Part of the gifted Santos side that lost the Copa Libertadores 2003 final to Boca Juniors, Elano would probably have found it hard to believe back then that he would be contesting the tournament’s showpiece match again eight years on, this time as the leader of another golden Peixe generation. The midfielder might have also found it hard to believe that he would end this year’s Campeonato Paulista as its joint top-scorer.
And yet, that is exactly what the 30-year-old has achieved so far in his second coming at the club. No longer a mere cast member, he will step out in the spotlight today when he captains the Brazilians in the second leg of their Copa Libertadores final against Penarol at the Estadio Pacaembu, a game in which they hope to seize the biggest prize in Latin American football.
Elano has travelled the world in between the two spells with Santos that have book-ended his career to date. Leaving Brazil in 2004, the midfielder played for Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester City and Galatasaray, not to mention the national side, before returning to the Vila Belmiro last year. There, with the exciting youngsters Paulo Henrique Ganso and Neymar pushing through, the prodigal son was expected to play a supporting role only. Elano has done far more than that, however, imposing his authority in the Peixe midfield to become a linchpin of a team now coached by Muricy Ramalho.
“It’s great to be back and I’m thoroughly enjoying it,” said the returning hero after helping his side to the Paulista title by scoring 11 goals, level with Liedson of Corinthians. “Things are working out just how I’d envisaged. I’m back where I wanted to be, where I started my career, and now I’m taking things further, battling for titles along the way.”
Elano’s travels through Europe have made him a more rounded and mature player, and his ability to keep his head at decisive moments and assume responsibility is one much appreciated by coaches. “I was the penalty-taker in all the teams I played for in Europe,” he recalled in a recent interview. “One day Robinho asked to take one and missed. Since then the coach has given me the job.”
Though he does not usually wear the captain’s armband at Santos, that honour going to Edu Dracena, Elano has nevertheless earned the complete trust of Ramalho, just as he did with previous coach Adilson Batista, who made him his right-hand man on the pitch. “He’s professional, experienced, well-behaved and ambitious,” Batista once said of the returnee, one of the oldest players on the club’s books. “Sometimes youngsters find simple things the hardest to do, but he keeps it simple and he does it well.”
Elano’s influence in such a young side is obvious and extends far beyond the pitch, as Neymar, Santos’s latest crown jewel, acknowledged in an interview on the eve of the return leg with Penarol: “Elano’s an angel who fell from the sky and into my life. He’s like a brother to me and I’ve learned so much with him. I was a fan of his before and now that I’ve got to know him as a person, to go out with him and room with him, I admire him even more.”
Reluctant to draw comparisons between Neymar, Ganso and Co and the class of 2003, Elano prefers instead to praise both generations, the second of which is now aiming to go one better than the first and win the club’s third Copa Libertadores.
“They are two great teams and I’m just delighted to be part of both generations,” he said. “I’ve been through this before and I’ve had a taste of success, having played in the World Cup and won two Brazilian titles. I hope these kids have as much or even more success than me. We’re in the hunt for trophies, and that’s the important thing.”
The hunt for the Libertadores one is now just 90 minutes from their grasp, the stage set for another chapter in Elano’s increasingly productive career. After last week’s goalless draw in Montevideo, in which he led the young team in the absence of Dracena, the midfielder’s know-how and craft will be vital to O Peixe’s hopes of reviving their Libertadores glory days of the early 1960s.