How Pele’s Santos suffered first relegation in 111-year history

Brazil legend Pele (L) poses with then-Santos star Neymar at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 13, 2011. /CFP

Brazil legend Pele (L) poses with then-Santos star Neymar at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 13, 2011. /CFP

Fortune, they say, favors the mighty. But Santos, to their great misfortune, have learned the harsh truth that it doesn’t always hold true. 

In a cruel twist of fate, a 2-1 defeat at home to Fortaleza on the final day of the season proved to be Santos’ undoing, as they were relegated from the topflight for the first time in their 111-year history.

With the late football legend Pele lending his unparalleled star power, Santos had once soared to the heights of global renown. However, as we approach the somber anniversary of his passing, the Brazilian giants now find themselves reduced to the object of global jest and derision.

Santos players react after their loss to Fortaleza at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, December 6, 2023. /CFP

Santos players react after their loss to Fortaleza at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, December 6, 2023. /CFP

Santos players react after their loss to Fortaleza at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, December 6, 2023. /CFP

For what it’s worth, Santos seemed poised to avert the nightmare on Wednesday night as they were holding Fortaleza to a 1-1 draw in the second half, while Vasco were also deadlocked at 1-1 with Bragantino. But the tides turned against them in an agonizing turn of events. 

A decisive goal from Vasco’s Serginho, coupled with a heart-wrenching stoppage-time strike by Fortaleza’s Lucero, sealed Santos’ relegation in front of their crestfallen home supporters. It was a moment of pure ugliness, as the seething fury and frustration of the Santos faithful erupted and spilled over, permeating the atmosphere with a sense of disappointment and despair.

It was yet another blow for the club, a bitter setback that unfolded at the very stadium where Pele’s funeral took place earlier this year. Santos concluded their dismal season in 17th place, mustering a meager 43 points. This left them a staggering 27 points adrift from Palmeiras, who clinched an impressive back-to-back championship, securing their record-extending 12th title.

Pele (C) celebrates with former Santos teammates during the 100th anniversary ceremony of the club at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, December 30, 2022. /CFP

Pele (C) celebrates with former Santos teammates during the 100th anniversary ceremony of the club at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, December 30, 2022. /CFP

Pele (C) celebrates with former Santos teammates during the 100th anniversary ceremony of the club at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, December 30, 2022. /CFP

How the memories of Santos’ golden era seem distant now. A time when they reigned supreme, claiming a stunning tally of 10 state titles, six Brazilian league titles, triumphing in the illustrious Copa Libertadores, and even conquering the revered Intercontinental Cup.

The prevailing sense of disbelief hung heavy in the air as Santos faced the devastating reality of relegation. Typically, teams can attribute their downfall to identifiable causes such as a lack of playing talent, a downturn in form, or unforeseen circumstances. However, this sporting collapse seemed to transcend conventional explanations, emerging as a testament to an overwhelming sense of inevitability.

In the wake of Pele’s departure, the club experienced a slight dip in performance, only to make a roaring comeback thanks to their exceptional focus on youth development. This resurgence stands as a showcase of Santos’ unwavering dedication and their ability to nurture emerging prospects.

Neymar, the prolific Brazil captain and leading goal scorer, along with Robinho and Real Madrid striker Rodrygo, are just a few of the sensational talents that Santos have produced. These graduates have not only brought glory to the club but have also generated substantial revenue through lucrative transfers. However, this approach carries inherent risks, especially in an era where money pours into Brazilian football. 

Pele in action for Santos against Corinthians at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 25, 1969. /CFP

Pele in action for Santos against Corinthians at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 25, 1969. /CFP

Pele in action for Santos against Corinthians at Vila Belmiro stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 25, 1969. /CFP

As deep-pocketed heavyweights like Palmeiras and Corinthians capitalize on the immense support they enjoy, gaps begin to form, making it increasingly difficult for Santos to compete. Their promising players are sold to the highest bidder, while seasoned veterans seek greener pastures elsewhere. The club’s attempts to revamp the squad with untested youngsters and their constant changing of coaches in response to unfavorable results have proven to be ill-fated decisions, leading to endless chaos.

The regression of Santos from a position of strength is a tale that is both difficult to fathom on one hand, yet resonates all too deeply on many levels. Such is the nature of Santos, a club that has always lived on the razor’s edge, never too far from the precipice. Their current predicament is the bitter fruit of complacency, compounded by a litany of costly mistakes.

As the weight of their desperate situation settled upon everyone associated with the club, Neymar, ever the optimist, attempted to don a brave face. “We will smile once again,” he proclaimed on social media. Alas, the restoration of Santos’ former glory will be a lengthy and challenging journey, one that lies far ahead on the horizon.

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