Santos unite starlets and icons
© AFP

A handful of very special players will forever be associated with a particular shirt and number, such as the Argentina No10 of Diego Maradona and the Netherlands No14 worn by Johan Cruyff. At Brazilian club Santos, it is the No10 worn by Pele which boasts mythical status, and has proved both a burden and an inspiration for the players to whom it has covered since the reign of O Rei.

Currently donning the said number at Santos is starlet Paulo Henrique Ganso, though it remains to be seen whether it will be handed to the veteran Giovanni, a club idol who rejoined O Peixe in January. Another jersey that brings a weight of expectation at the Vila Belmiro is the No7 once worn by Robinho, who shone for Santos before joining first Real Madrid and then Manchester City, with the latter letting their record signing return to Brazil on loan in the transfer window just closed.

Symbolically handed the Santos shirt by Pele himself when unveiled to the faithful on Monday, Robinho reclaims his preferred number from 17-year-old Neymar, one of Brazilian football’s hottest properties. “I’m happy to give it back to him, it’s always been his,” said the youngster, who has been in fine form in this year’s Campeonato Paulista.

With Robinho and Giovanni coming back, it’s going to be crazy. That’s why I can’t wait for us to start taking defences apart.
Santos youngster Neymar

“I think that bringing these players together is a big deal, because they're all club greats, they’re known around the world and they’ve got plenty of things still to achieve in their careers,” said coach Dorival Junior, appointed after leading Vasco da Gama to the Serie B title in 2009, of a squad now featuring Santos superstars spanning three separate eras.

The long wait
Turning first to attacking midfielder Giovanni, whose presence brings back memories of a pivotal 1990s period for Santos, when the club finally began to ease the pressure of following in the footsteps of Pele and Co’s all-conquering side of the 1960s.

The Paraense native, now 37, was part of the Peixe squad which finished runners-up in the 1995 Brasileirao, just missing out against Botafogo in the title decider. That team will long live in the memory of Santos supporters, notably for their spectacular fightback after a 4-1 first-leg reverse away to Fluminense in their semi-final.

Winning 2-0 at half-time in the return, Giovanni and his team-mates decided to stay on the field during the interval, a move which fired up the Santos fans packing Sao Paulo’s Estadio Pacaembu. A 5-2 victory, featuring a stunning strike from the midfield creator, followed to level the aggregate scores and earn Santos a place in the final thanks to their superior regular-season record, with the player moving to Catalan giants Barcelona the following year.

That was as good as it got in the Brasileirao for O Peixe until a remarkable 2002 campaign, when the team only qualified for the championship play-offs thanks to an improbable series of results in the final round of regular-season fixtures. Featuring current Brazil internationals Diego, Elano and of course Robinho, Santos stormed through the final phase before downing Corinthians in the two-legged decider.

Santos repeated their Brasileirao triumph in 2004, with Robinho and Elano still on board, before adding the 2006 and 2007 Campeonato Paulista to their silverware collection. Yet pickings have been slim since and, with regional foes Sao Paulo enjoying trophies galore between 2005 and 2009 and Corinthians spending big in a centenary year title push, Santos are desperate for some headlines of their own.

The class of 2010
The club laid promising foundations for future success with the emergence in 2009 of forward Neymar, touted as Robinho’s successor from the age of 13, and midfielder Paulo Henrique, recommended to Santos by Giovanni himself. The pair last year showed flashes of genuine match-winning ability at first-team level, earning their inclusions in Brazil’s squads for the FIFA U-17 World Cup and FIFA U-20 World Cup respectively.

“I’d imagined playing alongside him one day for Brazil or for a foreign club. That’s why playing alongside him here at Santos is a dream come true not just for me, but for all the players at the club,” said a thrilled Neymar on new team-mate Robinho. Meanwhile respected coach Emerson Leao, who guided Santos to that Brasileirao 2002 triumph, believes that “at times Robinho now looks like a better, more modern player”.

Tasked with making room for the big-name arrivals is Dorival Junior, who had favoured a 4-4-2 system featuring two holding midfielders, Paulo Henrique and Marquinhos in attacking-midfield roles and a front two of Neymar and Andre. Granted breathing space by Giovanni’s lack of match fitness and the fact that Robinho has only trained once so far with his new colleagues, the coach must still be wary of sending out a top-heavy team.

However, young Neymar has no such worries: “With Robinho and Giovanni both coming back, it’s going to be crazy. That’s why I can’t wait for us to play together and start taking defences apart.”

Whatever happens, 2010 is sure to provide plenty of thrills and spills for followers of one of Brazil’s best-known clubs.