.C. have come of age.
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