The elongated epic of '62
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The first leg of the Copa Libertadores 2011 final brings together two sides who have contributed more than most to the competition’s rich history: Penarol and Santos. Between them, they have lifted the trophy on seven occasions, and together they contested one of the most momentous of all Libertadores deciders in 1962, when the Brazilians prevailed after a replay in Buenos Aires. Should the latest showdown between these two grand clubs produce half the excitement of that three-game tussle, then the fans should be in for quite a treat.

Given everything that happened in the years that followed that first final between Penarol and Santos, it now seems barely believable that the Uruguayans were considered favourites to beat a team led by the one and only Pele. But with the likes of Pedro Rocha and Alberto Spencer, who remains the tournament's all-time leading scorer with 54 goals, featuring in the Carbonero line-up, there was a very good reason why they were tipped for victory. And as if that were not enough, Penarol had won the first two editions of the Libertadores and hoisted the Intercontinental Cup in 1961 for good measure.

Facing them, however, was a uniquely gifted Santos side that was just about to enjoy its golden age, having won its first title, the Taca Brasil - a forerunner to the Campeonato Brasileiro - the previous year. Such would be their exploits that 'Dorval, Mengalvio, Coutinho, Pele and Pepe' - their attacking line - would warrant inclusion in Brazilian dictionaries. And so prodigiously talented, quick and dextrous on the ball were they that only South America’s strongest and toughest defences could stand up to them.

“The only teams who could match us back then were Penarol and Boca Juniors, two tough sides who never stopped fighting and didn’t leave any space,” Jose Macia, a member of that Santos team and better known as Pepe, told “The first game was played at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, which was usually a good pitch but was absolutely awful on this occasion. They’d done it deliberately, to try and stop us playing the ball around. Let me tell you, we preferred playing in Argentina to Uruguay. They never made it easy for you.”

Santos are the better team in my eyes, but Penarol are a strong side. If I had to come up with a prediction, I’d say Santos will get a draw in Montevideo and win here [in Brazil].

That first leg took place on 28 July 1962 and the Brazilians went into it without the injured Pele. Despite that considerable handicap and Spencer’s opening goal after only 18 minutes, Santos somehow fashioned an unlikely comeback, with goals in either half by Coutinho giving them a seemingly decisive win. A draw at the Vila Belmiro the following week would be enough to give them their first South American title. Things did not quite go according to plan, however.

With Pele still unavailable for the second leg, O Peixe made another faltering start, falling behind to Jose Sasia’s goal. Dorval equalised nine minutes later before Spencer levelled the tie on aggregate at the start of the second half. Mengalvio then made it 2-2 before Spencer added his second of the night to leave the aggregate score tied at 5-5.

It was then that events took an unusual course, with Chilean referee Carlos Robles deciding to take the players off after Santos fans started hurling objects on to the pitch, only bringing them back out an hour later to prevent the situation from getting out of hand altogether. That was not the end of the drama, however, with Pagao scoring for the home side to make it 3-3 on the night and seemingly give Santos the title.

“Pagao scored the goal, and the game had barely restarted when the referee blew the final whistle,” recalled Pepe. “We made our way down to the dressing room and started celebrating. The headlines in the papers would be: 'Santos are the champions’. But then, the following day, we found out that the referee had officially ended the game when he took the players off. They were 3-2 up at the time and in line with the competition rules we had to go and play a third game on a neutral ground. It was a massive blow for us.”

That third match took place on 30 August at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires, and all the expectations were that it would be yet another close-fought affair. Crucially, though, Pele had by this time recovered from his injury, and after an Omar Caetano own goal had given Santos the lead in the first half, O Rei struck twice in the second to secure a 3-0 victory and a maiden continental title.

“We showed that day we were the better side," continued Pepe, who in his own words has scored more goals than any other “human being” for Santos (405 in 750 games), second only to Pele, a player he describes as coming “from another world”. "We had a lot of players who could keep hold of the ball and rise to big occasions like that."

Tonight's first leg at the Centenario and next week’s return at the Pacaembu will need to be very special indeed if they are to match the drama and excitement generated by that riveting 1962 trilogy. Still, a Santos man through and through, Pepe is anxious to see the spirit of that classic tie 49 years ago revived in the latest meeting between two grand old clubs.

Santos are the better team in my eyes, but Penarol are a strong side and are always going to be a threat at home,” he said. “If I had to come up with a prediction, I’d say Santos will get a draw in Montevideo and win here [in Brazil].”