Brazilians were embracing new manias as the 1950s entered its second half. The fresh, funky beats of Bossa Nova were wowing a public genetically impassioned by music; an avant-guard cinematic movement installed novel, homemade films into considerable vogue; and a congruent cast from the Vila Belmiro were exhibiting a brand of football that opponents found unfathomable and neutrals irresistible.
Santos Futebol Clube, crowned just once in the first four decades of an existence that began in 1912, had embarked upon a halcyonic period in which they won the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup twice apiece, six national titles, five Rio-Sao Paulo tournaments and 11 state championships from 1955 to 1969.
Paramount to their profit was a brave entrustment in youth. Pele debuted at 15. So too did Edu. Coutinho and Clodoaldo were a year older; Zito and Pepe comparative veterans at 19. The aforementioned consensually occupy six of the ten most esteemed armchairs in Santos’s stacked sanctuary of legends.
Three decades without a national prize – a depression momentarily relieved by sporadic regional success – ensued before O Peixe reckoned on relative infancy once again. The crops they planted into their first-team – particularly Diego, 17, and 18-year-old Robinho, as well as fellow youngsters Alex and Elano – blossomed into Brasileirao 2002 champions. That class went on to repeat the feat in 2004, one year after losing in the final of the Copa Libertadores.
That is a competition Santos will return to next year thanks to last night’s Copa do Brasil conquest, when a 2-1 loss at Vitoria was unable to prevent Dorival Junior’s entertainers winning the final 3-2 on aggregate. And while the roles of centre-back Edu Dracena, engine room stalwarts Arouca and Wesley, and forward Robinho cannot be understated, Santos’s success owed most abundantly to a triumvirate of exhilarating youngsters: Paulo Henrique Ganso, a 20-year-old No10 who combines deluxe flair with a palatial end product; 18-year-old Neymar, an incomparably-skilful frontrunner who has evolved from an erratic into a lethal marksman; and Andre, 19, a pacy striker blessed with a venom in his right boot.
Santos’s accomplishment was additionally impressive given they began the tournament under the burden of favouritism – an inscription received for overwhelming rather than overcoming rivals during the early stages of the Campeonato Paulista; a competition they ultimately won having scored 72 times in 23 games. That 3.13 goals-per-game average was nevertheless outranked by a 3.55 median - one aided by a 10-0 massacre of Naviraiense and an 8-1 defeat of Guarani - in their Copa do Brasil campaign.
“The notion that beautiful football doesn’t win you championships has fallen,” declared coach Dorival Junior afterwards. “Santos have given joy once again in an attractive, flamboyant style. This title is good for football.”
The Meninos da Vila (Boys of the Vila) also demonstrated spirit during their run to gold: they lost the first leg of both their quarter-final and semi-final to Atletico Mineiro and Gremio respectively – they were without Neymar on both occasions – but rebounded to progress. “It’s a very important title,” enthused Ganso, who was named the player of the Copa do Brasil. “I hope the Meninos da Vila don’t stop here.”
The time of Robinho and Andre as Santistas did end, at least for now, in Salvador last night. The former will return to Manchester City, from whom he was on loan at the Vila Belmiro, while the latter will join Dinamo Kiev. The seductive European suitors have also been circling around Wesley, Ganso and Neymar.
“I want them all to stay,” said Dorival. “I don’t want to lose players who make such a difference as we now embark upon another challenge (in the Brasileirao). We’re eight points off the pace because we prioritised the Copa do Brasil, but now we’ll give it our full focus.”
And the 48-year-old received some welcome news from his No7. “I want to remain at Santos,” said Neymar. “I want to stay until after next year’s Libertadores. I’m living this moment like a fan. It’s an extremely happy time but we can’t stop now – we have to fight for the Brasileirao and Copa Sul-Americana titles.”
If that mission advances with the same devotion to futebol-arte, Santos will persevere to ingratiate the purists. If it continues to bear fruit, the club will continue to attract subscribers to its long-standing maxim that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.