Rio de Janeiro: For the past 30 years, Santos have been looking back wistfully to the days when Pele turned them into the world’s best club side.
Pele was raised at the club, spent 16 unforgettable years there and left in 1973 to play out the twilight of his career in North America.
Since his departure, Santos have been largely living on past glories. They have not won a domestic title since 1984 and, last year, made headlines only thanks to the behaviour of their supporters, who invaded training sessions in protest at the team’s performances and threatened the players.
This year, however, Santos have come back to life and unearthed a team who now have the club looking hopefully to the future instead of nostalgically into the past.
Seventeen-year-old midfielder Diego and 18-year-old striker Robinho are rated among the most exciting prospects Brazilian football has produced for a long time.
Pele, who still has strong connections with his old club, is reported to have seen Robinho playing three years ago and commented: “This lad takes me back to the start of my career.”
The pair are backed up by more players barely out of their teens — including goalkeeper Julio Sergio and midfielders Elano and Renato.
Even captain and midfield hardman Paulo Almeida is a mere 21 and only three members of the regular first-team squad are over 25.
“Brazilian football hasn’t had a group of young players like this for a long time,” said Fernando Calazans, a columnist in the Rio de Janeiro daily O’ Globo.
Last weekend’s 2-0 win at Guarani virtually guaranteed Santos a place in the quarter finals of the Brazilian championships, leaving them third with two games to play in the qualifying stage. They have 39 points from 23 matches.
But, more than the results, it is the Santos style which has been most impressive.
In the last 20 years, Brazilian football’s traditional artistry has been tempered by European influences, with most coaches preferring to talk of tactics and discipline rather than skill and talent.
Santos’ game, based on what critics sometimes dub “Futbol-moleque” — literally cheeky schoolboy football — and all-attack, has allowed Brazilians a brief flirt with the past.
In just three games, the side beat three of Brazil’s most popular teams and scored 11 goals in the process — 4-2 against Corinthians, 3-2 against Atletico Mineiro followed by a stunning 4-1 win away to Cruzeiro.
Commanding the whole performance is coach Emerson Leao, who has resurrected his own career after an unhappy nine months in charge of the Brazil national team.
Leao’s reign ended with him being unceremoniously fired following the Confederations’ Cup in 2001.
Leao, whose temperament is as fiery as his flame-orange dyed hair, has not often been associated with the finer arts of the game and his apparent transformation from dour, defensive football to flowing attack has amazed many critics.
Curiously, Santos’ success has been born out of economic necessity.
For years, the club attempted to build teams by splashing out on expensive, big-name players known in Brazil as Medalhoes “Big Medals”.
At the start of this year, Brazilian football’s financial problems forced Santos directors to change direction and turn to home-grown products — just as they did 40 years ago when they unearthed Pele’s generation.
Diego, who made his debut at the start of this year, was discovered by club scouts in Ribeirao Preto, an agricultural centre in the state of Sao Paulo.
“I’ve always had confidence in my game but I never thought this would happen so quickly,” he said.
Robinho was found in Sao Vicente, only a few kilometres from Santos’ Vila Belmiro Stadium.
There have been a few hiccups on the way. A run of three successive defeats had commentators wondering whether the team had peaked too soon and if the success was going to the heads of the young players.
Santos were also involved in ugly incidents after their 1-2 defeat at Paysandu, when central defender Preto was knocked briefly unconscious by riot police who were protecting a linesman as the team protested about a decision.
Although there was universal condemnation for the police behaviour, Santos were also criticised for their hysterical reaction to a decision television replays clearly showed to have been correct.
Diego has also been in trouble. He caused controversy when he celebrated a goal against Sao Paulo by dancing on the rival club’s emblem. Then he was sent off against Paysandu for treading on an opponent and, when he returned from suspension, was promptly substituted in his next game following a below-par performance.
At the same time, Santos supporters are wondering how long it can all last.
Brazilian clubs have to sell their best players to survive and European clubs are already reported to be casting a beady eye on the likes of Diego. Santos insist he is not for sale and Diego has already denied having talks about a possible move.
Experience suggests, however, that keeping the team together could prove a much more difficult task than actually building it.